Climbing Gym Accident

10:00 p.m. on August 26, 2012 (EDT)
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I just want to share an incident that higlights the consequence of not understanding the basics of belaying and the belay device. I was not in the gym when the accident happened, but I will try my best to describe the accident.

On July 28, two of my friends were climbing at Hoosier Heights gym in Bloomington, IN. The ropes in the gym have a permanent grigri attached to them. The belayer was in the gym for the second time and had gone through the belay lessons. After a couple of routes, as the belayer was lowering the climber, she got her brake (right) hand pinched between the grigri and the rope. She panicked, let the rope go off her brake hand and for some reason also opened the lever with her left hand. The climber fell around 10-15 feet on the gym's padded floor.

The X-ray and CT Scan revealed that he has a fracture and there is an 80% damage to the spinal canal. Usually this means paralysis, but fortunately that was not the case with my friend and he was still able to move his hands and feet. Last week, a spinal fusion surgery was done to fix his back and he is recovering in the hospital now.

 

 

10:27 p.m. on August 26, 2012 (EDT)
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Grigris are usually fool-proof, but not always.  Sorry to hear about your friend and hope he fully recovers.

3:04 p.m. on August 27, 2012 (EDT)
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I NEVER liked using a grigi. You can't feel the rope properly, and I find I can belay someone a lot more smoothly using a regular belay tube. And I've heard of exactly the same things happening a number of times.

I think climbing gyms just use them to get newbies up on the wall sooner, but they're also assuming the cam in the grigri will take care of any mistakes a new belayer might make. Obviously that's not always the case.

Glad your friend is going to recover.

5:12 p.m. on August 27, 2012 (EDT)
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Well if you open the lever that releases the rope its doing what its designed to do.  Its not the arrow, its the indian.

My oldest daughter was twelve and her hair got caught in the ATC (slightly more skill/attentiveness required to use than a grigri) she was lowering me with but she kept her head and got things sorted out without dropping me.  If a 12 yr old can do it...

 

9:03 p.m. on August 27, 2012 (EDT)
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Agreed. I think a grisgris gives new climbers a false sense of security, and the gyms let them do something they're not really qualified for. In my experience, if someone knows how to use the (only slightly more difficult) belay tube, they're relying on their own skills and experience, not letting the machine cover if they make a mistake.

I know one gym where you see new climbers being allowed to chat with their friends on the floor while ignoring the person they're belaying. And they wonder why they flunk their belay test at other gyms.

3:47 a.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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I learned using a figure 8 and also have an old Lowe tuber somewhere. Totally old school, but at least I can remember how they work.

9:45 a.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Wow Tom a figure 8?  I have one someplace but I heard that they don't catch falls well.  This was a good thing back when ropes were all static; it gave a dynamic belay.  I still haven't tried it for rappel though.  I think I keep it just for its historic value.

10:44 a.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Has anybody ever tried doing a body belay? Or doing a rap that way?

I've seen drawings of the technique but it's too scary for me.

11:32 a.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter, I started using a body belay, but switched to a figure 8 when they came out. I never liked the 'biner brake, as lining up the gates was more complicated and put stress in the wrong direction on the 'biners. I also learned to rappel using the dulfersitz. Works in pinch, but you can unwrap.

Sage, figure 8's work well and I used one for many years. Easy to set up and symmetrical.

2:09 p.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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I tend to NOT climb with anyone using a Grigri, simply because so many are taught the wrong way at gyms and tend to develop bad habits. You often hear that a Petzl Grigri (or Trango's similar Cinch) are "automatic belay devices" or that they are "foolproof" (or "almost foolproof"). Petzl and Trango are very adamant that such devices are NOT "automatic" nor are they "foolproof". Over the years, I have been asked by reps and tech people from both companies to emphasize this in the climbing and climbing instructor courses I teach. There are plenty of wrong ways to use such devices, and accidents involving serious injury and deaths have happened in gyms and on rock due to wrong use of such devices. Both companies emphasize that there is no truly "automatic belay device". There are a couple of devices intended for soloing and braking devices that are used at gyms and portable towers that will provide a relatively slow lowering (they do not stop falls).

I have seen a number of dropped climbers in gyms using grigris. There are a few people I will climb with using grigris, but only because I have observed them over a period of time. And yes, I personally have Grigris (both original and Grigri 2), a Cinch, and a couple of solo self-belay devices. I am well aware of ways to screw up on all these. And, yes, like Erich, I learned using a hip belay, and I have climbed with people who used a standing shoulder belay, used figure 8s, carabiner wraps, carabiner brakes, and brake bars, plus make a lot of use of the munter hitch (a rope hitch that should be part of every climber's quiver of techniques). We used many of the old techniques (which were pretty new then) because we didn't know any better.

Here are two videos from Petzl on the right and wrong ways to use their Grigri

- http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x50vsu_grigri-belaying-the-leader_sport

- http://climbinglife.com/tech-tips/safer-gri-gri-use-video.html

An important thing to note is that the hand position for the brake hand is the "new technique" in the second video. This "hands down" method has been strongly recommended for tube devices and figure 8s as well as the Grigri and Cinch for over 15 years now. Yet you still see people using the "hands up" position ("Classic technique"). The biggest problem with the "hands up" position is that you can end up in the "praying hands" position, aka "parallel ropes", which gives virtually no braking, even with a device like a grigri. The "classic technique", hands-up position was used originally with Sticht plates and tube devices early on, simply as a carry-over from how we placed our brake hands when doing a hip belay. The new devices from the Sticht plate onward call for the "new technique", hands-down, so you are always in the position to provide the sharp bend around the belay device (tube-type, Grigri/Cinch, or munter hitch) that provides the controllable friction.

The most wide-spread bad habit I see in gyms and even in sport climbing areas (aside from the "hands-up" position) is the belayer with a hand resting on the release lever with it extended. This is apparently (according to both Petzl and Trango) THE most common contributor to gym drops. Sounds like this was a contributor to the accident described by the OP. Note well that in both the Petzl videos, the recommendation for lowering and fast feeding for a rapid leader is to squeeze the whole grigri.

As an ending note, no I am not overlooking or forgetting the different approaches used by spelunkers, slot canyoneers, and industrial workers.

5:21 p.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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I use the grigri 2 exclusively for belaying now. It is a great piece of gear that saves the experienced climber tons of energy when belaying which can be, in turn, used for climbing after you switch belays with your partner.

The directions for use of the grigri make it clear that it is not "automatic braking", it is an "assisted braking." Another thing made VERY clear (they say this after almost every sentence in the instructions manual) is that you NEVER take your hand off the braking side of the rope.

One of the worst things you can do to a new climber is put a device in their hands that they have no understanding of how or why it works. I mostly blame the climbing gyms for this, but they are not the only ones at fault. This girl must have brought her own belay device to the gym. Right? Why didn't she just pull out some extra slack and use the device she was more comfortable using?

5:40 p.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Instructions? Manual? We don' need no 'strucshuns!

You are right, of course. But how many people actually read the instructions, user manuals, or disclaimers? And how many would-be climbers actually get competent trainin?

I just got the 2012 ANAM (Accidents in North American Mountaineering) yesterday. Excellent article on rappelling safety! Skimmed the reports. As usual, an astounding number of inexperienced, poor judgment, overconfident, etc etc etc.

9:54 p.m. on August 28, 2012 (EDT)
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But how many people actually read the instructions, user manuals, or disclaimers?

Not enough apparently. Good point.

And how many would-be climbers actually get competent trainin?

Almost none I would guess. I never had any competent training. Sadly.

Very cool on the new book.

I looked over the new online statistical reports and I saw "Failed to follow directions" under "contributory causes." I wonder if they are talking about the same thing we are discussing here... hmmm

10:09 a.m. on August 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Raiders99999 said:

This girl must have brought her own belay device to the gym. Right? Why didn't she just pull out some extra slack and use the device she was more comfortable using?

 The grigri is permanently attached to all the ropes and you cannot use your own belay device. For beginners the introductory belay lesson is using a grigri and I don't think they teach the best technique or emphasize enough the consequences of incorrect belaying. But, as you said it is not just the gym's fault, my belayer friend should have been more careful.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and concerns.

10:29 a.m. on August 29, 2012 (EDT)
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shashiraj8 said:

 The grigri is permanently attached to all the ropes and you cannot use your own belay device. For beginners the introductory belay lesson is using a grigri and I don't think they teach the best technique or emphasize enough the consequences of incorrect belaying. But, as you said it is not just the gym's fault, my belayer friend should have been more careful.

 That is pretty common in gyms, unfortunately. The result that many gym rats never learn to belay properly. They get in the habit of depending on the "automatic belay" of the device, chatting with their buddies, looking around (the gyms have replaced singles bars), and, yes, talking and texting on their cell phones. I haven't seen that often, but I have seen it, mostly "hands free".

8:21 p.m. on September 1, 2012 (EDT)
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shashiraj I hope your friend gets better soon.  Sorry to hear about the accident.

I've noticed a few people, at the climbing gym that I go to, that bought a grigri seemingly because they thought that spending the extra money somehow gave them extra credit as a climber ...

11:19 a.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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I'm sorry about what happened to your friend.


I don't exactly consider myself as an "experienced" climber, but as far as I can remember, when I was a real newbie to climbing, my cousin would tell me to avoid using a grigri since it will not make me into a good climber, lest have me believe that I am already doing okay when in fact, I'm not. So didn't use it. 

I hope I'm making sense here. Thanks!

July 30, 2014
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