Rock Climbing 101: Five Simple Tips to Prevent Massive Mistakes

There we were: In the middle of the desert happily climbing pitch after pitch. The weather was crisp and the rock was solid. It was a perfect day for sending routes until…

While I was climbing, the rope below formed a noose, coiling around the lever of the grigri device in my belayer’s hands. My friend let go of the belay device’s lever for more tension, but the rope pulled in the opposite direction. In a blink of an eye, the extra slack dropped me to the ground. I landed on a rock and it hurt. Luckily, I walked away with just a bruise. 

How did this happen? We knew our gear. We paid attention. We were not new to this type of climbing. But as we found out the hard way, experience does not mean that you’re done learning. After a long day at the crag, complacency had negated our collective skill level. We became lazy in rope management. The wakeup call got us thinking about different ways to prevent ground falls that go beyond, ‘pay attention.’ Here is a quick list of five preventative and active tips to mitigate risk while climbing.  

Mark the midpoint of rope 

Lay the rope out, find the center point, and grab the nearest Sharpie to mark the midpoint. A center-marked rope is a happy rope. This makes it easy for a climber, belayer or rappeller to keep track of how much length is left.  If the rope is too short, it generally means leaving a piece of gear behind — but that loss is far better than walking away with broken or bruised body parts.

Belaying with ATC
Calli Jo Levin

Flake out the rope beforehand

Loops and pigtails and knots — oh my. These are the dangers underneath an unflaked rope. A smooth belay is key to giving slack without short-roping the climber or frantically trying to weed out the knots mid-climb. 

In my particular accident, we had already climbed a lot, and lazily stopped flaking out the rope (meaning: untangling the rope onto the ground, arm length by arm length). It led to an extremely messy pile and my (literal) downfall. Don’t let this be you! Think of flaking as an extra arm workout in between pitches.

Flaked Rope
Joshua Richardson about to go for the send with his flaked-out rope.

Tie knots at the end of the rope 

Is the pitch 20 meters? Thirty meters? Seventy meters? Even if everyone knows the rope is long enough for a particular route, I adamantly tie a knot for every climb. Not only is it good practice, but it’s the simplest way to prevent a ground-fall in case a rope is too short. A fisherman’s/stopper knot is the most standard, but an overhand, figure-8, or anything that would stop a rope from slipping through a belay device works. 

The figure-8 knot. Emma Renly

These simple knots can save your life. From a belayer’s standpoint, it prevents the rope from slipping through the device and dropping the climber. While rappelling down a pitch, the knots prevent the climber from rappelling off the end of the rope.  

Fisherman's Knot

Keep the climber tight at the beginning of a route 

As a pretty mediocre climber, I’ve had my fair share of falling on the first piece of protection. The only reason that I haven’t had a ground-fall on lead is because of solid belayers that keep the slack tight at the start. 

This is not always the case for top-rope. Belayers, myself included, are generally more relaxed since the climber will likely not take a big whip.  At the beginning routes, this is when ground-falls happen. I found it especially true on long pitches with rope stretch, on climbs where the crux move is at the start, or on rocks with loose holds that break off.  

Quickdraws and rope
Calli Jo Levin

Use your friends 

Not sure if the rope is long enough? Don’t have the midpoint marked? Forgot to tie the ends? Didn’t flake it out beforehand? Unsure of a loose death-block that could fall off? Give friends a shout! More often than not, climbing is a social sport with at least one other group at the crag. Utilize your partner or the people around the base. 

Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous sport, but also one of the most rewarding. Try not to fall into the trap of complacency to ensure maximum potential for sending in a lifetime.

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