Saturday, June 1, 2013

Vertical Darwinism: Adapt or Perish

How do you know you know?
For the most part, the teaching of climbing safety methods is often much like an oral history. Methods get passed down from generation to generation and are accepted as true. Even when the technology or situation changes, I have seen my fair share of climbers confidently use inappropriate and dangerous methods of anchoring and belaying. They even post pictures of themselves belaying incorrectly on Facebook.  Their absolute confidence means that they are either completely oblivious to the risks that they are exposed to, or that they are absolutely sure that they are doing it right. Both are incredibly dangerous.

Often our mistakes occur when we take an old method and apply it to a new tool or context. When conditions change we must be vigilant to completely rethink our actions and see if they work under the new situation. Below are two of the most common examples of incorrectly applying a previously valid method to a new scenario.

Failure to Adapt to New Technology:
Before tube style belay devies (ATC, Pyramid, etc) mountaineers often used a friction knot called a munter hitch to belay their climber to safety.  The munter hitch locked by matching your hands up and outward from your harness.  This was a very convenient place to switch your hands while the rope was matched in front of you. However, with the advent of newer tube style devices, the brake position is now at your hip which necessitates a new style of belaying involving adjusting hands while the rope is below your waist.  Unfortunately, some venues and programs still teach the posture and style that was effective for the munter hitch while using a tube style device. This method works poorly with the new tool, but some continue to belay using the old method, making dangerous hand switches and leaving them with poor leverage for braking and lowering.

Quick Check: When you belay, if your brake hand thumb points away from your belay tool, you are using the old style with a new tool and are doing it WRONG.  If your brake hand thumb points toward your belay tool you are using the updated method. Congrats on evolving! 

Failure to Adapt to New Context:
A majority of climbers learn to belay on slingshot top rope (belayer at the bottom, anchor at the top, climber sending confidently somewhere in between). Then on their first magical trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior, they confidently set up a a slingshot top rope and sit six inches form the anchor, all the while belaying off their harness. Lowering is a pain. When the climber falls they get pinned to the rock against the anchor.  The whole day is scary but luckily there are no major incidents and they go to the bar to plan their next awesome day of climbing at Shovel Point.  Porting the Slingshot Toprope design to a top-belay scenario can be disastrous. Just recently, a dear friend had her thumb broken in this way. Instead, a hanging belay should be designed and the fall force put directly on the anchor instead of on the belayer's harness.

Quick Check: Do you top belay off of your harness or off of the anchor with an auto locking device? After reading this I hope you know which one is correct. 

Breaking the Cycle:
Why don't we question our own methods? Possibly ego or fear of finding out we have been doing it wrong all along? Fear of growing and changing? Excellent climbers should constantly adapt to their situation and respond accordingly. Stubborn, righteous attitudes will catch up with you eventually.

Why don't we question others methods? Fear of confrontation, or ruining a day of climbing? Maybe because we are not confident in our own knowledge? Open and honest communication about methods and safety are the core of a solid climbing team. Don't worry about hurt feelings. Sacrifice a little pride for a safe day of climbing. 

Drop the ego. Ask questions. Challenge methods. Constantly adapt your methods to your situation. Make safety a priority.  Seek a trained coach who will set you and your climbing partners on the right path.

Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience,  Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.

*Update-5/4/13- After Talking to a trusted friend, i was informed that the injury on the North Shore occurred not while belaying off the harness, but with a Grigri on the anchor. Regardless, the setup might have been safer with a hanging belay rather than running the rope over the edge of the cliff.

Also, it was brought to my attention that I may have made it seem like I was suggesting a "never/always" philosophy around top belay. That is far from my intention.  I was merely trying to say that we should always choose the most appropriate method for each individual circumstance. We should not blindly transfer skills form one context to another. I appreciate the open discussion which this article has stirred up. That is in part why I started this blog. 

No comments:

Post a Comment