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Reducing the Risk on Rockies Limestone

When it comes to surviving and thriving in the battle with gravity, being a good climber is only part of the equation. I've been very fortunate to have climbed a very long time. Using my experiences over the years, I hope to offer some tips to reduce risk, preventable heartache and suffering.

“I don’t know why I should still be alive. God have mercy on John and me!” It was John Martin’s last line from a tragic story detailed in the register attached at the second last belay on the classic Yamnuska route, Red Shirt, graded 5.8. It was dated May 2, 1971, the 115th entry in this log. Unfortunately, one member of the team was dead and the other traumatized, tied into the wall, awaiting rescue.

Bernie MacGillivary rapelling the West Ridge 5.6, Mount Tupper, Rogers Pass B.C.
Bernie MacGillivary rapelling the West Ridge 5.6, Mount Tupper, Rogers Pass B.C.

Four years later as a 16- year-old kid I read this riveting entry. It was like a thunderbolt to my psyche. I had been introduced to rock climbing only the year before. This sport seemed a natural fit for me. I loved it instantly, taking to the gymnastic movement over stone like a duck to water. It was my first time on Red Shirt. I was climbing with Joe Frey, who had been an accomplished climber when we met through the mountain club at my high school a year earlier. After his graduation Joe had become a working stiff, climbing infrequently. He was a little out of shape. So with my youthful enthusiasm overflowing and his experience he willingly let me lead the entire route.

It had been a brilliant day despite my desperate 5.10 off-route scamper up an overhanging dihedral after initially missing the tricky traverse that unlocks this climb. Getting ready to belay Joe up on a small perch a short pitch below the top…BAM…I read this entry. Any sense of innocence I had was shattered as I realized that if I didn’t pay attention it could be my premature demise. For the first time in my short climbing career I really felt fear. My whole perspective towards climbing changed that day. Despite the joy and thrills I derived from this quirky game, I finally grasped

that it was dangerous…even deadly.

In the Rockies over the past two years we’ve had several tragic reminders of how enjoying our sport, passion and obsession can turn on a dime from triumph to tragedy followed by hollow condolences, “Hey, at least they died doing what they loved.”

For me, life is about living fully, not being stupid about it. Nobody I know is in a rush to meet their maker. As climbers, we celebrate life by reaching out and touching the edge of the envelope. The trick is to not step over the thin line between euphoria and destruction. We all take for granted that we will have a long and full journey filled with many adventures, but for over twenty of my friends it wasn’t that long. They were cut down in the prime of life, undertaking recreational activities in the mountains. The things they loved killed them.

J.C. Dabeau on The Bowl 5.10 b/c, Mount Yamnuska
J.C. Dabeau on The Bowl 5.10 b/c, Mount Yamnuska

Climbing is a dangerous game, although some aspects of it are more dangerous than others. When it comes to surviving and thriving in the battle with gravity, being a good climber is only part of the equation. I’ve been very fortunate to have climbed a very long time. Using my experiences over the years, I hope to offer some tips to reduce risk, preventable heartache and suffering.

For Rockies climbers, rock failure probably leads to more accidents and injuries than any other single factor. No matter your technical ability, when your hold breaks it levels the playing field rather quickly. I should know. After nearly 30 years of Rockies experience I sustained significant injuries in two rock failure incidents. In both cases I made judgements based on my extensive knowledge and I was on rock that was significantly below my ability. I guessed wrong. So can you!

My best advice for leaders in the Rockies to avoid injury or death is to protect yourself adequately even on terrain well below your grade. Holds can fail without warning on any climb. I repeated Direttissima, one the oldest routes on Yamnuska a couple of years back. Leading the awkward crux around the roof on pitch two there was a massive, chalk-covered jug. To me it looked loose. As I checked it, it suddenly broke away. Freeze thaw cycles in the porous limestone affect rock quality from year to year. Because a route is well-travelled doesn’t mean there won’t be loose holds. Polished rock on popular routes presents yet another problem.

In 2011 Canmore local Akihira Tawara died after falling off an attempt to free solo Direttissima. He was a confident 5.13 climber yet he died on a climb rated 5.8+. Nobody will ultimately know why Akihira fell but most locals believe it was probably due to rock failure. Free soloing is the ultimate statement in climbing and dealing with risk. I’ve soloed this route in my youth and have free soloed several easier big routes on this mountain in a day.

To free solo you have to totally be in the right frame of mind, have solid skills, experience, and knowledge of the objective to succeed. Today, for me, Direttissima is too polished and has too much fractured stone to justify the benefit of the freewheeling solo experience. Could I do it? Probably. Thinking of my family and friends should the unimaginable happen and the heartache they would suffer for the rest of their lives is reason enough not to. Free soloing is a very selfish game with ultimate consequences if you screw up.

Wearing a helmet to protect your melon is a personal choice. In the Rockies this really is a no-brainer. I wear mine always whether on sport or trad routes big or small. It protects you during falls or from falling objects from above. Will a helmet always prevent injury? No, but not wearing one greatly increases your risk.

For example, I was climbing on The Bowl on Yamnuska many years ago. About 30 metres below the top, a bowling ball-sized block missed my head by mere inches. Then a second followed shortly after. I quickly realized this was not natural rock fall. Kids from a youth group had decided to trundle rocks off the top as part of their scrambling experience on the back side. They nearly killed me, having no idea that climbers would be on the sheer south face. One of their blocks shattered just above me. My helmet took a significant blow. Despite the impact of the shattered rock, I was able to hang on to educate them and their leaders.

On another occasion, I was struck by rockfall while belaying on a new route. A one kilo block scored a direct hit on my helmet from 30 metres. If I had not been wearing my

pumpkin protector, a serious head injury or worse would have resulted.

Another rule that I try to maintain is to not climb below other parties, no matter how

competent they are. They or their ropes can and will dislodge rocks, ice, or avalanches. Why play Russian Roulette with gravity? If a route is occupied, find another one to climb or simply come back another day.

Check the weather and snow conditions prior too heading out. A little preparation and having a game plan go a long way towards having a good day in the hills. Once I disobeyed this rule; my partner and I checked the forecast but chose to ignore it. Later in the day we nearly drowned on a belay 400 metres above the deck, stuck under a massive instant waterfall that formed over a new route that we ended up calling Drain Game. We ignored the weather warnings and it almost cost us our lives on this alpine rock climb.

Part of my preparation also is to always check my gear over before I leave the house. First I make sure that I have everything and second, I assure that it’s all in good working order. You would be surprised what climbers in their absent-mindedness leave behind. They either have to abandon their day or compromise their safety due to these silly little mistakes. Once I forgot my chalk bag for a bouldering session. It was a muggy summer evening. Having driven 70 km to the Big Rock I was too stubborn to leave. Deciding instead that I would just boulder easy stuff sans chalk. I selected a 5.7 jug-tug highball as my first problem. I had done this line many times and felt totally comfortable attempting it. Right at the top, I greased off due to the high humidity, plummeted 10 metres and landed amongst the boulders surrounding this massive glacial erratic. Fortunately I missed the rocks, but I still bruised both feet badly. I couldn’t walk properly for two weeks. I had wounded my pride but learned my lesson.

A climber on Jimmy and the Cruzers 5.10c, Mount Yamnuska
A climber on Jimmy and the Cruzers 5.10c, Mount Yamnuska

Rappelling accidents are one of the major causes for injury and death for climbers. One of my steadfast rules is always tie backup knots at the bottom ends of the ropes when rappelling multi-pitch routes. Having a backup prusik is also essential for every rappel. I am amazed at how many climbers tempt fate by ignoring these simple rules. Climbing a route is only half the battle, getting down on some occasions offers the bigger challenge. These simple backups take only seconds but will save your life if things go sideways. My closest to fatal mistakes while climbing have all come while rappelling. On three separate incidents having a backup knot or using a prusik saved my life. This past summer in the Rockies saw three fatalities from rappelling accidents. All could have easily been prevented had these simple backup procedures been followed. What I find incredible is that many climbers when bailing off climbs leave behind their crappiest gear. They won’t back up tatty anchors or they insist on using a piece of junk gear that they found lying below some 500 m cliff. Is saving ten dollars or, for that matter, a hundred, worth your life? Gear today in every aspect is superior to when I first started climbing. Routes are generally better equipped and safer. Yet we still see climbers getting hurt and needlessly dying for this silly game of fighting gravity. At times you may not have any other options, but using a backup to marginal anchors can save your live.

Partners are another concern. Do you really want the social butterfly at the crag belaying you, nattering away to everyone, playing out slack with no concern while you hover above a possible ledge fall? Having a competent partner is essential for the safety and enjoyment of any climbing team. A big part of climbing is the shared social interaction. Complacency and inattention have no place in this relationship. A good partner complements or brings skills to the table that improve or make the team stronger and safer. Get to know who you are tying onto the rope with, your life could count on it.

I rope-solo a lot, using a self-belay device. I always tell my friends that, “My little red buddy never turns me down for a day out.” Some would say he’s the perfect partner. Never says no, or argues who gets the next lead. Yet he comes at a price. He’s no help carrying his share of the weight, and doesn’t encourage or push me when the chips are down. At least there is no sharing the risk or rewards. You have all the weight of every choice riding directly on your shoulders. Employing this practice for new routes magnifies my risks. Following my rules respecting the battlefield and relying on my hard earned skills and experiences makes this adventurous style relatively safe, but there is risk. In this arena, you have to be prepared to handle injuries and implement self-rescue. Accidents can and do happen. It’s how you prepare and deal for this eventuality that affects the outcome. Practice evaluating situations and minimizing risks successfully; these skills are what has kept me in the game for so long.

I was first introduced to my vertical addiction 37 years ago. Initially, I devoured every bit of instruction and material to expand my knowledge base. I observed and tried to imitate the practices of good climbers. I was fortunate to be introduced to and mentored by some of the best climbers of the day. Working like an apprentice, I moved up through the grades, experiencing rock, alpine adventures and ice climbing. Building on these early experiences, I somehow survived some bad partners, poor decision making and the steep learning curve. Some say I even thrived. Admittedly I got away with a lot due to my youth and exuberance. Overall, I tried to keep the stupid stuff to a minimum and learned from me and other’s mistakes. Maybe some luck and a wee bit of natural ability played into the mix.

In many cases, climbing accidents simply boil down to a lack of experience or bad luck. Today, many new climbers don’t seem to learn the climber’s craft; reading the rock, route finding, placing solid gear, simple backups or building proper anchors. Many of our newest climbers learn their skills in gyms on plastic and plywood, seeking instant gratification from climbing hard. Most don’t take the time to learn or aren’t exposed to the foundations and objective dangers of climbing in the real world. This knowledge can help keep you safe. Many youths today do pull hard but nearly every day in the mountains I see a lack of experience and good judgment practiced to minimize risks. These lapses can be deadly in the vertical world. As climbers, we may never know it all, but the onus is on us to gather as much information as we can. Maybe gleaning a few tidbits from an old mountain goat like me will help the next generation have a long, safe and successful career.

Andy is the author of several guidebooks to Rockies limestone and scores of new routes. He lives in Calgary.