Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

Accident Notes Archive - September 2002


Common Causes

On some recent travels I came across interesting notes concerning accidents in both the Tetons and City of Rocks .

In the Jenny Lake climbing ranger cabin in the Tetons there was a poster board with general accident information. I can't remember the breakdown in great detail but objective hazards (such as rockfall) account for only 3-6% of the accidents there. The other 94-97% are "operator error". I remember that slips on snow are very high on the list. Unroped falls on rock also ranked up there somewhere. They had one photo with a person scrambling who was not all that far off the ground, but above a landing zone of boulders. The caption asked "what are the consequences of a fall here?" In many cases exposure can be subtle and less than obvious. We all see the need for caution as well as the potential consequences when we are looking down hundreds or thousands of feet. But a fall of only 20-30 feet, or even less in some cases, can be serious depending on the landing.

At City of Rocks the bulletin board had a notice concerning the fact that at least 8 serious accidents, including one fatality, had occurred this year due to belayers failing to do their job. There are many possible problems and any list of suggestions here is bound to be incomplete, but a few things come to mind.

  • Make sure your belayer knows how to belay. This may seem obvious but in the last newsletter I related a situation where a beginner with a long period of non-climbing time was not keeping their brake hand on the rope. I've also seen climbers who were teaching friends shout down instructions from above on how to belay them while they lead. It seems to me that this is a bit late to be learning.
  • Be aware of the rope length - how much is in use and how much is needed. Numerous accidents have resulted from somebody being lowered by the belayer with insufficient rope when the end of the rope went right through the belay device. It's a good idea in many cases for the belayer to have the end tied into their harness while belaying to prevent this.
  • Another cause of accidents which has shown up a lot is confusion over whether a climber at the top was going to be lowered, rappel, or do something else. In some cases the climber leaned back to be lowered and the belayer thought the climber was off belay entirely. Make sure you are avoiding any misunderstanding or miscommunications in these situations.

This category of accident shows up frequently in "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" and anyone who reads that annual publication can probably add to the abridged list of causes above. I don't know how many accidents there are overall at City of Rocks but eight serious ones from the same general cause, and one death, is significant. Almost all accidents in this category are caused either by ignorance, inexperience, or carelessness and are among the most easily preventable.



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