Tito’s Last Climb: Don’t Make it Something It’s Not

Tito-TraversaThe climbing world is reeling over the news of little 12-year-old Tito Traversa’s death. The almost uncanny circumstances causing Tito’s fatal fall, his immense talent and passion for climbing, and that toothy chipmunk grin of this not-yet-teenage phenom from Italy have all made this accident one the climbing world won’t soon forget.

As we’ve all tried to wrap our heads around this difficult tragedy, there has been a lot of (wrong) speculation about what went wrong, and many attempts to pull out some kind of meaningful indictment within this accident and extrapolate what that “says” about the state of climbing today. To me, many of these reactions feel either inappropriate and disrespectful, to just misplaced or wrong.

Don’t make this into something it’s not.

Tito’s death has nothing to do with many of the larger issues being bandied about online. Tito’s death has nothing to do with whether or not children should be climbing, or if they understand the risk to an acceptable level that would, in your judgment, permit them access to a crag. Tito’s death doesn’t have anything to do with the so-called grade-chasing, gym-bred mentality judgementally assigned to many of today’s youth climbers. Tito’s death has nothing to do with your fears and insecurities, and nothing to do with your self-affirmations about your own smug sense of safety at the cliff.

Any time something truly horrible happens, people seem to swim desperately through their own emotional flotsam for any peice of driftwood to latch onto in order to grasp the feelings they are experiencing. Sometimes, that piece of driftwood will have some real integrity and offer a viable solution out of the muck. Other times, it doesn’t.

A lot of what I’ve been reading and hearing seems to fall into the latter category.

tito crip

Yesterday, Grimper released images of the quickdraw set-up that led to the catastrophic failure of the safety system climbers normally rely on while sport climbing. We still don’t know the full details of how these quickdraws were set-up like this in the first place, or why. Ultimately, for us as a climbing community, those questions matter less than they do to the Traversa family, and those individuals immediately involved in the event.

What we know is that someone handed Tito a rack of quickdraws that were improperly set up. The rope-end carabiner wasn’t clipped through the full-strength sling; it was only clipped through a rubber piece designed to hold the carabiner in place so it doesn’t spin. Somehow, someone in the group put the quickdraws together wrong. Catastrophically wrong. And Tito bore the full consequences of that other person’s mistake. It’s tragic.

People are wondering why no one there noticed this. They are outraged over the inattentiveness of the adults chaperoning the group of young climbers. Crags are no place for young climbers! Why are we only focusing on grades and performance when we should be focusing on safety? Tito wasn’t wearing a helmet. Climbing media doesn’t show pictures of climbers in helmets!

And so on …

They’re valid questions to some degree, but they don’t really have anything to do with this freak accident. Those who are making some of these extrapolations, if not downright indictments, I believe that they are inadvertently elevating themselves to a false moral high ground, which I find disrespectful to Tito, who he was, the mastery he had over the sport, and the community of young talented climbers that he is among.

As I wrote in my last post, any one of us can make a mistake, and in climbing, the room for error can be fatally slim. Though the age and talent of this climber make this incident unique, what happened to Tito could’ve happened to any one of us.

Who would’ve ever thought that John Long would forget to finish tying his knot? Well, after all these years, it happened. Don’t presume yourself to ever be above making a mistake. And don’t presume that you understand or accept the risks inherent to climbing any better than anyone else. No one goes out to a sport-climbing crag carrying the acceptance that they may die that day. No one.

I don’t know anyone who has ever inspected a rack of quickdraws. I know that I never have. Look at the differences between the draw that is incorrectly racked, and the one that is correct. They look almost identical. If I were Tito, just casually warming up in the sun with my friends, I would’ve taken those draws, put them on my harness and not thought twice about it.  And you know what? You would have too.

Of course, setting up the draws in that wrong configuration is an incredibly stupid error to have made, obviously one born of inexperience. It’s something I can’t possibly imagine anyone ever doing. Obviously, the person who made this mistake looked at a properly racked draw and tried to recreate what she or he saw. It was a horrible mistake. But it was also a freak mistake—something none of us could’ve ever predicted.

As we know, if the worst-case scenario can happen, the universe sometimes conspires to show us that it will.

This isn’t the first time a climber has died because of someone’s inexperience. And it won’t be the last. But this was an accident that could’ve happened to any of us, regardless of age, gender, experience. If anything positive can come of Tito’s death, it is a reminder to also inspect our quickdraws—along with double-checking our knots, double-backed harnesses, locked belay biners, etc.

But don’t make Tito’s death something it’s not. He was an incredible climber, whose father was extremely safety conscious. In fact, this was the first day of Tito’s life that he went climbing outdoors without his father there. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise … But Tito was a safe climber and he was destined to push the limits of the sport in his own unique way. I know that his death will ultimately inspire other youth climbers to take his torch and go on to do what he sadly never got the chance to do.

  • D Flan

    Damn right, Andrew. Thanks for putting this into proper perspective. It is crazy how casual we take this sport, and frightening what the consequences can be. Mistakes that we incredulously say we would never make inevitably get made. I have done a lot of dumb things in my climbing career that probably should have killed me, but nothing happened. How quickly we forget about an unlocked biner or a slip or a dislodged rock that hit nothing but air. We are humans, and humans make mistakes. To pretend to be immune from judgement lapses is arrogant and stupid. This could have happened to me. I feel so, so much for Tito’s family and friends.

  • Tiffany Hensley

    Nice piece, ES. Great clarity and writing as usual. Agreed that one event such as an accident should not bring into question children climbing, but rather give the sternest warning of safety and watchfulness.

  • Dennis Cory Wright II

    I agree with 99% of what you say here. But if it was my kid, I would have checked all his gear personally. What a tragedy. My heart goes out to his family…

  • Harald Swen

    Well written piece. You made it very clear that one should not use a freak accident/incident to imply something is wrong with younsters/sport climbing/using other peoples gear/etc/etc. I notice often people cant relate to other peoples accidents. The general reaction is ‘how can you be so stupid as to …’ followed by ‘It’ll never happen to me’ Very worrying.

  • Guest

    Thanks you sir. Thank you. “To pretend to be immune from judgement lapses is arrogant and stupid.”
    Online climbing comments are good place to cultivate a healthy sense of misanthropy.

    And well done again Mr. Andrew “Can I please just make fucking straight A’s this week” Bisharat.

  • Bradley Carter

    Thank you sir. Thank you. “To pretend to be immune from judgement lapses is arrogant and stupid.”
    Online climbing comments are a good place to cultivate a healthy sense of misanthropy.

    And well done again Mr. Andrew “Can I please just make fucking straight A’s this week” Bisharat.

    • Andy Perkins

      Well said, Andrew.
      In the midst of all the BS being spouted on the social networks, you’ve said clearly, eloquently and sensitively what many of us were thinking but couldn’t express.

  • Alison McLennan

    While I agree with much of what you said this is not a “freak” accident. This is human error plain and simple. A freak accident is a rock falling on you or lightning striking you as you are climbing. To err his human, to forgive is divine.

    • Ultimately, that’s true. But it’s rare for several reasons. 1) Why were the quickdraws disassembled in the first place? That’s really weird and uncommon. 2) Some of the quickdraws were fine. Had Tito placed even one of the normal draws on the upper half of the route, he would’ve likely lived and been completely fine. The order he racked the draws on his harness played a random role, too …

      • Gianluca Boldetti

        1) possible reasons:
        -the owner (who has been identified as a girl the same age as tito) wanted to put the rubber band on the other biner – unsafe but sometimes practical to clip out of reach bolts

        -the rubber bands were purchased separately from the quickdraws

    • Isn’t “freak accident” sort of a tautology anyway? The opposite side of the coin would a predictable accident, and if it were predictable it wouldn’t have happened. Plus, it seems a little pedantic to be arguing the “freak-ness” of this accident.

  • checkdgt

    Thanks dude, this is a nice piece. It is truly a shame what happened to such a young talent.

  • Neudson Aquino

    Man, i was silent all this time only reading other texts trying to explain the accidente, and most of all, trying to put the blame at someone. This is what I was trying to write but could not put into words. Very well said!

    If it is not asking too much, i would like to translate your text to portuguese and post it at my blog (www.descedaidoido.com.br).

  • lastpete

    An honest, and realistic point of view. I totally agree, except I always inspect every piece of gear, draws included. Good write up, be careful, Reddit would downvote you if it could

  • Clive

    I’m glad someone has aired this view! Always annoys me when people get on their high horses and forget what really matters in these situations: A family is devastated by the loss of a loved one.

    Only criticism on all of what you said:
    “I don’t know anyone who has ever inspected a rack of quickdraws.”
    Generally I do, as I started out by borrowing other’s racks and having an respectful ‘long in the tooth’ instructor. I had to layout every item and check it before the start of a day’s climbing: I didn’t know what state the kit was handed to me in. This is a habit I like to maintain to this day, now I own my own kit, as there where a few ‘close shaves’, which could have ended a lot worse.

    Also I’d like to emphasis one point you made.
    “Don’t presume yourself to ever be above making a mistake.”
    With all respects to the topic of this article, this comment is aimed at the masses: those who don’t think they can make mistakes generally are those who will eventually realise they are not. To be aware that ‘being human’ and ‘human error’ are only a word different, is the key to avoid it, double/ triple check everything.

  • Darcie L. Dressel

    Of course mistakes are made. We are all human. We know our equipment. When it’s new we examine it, we take note of its newness. We feel it and play with it a bit. I have never seen a quick draw that had the rubber not wrapped under the material and sewn in. I feel that this design leaves room for much more human error to occur. One of my main concerns has to do with his age. It has nothing to do with his ability or if he belonged there. If this was what he wanted by all means allow it.
    I am sure he loved this sport more than anything. My heart goes out to his grieving family and those involved.
    I would state my concern is that a child’s brain is not fully developed and able to reason as an adult over the age of 25 and therefore an adult absolutely should have been checking every piece of his equipment and knots etc regardless of his unquestionable skill and talent.
    When we climb we do look at each other and question knots, equipment etc. SAFETY FIRST ALWAYS!

    • Dean Garner

      Thank you for this very balanced point of view. In 15 years of climbing & teaching also, this is the saddest accident I have heard of. On reading your perspective it made me analyse my own initially judgemental reaction. My heart goes out to all those closely involved including the person who assembled the draws. I would like to think he leaves a legacy of what can be achieved by young talent. But also a very tough lesson for all about attention to detail and how easily it can all go wrong regardless of experience or knowledge. Will be passing this lesson on to the young climbers in our little corner of the climbing world. RIP Tito

      • Darcie L. Dressel

        Thank you for your reply. Safety is the single most important detail. Always inspect equipment. If in doubt throw it out. Check and recheck. Have someone else check it also. It may seem redundant but it’s a life….. Always take the time and learn to question every detail. Mistakes are part of life but taking it for granted that an experienced climber knows what they are doing is never a good practice.

      • Darcie L. Dressel

        As for whomever put those draws together, they will remember this forever. Unfortunately it may haunt them a lifetime. I know is was a mistake. A terrible one. I wish them the best in life to follow. As a parent I would forgive them realizing it as an accident to to being human, however, I would expect them to always in the future to have learned to have another person check equipment with them. Out of this tradgety hopefully new saftey guidelines will be set into immediate action to prevent more such situations. I feel for everyone involved directly and indirectly.

  • sandro

    No, sorry, i disagree with you. Lightning only is a destiny. The unfinished knot also can be prevented using single or double-check. Tito’ s death is due to a series of mistakes previous the accident. You may be distracted and go through a red light, but if your brakes don’t work it’s quite another story.

  • anonymous

    You’re kind of an idiot

  • anonymous

    When you see gun violence, you talk about the gun culture in America. When a 12 year old climber dies, you talk about the culture of sending hard routes at a young age.

  • anonymous

    Damn right, Andrew. You’re so smart, we shouldn’t look deeper into the causes of this tragedy.

  • 24601

    I’m always one to exaggerate — I remember a commercial depicting a minivan full of styrofoam peanuts — the irony being that people try to keep themselves so safe, that they stifle them.

    I look at the pictures of the quickdraws above and I almost immediately see the difference, but I wouldn’t have known what was wrong absent the context of the story.

    I ramble, but I guess I’m saying this was certainly a horrible tragedy and I hope the entire climbing community can understand what went wrong and put into place measures to avoid this situation in the future.

  • Jeff Scott

    I don’t climb, but when I saw that there are manslaughter charges being pursued in this case that really bothered me. I don’t see how it’s justified to pursue criminal charges against anyone when a person dies doing something that is exceedingly hazardous to begin with. Even if instructors failed to check the equipment. If you are personally willing to assume the risk of climbing 5.14 it will never be somebody else’s fault if you fall. You have to be responsible for your own safety. No scapegoats.