Friday, January 09, 2009

Auto-Block Belay Devices and Other Winter Thoughts

There was recently an ice climbing fatality near Cody, Wyoming. This story hit me hard because I can see myself making some of the poor calls that led to the fatality, and that started me off writing this long post. Please read the story at the link above, the following won't make much sense without the full story. My full respect, condolences and sympathy to all involved, fatalities are the worst part of mountain sports.

I do have some thoughts on the accident. In short, the leader was at an anchor while the second approached the anchor, big avalanche, leader was OK, second unfortunately found dead after the avalanche passed. All the rope had slipped through the leader's belay device, so the second fell/slid the rope's distance while being pounded massively. The leader had two screws at chest level and was belaying off the anchor with a non-blocking belay device. 

A few thoughts on this:

-First, I won't be surprised if the facts of this accident change with time. It's early yet, and things may not be as they seem. Mainly I'm sorry the accident happened, condolences to family and friends. This was an accident. Accidents are the worst thing about mountain sports.

-I highly doubt any belay device or configuration would have made a difference in this situation. It was a massive slide likely with enough debris and force to kill anybody in the way. But a smaller slide or a smaller slide that also hit the belayer could have been fatal to the second not due to the trauma but due to the belayer being unable to hold the rope while he was being pounded, and the second falling the rope's distance as a result. An auto-blocking device would be a better idea.

-I don't think belaying directly off the anchor with a non-blocking belay device is a good idea. Especially if that device, as is reported, was likely at or higher than the belayer's waist. I can't see it being easy to hold your arm up to generate sufficient friction to hold the fall, as would have happened in this case. I can hold maybe 50 pounds over my head with one hand for any length of time, and that's in the gym with a very controlled weight directly over my head. Not a rope whipping around with all sorts of weird vectors. The moment the belay  rope isn't pulling "up" on the belay device is the moment it starts sliding, and is then more difficult to hold...

-If the brake side of the rope is less than 90+ degrees off the loaded end of the rope then there just isn't likely to be enough friction to hold a high load. If the two ropes are parallel very little friction will be generated. Even a top-rope load can be hard to hold until the rope is pulled into proper position by the belayer. Anyone who has held a climber from above while top-roping for any length of time with a non-locking device knows that it takes some careful positioning of the rope to make this comfortable. I don't think the belayer has much chance to hold a more powerful fall with the device above waist-level, and while pulling "up" on the rope. The belay device would have to be at knee level or below to be effective, then you could pull "up" on it. 

-The solution for me is straightforward: use an ATC Guide or some other auto-block belay device when belaying the second off a solid anchor. In Canada and Europe this is the common method of belaying the second, but it's still less so in the USA for some reason. This is changing, maybe due to international guiding standards, but I still see a lot of people using a non-blocking belay device for the second when it would be far more suitable to use an auto-block to do so (90+ percent of the time while ice or rock climbing, less so with alpine climbing). 

-If you're going to use a non-locking belay device for the second then it should be on your belay loop. Not clipped to the anchor, not extended off the anchor with a sling, but on you. That way you'll always know which way to pull even if you're getting pounded, upside down, getting pulled off the stance, whatever. There have been several bad accidents where the belayer was injured seriously but held the belay when it was off his harness. 

Again, I don't think it likely would have made much difference in this accident how or what type of belay was being used, the situation was just off the charts in terms of power and violence. An auto-blocking device could even have generated enough force to blow the primary anchor and kill both climbers; this sort of situation is just drastic. I had one large slide go over my head while in a cave once; even while totally protected I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, the power was just insane. But I do think there are a range of situations below the magnitude of this one where an auto-block belay device rigged to a solid anchor would be a better choice and might might make a big difference.

There are situations where belaying the second with an auto-block doesn't make sense, but part of being a good climber is understanding enough to recognize those situations and build your belay system appropriately. Most of the time when I use a belay device for the second straight off my harness I do so because I'm concerned about the strength of the belay and want to take as much force as possible on me and my stance. I keep the rope very tight in this situation and recognize that I'm doing something dubious, or at least well outside what is commonly "safe."

There are some other things in this story that bother me precisely because I've made the same bad calls:

-Not being aware of the avalanche hazard. "Hey, it hasn't snowed much, should be good." This is not a good assessment of avalanche hazard. Read the avalanche forecast, look for the signs, understand enough to make a call.
-Assuming there is no hazard just because "this area has no hazard." Almost every ice climb I've ever done has enough snow above it to be a hazard. Snow is heavy.
-Not being able to see the top of avalanche terrain while moving through it (cornices, wind loading, etc.). If you can't see the wind loading and terrain above you then you have no idea what's going on. 
-Not paying attention to the obvious signs of instability (debris piles on the route, etc). We all want to go up, and it's easy to rationalize things so we keep doing that. 
-Not thinking about the terrain trap nature of ice climbs. This has killed at least two friends; even "small" slides funneled into the wall of an ice climb can be lethal.

Right, not sure why this story hit me so hard but it really did. Maybe because I can see myself making some of the same errors. Again, the facts may change, and this is absolutely not meant as a critique of the accident at all, just things for all of us to think about as we go ice climbing.


Anonymous said...

Not that it makes the point any less valid but the story here is a little different:

Will Gadd said...

Thanks Anon--the survivor wrote an outline of the accident here:

Kim Graves said...

Hi Will,

I went and read the report you linked to and it seems like maybe there was no belay provided. IE the leader says that all the rope had been pulled through the belay device - but if a belay was being provided, wouldn't the leader have know that as the rope went through his hand. Maybe the leader panicked and let go of the rope during the avalanche essentially dropping the second.

I agree with you that there is no good reason not to use an autoblock to bring up the second.

Best, Kim

sibylle said...

I think that auto-block belay devices make good sense in alpine, or winter, conditions, where the leader (belayer) might get hit by a rock, or an avalanche, and knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled or prevented from executing a proper belay.

Will Gadd said...

Hi Kim, there was a belay, but using a non-blocking belay device on the anchor allowed the rope to slip through. Maybe because the belayer couldn't hold the force, maybe because the belayer was hit, maybe simply because the forces were too high. If an auto-block device had been used I think the unfortunate result would have been the same, the snow is simply too powerful to survive. But using an auto-block device in most situations makes a lot of sense.

Sibylle--yes, and not just in winter. An auto-block device for belaying the second is more comfortable, faster and I believe safer in the vast majority of climbing situations whether summer or winter. It's standard in most of the world, but often not in the US for reasons I can't figure out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post - it certainly made me think some sober thoughts. It is always prudent to be as vigilant as we can and in my opinion self locking belay device provides just so much more safety vs non locking one: i use one exclusively and 99% of the time belay straight off the anchor. Morover, those devices can still be used as a regular "ATC" off the harness, hence providing even more flexibility. Why everyone wouldnt use one is beyond me....

Butch said...

First time I climbed the Buttress, I shared a belay with an American guide (certified professional) who was bringing up two clients on 2 ropes. This guy had his ATC clipped directly via 1 biener to one of the bolts, which was at about shoulder level. Basically he would have had to lift the rope OVER the device to generate any friction at all. I know, it sounds ludicrous...and it was!

When I VERY politely suggested that this was dangerous he got pretty chuffed. I then asked him "Ok, what happens if you have to hold one client to say take out gear, and let the other keep climbing? Or what if you have to escape the belay?"

His answer was "that's not going to happen." I could see he wasn't bright enough to understand the definition of "accident"-- something generally harmful, and always unplanned.

JD LeBlanc said...

Cool, but let's set aside the usage of a Guide ATC or even better the Simond Toucan (the best device for blocking off anchors) and deal with the forces involved.
Avalanche of snow 1500 ft wide and about 5 feet deep forced into a 30ft funnel. The leader had 2 ice screws and an equalized anchor – the odds are that if the rope holds via the device all force goes to the screws – likely they would rip out and if the leader is attached to those – likely – then he would go down as well.
Remember the accident at A bridge too Far – Joe belayed Sean and the ice fang fell, ripped Sean off the ice – broke his leg and Joe wrecked his shoulder and got pummled all the while with a Gri Gri and a Bolted Belay. That was a huge force – but likely a lot less than the Avalanche.

My guess would be that the leader would have been killed as well (he’d fall the 200 ft and be submerged in the snow) and the second for certain would have been, as even if the second had survived the plunge, he would hit the deck (as the anchor would be gone) and be covered by all the snow and debris.

The one thing I noted form the Leader’s remark is he had no idea why he survived – maybe it would have been easier if he fell as well, as he has the rest of his life to deal with this accident and question his decisions – not a great way to live your life. Regardless of the belay tactic, it is what it is – we have all witnessed a lot in the years of climbing and many “professionals” have done a lot of questionable things. As for belay set ups, it’s pretty easy to directional off your body to the belay and back down to the second and then it’s set for the second to lead the next pitch – you do not have to switch the belay off the anchor and back to you. It also alleviates a lot of the energy placed on the belay itself.

The other day in Haffner I removed a belay for another party off the route next to me – 2 bolt anchor – and they had a Modified American Death Triangle – modified by clove hitching each biner to the bolts, then tying a fig. 8 to the bottom and locker off of that. A lot of effort to try to fix a bad idea and adding 2 more knotted areas – so weakening the system even more. But they did reduce the pulling of the bolts together via the clove hitches, but a brutal set up when such a simple one already exists.

I can build a picture if you like – damn I miss the sport days …

Dougald MacDonald said...

I interviewed the survivor, and he is convinced that if he'd been using an autoblock device he'd be dead, because the anchor would have ripped. He also believes he'd be dead if he had been belaying from his waist, because he would have been pulled into the main flow of the avalanche by his partner's weight; he was standing against a vertical ice wall, just inches from the main debris flow. I agree that in most cases it's a bad idea to set up the belay the way he did, and he obviously didn't do it because he anticipated the events that ensued. But, weirdly, in this case the belay setup likely had little or nothing to do with the first death, and it likely prevented a second death.

Will Gadd said...

Thanks Dougald, nice to have the story's source post up. And thanks also for the Hot Flashes news over the years, good stuff.

I noted that an auto-block may indeed have totally blown the belay, and that in my opinion the outcome would not likely have changed no matter what belay system was used. If we are in the wrong place at the wrong time nothing will make a difference.

I'll email you directly with some other thoughts on this, thanks.



Anonymous said...

I climb with lots of Kiwis who use the Italian hitch on alpine terrain as it's just faster. Although often on more technical terrain they will change to a autoblock.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will - Tami here posting as Anonymous- I agree w/ your posted notes about the avi conditions. The 2 climbers initial decision to be there was the primary cause of their being in an accident. I realize sh_t can happen even when least expected.
With all due respect to this being the case ( the report I read said they made an informed decision about conditions.... and without further information I believe this must be true ).
But in a post-mortem of any accident we will look for causes and their effects. Any time the mechanism of accident is avalanche, the initial decision of the people to be in that place should be examined.
As Dougald said about the specifics of the belay & accident - sounds like the survivor was lucky.

Jed said...


If they had been further off the ground so that the follower didn't deck, he still would have loaded the anchor with the full force of the avalanche, after all 60 meters of rope went through the device. The only way to avoid that is for the leader (belaying) to untie so that the follower can take the rope with them. I think we all agree that's silly.

Suppose the avalanche was smaller. With the belay that was used, the follower would still have decked, but with a proper belay (autoblock or on the harness), it would have held.

If an avalanche pulls an anchor because of the load from the climber, then the belayer is unlucky to be belaying. This scenario does not justify a belay system that relies on the climber decking for the safety of the belayer.

Will Gadd said...

Tami and Jed--

Yes. I do think looking at accidents is important not only to learn what went wrong in that specific instance but also for how people's minds work (or don't). Accidents do happen, but most of the time it's operator error. Yesterday I was doing a rap after a savage outing and ended up clipped into a solid belay three different ways. I was unhooking packs, sorting ropes, and generally reducing the massive cluster when I realized that I was only attached to the belay with a quickdraw into my pack's haul loop and then another into me... I wasn't hanging on the belay, but still a pack haul loop does not count as a secure anchor when you're 300 feet off the deck. I'm an idiot sometimes, we all are, the trick is to try and not be an idiot too often or when it really counts...