Every year when I renew my membership to the American Alpine Club, a little ritual takes place. I send them my money for the good deeds they do and they send me the most recent edition of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering.”
The book itself is one of the good deeds. Reading it every year serves as a reminder of the little things that separate safe and potentially dangerous climbing tactics. I know that a lot of folks think climbing is inherently dangerous, and that’s true to an extent. But it’s far less dangerous than say, driving a car.
The “Accidents” book regales us with stories — many told by the climbers themselves — of mountain mishaps that befall rock climbers, mountaineers and the occasional misguided hiker. It’s important to note the relative safety differences regarding rock climbing and mountaineering. That difference is plain to see in the book, as most accidents involve snow/ice problems on mountaineering routes.
There’s just no other way to say it: Rock climbing is way safer than mountaineering. The climber controls most of the accident-producing dangers, while even the most prepared mountaineer can fall to the unexpected avalanche, collapsed serac or falling rock.
Still, what’s instructive in the “Accidents” book is the repeated reminder that it’s often the little things that cause the problems. For instance, every year a handful of climbers rappel off the ends of their ropes. Knotting the end of the rope — the knot can’t go through your belay device, so you can’t die! — is so simple, but so often overlooked.
Another major hazard for rock climbers is communication between climber and belayer. This year’s edition of “Accidents” contains at least one event where a climber thought he was being lowered to the ground while the belayer thought the climber was rappelling. He fell 100 feet and, remarkably, didn’t die. The lesson is simple: work out what sort of instructions you’ll give once you get to the anchor. Make it very clear that you’re going to re-tie the rope and be lowered instead of rappelling.
I’m gonna pick up this topic again later in the week, and also talk about what the statistics in this year’s accidents reveal about the dangers posed by climbing and mountaineering.