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Six Extremely Dangerous Climbing Incidents

Aug 08, 2023Aug 08, 2023

Caution sign might drop from cliff. Warning. The danger of falling warning sign on a steep mountain side. High quality photo Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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About a decade ago Kevin Corrigan, then an editor here at Climbing, solicited our readers for stories of climbing incompetence, carelessness, and reckless behavior that was so out there it was unbelievable. In the following years those stories poured in (check out the archive here). The point wasn’t to humiliate; the point was to reveal learning moments that can make us all safer climbers. What follows are six unbelievable yet true accounts of close calls and ways they could have been prevented. Got a story to share? Email [email protected] with Unbelayvable in the subject line.

—The editors

THE STORY: I’m from upstate New York. This August I met a pair of climbers at Shelving Rock, a local crag, and we made plans to check out a new wall called Starbuck Cliff. It used to be an ice climbing area but has been seeing more rock development lately. One of them cancelled last minute, so it was just me and this new guy. I’d just started leading trad in the spring but was excited to try one of Starbuck’s routes. It’s a crack climb. It looked to be about 5.8, though we had no guidebook or Mountain Project info.

I started up. I was mostly concerned about the upper section, which looked kind of blank. The bottom was casual. By the time I was 60-feet up, I had five solid pieces below me. My left hand was on a bomber jug, and I was trying to decide what to place in the crack in front of me. Then the bomber jug unexpectedly came out of the wall. Without thinking, I chucked it down in the direction of my belayer, yelling “rock!” I don’t remember anything after this point.

My belayer took a step backwards and raised his hands in the air. (He was wearing a helmet.) The step back tugged at the rope against my harness. His instinct took over, and he let go of the rope to allow himself to take another step back. I was trying to recover my balance, but the tug didn’t help. I fell. I probably prepared to brace my feet against the wall. I was so high up that I expected to be caught. I was not. I fell about 60 feet and hit the ground. My belayer, in his surprise, never recovered the rope. I landed flat on my back, on a small strip of soft dirt between two boulders.

The fall knocked me out, luckily erasing all memory of the event. When I woke, for a few seconds, I felt like I had been buried alive. I couldn’t see or breathe. It felt like there was an enormous weight on my chest. Slowly everything returned, and then I was very confused. I was on the ground, my gear was solidly in the wall, and the rope attached to my harness was still in my belayer’s ATC. He was standing over me, concerned. My first “Holy cow!” moment was realizing that my belayer didn’t catch me. My second was reaching out and touching boulders that may have killed me had I fallen just a little bit off to the side. Then it was time to figure out if I was OK. My adrenaline was pumping, so that helped. I moved around and stood up. My brain hadn’t grasped the size of the fall yet. I could barely even look at my belayer or the rock. I was incredibly sore, but nothing felt broken so I packed up my stuff, walked to my car, and drove to the ER. (I know I shouldn’t have.) To the amazement of myself, my friends, and the doctors, I was fine. All I suffered was some minorly cracked ribs and a mild traumatic brain injury—not even a concussion. My helmet may have saved my life.

After two weeks I was climbing indoors again. A month later I got on real rock (sport) at Rumney, NH. Recently a friend and I led Moby Grape, a 5.8 trad climb that works its way up the tallest cliff in New England. I have only heard of one other person being so incredibly lucky to survive such a fall and Climbing actually featured her. This has taught me some valuable lessons and left a huge impact on my life. I was so frightened getting back on the wall that I considered giving up climbing all together. Instead it’s fueled my motivation to pursue climbing even harder.–Annie Nelson, via email

THE LESSON: Holy cripes, that’s a terrifying experience. There are a few things we can all do to prevent such incidents for ourselves:

THE STORY: I was out at the crag and saw a guy next to us belaying a leader off of his gear loop. Worried, I ran over yelling, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” The belayer turned to me with a lot of attitude and yelled, “What?” I told him to check his belay. He looked down, checked the gate, and said it was fine in a very mind-your-own-business tone. The leader clipped in direct to a bolt, started yelling at the belayer, and an argument ensued.

—Submitted by Randall Chapman

THE LESSON: We’ve covered gear loops before , but the short of it is that most of them aren’t designed to bear loads. When you catch a lead fall, the force is transferred into the belayers body via their harness, so it’s nice to belay from the strongest section: the belay loop. Instead, let’s talk about advice. It’s easy to get riled up when you see something unsafe, but the last thing you want is for the culprit to feel like he’s in a confrontation. If he gets defensive, he’s not going to listen to you. The best way to go about this is to calmly approach him and offer your advice in a friendly, helpful tone. Something along the lines of, “Hey, you might want to try ______. I noticed you were doing ______, but actually in some situations that can lead to ______.” If it’s not an urgent error, wait until the climber is back on the ground first. Hopefully, they’ll appreciate the tip. If not, the climber can take it up with the belayer himself, like above.

THE STORY: I was climbing at Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado. After our first route, we moved to another next to a family that was toprope climbing. My partner pointed out that they were toproping off a single bolt in the middle of the route. We quietly shared a grimace. When I was halfway up our route, I noticed that their toprope was actually running directly through the bolt hanger with no other gear. One of their pre-teen kids was climbing the route.—Will, via email

THE LESSON: There are two major issues here. First, bolt hangers are not designed for the rope to run directly through them. Some companies do make big, fat, rounded hangers that you can lower or rappel through, such as the Metolius rap hanger, but these would only be found at the top of a route. The angular metal edges of a typical hanger will not be friendly to your rope as it grates and stretches across them. The amount of wear from a group climbing up, lowering down, and taking toprope falls over and over will surely knock months off the life of your rope at best.

Furthermore, bolts can and do break sometimes, so you should not depend on just one. Notably, a climber died while rope soloing a route last year because he was only attached to one bolt and it failed. Bolts are very strong, but sometimes things do go wrong, which is why it’s important for anchors to be redundant. Just climb to the top of the route and build a redundant anchor on two bolts. This is sport route, after all. Sport climbing is an entire discipline that was designed to make things less sketchy. And toproping should be even less sketchy than that. I shudder to think of how this person even went about threading a rope through a bolt hanger mid-route. I hope the climber was standing on a massive ledge.

THE STORY: I saw a climber lower from a draw in the middle of a sport route because she couldn’t finish it. Then her partner tried the route. Instead of pulling the rope or toproping from the high clip, he tied into what should have been the belay side of the rope. He headed up, cleaning the draws that his rope was running through above him. When he got to the former high clip, he cruised right on past it. That put him back clipped above a single piece of protection 35 feet off the deck. Luckily, he finished the route without any falls. —Submitted by Tim G., via

THE LESSON: Well, this defies all logic. The logical thing here would have been to pull the rope or toprope from the high clip and then lead past it. Use common sense when you climb. Normally, if one bolt fails in a sport fall, for whatever reason, you have another one five feet below it to catch you. Unclipping all the draws as you climb removes that redundancy that we climbers value so highly. Furthermore, when a quickdraw is backclipped (rope runs into the front of the carabiner then out the back) it makes it possible that the rope will unclip itself in a fall. Combine that with a lack of protection and you’ve got the potential for a 35-foot ground fall.

THE STORY: I went climbing with a new partner. He was a 5.13+ leader, so I didn’t put too much thought into his belay technique until I fell at the second bolt and landed on the ground. His response was, “That’s weird, the Grigri didn’t work.” It turned out his belay style was to hold the Grigri’s cam down, and use his left hand to feed slack. If a climber fell, he would let go of the Grigri completely so it would lock. His excuse for dropping me was that he was using my Grigri 2, which felt different than his own. A couple months later I saw him playing with a leaf with no hands on the device while his climber was starting a crux, which might actually be safer than having him hold the Grigri open during a fall.—Brian, via email

THE LESSON: You’d be surprised how many strong climbers have terrible safety records; don’t assume anyone is competent. Like with any belay device, your brake hand should never leave the rope while using a Grigri. Don’t hold the cam down unless you need to feed out slack quickly, and even then you should have your hand around the brake strand. Use your thumb to lightly hold the lever in place, but don’t wrap your hand around the device. Our reflex is to tighten up when our climber falls. If you have your entire hand around the Grigri like the fellow here, you may inadvertently disengage the device and let the rope fly right through it, which can really ruin a day out.

The fact that experienced and even professional climbers might not be competent belayers is precisely why gyms make everyone take a belay test before they are certified to belay. You should do something similar. Next time you climb with a stranger, give them a quick test. Tie in and when you are on belay jerk on the rope to see what happens, and as you start leading you might “take” on the first bolt and lower to check the system. Your belayer literally has your life in their hands. Make sure those are good hands, and don’t be afraid to criticize you belayer’s technique if it isn’t up to par.

THE STORY: I saw a guy tying in with an old shipyard rope. We told him how unsafe that was. He said that his dad used the rope throughout the 1980s, so it should be fine. As we were walking away, he asked his buddy, “You want to risk it?”–David Cook via

THE LESSON: If you have to ask if you should risk it, then it’s probably not a risk worth taking. Your dad’s old shipyard rope fails just about every requirement of a climbing rope. Climbing ropes are dynamic, which means they’re designed to stretch. That stretch absorbs some of the force generated in a fall. A static rope, which a shipyard rope presumably is, provides no such stretch. Even a very short fall on a static rope can generate a significant amount of force on your anchor and your body. Even if your anchor survives, you might not enjoy what happens to your bones and guts. Furthermore, even an unused rope should be retired after only a few years of regular use, and an untouched rope only lasts 10 years, according to manufacturers. Don’t put your life in the hands of a 25-year-old rope. If you need something to do with your old shipyard rope that badly, go buy a boat.

Got a story to share? Email [email protected] with Unbelayvable in the subject line.

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August 25, 2023Kevin CorriganTHE STORY: THE LESSON:Assess the holds. Assess new partners. Assess the belay area. Use an assisted braking belay device.THE STORY: THE LESSON: THE STORY: THE LESSON:THE STORY: THE LESSON: THE STORY: THE LESSON:THE STORY: THE LESSON:Kevin CorriganJuliet HammerMatt SametNeil GreshamNeil Gresham