This blog “Common Mistakes and Improved Systems” is intended as supporting information for the article “Learning from near misses”, published in The Professional Mountaineer (summer edition 2020).
We hope that sharing near misses and incidents with instructors, guides and climbers might help avoiding the same experiences.
All of the incidents or near misses described here we have witnessed ourselves. Many of these are also recurring on the BMC incident and near miss reporting website. As these incidents or near misses have occurred on several occasions, we assume they will continue to happen.
In order to minimise the risk of them being repeated, we list these mistakes and offer ways of improving the systems and checks we do:
Not being tied into the rope
This happens surprisingly frequently. I got away with this one once but I know a few very experienced climbers who didn’t! The cause is always the same: the climber is interrupted or distracted while tying in. It is possible to distract yourself but it is usually your belayer or someone else passing you quickdraws, food, or something else.
- Always finish that particular job once started. If you have to do something immediately remove the rope from harness then start again.
- Make a point to anyone who interrupts this process that it is one of the biggest no no’s in climbing. You should never interrupt the climber while tying in. Be a little bit rude as it aids the memory and makes the point.
- Partner checks.
Falling upside down due to only being tied into leg loop section of harness
- Always tie down through the waist belt first, then the leg loop section of the harness. This way, even if climber only tied into one part, they will be less likely to invert because the waist belt is above their centre of gravity.
- Partner checks.
Assisted braking belay devices being incorrectly attached to the rope
Many of the assisted braking belay devices have no or little friction properties if the rope is not inserted correctly.
- Always engage and release the locking mechanism before the leader leaves the ground. This can be done by pulling up on the live rope to check the braking mechanism engages. Watch video
- Partner checks. The climber should have seen this happen or ask the belayer to do this before setting off.
- Never let go of the dead rope regardless of which device you are using.
Belayer standing too far out from base of cliff
This in itself is not always inappropriate but it is a common mistake made when the climber is near the ground, i.e. usually below the 4th bolt.
- The climber straddles the rope as they move sideways or they just have the rope between their legs as they move directly up past the 1st or second bolt. A fall in this position, with the belayer standing too far out, will almost certainly result in the climber falling with the rope between their legs then flipping upside-down, risking head injury. People usually get away with it, but this can result in very serious injuries.
- When trad climbing, the belayer standing too far out is often the cause of trad gear failing. The angle of the rope pulls the gear in an upward direction and may pull it out.
- When belayer is standing too far away from the rock when the climber is not very high yet, the force on the belayer can be surprising, especially if there is a weight difference. As the climber falls, the belayer is being pulled into the wall. This creates slack in the system, as a consequence of which the climber may hit the ground. This can be an issue usually until at least the 3rd bolt is clipped.
- There is also the risk of the climber decking out due to the belayer getting injured while being pulled towards the rock (we’ve seen sprained wrists, cuts to hands and knees and a broken foot) and letting go of the rope. Risk of injury to belayer is greater if the first bolt is low. Unclipping the first bolt after the second bolt is clipped can help.
- Belayer should stay in close and slightly to the side of the climber until at least the 3rd or 4th bolt is clipped (this can vary from route to route). Certainly when trad climbing (but also sometimes with sport) I will ask permission from the leader before moving back. This is so the leader can assess the likelihood of the gear failing due to an upward pull. In extreme cases it is possible to unzip an entire pitch. The furthest I’ve seen a trad belayer sitting away from the base was at least 7m!
Belayer is spotting instead of belaying
This is an interesting one as it is something that happens increasingly: the belayer continues to spot even after the climber has clipped the first bolt. More commonly, the belayer spots the climber even though the first and/or second bolt was pre-clipped.
- As it can be nearly impossible to predict which clients will be guilty of this, it is best to not allow spotting when sport climbing. If the landing is bad or if the first bolt is high, have it pre-clipped.
A phantom clip can happen with the quickdraw on the bolt and with the rope in the quickdraw. The cause is usually the same: Climber looks up to where to go next while clipping. The gate is pushed open and the rope is pinched between the gate and the nose of the karabiner. Occasionally it will fall out immediately and the climber might hear the click of the gate closing. If the rope is pinched it may either clip or unclip itself as the climber moves up. A few years ago we had a client who was repeatedly not clipped into the quickdraw. He was so bad at this that we asked him to routinely tug on the rope after each clip, which is something he is still doing several years on.
The same thing can happen with the quickdraw on the bolt. The gate pinches the bolt but isn’t actually inserted. The climber will often not notice that they are not clipped and continue to the next bolt.
- Make clients aware of the need to visually check the rope in the karabiner and gates closed before looking away.
- A gentle tug on both ends of the rope can also help as physical feedback.
Incorrect use of belay glasses
Belay glasses can be a great aid in helping the belayer be more attentive as they allow them to be looking up constantly without developing neck problems. However, incorrect use of belay glasses results in poor or unsafe belaying. As the number of climbers using them increase, we see more and more near misses due to incorrect usage of belay glasses. They put the climber into a dangerous fall situation by having too much slack in the system. This occurs in several ways:
- The belayer loses sight of the rope due to the glasses diverting their vision in an upward direction. It is vitally important to keep a close eye on the amount of slack in the system especially when the climber is close to the ground. They should only be used once the climber is a safe distance from the ground (usually the 3rd or 4th bolt). Looking up at a climber close to the ground does not affect the neck. Glasses balanced on the nose so the belayer can look over them seems like a good solution, but we often have to pick people up on having too much slack in the system at the start of the climb, even when they appear to be using them in this way.
- When the climber pulls a lot of slack up to clip above their head. It’s common to see the belayer fail to react to the extra slack being produced as the climber then moves up to the bolt. Often leading to that much slack that the rope is on the ground. In some cases this is repeated on every bolt with the belayer never adjusting the amount of slack until the climber is moving above the bolt.
- Belay glasses generally widen your field of vision. It is possible to watch a climber that is left or right of yours without moving your head. This can result in the belayer belaying for the wrong climber. As the person they are actually watching starts to clip they react by giving slack. This can obviously put the climber they are supposed to be belaying at risk. What we find interesting about this is that for us as instructors it’s a hazard of the job. When working with a group of six or more and most or all are leaders, we prefer to not be in the system belaying. A) So that we can immediately deal with problems that might occur. And B) We like to keep an eye out for mistakes that people might make. We have to be very careful not to make the same mistakes of belaying one client but also keeping an eye on the others. It’s easy to catch the hands wanting to react to the climber you are watching.
- Another issue with belay glasses is that people forget to remove them when lowering. Belayers do not need to look up to know how fast they are lowering someone or to know when to stop if they are cleaning. It just takes a little thinking and communicating. The most important thing when lowering is to not lower your climber off the end of the rope. We religiously teach people to look down at the rope on the ground. Anything that makes this more difficult or less likely (such as wearing belay glasses) is a problem!
- Put belay glasses on after the 3rd This can be easily be done safely even without an assisted braking device: ask the belayer to stop after clipping. The bolt will almost certainly be above the waist so effectively they’re on top rope. Keep a hold of the dead rope or lock off the plate while you move them from your neck to your face. Of course, they can be rested on the end of your nose but I find too many clients still miss use them when doing this.
- Teach the importance of looking down often and watching the rope. No extra slack until after the 3rd bolt or when it’s safe to do so and then a smile of rope half way between waist and knee but never below the knee.
- It is more important to be ready to hold a fall than trying to react quickly to one that you are seeing already happening. Most people would not be able to react quickly enough if there is too much rope in the system or if they are standing in the wrong position.
- It’s important to be aware of the temptation and problems with watching other climbers.
- Remove them completely before lowering so that the rope length can be monitored.
Being lowered off the end of a rope
Being lowered off the end of a too short rope is something that is happening increasingly. I’m not going to go into too much detail here as I wrote an article on the subject for issue 29 of The Professional Mountaineer. Somehow the idea that when we are lowering a climber we need to watch them has taken over from what I had instilled in me when I started climbing, which was watching the rope. There are all sorts of things we can do to ensure our rope is long enough and we can of course routinely tie a knot in the end but even this has let people down. The one thing we can guarantee will work is watching the rope next to you as you lower (90% of the time the climber can also see this). Training yourself and your climbing partners to do this is of upmost importance.
- Keep rope available to view i.e. not hidden in a rope bag.
- Belayer and climber visually check rope while lowering even if there is a knot in the end.
- Be aware of the route length as you climb and belay a route. If it feels like a nice long pitch the next question should by be: how long is our rope?
- If you routinely tie a knot in the end don’t assume that it’s still there!
Climber being taken off belay when at the anchor
This happens for a variety of reasons, the most common being miscommunication, and is arguably the most likely cause of serious injuries:
- We’ve seen this a few times and met at least one group of climbers at the crag who say they were taught to routinely take the climber off belay while threading then put them back on when they are ready to lower. We found watching this routine terrifying in case the climber forgot to check that they were on belay so politely insisted that they reconsider their system. After some initial resistance they were able to see how this might end in a serious accident and that it was unnecessary to take the climber off belay.
- Probably the most common reason is miscommunication. British climbers are most guilty of this. When arriving at a sport anchor Brits routinely shout “safe”. This is mostly just out of habit. If they trad or multipitch climb the shout of safe is a reasonable one and generally means take me off belay. It is probably not the best thing to shout if they want their belayer to lower them at some point! Climbers need to carefully think about what the words they use actually mean. And need to realise that if they’re climbing with an unfamiliar partner who might be used to abseiling to save wear and tear on the anchors, they will be taken off belay. The belayer might just be distracted and on auto pilot as they would on a sea cliff, trad single pitch or grit stone outcrop (as they may have done thousands of times) and take the climber off belay upon hearing “safe”.
- Overcommunication: What people who say “safe” when arriving at a sport anchor are trying to communicate is that they have made themselves safe with their PAS (personal anchoring system), sling and a screwgate in English, or cow’s tail for short. This is information that the belayer does not need. Belayers only need to know when climber wants slack, when you want a tight rope and when you want to be lowered.
- Mishearing what was communicated or who was communicating. I’ve also seen a few climbers been taken off belay after their shout of “take” was misheard as “safe”. I’ve even stepped in when one climber is saying safe and the wrong belayer is taking their climber off belay. This can also happen in reverse; another climber shouts “safe”, the belayer thinks it is their climber shouting “take”, and almost pulls their leader off with a right rope.
- Climber is at the top of a steep route that slabs out before the anchor so the belayer is out of sight. They thread the anchor then unclip their sling while holding the belayers side of the rope. They lower themselves down hand over hand, which is easy enough on easy angled rock, until it steepens and they can now see the base of the cliff. The belayer has taken them off to quickly go for wee! The belayer had assumed that the climber heard them when they shouted the information up that they needed to go.
- After climbing a 50m pitch a climber stops at the mid-point anchor to rethread the anchor. After rethreading they unclip their cow’s tail and sit back on the rope before testing the system. They had forgotten that the belayer had to take in at least 20m of slack. In this situation, most people would take the climber off belay and put them on again, but luckily this belayer had kept the climber on belay. The climber fell at least 20m. The belayer was pulled up hard then landed on a jumble of rocks at the base of the crag and was in significant pain but no serious injury. The climber was very lucky – as was I. I was sitting next to the belayer getting ready to climb an adjacent route and am pretty certain the climber would have landed on top of me!
- Only communicate what is necessary to limit misunderstandings.
- Think carefully about the words you use: their meaning but also if they are likely to be misheard or confused for other words given distance, wind and any background noise.
- Never unclip from the anchor unless your weight is being held on the rope “test the system”.
- As a climber, holding onto the belayer’s rope until they are in view can be a useful addition when the angle changes severely as it can create large amounts of rope drag
- As a belayer never take the climber off belay unless you are absolutely sure and/or can see it is safe to do so.
- If your climber is out of view (when multi-pitching or when following a single pitch or if your climber will be abseiling rather than lowering from the anchor) consider paying out a few metres of slack if you are sure they have asked to be taken off. Only take the climber off when the slack is being taken too quickly for them to be climbing.