Friday, October 27, 2006

Black Diamond Gear Loop Testing and thoughts.

Kolin, head of quality assurance over at Black Diamond, just did some more belay loop testing in response to Todd's accident, check this link for more info. One of the reasons I really like working with BD is that many of the people there are truly obsessive climbers, with access to stacks of high-tech lab equipment. As a climber and professional "tester," Kolin was obviously directly interested in belay loop failure and so immediately did a stack of tests on belay loops with various "issues." Right on Kolin, thanks. What Kolin's tests showed is that even extensively damaged NEW belay loops are still very strong. As I read through both his belay loop tests and then his previous tests and reports (lots on that page) I noticed that Kolin kept repeating some varation of this quote from his tests: "Regardless—swap out old crappy gear—the heartache avoided could be your own..." Most of his reports were written before Todd's accident.

I recently wrote on this blog about teaching clinics a couple of weeks ago in Maryland where several people were belaying by clipping through their leg loops and swami belt instead of the belay loop. This accident has made me think about that, but I'm still far more worried about a biner breaking through cross-loading or through the carabiner flipping over and having the gate pressed open than I am about belay loops breaking while belaying. Carabiners can break when cross-loaded, or when loaded with the gate opened, I've had it happen several times now and watched the lab tests, it does happen. I've only ever heard of one belay loop ever breaking, I'll go with the belay loop as it reduces the odds of biner failure dramatically.

For rappelling the decision is a little more murky. The forces involved on the average rap are generally pretty low (although they can be surprisingly high when rapping on double ropes, remember that's two strands to share the force, resulting in less rope stretch and therefore higher loads on the carabiner if "bounced"). Most carabiners should be more than adequate to handle this sort of load even if cross-loaded or if the gate gets pressed open, so those arguments are slightly less compelling. Overall I'm still inclined to use the belay loop to rap. For starters, it's simpler, cleaner and easier to see what's going on with the device and belay loop connection. Human error happens, a belay loop is just simpler to see those errors. I also don't like having the ropes sliding through the carabiner so close to my tie-in points. It's pretty easy to have the harness bunch up in such a way that the rope runs on the nylon tie-in point during the rap. Nylon running on nylon is really dangerous as most of us know, it melts and cuts very quickly. One rap with a rubbing rope on the harness isn't likely to cut a tie-in point, but it sure could make it a bit weaker, and I'm not confident in knowing how many raps like this would equal failure. A belay loop keeps the device well away from the tie-in points and prevents "bunched up" rubbing on them, the tie-in points need to be absolutely strong for harsh falls.

I also don't like reducing the distance between the "hot" part of the carabiner and my tie-in points. With a belay loop the distance or "heat sink" is the full size of the carabiner, but may only be a few cm of the carabiner if the carabiner is through the tie-in points. Likely not a big deal but, over years of use, ?

The final thing I don't like about using the tie-in points instead of the belay loop for raps is related to the closeness of the belay device--it's a lot easier to get clothes, gear etc. stuck into the device. While this is not normally fatal, I do remember getting my shirt stuck into my belay device years ago. At the time I felt fortunate to be carrying a knife; in retrospect, any blade near a rope I'm hanging on is a really stupid idea... I've also seen people rapping with the device on a long sling, this isn't good as it's easier to get hair stuck into the device, I've seen that happen a few times too. A belay loop seems about right.

One thing I am considering using more often is a backup prussic knot of some kind. I've always thought these added more complexity than they were worth--I've seen all sorts of cluster fucks on rap with people using backups. Some were pretty funny, some were potentially life-threatening (dark, -20, the prussic freezes to the rope after weighting it and the climber is left hanging there on an ice climb trying to sort it all out). I've seen far more potentially "bad" situations than I have situations where the person was potentially "saved." I do put knots in the ends of my ropes on "mystery raps" in the dark. In my mind knots in the end of the rope on any "suspect" rap are way better than a prussic, most people's reaction to falling is to grab the prussic knot, which then just slides uselessly down the rope. I've seen a few accidents where people rapped off the ends of their ropes, a prussic knot wouldn't have done anything as the rope goes through the device so fast that the person would have to be thinking not to "squeeze" the knot as the ropes went through the device and toward the knot, I just don't see that happening. Prussic knots may be useful for those raps where the ends of the ropes are hanging in space, but in that situation the prussic knot is only useful if you know the ends of the ropes are hanging in space and stop early, before the ends of the ropes. If you know that then why would you take it to the ends of the rope anyhow? And if you're rapping into suspect terrain/rope combinations then you ought to have knots in the ends of the ropes anyhow... As for falling rocks etc. the equation comes down to how many problems I've seen with backups vs. how many times I've been smacked stupid on rap by a rock. Lots, and never are the answers. Wait, I just talked myself out of a backup prussic knot, and yet Todd's accident has still got me thinking it might be a good idea...

One of the things Todd was good at was getting people to think, that's reportedly why his corporate presentations were so good (I've only ever seen his climbing talks, which were awesome). So thinking about all of our systems is a good thing, I just wish it didn't take a guy like Todd dying to get me thinking about it this stuff for hours.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Check Your Gear

There's an good article up here on how Todd lived and died--reportedly he died because his belay loop failed. Apparently the belay loop was very well-worn, to the point where it just broke. I'll wait and see if there's not some other piece of evidence in this accident equation, but right now that's what's being reported. I find this almost unbearably sad because this means Todd's accident was very avoidable. We all make mistakes, but a failed gear loop is the proverbial lightning bolt from the sky, something that just doesn't happen. Todd had more than enough money to buy himself a new harness or 50, he was likely climbing on worn gear simply because he knew belay loops are massively over-built. Some might ask why a climber of his stature and experience wouldn't just get boxes of free harnsesses delivered to his door, but one of his decisions later in life was to avoid pro deals or sponsorship of any kind. He simply wanted to climb, and made more than enough money doing his public speaking gigs to not need free gear. If he paid for all his gear then he wasn't beholden to anyone or anything when he went climbing, it was his game and his alone. Some climbers have attacked Todd over the years for shameless self-promotion in order to further his climbing career; his sponsor-free style of climbing in his latter years shows exactly where his mind truly was--on going climbing. I just wish he had spent the $ on a new harness. Hell, he owned a climbing store loaded with new harnesses, he could have shop-lifted himself one.

Some climbers will likely start rapping and belaying off carabiners stuck through both their leg and waist-belt tie-in points based on this accident. I think it very likely that this is more dangerous than using the belay loop due to the potential to cross-load the carabiner. I've broken three carabiners over the years while climbing, always due to cross-loading or having the gate inadvertently open due to a weird load. The belay loop is a far safer option as it virtually elminates cross-loading or gate torque. I've sewed and tested belay loops, it's about impossible to break one--even a very poorly sewed belay loop tests out as very, very strong. In fact, despite seeing some woeful belay loops in the field this is the first time I've ever heard of one ever breaking. But if it's just totally worn-out, as Todd's may have been then it can obviously break.

Another friend of mine recently broke a very thin Dyneema sling while cleaning new routes. He was on a top-rope with the sling equalizing one piece and the rope clipped into another. The Dyneema sling was girth-hitched into another sling extension, and basically cut itself. Fortunately my friend's rope was anchored into another anchor which held, or he would likely have been somewhere between severely injured or dead. I've never liked those super-skinny Dyneema slings, the small weight savings just didn't seem worth it to me, I like gear with a margin of error. Some friends at at a n equipment manufacturer did some tests on these slings also, the results just weren't encouraging, I'll leave it at that.

There have been several recent fatal accidents in paragliding and hang gliding due to people using beat-up or inappropriate old gear as well. This year I got rid of my old helmet (went with a ski helmet, seems like a better option than most of the PG helmets), replaced my primary reserve and and my tandem reserve, updated my first aid kit and just generally got my gear in order. These sports are dangerous enough without using worn-out gear.

I'm off to the garage to throw out some old slings, check my belay loops/harness bits and just generally give my gear a good once-over. Everything is likely just fine, but...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A dark day

I just heard that Todd Skinner, one of the true masters of rock climbing died yesterday in Yosemite.

The Supertopo forum has many anecdotes from people who enjoyed Todd as a friend over the years.

I first met Todd in about 1983 or so, when I was a student in Colorado. Todd was in town to do a slideshow at the local shop, and somehow ended up on the floor of our student house. This was a bit like having Michael Jordan sleeping on my floor, but Todd was appreciative and entertained us a bit. He was a legend of the '80s scene, and I kept bumping into him over the years in Hueco or someplace random. I corresponded with him about climbing new routes in various places, he was always forthcoming with information and excitement. Todd was one of the first "professional" climbers, meaning that's all he wanted to do and did, and as I struggled to make that lifestyle work I always respected Todd as much for his dedication to climbing as his actual climbing. Todd truly used his sponsorship money solely to go climbing, that purity of purpose has always been my model.

During one rather bleak spell in my own path through life Todd talked to me for several hours about sponsorship, speaking, climbing and life. The quote I best remember is, "Well, it's nice to get free gear, but you can't put quickdraws in the gas tank." A few days ago a friend and I were hiking down from Yam while talking about photography and how to make a living from it when some manufacturers are chiseling for a "photos for gear" deal, and I shared Todd's quote with hopefully a bit of the same humor and insight that Todd had shared it with me all those years ago. I didn't know at the time he had likely just fallen to his death, it's just one of those quotes that makes sense as so many of Todd's did.

Todd had his vocal detractors in the climbing scene, but I never heard Todd bad-mouth another climber, route or accomplishment, and there were times when he certainly would have been justified in doing so. He counted most people as his friends even if they weren't, not out of naivete but out of straight-up hope for the individual and life. That was another lesson--never let the bastards get ya down, life's pretty damn cool. At times his "cowboy" act annoyed me, but in the end I came to see it as every bit as subversive and carefully ethical as my own punk sensibility of the era, and certainly more genuine. We're all actors, Todd just had more fun with it than most.

Ah hell Todd, thanks for being you. Peace to Amy and Todd's massive extended family around the world.

And to everyone who climbs, be careful, we're all one wrong clip from a parachute-free BASE jump. I know this because Todd was smart, careful, strong and solid in a way few will ever be on the cliff.