One of the things that has always fascinated me in the climbing community is how individuals deal differently with the inherent risks of climbing. Personally, I consider myself a “safety girl” (said in the exact intonation of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) who prefers to be anchored in at all times when my feet are off the ground. A couple of weeks ago, I was climbing in the Gunks and was on a ledge about an arm span wide and a full pitch off the deck. As I was beneath a busy rap station, I chose to be anchored in just in case someone rappelling from above dislodged some thing. So I was little amazed when I saw a party walking along the ledge just as casually as they’d walk down the street. They were coming over to the rap station we were anchored by. Although some would not find this to be a safety hazard at all, its also not a terrible idea to give someone a little hip belay as they walk across such a ledge. So when one of these guys tripped on a root and lost his footing, my heart was in my throat at that moment. Please, please, please stumble in toward the cliff and not toward the edge and the abyss on the other side, I thought to myself. It was all over in split second, and this guy was back on both feet, continuing to walk toward the rap station like it was no big deal. Could I really have been the only person on that ledge that saw how easily, had things gone a different way in that moment, the results would have been tragic? Since they didn’t seem to notice, perhaps I am the only person that still even thinks of that moment and the terrible consequences that could have been. I eventually put the incident out of my mind but it came back to me this past week when a young woman died at the Gunks after her top-rope anchored completely and catastrophically failed.
She was 22 and going to graduate from college in a few weeks. She had her whole life ahead of her. For this terrible tragedy, my most sincere condolences go out to her family. It is still unknown exactly what happened and I don’t know if we will ever know all the details. What is known is that she was top-roping the route Easy Keyhole, a popular route for first time climbers like her, that a previous climber had climbed and lowered off the route on the anchor, but when she fell or leaned back to lower off near the top of the climb, the system failed. The rope and several slings/pieces of webbing were on the ground next to her. She was initially conscious after the fall, but eventual succumbed to internal bleeding.
Many of us climbers respond to incidents like this with a near-pathologic need to know the details, as if knowing them will somehow protect us from making the same mistake- and meeting a similar end. Others feel the need to immediately critique the decision making process of all involved leading up to the accident as if demonstrating their superior-decision making skills will somehow insulated them from tragedy. But at then end of the day, I think we need to accept that our sport is potentially dangerous and that the biggest danger of all comes from habituation to that risk.
Now a caveat- I’m talking about real risk, not perceived risk. Because of this tragedy, this woman’s family probably perceives climbing as significantly more risky then it actually is and will probably do so for quite some time. But all perceived risk is is just that- what we make up in our own minds, based on prior experiences and expectations, which may or not be based on anything real. Since its our own mind playing tricks on us, its harder to habituate to perceived risk, because as soon as we do, our brains will find a new way to create fear. After years of leading, being on the sharp end, even on a 5.3, has the ability to get my heart racing in a way that being on top-rope just doesn’t.
But objective risks- rock fall, holds breaking, weather hazards, equipment failure- these are real risks that are always part of the equation. These are the ones we become habituated too. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘I don’t need to wear my helmet here, I’m just top-roping and there’s no one above me,’ you’ve become habituated to risk. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you’ve thought through the risks and potential consequences and are prepared to accept said consequences. And that is perhaps the even bigger point here: when engaging in a potentially dangerous activity like rock climbing, it can be a matter of life or death to have a real and true understanding of the potential consequences. Once we become habituated to a certain level of risk though, we tend to get lazy and not do the work of truly understanding the risks we are taking and their potential consequences.
I doubt the climber who died this week had a true understanding of the such consequences- how could she have? It was only her first day climbing. The biggest risk she took that day was the person or persons she chose to trust to build the anchor that ultimately failed her. We can criticize and point fingers. We can obsess over the details. Or we can do something much more useful and check in with how we approach risk in our own climbing. Maybe we’ve been putting comfort and bravado ahead of common sense in what terrain we choose to stay anchored it on. Maybe we’ve been leaving the helmet in the pack more often. Maybe we’ve started climbing with a new partner and we’ve made some assumptions about that person’s skill set based on our old partners, and not them. I’m not saying that there are any clear-cut answers to these scenarios, and the appropriate answer is going to be different for each person in each situation. That’s why the most important piece of gear we have with us at all times (hopefully!) is the pink, squishy thing between our ears- our brains- and the ability to use them. To stay safe in the mountains, we need to consistently think through our situation, analyze the risk and make appropriate choices based on the consequences we are willing to accept. Perhaps that is how we got the saying,
“There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.”