Written by Anton
[Also, take a moment to read and learn from Hugh’s accident report below]
Standing at the base of Jacob’s Ladder with a razor sharp saw in my hand, about to do some tree cutting and tidying up. Louise is sorting ropes; a climber is heading for Jeopardy via Jacob’s and is complaining how wet and cold the rock is. How did we get here?
Last Saturday Hugh, Jeremy and myself met at the cable car. Weather was perfect, sun was rising and the area warming up. As per usual we discussed what to climb… some options. The start was agreed. La Vida first 2 pitches then we move to Fountain ledge with all its options. Up we go in the cable car and on the top a very different climate. Windy and cold. Quick review: we will go down and make the call. The call was La Vida as discussed. I lead the first 2 pitches, Willis and Jeremy follow. The wind was gusty and cold, rock was bearable, not too cold. We all went up to the Cobblestone Gendarme traverse, wind was strong and freezing. Quick review of where to go once again. Discussion. ‘Let’s get onto Jacob’s out of the wind.’ Off we go.
At the base of Jacob’s Ladder we sort out gear and the ropes. As per usual we are having our discussion about the world and all its problems. Willis gets me on belay and I have all the gear. At that point I asked Jeremy for my wind jacket incase I am cold on the hanging belay. Willis then secures himself to the tree for an upward pull, should I come off. The tree is synonymous with the start of Jacob’s.
Off I go; using the tree, to step up to the start, no gear placed. The tree has had its fair share of wear and tear from hundreds of climbers using it as a step ladder to and onto Jacob’s. I step up off the ledge, left hand not quite holding me, left and right foot on narrow slopey damp rock. I move my right hand to get to a good pinch. At that point, my right foot slips and I go backwards (left hand not holding onto the rock). I land square on the tree with my bum just above the Y split. The tree breaks below the Y split and I fall onto the ground from where I started. My right shoulder in line with the edge of the starting point. From there down is a 15 m drop.
My belayer had tied into the tree branch. His point where the sling was secured was on the part of the tree that broke off. Had I gone all the way down he would have joined me. Foot note is: classic errors made on a regular basis.
- I should have placed my first piece prior to stepping off the ledge.
- Belayer tie to the base of the tree and a second piece of gear out for the upward protection.
So that is why I had the saw and was cleaning up. The rock was a lot wetter than the previous week and got colder the higher you went. A good exercise to climb with care and watching my every move to avoid a repeat and place sufficient gear.
The coffee was a good reward at the end of the climb.
Accident Report by Hugh:
Why ‘when shit hits the fan’ is not a carte blanche for preventable accidents?
In choosing our sports we (given our general ages), know the consequences of accidents .
Taking into account the mileage we have clocked with the exception of the Lion’s Head accident, we have a pretty solid track record.
The “Tree Fall“ has got me and I’m pleased to see, all of us, thinking.
Given that the potential worst case scenario (in which case I doubt we would be writing this nor reading it) was a matter of centimetres:
We have been at that location numerous times.
We discussed on the way up to the ledge another accident (conditions!)
We sorted the ropes, I did the usual sling over the tree trunk anchor, and you were off.
The easiest part of the easiest pitch of the day.
Except, and here it becomes interesting: Accidents as we know through personal experience have the following profiles –
Those with fatalities are discussed and analysed in detail by either survivors / witnesses and those in the know, or interested parties (human nature loves the gory stories).
Then we have those with serious injuries (Lion’s Head), ditto, with the survivor adding to the eventual analysis.
Those with less serious injuries, have less analysis, along the lines that ‘shit happens” (I can guarantee that quite a few of these incidents had far more potential consequences and were most likely preventable).
We had a fall which in itself was not necessarily preventable (fortunately our guy was bruised and battered but not broken). But the really bad potential consequences were not considered. I as the belayer was responsible for this situation.
Familiarity breeds contempt. By this I mean we know that spot intimately.
The climber is going to place protection relatively soon after starting on ‘relatively’ easy climbing .
The anchor on the tree is pretty much a “gesture “ to good practice, mainly for the consequence of a fall after gear is placed, and therefore technically for an up directional pull (even a lower placed sling may not have done the job).
The failure of not considering all possibilities and adequately providing for these, was the critical issue.
‘So what?’, you may ask?
Well, accidents we come out of unscathed are probably the best learning events we have (the airline industry lives by these events).
Similar situations (safe ledge reducing the “exposure” factor): The first pitch of Omega and the 3rd pitch of Atlantic Crag . One could even look at most of the climbs on the Bombay Duck ledge.
I know gear is scarce, time is short but….the anchor has to be right and the first protection placed as soon as reasonably possible.
Happy but safe climbing is the deal we seek !