On the morning of February 5, two climbers (who requested anonymity) were halfway up the second pitch of Glenwood Falls, a popular ice formation just east of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The leader, an experienced ice climber, was accustomed to leading using a system where he would climb until he got pumped, plant a tool and yell down “fifi on,” a request for slack. His belayer would dial out some rope and he would drape it over his tool and say, “hooked.” The belayer would then take in rope and he would hang and rest.
On this day, he became pumped and said “fifi on” but didn’t feel slack. Again he said “fifi on” but the belayer misinterpreted the command as “hooked.”
“I felt myself being pulled off the structure as she was taking the slack,” the leader told Rock and Ice. “I started panicking and started screaming ‘give me some slack’ at the top of my lungs. When I felt slack, I tried pulling the rope to the axe and it's then that it all happened.”
His crampons sheared out of the ice and he fell 30 feet, impacted a step of ice and broke his fibula and talus. Fortunately, two local climbers Tom “Bo” Bohanon and Michael Kennedy, arrived at the base of the ice and helped the injured climber to the road, where they put him into Kennedy’s car and drove him to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Glenwood Falls is a complex south-facing ice flow, with bulges, steps, runnels and five established routes. In some sections, the belayer can’t see the climber. Furthermore, incessant car and truck noise from Interstate 70 (only 200 yards away) reverberates off the walls of the narrow canyon and makes hearing commands difficult, and at times, impossible. In this case, the lack of visibility and noise resulted in a miscommunication.
Climbers must work out a series of commands that are easy to interpret even when the parties can’t see or hear each other. These commands need to be dissimilar. For example, climbers often use “take” and “slack” to mean opposite things, but when separated by a rope-length, the two words can sound the same. Better to use “up rope” and “slack.” Communication should be kept to a minimum, especially in situations where noise is a factor.
Troubleshoot all relevant scenarios from the ground. Will you lower, rappel or bring up the belayer? You might need to communicate with tugs on the rope (e.g., three sharp tugs means off belay). It is imperative to decide what your signals/commands will be, then stick with the prearranged plan. Any superfluous communication can be misinterpreted.
In this situation, the leader used a non-standard method for resting—and it had worked on many climbs. That said, there are better ways to rest that don’t depend on being able to communicate with the belayer. For example, you can clip in directly to the spike of your axe. This keeps your weight low on the tool, with less chance of levering it out of the placement. Even then, you should be wary of hanging from a single tool and back up the placement with a second tool or screw.
Keep in mind that ice climbing is precarious. Protection sometimes fails under body weight [see Accident Report, No. 193]. The safest way to climb ice is to stick with flows that you can lead from bottom to top without stopping and taking, keeping three points of contact whenever possible. The old rule still stands for water ice: The leader must not fall.