In 1989, at a small crag in France, the Styx Wall at Buoux, Lynn Hill forgot to finish tying her knot connecting the climbing rope to her harness. At the top of a 70-foot warm-up, she started to lower off. The unsecured rope end pulled through and Lynn went airborne, windmilling her arms to stay upright. She crashed through branches of a tree and piled into the ground between two boulders.
When Lynn first told me about the accident, perhaps a year after it happened, I wondered how the many time world sport-climbing champion, the visionary who had first free climbed the Nose, and my long-time partner on and off the cliffside, had made such a rookie mistake. Twenty-five years later, however, at a climbing gym three miles from my house, I also failed to finish the tie-in knot to my harness. The last thing I remember after reaching the chains at the top of the route is landing feet first on the ground, crumpling in a heap and rolling up to see my tibia jutting out a hole in my shin. Fifty days and five operations later, I got discharged from UCLA Medical Center and spent most of the next year on crutches.
In the long months following my accident I felt puzzled and humiliated that Lynn, arguably the world’s finest free climber in the early 1990s, and I, who’d climbed steadily for 40 years around the world, and had written a dozen books on technical climbing, had both fallen asleep on the job. I felt especially guilty having decked in the “safe” environment of a climbing gym.
A little research showed that while serious gym accidents are rare (occurring less frequently than falls while hill walking, for instance), they do happen, the majority of which are basic pilot error. The question is: how did we, with decades of experience between us, simply fall asleep? The answer became clear when I read an article about industrial safety protocols, with the tagline being “complacency is safety’s worst enemy.”
The relevance of industrial safety issues to gym climbing was brought home by the oft-repeated point that no matter the particular task—from building cars, to painting a submarine—accident prevention is always a matter of vigilance. The key regarding gym climbing is to understand what is vigilance, how vigilance is practiced, when it goes missing, and why. The accompanying Safety Checklist review (to the right) might have saved me from an open fracture, and the great Lynn Hill, a broken ankle and dislocated elbow.
Vigilance is a matter of maintaining focused attention on a task. When our attention goes lax, often through distractions, knowledge and experience count for nothing. Accidents in North American Climbing (published annually by the American Alpine Club) shows how many expert climbers are injured on “easy” ground. Climbing is a contest with gravity, and gravity never sleeps. When we do, no matter the terrain, bad things can happen.
Vigilance often goes missing at the end of a session, when we’re tired, hungry and thirsty, or when our focus shifts from climbing, say, to socializing with those around us. Whatever the reasons, when our guard goes down, complacency (a false sense of security) steals in. Be clear: complacency is the principal cause of indoor-climbing accidents. Easy routes require the same vigilance as hard routes in terms of following basic safety procedures. I fell off a warm-up route. Any gym employee will tell you that most accidents happen on routes far below a given climber’s limit.
The desired state of mind is relaxed vigilance, but what does that mean? It does not mean hypervigilance, nervously scanning the environment, waiting for an accident to happen. A tense mind and body causes tunnel vision. We operate best when we are calm, alert and fully present to what’s directly before us, glancing ahead toward where we are going.
In short, vigilance assumes three basic forms that have stood the test of time: A) appraising difficulties B) regular reminders and C) oversight.
Experienced gym climbers constantly appraise potential hazards, and discuss solutions as a matter of course. You’ll see some version of this ritual in most every adventure sport. The champion studies their opponent. We can’t appraise the difficulties unless we see them, and we can’t see them unless we’re paying attention.
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A safety checklist, part of every sport and technical activity, is not a one-time drill. We repeat it over and over, reminding ourselves of what to avoid, and checking our own systems at regular intervals. That’s the reason cars have gauges, which inform us about current conditions. We know those conditions will change over time, introducing a new set of potential hazards.
Double-checking our systems, glancing at our “gauges” before and after every burn, should be part of our standard practice. Anything less is driving with your eyes closed.
Oversight means not only checking our own systems, but that of our partners, recognizing hazards and mitigating them. In virtually every gym, a revolving cast of staff members is circulating, keeping an eye out for trouble (again, oversight). But gyms get crowded, especially at peak hours, so our principal oversight comes from our partners, and we return the favor in kind.
Most injuries happen through bungling basic procedures we’ve done a thousand times—like tying into the lead rope. We suffered an avoidable accident because we got complacent. As Lynn’s and my accidents bear out, accidents are not just rookie mistakes. The best of us get complacent. Fighting complacency is a team effort. Without constant vigilance, gravity has the advantage.
Standard safety procedures vary slightly, gym to gym, depending on the chosen belay devices and other factors. Every gym runs mandatory belay and leading tests, conducted by trained staff, when the particulars are made clear and your proficiency is tested and reviewed. Safety regulations are also posted in bold print throughout most facilities. But ultimately your safety lies in the hands of your partner(s) and yourself. Again, the good news is that gym accidents are comparatively rare, and nearly all of them are avoidable. Once you are competent with the basic safety procedures, it all breaks down to vigilance.
John Long has climbed nearly 50 years and is author of the popular How to Climb book series.
This article appeared in Gym Climber issue #1.