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A cautionary tale about reflexes

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by Nick Smolinske, Oct 31, 2018.

  1. Nick Smolinske

    Nick Smolinske

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    I thought I'd share a near miss that happened to me a few years ago, while rappelling off of Sedona Scenic Cruise, a multipitch climb. This incident is the reason I nearly always use an autoblock.

    The day started with a beautiful and efficient climb up the Cruise, and the descent was straightforward, until one instant almost changed everything. I was about halfway down an airy 200 foot rap (double strand) when my foot slipped on the rock. Before I was even aware of the slip, my brake hand left the ropes to protect myself from hitting the wall. My hand made it about two feet away from the ropes before my frontal lobe kicked in and brought it back. Fortunately, my aim was true and I grabbed hold of the ropes, only dropping a foot or so.

    It was a scary moment because it happened so fast, and also because I was already an experienced climber at that point. It was not a beginner mistake, and it happened beneath my conscious awareness. A reflex reaction, like the time I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake and was jumping backwards through the air before I realized what was happening. Or the time I had a very close lightning strike and my friend and I both dropped to the ground before we were aware.

    I don't recall the specifics of the rock face - maybe there was a bit of rock jutting out towards my face and that's why my reflexes kicked in like that. But either way, it was a scary reminder that our conscious mind is not always in control of our actions. No matter how experienced you are.

    I know there's a debate about whether to use an autoblock, but I always use one now. I'm careful to avoid the common pitfalls. I have separate autoblocks for single strand and double strand raps, because the ideal length and diameter is different. I've found that getting the correct length and diameter of the cord is key to a reliable autoblock. And I always extend my descender and attach the autoblock to my leg loop, so there's no chance of it hitting the device.
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2018
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  2. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    I would submit that if letting go for a split second results in you cratering, especially with 100 feet of rope still below you providing a bit of a fireman belay, that perhaps rigging the device with a bit more friction would be appropriate. When I started climbing we were using 11 mm ropes. If you're rappelling that double strand through an ATC you've got to work pretty darn hard to fall off a cliff while rappelling. Now that we're moving to 9 and even 8 mm ropes and often using the same devices at the same settings, there's quite a bit more risk of sliding down the rope and hitting the ground.

    I think learning to match rope and rappel device to rappeller and rappel is likely a better solution than introducing an additional time consuming piece of equipment.

    I've watched dozens of mostly teenagers learning to rappel who have let go of the rope. They're all on belay but typically it doesn't even need to be activated/weighted because they've barely moved. Why? Because they have plenty of (probably too much) friction already built into the system (and when they let go of the rope it is often to grab onto the rock).

    In fact, I'll bet MY OWN HAND has slipped off the brake side of the rope dozens of times in my life at various points. Yet I'm still alive. Why is that? Because I'm chronically overfrictioned, especially at the top of a rappel. Set that friction just below the point where you have to pull up rope to get it through the device (or bounce while rappelling since that risks excessive rope wear) and you'll likely feel and be a lot safer than combining an autoblock with an underfrictioned system.
  3. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    Thanks for sharing your experience. “Natural” reflexes and muscle memory are learned behaviors and in some cases need to be expunged from our cognitive development, IMO.

    I have witnessed your reaction, have seen it duplicated many many times, but believe it to be a reflex attributed to lack of experience in rappelling, for this particular venture. If it is a natural reflex for rappellers it’s one that needs to be unlearned, or better yet, retrained. Case in point, unexpected occurrences while driving should not translate to letting go of the steering wheel or failing to apply the brakes.

    Don’t take this as critical analysis of your reasoning for autobloc, but to me it is equivalent to saying that for safety purposes drivers should have their mom in the passenger seat with an extra drivers-Ed-like brake pedal.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2018
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  4. Nick Smolinske

    Nick Smolinske

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    Well, I don't know that I would have cratered. My brain kicked in pretty fast and put my hand back on the rope so I don't know what would have happened if I'd missed. I'd guess my friction was pretty appropriate for that rap since I think we were climbing on 10.1mm ropes and rapping with an ATC guide. Maybe I was farther down the rope than halfway - I don't trust my memory for those specific details of the incident, especially since it's a story I've recalled many times over the years since so there have been plenty of opportunities for those numbers to change.

    I would also submit that if using an autoblock is tedious and time-consuming, you haven't done enough experimenting with your autoblocks to get the lengths and diameters matched to the rope correctly. Although it's definitely easier to get one that works well on double ropes than singles. I have a new 8mm Atwood Grand and I'm still working on getting the right setup for it - on this last trip I had 4 wraps of a 5mm prussik but I'm going to shorten it and try 3. Four wraps was definitely on the tedious side of things. It may be that 8mm ropes don't allow enough room for a middle ground prussik that grabs reliably without being obnoxious, but I'll keep experimenting.

    I don't know how you would untrain this reflex. Rapping on icy waterfalls? I had a lot of experience when it happened already. I've got even more now but while I'd like to think it wouldn't happen again I don't know how I could be sure.

    I wouldn't be surprised if there were situations that would cause most drivers to let go of the wheel while driving. Maybe if their passenger threw an unexpected punch to their face?

    That said, a fireman's belay is definitely easier when appropriate.
  5. hank moon

    hank moon lovely ligatures

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    Did you have a lot of experience with sudden slips while on rappel?
  6. Nick Smolinske

    Nick Smolinske

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    I doubt it. I had several years trad climbing experience at that point but mostly in the desert on dry rock. A little bit of canyoneering experience but I hadn't bought a wetsuit yet and was mostly doing dry canyons.

    Although, I don't see how that matters all that much. I still don't trust my frontal lobe to be in control of the situation if I slip, despite much more experience with wet conditions. And maybe it was a freak accident, but an autoblock is a really easy backup to use if it's sized correctly (validity on 8mm ropes pending).
  7. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    Then, that's it right there. Good on ya for recognizing. And putting a system into place that keeps you safe.

    Over the years, I've done a gob of rappels. Some with really loose rock, slipping, rappelling ice with no crampons, etc etc etc. I've lost my footing, slipped, kicked off rocks, pendulum-ed into walls, rappelled single strand static 7mm with a haul bag, etc etc etc...and...thru all that...have never ever lost control of my rappel. Never let my brake hand go. I can't comprehend it, even.

    I've watched especially beginners let go of their brake hand (thankfully without incident). Hard for me to understand how or why they'd do that. Should be fundamental.

    I have partners that use autoblocks. I usually don't.

    And, in canyons with waterflow....no one should be using an autoblock on rappel.

    In your best Charlton Heston voice, they'll take my brake hand away when they pry it "from my cold, dead hands."

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  8. Nick Smolinske

    Nick Smolinske

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    I guess that's kind of the point of this thread - I would have trouble comprehending it as well, except that it happened to me.

    I also had a pendulum-into-wall scenario that I'm pretty sure predated this one. Slammed into the rock with my right side pretty hard, and had no problems holding onto the rope for that one.
  9. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    I agree with Brian. I've been climbing for a few decades. Belaying climbers and rappelling, I have never let go of my brake hand. I can imagine hitting my elbow in such a way that my hand reflexively lets go, but that has not happened. I am surprised to learn that ALL experienced climbers do not have this ingrained in their body.

    I know how to get a reliable(ish) autobloc, and have used one for 200 days of guiding. But I have never used one on personal trips. I have known people who are used to using an autobloc casually letting go with the brakehand, and then successfully re-grabbing the rope (ok, one time)... thus I suspect that using an autobloc regularly diminishes the learned reflex of not letting go of the rope.

    Tom
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