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Safety - What does it mean and how it applies to Canyoneering

Discussion in 'Archives - Yahoo Canyons Group' started by Steve Newcomb, Jul 24, 2007.

  1. I would like to open a discussion about safety, what it means and how it should be used to manage some risks while canyoneering. The goal is to raise the awareness of canyoneerers of the levels of risk they are taking on during critical activities, those that directly endanger life on a regular basis.

    A little explanation. I have always been surprised by answers like Tom W's which state that there isn't enough scientific data to make decisions. I have thought a lot about the difference between this perception and what I perceive to be straight forward analyses and concepts dealing with safe practices. I think I may have come up with a possible explanation for this difference.

    There are a range of risks that are present during a canyoneering trip. Here's an attempt to classify them so the discussion can focus on where applied safety principles can make a significant difference in the risks to our lives. I think it is mainly a problem of awareness more than anything else.

    Outdoor Risks - The risks associated with being outdoors and equivalent to activities like hiking and backpacking. It includes things related to exposure (hypothermia, dehydration, heat stroke, etc), weather and navigation. These do not lend themselves to analysis in an engineering sense, with numerical values for safety margins. They are also the best understood by most people, due to prior experiences and the greater number of people doing these activities. These risks can kill you for sure and steps need to be taken to deal with them if one has no experience with the outdoors. But most people who enter canyoneering have a pretty good understanding of these risks IMO.

    Canyon Risks - Outdoor risks that are particular to canyoneering. I would put hypothermia due to cold pools of water, escaping potholes, flash floods and rock slides in this category (feel free to add more). Similar to above, not appropriate for numerical safety margins. The average person would not have much experience dealing with these and the new canyoneerer should invest the time to learn how to deal with these risks ahead of time. These risks are addressed primarily by proper equipment selection, learning techniques developed to deal with them and awareness.

    Technical Risks - Risks associated with technical activities that directly endanger life. It involves risks that can be defined and measured, unknown risks and risks that can't be addressed. This is what this post is about and it primarily involves the risks involved in overcoming cliffs. There are others, but they involve an advanced level not addressed by this post. This is what I primarily think of when talking about safety margins and reading this group's threads.

    I'll start off by describing what the nature of the risks while rappelling are not. Cost/benefit analyses, often used to analyze decisions involving risk, don't apply because no one assigns a value to life. In other words, no one in their right mind would accept the cost of the loss of their life to gain a benefit they cannot use. It also has nothing to do with the types of risks related to stocks and investments decisions, a type of risk analyzed and talked a lot about nowadays and on people's minds.

    When dealing with risks to one's life, the objective is to reduce the chance of it occurring to an extremely low level and keeping it there. It is not an abstract or arbitrary number, but it is also not a single numerical value. Safe practices aim to reduce this risk to the order of the chance of losing your life while doing ordinary activities. You should be thinking in terms of 1 out of 1,000,000 or 10,000,000.

    The problem is most people have no understanding what it means to maintain this very low level. It's not a question of whether a method CAN be used to descend a canyon, or that it's been used 1000's of times successfully, therefore it's "bomber" (to use a terribly misleading word used far too often). It's about using methods and equipment that keeps the CHANCE of failure at very low levels. One more point. It is necessary for the system to survive worst case scenarios to achieve the desired very low risk. The strengths and stresses to withstand have to be much higher than what is normally placed on the system. Thankfully, worst case scenarios have a low occurrence and are rare, but not low enough to be ignored. If you employ a system that can not withstand those forces, then it will fail on those occasions even though it worked on every situation before. Covering for worst case scenarios is one factor that drives the design and numbers to high values and is a basic safety principle for risks to life.

    It's also important to understand it's too low for any single person's experience to determine. For example if you take on the role of a test "pilot" and experiment with new ropes, you are essentially engaging in a trial and error method to determine its suitability. I don't mean using an 8mm Canyon Pro rope, whose measured strength meets acceptable standards for many applications (although it comes with a set of qualifications that didn't apply to the ropes it was replacing). I'm referring to the ongoing attempts to use ever smaller diameter ropes. Even if it never fails you in 20 years of use, this experience alone does not meet basic safety methods because the sample size is much too small. It only appears or seems like it has (one's life seems pretty long to most people) and this is a good example of a mental model mistake - not realizing your personal experiences represent a very small sample size for the trial and error method of risk determination.

    While there is some variance in how the concept of safety is applied by professional engineers, there are many things it is not. Phrases such as "YMMV", "to each his own", "use what works for you", "be safe", have nothing to do with actually acting safe. Safe practices have to do with identifying, measuring and minimizing the known risks to appropriate levels and implementing margins of safety (safety factors) to take care of the unknown. Some risks can not be addressed and simply have to be accepted as an inherent part of the activity. This, by the way, is why even after safety measures are taken, the risk to your health is higher while rappelling than ordinary activities.

    When faced with a cliff in a canyon the body is suspended above a high height on purpose, and if it is not done correctly, gravity will act every time resulting in harm. It is the most dangerous activity and is encountered on every trip. There are two distinct areas where safety plays a role. One involves the equipment and the other the methods employed.

    For the EQUIPMENT, science and engineering place numbers on the known risks through lab tests and incident occurrences. Not everything can be given a number, but you measure what you can and the rest falls into the unknown risks and is covered by the safety factor. The safety factor reflects two things: how much risk is unknown and what is the consequence of a failure. High unknown risks and the risk of death dictate the highest safety factors. This is the safety margin that is definable and within our control. There is a perception that values have not be determined, but this is not true. People confuse the fact that the canyoneering community has not set margins for canyoneering with the reality that the standards are set for virtually identical activities that are less risky than rappelling in canyons. These standards should set the bare minimum, and further discussions within the community along with testing should determine a more appropriate level.

    Some problems of concern

    * using rope above its working load limit * only taking a length of rope equal to the highest fall * rappelling on pull cord, even if only for emergencies * creating potential weak points in the load line * unrated hardware

    Although equipment failure has not been the main cause of injury or death in the past, current trends resulting in reduced rope diameter, reduced rope strength, going from 2 to 1 weighted rope are reducing the margins of safety in the use of the rope. This is not necessarily bad provided a minimum margin of safety is maintained. The problem is no one is bothering to check. And using the trial and error method is a very poor and dangerous way to verify it. It certainly isn't safe. This reduction is more than what most people are willing to admit, or simply don't know/care. See a post to follow on this issue.

    For the METHODS, it is more difficult to identify the risks and measure them. But philosophies can and have been developed to reduce these risks, and to decide between two alternative methods based on logic and reason. One of the oldest is simplicity is chosen over complexity when both methods do the job. This has many reasons, but one of the most important is the effect of human error. It is a given that mistakes will be made while canyoneering. What method you choose determines how likely a mistake will result in injury or death. How? Simple math. The more steps and the more complex any given step is increases the possibility that a mistake will fall on a critical step. It doesn't mean that more complex methods should never be used. It does mean that if you use a more complex method, the circumstances should justify the added risk. For example, a contingency anchor should only be used in situations that require it, such as rappels in C rated canyons or a professional guiding untrained customers. Using a contingency anchor when a doubled rope will do increases the chances a mistake will result in injury or death. Several people have said a mistake can be made by any method (true), with the inference that all methods are equally prone to a mistake (false). This is not the case and thinking so is a mistake in logic.

    Most accidents in the past have been caused by human error. I think most would agree with this statement and I believe the data backs it up. It may not hold for the future (see above). Simply telling someone the answer to this problem is, "don't make a mistake" or "be safe" is not useful. Understanding methods and their associated risks is important, as well as minimizing the likelihood a mistake will cause injury or death when it does occur by following basic safety principles.

    A reminder. What this post is talking about is understanding the nature of the risk while rappelling in a canyon and managing this risk using well established principles and practices in safety. It is not about dealing with all the risks of a trip. I know people are trying to develop new methods to deal with the specific problems in canyoneering and this should be encouraged, but I think some of these need to be reviewed with respect to their safety and all should pass some minimum standard before being mainstreamed. Those who wish to avoid those risks all together can adhere to established safety standards because all the equipment and methods are available and only require choosing to use them. And take advantage of the new equipment that already meet the standards.

    I think this is a very important topic (safety, what it means and how it is applied to canyoneering) because it affects many aspects of the decisions we make, particularly when it comes to using new methods and equipment. Some may feel that I think I know all the answers, but that is not the case. Just like anyone else, I make mistakes and welcome criticism. These posts actually cause me to consider what I do in the canyons in great depth, reveal mistakes in perceptions and reason and, I hope, lead to avoiding unnecessary risks in the canyons. I've come to believe awareness is a big part of improving safety in any endeavor.

    Steve Newcomb Tucson, AZ
  2. Couldn't agree with you more. Very rare to hear of equipment failure and if so, it may have been because the equipment was used incorrectly or for something for which it was not intended.

    >From: "Steve Newcomb" sanewcomb@yahoo.com who said:

    >"Most accidents in the past have been caused by human error. I think >most would agree with this statement and I believe the data backs it >up. It may not hold for the future (see above). Simply telling someone >the answer to this problem is, "don't make a mistake" or "be safe" is >not useful. Understanding methods and their associated risks is >important, as well as minimizing the likelihood a mistake will cause >injury or death when it does occur by following basic safety >principles". >

    _______________ http://imagine-windowslive.com/hotmail/?locale=en-us&ocid=TXT_TAGHM_migration_HM_mini_pcmag_0507
  3. i would guess that there've been more than a few close calls with ascending ropes and having them abrade to the core. There are ways of protecting rope but ...

    On Jul 24, 2007, at 11:18 PM, bruce silliman wrote:

    > Couldn't agree with you more. Very rare to hear of equipment > failure and if > so, it may have been because the equipment was used incorrectly or for > something for which it was not intended.
    >> From: "Steve Newcomb" sanewcomb@yahoo.com who said:
    >> "Most accidents in the past have been caused by human error. I think >> most would agree with this statement and I believe the data backs it >> up. It may not hold for the future (see above). Simply telling >> someone >> the answer to this problem is, "don't make a mistake" or "be safe" is >> not useful. Understanding methods and their associated risks is >> important, as well as minimizing the likelihood a mistake will cause >> injury or death when it does occur by following basic safety >> principles". >
    > _______________ > http://imagine-windowslive.com/hotmail/?locale=en-
    us&ocid=TXT_TAGHM_migration_HM_mini_pcmag_0507

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  4. tom

    tom Guest

    --- In Yahoo Canyons Group, "Steve Newcomb" <sanewcomb@...> wrote:

    > A little explanation. I have always been surprised by answers like Tom > W's which state that there isn't enough scientific data to make > decisions.

    Here is the snippet from my post: "While that I agree that it is always nice to have solid scientific data on safety margins, etc, and global consensus on appropriate techniques (derived from years of combined experience of acknowledged experts) we don't necessarily have that data - and I think thats fairly typical of the sporting world."

    I did *not* state that there isn't enough scientific data. I said that we don't necessarily *have* that data. What we do have is lots of experience accumulated by many professionals which gives us a repertoire or toolbox from which to pick a technique that, based on our experience and evaluation, is applicable to the situation at hand. This is by no means the certainty you seem to be asking for. I would be very pleased to see the scientific data if you have it. I was responding to post 38991 where you stated:

    <snip> I feel anyone attempting to replace established methods, systems, or materials owes it to the community to verify they meet the basic minimum standards. Otherwise they should be offered as experimental and treated as such (with great care and certainly not mainstreamed). </snip>

    From your post I am making the guess that the "established methods" you are referring to come from other sports such as climbing and caving which have a greater documented history, and testing of methods than do canyoneering. You can go ahead and use a well tested, documented technique from another sport, but that doesn't mean the technique is applicable, convenient, or appropriate for canyoneering - although I agree that many are. I guess I'm not sure which established canyoneering methods, which systems, and which materials are being replaced. Many people who contribute techniques here do so with caveats (such as YMMV) because they have no control over how the technique will be duplicated by other readers, or the application of that technique.

    <snip> In the current system in question, the clove hitch on a carabiner, I believe there are unanswered questions and untested setups that do not meet established standards, and these should be addressed promptly one way or another. </snip>

    Are you volunteering to perform the tests for us?

    The carabiner/clove hitch block is an established technique in canyoneering. It is taught by the ACA, and the ACA has a relationship to the CEC (Commission Europeenne de Canyon). ACA instructors have a huge breadth of experience and some are certified as AGMA (American Mountain Guides Association).

    I *believe* the AGMA had some testing done on clove hitches on carabiners which yielded a strength of 60-80% of the rope strength. BW Canyon has a listed strength of 6000lbs, 60% of 6000 is 3600lbs, divide by 5 for minimum SWL and you get 720lbs. The listed SWL of BW Canyon rope is 400lbs.. SO unless you think a 6000lb tensile strength rope is insufficient, the clove/carabiner block is sufficient. I'll calculate he strength of a carabiner in double shear against a rapide later.

    It would be productive if you posted exactly what techniques you think might be unsafe from a SWL standpoint, and a list of tests you would like to see, so they might be addressed.

    -tom (w)
  5. Tom Jones

    Tom Jones Guest

    --- In Yahoo Canyons Group, "Steve Newcomb" <sanewcomb@...> wrote:
    I would like to open a discussion about safety, what it means and > how it should be used to manage some risks while canyoneering. The > goal is to raise the awareness of canyoneerers of the levels of risk > they are taking on during critical activities, those that directly > endanger life on a regular basis. > May I direct you to that discussion already underway? Rich Carlson started that thread May 21st, 2000; and it has been churning away steadily ever since, with a few digressions. It is called "The Canyons Group".

    Your extensive thesis is interesting, but difficult to reply to. A lot of things to talk about, but... hard to know where to start. It sounds like you have some specific topics you would like to discuss - let's discuss those.

    Tom
  6. bigtoeage21

    bigtoeage21 Guest

    So it sounds like the point of your post is to question the ACA way of doing things. Just because they have an established way of doing things does that mean we should accept it as the best way? Should we frown or deem unsafe any other (non ACA) way of doing things?

    Is ACA the OSHA of canyoneering?
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