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Topic - decking it on rope stretch

RDE - on 28 Jun 2014
The following story may be of some interest:

It was a promising Spring day at Swanage, the first of a week long tour of the S and SW coasts. Time for an enjoyable classic 3 star and much travelled pitch, Elysium at Boulder Ruckle. I climbed up, savouring the wave washed clean and pocketed rock, placing a nut then carrying on higher aiming for a thin crack. But with no protection there I stepped back down, placed a Friend in a horizontal, moved back up and right a little, then …

wham !!

A hold had just broken without warning, I was in the air, falling a long, long way, then feeling the rope beginning to tighten but too late, crunch, onto my chest, into a boulder at the bottom. I had been about 10m up, having moved about 2m from my runner. Decking from that height, even on rope stretch, was not pleasant and given there was no way out other than climbing or helicopter I had to resort to the latter. This was done expertly and efficiently by Swanage Coastguards, and great thanks to all rescuers and climbers (especially Ben from Nottingham) who helped, and to the thorough attention of the emergency staff at Poole hospital. Extremely fortunately nothing was broken, I was just very sore. But that is not the point of this post.

The question I kept thinking about was how could it happen? After almost 50 years of climbing I thought I’d be experienced enough to avoid the consequences of unexpected events. Lying on the ground awaiting rescue, looking up at the wall, my runners, and the spot I’d fallen from, I had plenty of time to ponder the question ‘how on earth could I deck it from there?’

I think it goes like this. Assuming I was 10m up, and the last runner was at 8m, immediately ones falls 4m (6m to go), then there’s the natural slack in the system, say 2m (4m to go), then there’s rope stretch (say 2m, that ground is getting mighty close), then perhaps there’s those extra little bits of slack in the system, nothing obvious, nothing forgetful or negligent, then bang, the extent of the inevitable injury will be a matter of luck. One metre less and this wouldn’t be a story, one metre more and perhaps I wouldn’t be telling it. Sometimes the margins are very fine.

What could have been done differently to avoid this? After being on the wrong end of a ground fall I’m keen to avoid a repetition, so I’ve been thinking about what to do in the future. Perhaps the following may be of interest. Apologies to all those for whom all this is all too obvious, and who do it all anyway, but there may be the odd occasion when not all goes to plan …

1. When low down on routes place plenty of runners. Try to avoid a situation when the failure of one runner puts you on the ground (not that the runner failed in this case).
2. You will always fall much further than you think, even if you feel close to your last runner.
3. Try to place runners such that both ropes come into play. This will reduce rope stretch. On this occasion, I could have placed two runners in the horizontal, one for each rope, and perhaps have avoided the deck as a result.
4. Most accidents are just that, unexpected accidents. When the climbing is hard everyone is fully alert and aware, so all the extra little precautions are taken. A fall may actually be more dangerous when it’s unexpected, and on relatively easy ground. So when the leader is close to the ground, even on easy climbing, both leader and belayer should be as attentive as when the chances of a fall are more obvious on the harder climbing. Expect the unexpected, think what would happen should a hold break or foot slip.
5. When the leader is low down, stand up to belay, stand close to the rock, and minimise slack in the system. An extra unseen metre or so of slack can make all the difference. This is as true outdoors as it is at a climbing wall.

Any suggestions on anything I may have missed would be most welcome.

In the end, it all turned out OK. A few mental scars are healing, and I’m back on the rock, taking that extra bit more care when there’s any chance of ground fall, taking the time to put in those extra runners. Take care.
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