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Why We Belay

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by Tim Dowling, Jan 29, 2014.

  1. Tim Dowling

    Tim Dowling

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    I had the opportunity to go through Spry "on the rocks" with Mike S. and Bluu Luke this past Saturday. I had not been through Spry before and was excited to see it as well as tromp through with two guys with TONS of experience. I also go to test out the SQWUREL! We took the alternate approach up and quickly got nice and toasty in the full sun. On the back side of the approach, it cooled fast. We were greeted with more than a few patches of snow and many icy spots. The first part of the drainage was frozen solid with only the sound of liquid water flowing under the ice. This included the first rap. We were easily able to scramble down and around to the "landing" where the anchor was. I belayed Mike from about 30 feet up as he nimbly worked his was across the eight or so feet of snow and ice. It was easy enough to get purchase on the snow across the first few feet. The last few were solid ice with a nice thin layer of water on the top - i.e. zero friction. Mike made his way across easily enough.

    I headed down and hooked into the rope attached to Mike's rap device who was in turn hooked into the anchor. He kept the rope tight as I not-so-nimbly started my way across. Half way there, I started to feel uncomfortable. I'm 6'5" (high center of gravity) and not the most sure footed person on the planet. I was beginning to think of an alternate plan to get down the rap that didn't require me having to get all the way to the anchor. I shifted my weight just a tad and immediately lost my balance. I hit the ice and started skidding down hill. Fortunately Mike had kept the belay tight because almost as quickly as I had started going down, I also started pendulum-ing towards the anchor. Once the rope went completely tight, Mike less than gracefully sat down (was pulled down)... and it was over. I got to my feet and pulled myself up to the anchor.

    Luke was the next one to cross. Rather than me belay him, he belayed himself. Half way across, in the same spot, he lost his footing as well. As he pendulum-ed down, the rope started swinging towards my feet. Having just experienced the same physics, I knew it was coming and easily stepped over it. We had a good laugh and away we went.

    The fall itself did not really scare me. We had set up a good belay and I was just along for the ride. If the belay failed, there was nothing I could do. The failure was not going to be because of something we did wrong. We had a safe plan. I was simply in Fate's hands. However, my blood pressure was up just a bit after we recovered. That was more from the suddenness of the event rather than the close call, though.

    We discussed what happened when we were down from the first rap. Lesson one was this was an event that reinforced why we have safety practices. Unfortunately, most are written in blood. Perhaps sometimes we get a little bit complacent and rush something for no good reason. Clearly the icy conditions warranted a belay. But how many times to you pass up on one because you don't want to waste the time or think asking for one is "weak?" How many times do you pass up a fireman's for the same reasons? For me, lesson two was our lack of a pre-brief of the belay. It was a non-standard horizontal belay on ice. Had we taken a few moments to think about the physics, I think we would have quickly reached the conclusion that a self belay was the better option. I don't think there was anything wrong with what we did. The belay could have just been "cleaner". Luke had the experience of our lack of forethought and went with that option. His fall was a non-event.

    As I have gained more experience, I've been able to develop habit patterns and best practices that I can rely on to keep me safe. Frequently it is something that will require a little more thought and some extra time before, during or after a rappel. But that's all it costs... time. Hopefully I will never make the wrong decision that will cost someone or myself more than that.

    Before
    P1250040.

    After
    P1250041.

    SQWUREL!
    P1250075.
    townsend, Mike, Kuenn and 2 others like this.
  2. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Which brings to mind the question of why Luke "belayed himself" rather than be belayed by someone else? There are places where a self-belay is appropriate, but I would suggest this is not one of them. Slips happen quickly. Slamming into the ice or rock can result in one letting go of one's own belay. Someone who is "only belaying" can do a much better job of belaying than someone who is also climbing, slipping and falling.

    I realize that there are many of us who do not like being told what to do. Thus I have taken it upon myself to tell people what to do: BE SAFE! In a climbing situation, a belay from another person is VERY MUCH SAFER than a self-(pseudo)-belay. Stop being a macho-poo-head.

    Thanks for listening, for those who did. But really, please change your behaviour.


    Tom :moses:
    Jenny likes this.
  3. Jenny

    Jenny

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    Good point, Tom
    Thanks, again.

    Luke, I don't think you are a "macho-poo-head". But I love this new term and I will steal it often. Again, thanks Tom.

    Jenny
    ratagonia likes this.
  4. TJ Cottam

    TJ Cottam Adventure Plus

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    Another option for this particular drop would be to build an alternate anchor and don't worry about getting to the anchor across the ice. I did spry in the winter a few years ago with much more snow and ice, not sure if it's still there but we slung a small tree a ways back from edge and just sat/slid down the ice the entire way down.
  5. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    iff ropes are long enough... a good reason to bring longer ropes in winter.

    Tom
  6. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    and thanks very much Tim for bringing this opportunity for discussion to the class.

    Tom
  7. Bluu

    Bluu

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    Good point on a self belaying person losing control / grip / whatever in the event of a fall. Thanks!
  8. Deagol

    Deagol too many hobbies

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    OK, I'll be the first to say it: the SQWUREL looks like a mutated sperm with a college graduation cap on... :)
  9. Tim Dowling

    Tim Dowling

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    Maybe one that graduated from Yale. I just transitioned to an ATS. I was going to switch to it halfway through Spry, but was enjoying using the SQWUREL so much, I ended up sticking with it the entire time. You can change friction on it easier than an ATS or PiraƱa and it puts almost no twists in the rope in the zero setting and no twists at all in the higher friction settings. I thought it was going to be too bulky, but it's really only slightly larger than an ATS. I think people will really like it once it hits the market. It will make thinking about friction on a big rap a non-event. But yeah, you're right... it has a face only a mother could love. Kidding Luke!

    PS - The one in the photo isn't the final version. It's really close to it, though.

    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk HD
  10. Bluu

    Bluu

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    Lol I knew that sperm jome would cum up. I jokingly referred to it as the "Fertilizer" for a while. But the SQWUREL it is.
  11. Deagol

    Deagol too many hobbies

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    It will be interesting to see the rope path for the different rigging options. Good luck, Luke !

    I love the Smooth Operator and hope you have success with this new device.
  12. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    It would be great if the Crtttttr and SQWUZELRKTRL conversation would be on the Crtttttr and SQWUZELRKTRL thread, rather than the why we belay thread.

    Thanks.

    Tom
  13. Mike

    Mike epic blarneys

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    Nicely put Tim. You captured the moment perfectly, it certainly got the heart racing.

    My pics:
    Impossible to find the RSS link

    By the way: First snow tracks of the year in Spry were Haley and Laura (ZAC guide/staff) whom also chose to belay the discussed anchor. A few days after our descent, two ZAC guides (Ben and Robby) did Spry/Pine Creek/Keyhole in the same day.

    Lotsa snow from the last storm, looks like canyons are still getting done though, maybe we'll see some reports from Deeps, Tom, or Jenny....
    Ram and ratagonia like this.
  14. Deagol

    Deagol too many hobbies

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    Beautiful, but sketchy looking...
  15. SJC

    SJC

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    Obviously, this comment is 5 years later, and the sport continues to evolve, but I am currently gathering research on canyoneering accidents and am digging through these old reports. I agree with Tim's hesitancy of the belayer having the potential to lose control of the belay if they are pulled from their stance. And I agree with Tom's argument that the same thing could happen to someone belaying themselves. I think there are a couple solutions to satisfy each of their hesitancies:

    a - belay directly off the anchor (also puts less load on the anchor) with an assisted-braking device (ex. ATC-guide). If the belayer is pulled off their feet, the rope still catches. Since many canyoneers may not be carrying an ATC-guide, this could be replaced with what everyone has and a relatively basic knowledge level: a munter-hitch with an autoblock on the belay strand attached to the belayer's harness in case the belayer loses control.
    b - fix a rope to the anchor and have the person traversing capture their progress with a prusik or klemheist hitch. If they slip, the hitch catches them.

    I also really liked Tim's emphasis on dropping ego and accepting security from others. Every time a firefighter's belay or spot is denied, it makes the offerer less likely to offer help in the future to you or others when it might really be needed. Additionally, I appreciated his idea of a "pre-brief" before transitioning into a new environment/activity/etc. Getting into this habit gives a good natural checkpoint to minimize risk factors for human-error in decision making.

    Offering a really belated thanks to sharing learnings -
    Yellow Dart and hank moon like this.
  16. YoungBuck

    YoungBuck

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    I feel like the belayer's potential to loose stance isn't all that valid of a concern. Anyone who has done lead belaying had probably been tossed in the air or pulled into the wall when the climber takes a fall. The belayer should be aware of the possibility of them losing stance to some level and be experienced enough to roll with the punches. Just like I've seen Tom discuss about several times about self belays while rappelling(VT Prussik, etc), nothing is going to beat the muscle memory of good rappelling technique. The same applies to belaying a fellow canyoneer. Nothing will beat a belayer who can respond quickly to a slip or fall.

    Not only do you have to drop your ego and stop being a macho-poo-head as Tom so eloquently put it. But when you are belaying, whether a simple firemans belay, or belaying someone across a sheet of ice above a 160 foot slide, you need to take it seriously and acknowledge that the person on the other end of the rope is trusting you with their life and you need to always be prepared for them to fall and need your belaying. It's just one big trust exercise.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding the original situation or just my different perspective is clashing.
    ratagonia likes this.
  17. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    I've done Spry in March and it wasn't that icy. Good job at least doing some kind of belay so no one died!

    At any rate, one thing to always remember when out canyoneering is that the ropes we're carrying are not usually dynamic climbing ropes. In a fall with high forces, the consequences of that fact could involve injury (even if the rope/anchor holds) or catastrophic anchor/rope failure and death.

    Edit: Just realized this was a January trip. That explains the ice.
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