Like most accidents, it happened so fast. A kink in the rope caused my hand to open and before I knew it, I’d lost control. The rope, as if suddenly posessed by a dark and powerful force, sucked through the belay device in a way that seemed impossible to stop. I reeled, horrified, protesting everything that was happening, so quickly out of my control.

The whole thing ended when the climber—who just a moment earlier was being lowered quite casually—landed with a thud on the ground.

About a month ago, I lost control of the rope when I was lowering my friend “JK.” Thankfully, he was only about 4 feet above the ground when it happened. He landed on his feet, and he was completely fine. But it was a shock. It was no different than if he had been standing on a chair, and I had suddenly pulled it out from beneath him. No harm done. JK gracefully shrugged it off as no big deal.

But it bothered me.

The circumstances of the situation were that JK was dangling about four feet off the ground, trying to push away from a bush. He pushed away from the bush and I pulled back on the Grigri lever to lower him down quickly so he wouldn’t swing back into the bush. However, right as I released the Grigri cam, a kink in the rope cause my brake hand to lose control. I dropped JK that short remaining distance. He landed abruptly on his feet. We looked at each other wide-eyed, like, WTF just happened?

I was gripping the rope with the sleeve of my sweatshirt in order to keep my hand from getting greased up by black rope grime. Take it from me: DON’T DO THIS!
My real mistake was that I wasn’t using belay gloves. I’d retired my old ones a year ago and have been too stingy or lazy to buy new ones. Because I didn’t have belay gloves, I was gripping the rope with the sleeve of my sweatshirt in order to keep my hand from getting greased up by black rope grime. Take it from me: DON’T DO THIS!

It  wasn’t a big deal, truthfully, beceause no one was hurt and nothing bad ultimately happened. But it was scary to see my friend land on the ground so abruptly. Climbers and the ground are natural enemies; when we meet, we like it to be at slow speeds.

Had JK been at the top of the route when this happened, I believe I would’ve had time to release the Grigri lever, and let the belay device do its job of locking up. But because he was just a few feet off the ground, there wasn’t time.

I wonder if had he been 20 feet up instead of just 4 … what would’ve happened then? He might’ve hit the ground and either rolled or broken his ankles. That would’ve sucked.

Since then, I’ve purchased belay gloves. They help you grip ropes, especially thin sport-climbing ones, much better. They also help smooth out sudden rope kinks in your hand without losing control of the line.

I will never again think that a fumbly cotton sweatshirt sleeve is a substitute for a leather glove.

I’ve been climbing for so many years and never dropped my partner! Not even close. I’ve written a how-to book on safe belay practices. How could this have happened to me? There’s no excuse for what I did. I fucked up and it should never have happened. But the truth is, accidents can happen to anyone, close calls seem to happen to everyone, and why any of us live or die sometimes seems like a mystery.

For me, this moment was a big wake-up call, and I’m thankful to have received it without enduring any serious consequences. No matter how long you’ve been climbing, you can still screw up if you don’t bring that 110 percent focus and attention to safety.

Crazily enough, the next day JK—who, like me, is a very experienced and safe climber—had a wake-up call of his own, even closer than mine.

He was cleaning a fixed line off an anchor. He threaded the line through the chains, and prepared lower himself down the line using a Grigri. He unclipped his tether to the anchors, leaned back, looked down, and realized that he hadn’t clipped the second plate of the Grigri through his locking carabiner. The only thing keeping him from a 70-foot fall was that the rope was still wrapped around Grigri’s cam. Luckily he noticed it immediately, grabbed the anchors and clipped himself back in. After an anxious breath of relief, he correctly clipped the Grigri and rapped down without incident, having narrowly escaped a 70-foot fall.

The type of sport and trad climbing that 99.9 percent of us do most of the time is quite safe. But it’s only safe if you make it safe. Inspect your gear and know how to properly use it. Be good about double-checking your safety systems. Always. Whether you’re just entering the sport, or you’ve been doing it for 20 years.

6874I’ve been thinking about all of this, of course, as I read the tragic news of 12-year-old Italian climbing phenom Tito Traversa’s death.

This tragedy is quite difficult, obviously due to Tito’s young age and also that he was such a fierce talent. I’ve been watching videos of him climbing, and was amazed by his mature style and smooth flow. That little body climbed like he had been doing it a lifetime. He was a natural, fearless, and executed sequences with confidence. He was the future of climbing in Italy and was surely destined for great achievements in his life. It is beyond difficult to accept that all those gifts have been robbed from us as a climbing community … not to mention from his parents, Barbara Sirio and Giovanni Traversa, and close loved ones.

At this moment, it’s still unclear—to all of us who weren’t there—exactly what went wrong. But what is clear is that this accident resulted from human error. There is no reason for anyone to hit the ground on a beautiful day at any sunny sport crag … yet it happens. Because we mess up. Because we don’t double/triple check our safety systems.

Of course, I’m very interested to hear exactly what went wrong in this particular situation, but I do know that all of the explanations I’ve read thus far seem either far-fetched or unsatisfactory to me.

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I feel many emotions about this.

Confusion over what went wrong.

Sadness over the loss of life.

Humility over all the times (including the one described above) when I probably got away with doing something dangerous or stupid, only everything turned out fine.

Anger over the recent explosion  of Youtube videos that feature jackass gumby climbers filming themselves—via vertical iPhone videos or the ubiquitious Go Pros lashed to their helmets—as they barely survive giant whippers, poor belays and gear ripping out of perfectly bomber cracks, all with a type of hubris that’s lame. Seriously, what is up with all these videos? Yeah, it’s all funny … except that it’s not.

Anyway, I digress. … I want to extend my deepest condolences to Barbara Sirio and Giovanni Traversa, and anyone else who was fortunate enough to know and climb with young Tito.

Rest in peace little Tito.

Wonderwall (English subtitles) from Mountain View on Vimeo.

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  • kyle mcfarland

    Very well written Andrew! There are so many situations that we are able to walk away from and shrug off, but I don’t know how many people are learning from them, as they seem to continue to happen. Tito’s accident is indeed tragic, but what is more tragic, is that this was a 100% preventable accident. I hope that people learn from this sad and unnecessary loss of life.

    Cheers man!

  • http://www.prAna.com/ prAna

    Thanks Andrew

  • AlanL

    > But the truth is, accidents can happen to anyone

    Amen. The big wake-up call for me was when John Long decked at the gym recently because he didn’t finish his tie-in knot. *John Long*. It doesn’t matter how capable or experienced you are, anybody can make a mistake and mistakes in this game can be costly.

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