Are you safe?

By Dan Zimmerlin  (Article originally from the CCC newsletter, The Crag)

Of course you are. You have been climbing for a fair length of time and have had no problems. A record of safety does indicate something. One big thing is that you probably have the good judgment not to get into bad situations. But what if something does go wrong, despite judgment? Will you know how to deal with it? And what about your partners? What do you know about them? Sure, you have known some of them for quite a while. You know what they know and you know they have good judgment. That is one reason they are your friends. But what about the others? The ones you don't know so well? What do they know?

Currently in the Club, membership is decided almost exclusively on judgment. Someone comes out on a club trip and climbs with members. That person can then become a member based on the recommendation of the members he or she climbed with. If the members believe that climber to be the kind of person we would like to climb with, to have the judgment to climb safely at whatever level they are at, then they can become a member. (See Membership procedures.) Obviously members are evaluating the new person's judgment on relatively little interaction. In fact I think this is just fine. If everyone has the judgment to play conservatively, not push the limits too hard and leave a wide margin for error, then I think we can climb reasonably safely, individually and as a club.

The only problem with this is it doesn't lend itself to much adventure or excitement. Yes, you can get good, like the sport climber who pushes the physical limits but always has a bolt nearby. But can you safely go out and do something adventurous? Manage the risk and consequences? What do you need to push out a little further?

First and foremost, you need experience. If you really have been climbing a while then you have probably been in a lot of different circumstances and you have come to recognize potential difficulties. You know what bad pro looks like as well as what those clouds are likely to do. Experience is a great teacher. You undoubtedly have developed quite a bit of knowledge about what is safe and what is not. And maybe you have run across most of the major safety techniques in the course of your career. But when you are relatively new, there is this problem, commonly known as the bootstrap problem: You need experience to be safe and you need to be safe to gain experience.

The traditional way our progenitors in the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section (RCS) dealt with this was to have each prospective member pass a series of ten safety tests for membership. The idea was that new people would gain experience while preparing for the tests and demonstrate specific skills in passing the tests. For a number of reasons that are not important here, the Club abandoned these tests when we separated from the Sierra Club. But several of us who were around back in the "good old days" of the RCS feel that we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water. I am not proposing that we go back to having formal tests. And we had considered developing a self-test procedure, but never got it together. (There are some technical problems I'd be happy to discuss with anyone who is interested in this idea.) I thought maybe a first step would be to air some of the issues and let the judgment of the members take it from there.

So I will recap the ten RCS tests and give my current thoughts on each, as well as some overarching perspective. If nothing else, perhaps this will encourage us all to think about and discuss safety issues with each other and most especially with our partners. And if it leads to anyone realizing they could use a little work on anything, I'd be happy to meet you out at Cragmont to practice.

RCS Tests

1. With an upper belay, climb up and down a short pitch...
    OK. So you have to start somewhere. But this isn't really about testing one's ability to climb up and down. It is about how to do it safely. Like did you check your knot? Do you use proper rope signals: On Belay, Up Rope, etc.? How about the silent ones: three tugs? And what if the rope doesn't go up? Established procedures and some variations for the common mishaps.

2. Tie into an anchor and belay another up a pitch ... These procedures must be demonstrated twice: belaying a "second" climbing up from below and belaying a "leader" climbing above you.
    Obviously we all must have good belay technique, more than just not letting go with the brake hand (which we all seem to do on occasion.) It includes picking a good stance and holding a test fall. It may include knowing what it feels like for a leader to clip and maybe even what the rope will do in a leader fall. It takes time and different settings.

3. Demonstrate your ability to rappel using a body rappel, to rappel using a carabiner-brake rappel and to stop in mid-rappel and tie yourself off...
    Getting used to rappelling took me a very long time. I sure would not have liked to do my first rappel off some spire where you have to ease off the top from above the anchors. Maybe you don't need to know a body rappel, but I for one actually lost my figure-8 (walking to the descent route) and had to remember the carabiner-brake for real. And we used to require that people use a prusik on a rappel. We seem to have abandoned that, even though it was probably safer. How about using a prusik to un-jam a rappel device? Or to pass a knot? I think there is more to rappelling than sliding down a rope.

4. While hanging free from the rope, rig prusik slings and prusik up over an overhang.
    So you are stuck on a ledge. Your partner has led up over a bulge which you can't follow. You are tempted to batman up the 15 ft of hard stuff to get onto easier ground. DON'T DO IT! Do I have to draw you a picture? That's like being 15 ft above a ledge with no protection in. You slip and you'll find yourself back on that ledge with broken bones. Prusik up and tie back up knots behind you. That is what the technique is for. Learn it. And then think about other times you might apply it. (I used it last weekend to get out of a mess.)

5. Demonstrate your ability to set up and retrieve rappels... on natural anchors, artificial anchors (chocks) and on bolts.
    Rappel anchors is one of those things that are probably best learned in the field. On the other hand, you don't want to be figuring it out when setting up rappels in the dark after taking too long on a climb. And there are some specific techniques that keep you from wasting a lot of time, if not worse. Get your practice before you push the envelop.

6. From a lower belay position you have chosen, hold three falls of a 120 lb. weight dropped at least 15 ft..
    The dreaded weight test. It is far from a perfect simulation. Still it is worth experiencing if you have never caught a real fall. Two things to notice: how little time you have to react and how much force is involved.

7. From a belay position you have set up, hold a fall, tie off the fallen climber in such a way that he/she is securely anchored and that you may get up from your belay.
    I have been climbing for 20 years and have rescued several injured climbers. But I have never needed to tie off a climber. The closest I ever came was not an injured leader, but a frozen follower. If he hadn't responded to the logic that he had no choice but to follow the pitch (we were 3 pitches up, including an ugly traverse), then I was going to tie him off and go down and kick him up the pitch. My point being, I had options. You can't use what you don't know.

8. Demonstrate your ability to carry out a multi-pitch climb. You will be expected to lead one pitch placing protection (both natural and artificial) which is capable of holding a leader fall. In addition, your ability to set up anchors, to effectively manage the rope, and to clean a pitch will be tested.
    This is clearly a big one. It has many parts. Anchors alone has many subtleties. For example, a lot has been written lately about load-sharing anchors. I am all for it. Just don't forget the basics: multiple independent anchors. Think about Piana and Skinner on the Salathe when the block with several bolts that everything was tied to came loose and took them over the edge. Only because Piana had put a #2 friend in a separate crack, attached with an independent sling, did they live. Otherwise they would have gone with the rest of their gear to the valley floor, 3000 ft below. And then there is rope management. There is more to rope management than flaking.
    But this test was also meant to be more than the sum of its parts. Being able to manage multi-pitch climbing efficiently and safely is central to our sport.

9. Demonstrate your ability to follow and lead an aid pitch.
    So maybe we should drop this one. If you want to go do big walls, then you should get some specialized practice. And free climbers just don't use traditional aid techniques much anymore. Maybe this could be replaced with emergency aid techniques, like how to rig slings to aid up a short crack you can't lead.

10. While you are on an out of town trip demonstrate your ability to use the techniques you have learned...
    This is essentially the one test we kept. Come climbing with us and show us that you can do it all safely.

The first four tests were Part I of the test sheet. These were the basic skills one should demonstrate to be a competent second. You would know how to climb, belay, rappel and self-rescue by prusiking. Part II, tests 5-9, were the skills one should be able to demonstrate to be considered a well rounded leader. And test 10 was the final exam.

Obviously I do not believe that these tests contain all the skills one needs to be a competent climber. Maybe in the oblique logic of tests, if you have been around long enough to have learned and demonstrated your ability to do these things, then you probably have picked up all the stuff that is not explicitly mentioned in the tests. I am certain this is not true of our current assessment. But then, if you have the judgment, you will take the time to learn these things as well as all the stuff not mentioned.