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Accident Prevention

Belayer Drops Leader Due to Miscommunication

On Monday, October 13, a group of three decided to climb the steep and popular Ro Shampo (5.12a) at the Red River Gorge's Roadside Crag. The leader completed the climb without incident and was lowered to the ground. The second climber elected to tie into the middle of the 60-meter (200-foot) rope, and toproped the overhanging climb on the side of the rope clipped through the draws.

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On Monday, October 13, a group of three decided to climb the steep and popular Ro Shampo (5.12a) at the Red River Gorge’s Roadside Crag. The leader completed the climb without incident and was lowered to the ground. The second climber elected to tie into the middle of the 60-meter (200-foot) rope, and toproped the overhanging climb on the side of the rope clipped through the draws. Since the third climber also wanted to toprope, the second climber clipped the trailing line through the quickdraws as she went up. Because the climb was only 60 feet tall, she planned to go in direct, and simply switch the knot to the other side of the anchor carabiners and lower — this plan hinged on the belayer switching rope ends, too. After lowering, there would be enough rope left for the third climber to toprope the route with the benefit of all the draws clipped.

According to the account written by the belayer on redriverclimbing.com, the second had explained the scenario, but the belayer didn’t fully understand how it would work. When the climber approached the anchors, she again tried to explain what she was going to do, but the belayer was still confused. The climber eventually told the belayer that she was in direct. She fiddled with the set up, then asked the belayer to take. The belayer took in rope, and the climber unclipped and fell to the ground, breaking her back, hip, leg, wrist, and shattering her pelvis. At press time she was still in the hospital recovering from two surgeries. According to friends, in spite of the extent of her injuries she is in excellent spirits.

ANALYSIS

While there was nothing inherently wrong with the logistics of the plan, it was unusual and required the belayer to change sides of the rope in order to lower the climber. When the climber clipped the anchors and went in direct, the belayer should have confirmed that she was taking the climber off belay — clearly communicating and waiting for verbal assurances from the climber and then switching sides, re-rigging the belay, and taking in slack. In this case, the belayer was confused from the get-go, and clearly needed better communication and understanding before the climber left the ground. The crucial switch was never completed, and the climber was on the same side of the anchor as the belayer when she unclipped and decked.

PREVENTION

This is yet another example of miscommunication leading to an accident. Each year climbers are hurt or killed when lowering schemes are unclear to one or both parties. Sometimes the belayer takes the climber off belay, mistakenly assuming that the person will rappel. Sometimes the height, shape or acoustics of a climb prevent clear communication when the climber reaches the anchor. But in most of these cases, the belayer and climber were not in accord before the climber started up the route, and the accident resulted because of miscommunication — or lack of communication — at the base of the climb. Therefore, don’t leave the ground or commit to belaying until every party understands the plan for lowering. Further, confirm every step of the process, either verbally or, in the case of longer pitches that take a climber out of sight, by a prearranged system of commands and/or rope tugs. Always be redundant with your communication and wait for your partner’s response before proceeding to the next step. At the anchor, clip in and let your partner know what’s up. When cleaning an anchor, go in direct with longer slings or draws so that you can first weight the rope and feel that your belayer has you before you unclip your tethers from the anchor. That step alone would’ve prevented this accident.

A good rule in all situations is to keep it simple. If you are confused about any proposed plan — whether it is a lowering, anchoring, toproping or leading scenario — don’t climb or belay until you are clear about every step. If you can’t picture the proposed scheme, then insist on something simpler. Avoid un-tying, switching the belay or using complicated rope trickery. A simpler solution would have been to toprope the route, and then swing in and re-clip the draws while lowering.