Adrenaline magazine - June 2008
How Not to Climb - Safety Tips for climbing in Thailand
Written by Naomi Boman and Simon Ramsden
If a body falls 22 metres under gravity,
reaching a terminal velocity of approximately
6.3 metres per second, what is the result? In
my case it was a fractured hip, large
haematoma and a laceration that needed
stitches. The cause of the accident? My
belayer took her hands off the rope (a belayer
is someone who stands on the ground and
secures the climber by paying the rope in
and out through a small metal rope-braking
Climbing is perfectly safe, it’s just some of the
people who climb who are potentially lethal.
Vacation time, warm weather, cool people
and a relaxed atmosphere all lull visitors into
taking risks they would walk away from at
home. No, this paragraph is not about safe
sex, it’s about climbing risks. In both cases
the level of risk depends directly on your
choice of partner, who in the climbing scene
poses without doubt a greater potential risk to
your health than anything else.
scaling large rock faces has to come with
certain risks. So exactly how safe is rock
climbing? The extreme version of climbing is
This doesn’t involve a rope or any
form of protection, it’s just one climber and
his or her rock. Whether free-soloists share a
death-wish is open to debate. What isn’t open
to debate is that climbers who are averse to
ropes should if they care about their lives stick
to bouldering - traversing the lowest reaches
of rock-faces without a rope - and get their
thrills at a safe proximity to the ground.
Speak to most climbers with more than a few
routes’ experience and they will all tell you a
scary story about falling rocks. A Portuguese
friend was climbing in Europe when the
goats happily skipping around the mountain
dislodged a television-sized rock that landed
inches from the group, none of whom was
wearing a helmet.
In most countries climbing
outdoors without a helmet isn’t even an
option but in Thailand, with drunken people
jumping through fire-rings and builders
hammering the same piece of scaffolding
they’re standing on, health and safety do
not have the same priority in the national
consciousness as elsewhere.
The first climber that I stopped and asked
to tell me a scary climbing story, while
researching this article, illustrates the dangers
of a poor choice of partner. She was climbing
indoors in Seattle with a self-proclaimed
experienced climber. Once at the top she
asked the belayer “have you got me?”.
belayer replied that she had, despite holding
the rope with both hands above her head.
Quite new to climbing, the climber leant back
and then plummeted to the ground, breaking
bones but surviving thanks to the thickness
of the rope running through the belay device.
She’s nowhere near alone: the majority of
indoor climbing accidents happen through
I’ve personally seen climbers
skip clipping bolts altogether, risking a drop
to the ground if a hold breaks or something
unforeseen happens. It was my belayer taking
her hands off the rope that caused me to hit
the ground from seventy feet up and just
pure luck that I’m still around today. We once
had to confiscate a bottle of whisky from a
customer, who was groggily swigging on it
while belaying someone!
The vast majority
of climbers do not wear helmets, with some
justification, as most of the routes here are
climbed thousands of times a year and thus
do not suffer from loose rock. Note that it's the belayer who needs the helmet, not the climber - any rocks knocked off will hit the belayer, not the leader. When belaying a top-roper, keep well away from the path of any potential rock-fall. When belaying a leader, follow this advice:
- Untill your leader has clipped his third bolt, he is in danger of a ground fall, so you should stand directly underneath him and be ready to collapse on the ground if he falls, so taking a metre of slack out of the system and possibly saving him from a ground fall.
- Once your leader has clipped his third bolt, move away from the line of rock fall. If it is impossible to do this then you are still safe on Phi Phi and Railay, as these destinations' routes don't have loose rocks on them. On Koh Yao Noi and Koh Lao Liang, however, you should wear a helmet, as loose rock can and often does fall off these crags, sometimes in very large pieces.
Human error is a fact of life and even
very experienced climbers make mistakes
occasionally. I heard my name called out at
the cliff earlier this year and looked up to see
a climber friend of fourteen years’ experience
dangling at the end of his rope, thirty metres
off the ground. He’d abseiled off from a multipitch
(high) route but had forgotten to clip
the rope to the rock-face as he descended,
so losing contact with the wall and ending up
dangling in thin air.
Unfortunately he was in
unnecessary danger as he’d forgotten to tie a
knot in the end of the rope before beginning
his abseil. This would have made it physically
impossible for him to lower off the end of the
rope, which is a common cause of climbing
accidents, usually fatal ones. My friend’s dilemma was thankfully relatively
easily resolved with a successful lassoo rescue
and a lot of shouting. He later told me that he
had been so scared, when dangling at the end
of his rope, that the hand that was holding the
rope (and was the only thing between him and
certain death) started to shake involuntarily.
He had had to grab the hand with the other
hand to calm down the spasms.
Another accident I heard about was due to
a rope stretching under tension. The climber
slipped when sixty feet up, twenty feet above
the last rock-face bolt he had attached the
rope to. He was attempting to attach the
rope to the anchor, a metal ring attached to
the rock-face by rope and three bolts. Rope
stretch brought him back to the ground and
then on to the mortuary. It doesn’t seem very
sensible to be 20 feet above your last bolt
unless you fancy a bit of free-soloing practice.
While belaying a climbing partner recently, a
friend of mine was given an urgent and pained
command to ‘take’ (to grab the rope and take
the leader’s weight on it). The leader had
put her hand into a crack and been bitten by
the biggest, hairiest spider she’d ever seen– which can be a big deal in Thailand.
months earlier I’d not noticed a snake eating
a bird next to the anchor of my route, but had
almost stepped on its friend on the descent.
If you want to climb in the jungle, you must
expect wildlife. Monkeys have got to be the
most unfriendly and overrated creatures
around. They have seriously warped value
systems. I mean, if you smile at them they
will likely assume that you’re baring your teeth
preparatory to a fight and will then probably
lob something indescribable at you. Such
missiles can be impossible to dodge when you
are hanging on to a rock-face and they can
really ruin your route.
Be aware that abseiling on a single wet rope using anything other than a device designed specifically for the purpose is asking for disaster. A standard eight or ATC won't work properly and you will plummet groundwards at high speed. If you don't have a prussic backup to slow you down, a high-speed ground fall is possible. Whenever abseiling, you should use a prussic backup - if you don't know what one is, find out !
It seems such an obvious safety tip that it's hardly worth mentioning, but somebody died on Railay in 2009 from getting this one wrong. When you tie onto the rope, there are 2 acceptable ways of doing so (a) you tie a knot directly onto your harness (b) you tie a knot onto a locking carabiner, then attach the carabiner to your harness. In 2009 a climber used a quickdraw, instead of a locking carabiner, to attach the rope to his harness. When he got to the top of the climb his belayer took in the tension, then the climber leant backwards on the rope. His quickdraw got tangled up in the rope. The rope forced one of the quickdraw's gates open, and the climber fell and died. such tragedies are so unneccessary.
When your leader comes down and it's your turn to climb, make sure you tie on to the correct end of the rope, which is the one which runs through all the quickdraws before reaching the anchor. Tying onto the wrong end can be dangerous. On a climb where the anchor is above and to either side of the start point, you could have a problem. If you clip into the end of the rope which goes straight to the anchor, then fall off, you risk a dangerous pendulum swing, at the end of which you could hit something hard.
Heres's one last safety tip. It's not common practice in Thailand to tie a knot in the bottom of the rope (ie the end that's not attached to the climber). This is fine when the climber is top-roping. When the climber is leading what most people do in Thailand is make an assessment which goes something like this:
- How high is the anchor?
- How long is the rope?
- Is the rope at least twice as long as the anchor is high?
- If so, I don't need to put a knot in the bottom end of the rope
- If not, I need to put a knot in otherwise, when I lower the leader down after his climb, the rope won't reach, the end will go through the belay device, and the leader will fall.
Unfortunately this common practice isn't good enough. What is the leader mistakenly goes off-route and climbs a higher anchor than expected? In this case the rope will not be long enough to lower him to the ground and, if the belayer isn't very careful, the leader will fall. The best practice is to always tie a knot in the bottom of the rope when belaying a leader, no matter how long the rope or high the anchor. It should be one of those automatic checks (like checking your knot).
Climbing can and should be
extremely safe, without losing any of the
enjoyment or the adrenaline rush. Whether
you ‘go Dutch’ and wear a helmet, using
your head will take you a long way. After
my 22 metre fall I was back at the cliff nine
weeks after leaving hospital.
rock gymnastic attempts weren’t much to
write home about, I stand by my belief that
with good preparation and common sense,
rock climbing is safe and should be tried by
everyone. After all, it’s as scary and dangerous
as you want to make it sound, once you’re
safely on the ground and telling your non-climbing
friends all about it.
Click here for more information on climbing on Koh Yao Noi, Koh Lao Liang, Railay/Tonsai and Koh Phi Phi.
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