Advice from my NOLS instructors about my recent climbing accident

After the Red Rock climbing accident, I composed an accident report and sent it to a few of my NOLS instructors. I got some good advice back and would like to share it with my readers here.

By Jared Spaulding (my NOLS Backcountry Rock Climbing Course Instructor)

Some thoughts. 1. It seems like you have put a lot of thought into processing the incident. Good. 2. The write up was very comprehensive, in-depth, and detailed, which is no doubt a result of #1. 3. When I had only read the story (and not yet read the Lessons part) what struck me were the subjective hazards, the new partner, the desire to climb Crimson, and the speaking up when you felt it was neccessary. 4. The objective hazards: the belay position and your “second” rope.

To expound on #1,3,&4

#1 Having had several weeks with you in a technical environment, it does not surprise me that you have processed the incident to this extent. Have you processed it with Jon? I imagine there was no doubt some good conversation and discussion on the way out. Since you have had the time to process the incident, have you been able to talk about it with him? It is good to get his insights as well plus it is useful for his learning. Also, discussing the incident with the ENTIRE team (all four) is a good idea as well (see #4)

#3 The subjective hazards. 5.8 is around your limit. That being said I think you have good judgment. When I climb with new partners in an area that I am comfortable in I often will stay well below my limit. I will climb things I have been on before and know well or things that I know are easy. This allows me a margin of safety in that the first line of protection a climber has is her movement on rock. I realize that you did not fall, however I am putting it out there because you as well were near your limit.

The desire to go up and finish a climb can be a strong aphrodisiac. Up until your partner’s fall, the reasons not to go on seemed to be little: the weather was cold and you were moving slower than planned. You didn’t mention time as a factor so I assume it was still early enough. In the case of crimson chrysalis going slow isn’t too much of an issue because you rap the route. You can turn around when you want to. As for the cold, it is still cold in the shade in Red Rocks in April, so if you have layers, you can deal. This leads me to believe that had the accident not occured you could have continued up, albeit slowly, perhaps finishing the climb (see #4). Once the accident did occur, your desire to climb struck me as unwise, though it can be understandable. It will always be there.

The above leads me to believe that the greatest subjective error that occurred was you not speaking up as often as you should have. This is without a doubt one of the most important things that you can do over your career as a climber, that is, if you want a long one. I would also stress this to be one of the biggest take home points for you. Trust your gut and trust that your partner will either agree, engage in a dialog about the situation, or scorn you. If the latter happens, you probably don’t want to be climbing with this person anyway. The things that you mentioned as things you didn’t speak up about are all very important points. It is your life and well being out there. If you don’t speak up and ask questions or make statements when something doesn’t feel or look right (as you did with him belaying the you off the anchor as a leader–what is with that? I have never heard of belaying the leader off of the anchor–) then no one will. That is judgment. I hope this helps you refine and develop that judgment.

#4 Nice work on wearing helmets. So many don’t at red rocks (or anywhere). You mention that the top of the third pitch (where the incident occurred) was a hanging belay. It can be difficult to get good braced positions at a hanging belay. Due to the nature of hanging belays often when a leader fall is caught one is pulled up and in. Unless you put an upward directional BELOW you it can be hard to alleviate that movement. Sometimes this is a possibility. I most often brace myself with my legs spread shoulder width apart, but this is very situationally dependent.

Your ability to descend safely and efficiently is tied directly to the other team you are climbing with (no pun intended) When you climb as a group of four in order to share ropes for a descent, you stay together. Had adam not been directly below you you would have had a much harder time getting down. You were lucky to have another group right behind, and a group who could lend you a rope. When you both need the ropes, both teams need to stay in sight of each other, or have walkie talkies or working cell phones. Communication is paramount. You go up as a group of four and you come down as a group of four.

By Ben Krasnow (my NOLS Denali Mountaineering Course Instructor)

However, keep in mind while climbing, that little mistakes add up quickly. It seems to me that you started to notice little things going wrong along the way. This often becomes a precursor for a big mistake or accident, so try to be aware of things adding up……….or not adding up.

If you remember on Denali, I was usually very strict with little mistakes that students made because I didn’t want them to add up to one big one, in such a harsh environment.

Climbing is extremely dangerous. People get seriously injured or die quite frequently. Make sure that your assessments of risk is accurate and that the rewards are worth the risk for you.

1 thought on “Advice from my NOLS instructors about my recent climbing accident”

  1. Hi, thank you for visiting my space,i loved your article so much and i often read your words about climbing to learn sth , i am sorry for quoting the article without your permission,but my blog is just personal,not used for any business.Btw, i have already checked the Chinese version,it’s beautiful words 🙂
    I am in Beijing China, wish you a happy weekend from far away 🙂

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