People have a tendency to make very matter-of-fact statements about things that aren’t entirely true. It’s easy to act like an expert, making “true” statements”, in front of a crowd and much harder to admit in front of that same crowd when you don’t know something. My partner has helped me with this. She’s more inclined to respect me for saying “I think it might be this, but I’m really not certain” than for bullsh*tting her and acting like I know what I’m talking about.
We can’t all be experts at everything. That’s fine. Actually, it’s better than fine. I’d rather be an expert in one or two things than dabble in lots of things. Dabbling in climbing is tough. Climbing in any shape or form is serious business. You could die climbing.
Being a safe climber is all about making good decisions. If you’re going to make good decisions you need to have a base of experiences that help influence you to make those good decisions. Experience doesn’t magically appear overnight. You gain it by doing, from other’s teachings (hopefully they’re knowledgable and honest about their own base of experience), by reading, and by applying the things you’ve read and been shown.
The first step in this process is admitting that there are things you don’t know and aren’t good at yet. Then, through learning and practice it’s usually possible to get reasonably good at most things. As climbers we need to be reasonably good at doing things that keep us safe.
This season in the Gunks there’s been one really staggering accident that resulted in a sad and unnecessary fatality and a slew of others that have resulted in severe head or body trauma. If you listen from the cliff it’s possible to hear sirens coming up the hill and around the hairpin turn nearly every weekend. Many of those sirens stop at the carriage road below the cliffs.
There will always be objective hazards while climbing. In the mountains objective hazards can pose a real threat to one’s wellbeing. At a cliff like the Trapps we see very few objective hazards and many subjective risks. People unknowingly expose themselves to unnecessary subjective risks and cause entirely preventable accidents.
Rock climbing is changing. I’ve been watching it happen. At times, as a guide I feel I’ve even contributed to those changes. As a “sport” rock climbing has blossomed in popularity. People no longer travel in pairs, as partners, to a crag to climb for the day. They travel in throngs, coming straight from climbing gyms to the outdoors. They no longer mentor with one individual for several seasons, learning the many subtleties of a dangerous yet rewarding craft like climbing.They storm the crags, new gear and group in tow and recreate the gym outside. The measured approach, where one goes slowly and carefully applies their skills, is rapidly disappearing.
The trouble is, one person from a gym who “knows” how to lead or build anchors can expose an entire group of new climbers to the sport. All the while, that person in the “know” and the rest of these green climbers never realize they’re climbing on bogus anchor setups that aren’t ideal.
My friend and fellow climbing guide, Joe Vitti, has been thinking a lot about the climbing accidents that have occurred in the Gunks over the past several seasons. The recent anchor failure and subsequent fatality, which seems to have been preventable, has shaken him. It should bother all of us.
After looking at the accidents he’s determined (I agree with his determination) that accidents are not occurring as a result of total beginner climbers being complete idiots. They’re occurring among intermediate/experienced climbers who are capable of climbing and manage to navigate the cliffs, but are incapable of seeing the bigger, very dangerous picture in which they operate.
Rappelling or lowering off the end of the rope is easily preventable. It’s possible to make simple and redundant anchors, ones that won’t fail, aren’t confusing and can easily be determined to be safe. Leaders can be better at self-assessing what climbs they should decide to lead, thus preventing upside down, skull fracturing falls. It’s possible to place gear that doesn’t zipper out below when you take a lead fall.
These accidents scare the crap out of me. However, I’m not an optimist. I’m a pragmatist and my sensibility tells me that this isn’t the end of more accidents – it’s the beginning. As climbing gyms become more popular and more people want to try outdoor climbing the “experience” denominator decreases. There’s more people out there that know less, and I’m not sure they realize that one small mistake is all it takes to get seriously injured or killed.
The first step to preventing these accidents is letting go of our egos. We need to admit what we know and what we don’t know. If I screw up my marinara recipe it’s not a big deal. If I screw up my climbing anchor someone could die. If you don’t really feel like you know what you’re doing, ask for help. Nobody will criticize you for that. As a guide and instructor I applaud people for that. Many other guides do too.
Starting this season some of the local Gunks guides are going to be offering free, informal clinics on Saturday nights. These clinics are geared towards climbers who want to improve their anchoring, belaying and ropework skills. Joe Vitti is working out the fine details still. As details and a schedule become available I’ll post them on this site. Joe will do the same on rockclimbing.com and gunks.com.
In the meantime, be nice, but say something if you feel like the anchor or belay setup you see someone using looks whacky. It doesn’t have to be an insult and it could be phrased as more of a question. Find out why they’re doing what they’re doing and help them get on the right track.
Here’s the link to the flyer that will be posted around the Gunks -Free clinic-1. Spread the word.