One of the most dangerous parts of rock climbing is loose rock. Climbing on new terrain, in the mountains, or even being unaware of the rock around can create a serious hazard. At times, loose rock can hurt more than just the party climbing. It is vital to learn from these experiences.
On May 10th, a pair of climbers down climbed from Mammoth terraces to Heart Ledges on El Capitan. The pair were hoping to make a free ascent of the Golden Gate and wanted to free climb a loose section of rock between the two ledges. The first climber placed gear and the second climber down lead. While the second climber pulled the gear, he surfed a man-sized block off the wall. He took a forty-foot lead fall and badly sprained his ankle. The rock fell on a party of climbers below and broke the legs of an aid climber on the Muir. YOSAR arrived quickly and helped the parties off the wall.
A few important lessons can be learned from this accident.
1. Avoid loose rock. Even on the commonly traveled pitches on El Capitan, there is still a significant amount of loose rock. Just because something has chalk on it, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Avoid loose rock where possible. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Coil ropes so that they don’t knock debris off ledges. Be extra attentive when rappelling to keep from pulling rocks off when the ropes come down.
2. Watch out for climbers around you. Being high off the ground means that you can kill someone below you just by knocking off a small rock. This also means dropping gear. Be very aware of who is around you. Climbing a loose route on a busy Saturday during the height of El Capitan season means that there’s likely to be people below you and on the wall as well. This accident could have been prevented if the free climbing party had waited for the climbers below to clear the area. Wear a helmet if there are climbers above you and consider if you want to climb a route when there are people around. Better to be safe than sorry.
3. Move very carefully on loose rock. If it looks loose- tap gently on the rock. Listen for a hollow sound. Climb very carefully on the rock, especially if it moves. If it’s safe, have your partner pull it off after, when the ropes are clear. Make sure that the area below is clear. The rocks are often bigger than you think they are.
Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. Be conscious of what you are climbing. Even in the gym, holds can spin and falls can be erratic. Know the difference between solid and loose rock. Be aware of loose rock and help prevent accidents.