Anyway, point is, I was busy and tired but now I'm not.
So I want to talk about climbing again. I know, it's been TOO LONG. Art, photography, and the birthday challenge have dominated the blog for most of 2014. But let's not forget my #1 passion, which is still climbing.
On Saturday, Mollie and I went out to Malibu Creek State Park to learn top rope anchor building. This has been on my to-do list for a very long time. I have been climbing for 3.5 years, so I'm embarrassed to admit that it took this long. In the past I always felt more comfortable having someone else take care of the technicalities. However it got to the point where I simply wasn't climbing outside anymore and felt myself trusting others less and less. It was time to learn the systems myself.
It was not the best morning to go climbing. Mollie and I were both tired and possibly a little hungover from the previous night's wine tasting with friends. We met Steve at the climbing gym at 6:00am and headed to Malibu Creek. Not only was it cloudy and very early, but there was a fine, misty drizzle in the park. The only positive was that this weather kept most other climbers at bay; when we arrived at Planet of the Apes wall (aptly named because it was host to the 1968 film with the same name), there was only one guy there getting set up for a class later in the day.
We wound our way up the left side of the wall (see image below) and then up to the top of the cliff. It's a very easy approach from the car (20-30 minutes with only a couple short, steep hills) and then a quick 2 minute hike to the top of the wall from the base. It is an ideal location to learn anchor building. There are 6-8 sets of bolts for anchors, each one slightly different. We spent about 1.5 hours going over how to safely tie in with our personal anchor system, how to tie the correct knots, where to put carabiners, and general "dos and don'ts" of anchor building. I started off feeling very nervous at the prospect of our safety being in my hands (and in Mollie's hands). Luckily we had a good teacher who made sure we really understood the system. And we did understand it. And ultimately I felt empowered by the class.
When it came time to climb, and luckily we did have time for that, I realized I never felt so secure as I did climbing on my own anchors. The picture on the right is me on "Planet of the Apes" line, the same route that the guy in the picture above is climbing. Steve climbed it first, so he had the opportunity to really test out my anchors, but then I jumped on. I climbed on my own anchor and didn't die! The fate of my life was in the quality of my own anchor system. Yes, I had a belayer that I trusted. And yes, it's possible that equipment could fail. But usually when people are injured while climbing it is because of human error.
After we climbed on my anchors, we moved the rope over to Mollie's anchors and climbed on that line. I actually made it to the top of that route and when I got to the anchors, I experienced a very interesting feeling. Previously when I would get to the top of a climb, I would view the anchors with unease and distrust, mainly because I had NO idea what I was looking at. I couldn't tell if they were set up correctly, and that is very unnerving. On Saturday, I experienced a feeling of trust in the system, and it really made climbing that much more fun.
I found an interesting article online called 5 Ways to Die Climbing. The great thing about this article is that it starts off by saying "most climbing accidents and fatalities are preventable and most can be directly attributed to human error." I agree with this wholeheartedly. Then the article goes on to list the top 5 ways to die as: Leader Falls, Loose Rock/Rockfall, Climbing Unroped (Soloing), Rappelling, and Weather/Hypothermia. In addition to the fact that the article doesn't cite any studies or reports to support these claims, my main problem with the article is that is immediately undermines it's previous statement by placing implying that these are "uncontrollable" situations.
I prefer to focus on the statement that touts accidents can usually be accounted back to human error, bcause doing so generates saftey-conscious climbers. Error doesn't make us bad people, but as humans we are flawed and we do make mistakes. Let's look at these 5 ways to die with a more critical eye.
- Falling can be done with minimal risk, especially if you: A) practice falling often and in a somewhat controlled environment; B) learn when it is appropriate to risk a fall; and, C) learn to recognize when to lower from a climb if the risk of falling is too dangerous. Arno Ilgner teaches classes on safe falling techniques.
- Next up is Solo climbing, which is a conscious decision made by the climber. They are knowingly putting themselves in a situation where if they fall, injury or death is probable. Therefore it is 100% controllable in the sense that you have a choice not to engage in this activity at all. I know Alex Honnold looks really cool, but take time to evaluate the risk/reward ratio for YOU.
- Injury or death from rappelling is almost always due to human error. If you would like more information, this is an excellent and comprehensive article on What Can Go Wrong While Rappelling.
- Weather/hypothermia... well, I think this depends on the situation. If you see the clouds coming in and decide you want to get in a quickie on the wall, then you should expect to have to deal with the consequences. Weather can be extremely spontaneous though, so I feel I should give this item some leeway.
- Loose Rock/rockfall is another one that I think gets some leeway because your level of control is limited. However, this article claims that there are preventative steps you can take as the climber.
So, I ask again: How can we knowingly engage in an activity where we are constantly putting our health and life at risk?
- Take the classes so you are informed and knowledgeable. Your local climbing gym can teach you to top rope belay, lead belay, and learn proper climbing techniques. REI and other outdoor guiding schools can teach you anchor building and other outdoor safety requirements.
- Find a mentor who can guide you and answer questions when they come up (and they should come up often if you are really trying to learn).
- After you've learned the correct safety requirements, practice setting up your anchors over and over again until you could do it "with your eyes closed in the dark", as my guide on Saturday recommended.
- Check all your equipment before climbing and replace it when the time comes: either as recommended by the manufacturer or prior to that if you see wear and tear. Your harness, rope, carabiners, trad gear (etc.) are not built to last forever.
- Tell someone where you are going to climb that day (ahem, let's all learn from 127 Hours).
- Be alert and aware of your surroundings. That includes weather and loose rock!
- Don't climb on someone else's anchors, unless you have had a chance to check it out and feel that it is a "safe" setup (and even then, you don't know how well-maintained their equipment is).
- Always, always, always safety-check yourself and your partner. Once that's done, do it again. And there is no shame at looking down at your harness mid-climb to make sure you are still double-backed (yes, I do that often). Verbally acknowledge your safety check with your partner. Don't assume they checked you.
There are many more steps you can take to be safe on a regular basis, but these are the big ones... and ultimately you should have fun too. Prepare as much as possible, and then allow yourself to enjoy the sport. I think most people, not applicable to adrenaline junkies, will feel more free to enjoy climbing when they have done as much as possible to create a safe environment.
Now, just for fun, I want to share some pictures I took of an unsafe anchor system that was setup next to us at Planet of the Apes wall. Can you see all the errors?