The Human Factors of Rock Climbing – A matter of life and death

A tragedy occurred last week in West Virginia where a rock climber died apparently due to a human factors issue with her gear. This text comes from a commenter on Rockclimbing.com:

The climber was Karen Feher from Midlothian Va. She climbed to the anchor of Rico Suave and clipped in direct. Her setup: She had two thin dyneema slings girth hitched to her harness. At the end of each sling was a locking carabiner held in place with a rubber Petzl keeper…She clipped a locker to each bolt and probably called off belay. I’m unclear if she was going to rappel or lower. It doesn’t matter. She fell to the ground.

The day after the accident a local climber named Craig (last name?) climbed to the anchor and found a locker on each bolt with a Petzl String still affixed to each one. Both Petzl strings were torn on the side.

Let me give a little background on the gear so you can understand what seems to have happened:

Climbers can affix themselves to the wall with equipment that has carabiners on both ends. This allows them to clip themselves to one side and clip the other to the wall. These can come in different varieties, and two types are illustrated below.

The first type consists of a sewn sling between the two carabiners. It is sewn tightly in multiple places to make sure that it holds tightly to the two carabiners.

A "quickdraw" with two carabiners
Notice the larger and smaller holes in each end. One holds a carabiner loosely to the rock while the other holds a carabiner more tightly on the rope end.

Notice on one side it is sewn so the carabiner hangs loosely and on the other side it is sewn tightly, so that it holds the carabiner almost immobile. The reason for this is to allow the side connected to the wall to swing freely as the rope moves, which keeps the rope movement from jarring or upsetting protection put into the rock. The other end that is connected to the rope keeps the carabiner from moving around and possibly turning sideways.

The second type (below) consists of a nylon sling doubled over between the carabiners. The benefit of this kind of sling is that it can be changed in length – by doubling and tripling it, it can either be 4′ long, 2′ long, or just a foot long. However, notice both sides are the same. The benefit of having one loose side and one tight side does not exist here. Incidentally, this is the type of sling I use almost exclusively.

A simple loop connects the two carabiners
A simple loop connects the two carabiners
The sling has now been doubled over to shorten it

There is one way to turn the second type of sling into an approximation of the first type: a rubber band. Not only can you do this with a plain rubber band, there are some specifically sold for this purpose.

The rubber band holds the rope end tight while allowing the other end to swing freely
Again, rope holds one end, this time with sling not doubled over

The problem with this solution lies in the changes to visibility and function that the rubber bands can have when the slings are doubled-over incorrectly.  Click here for a video explaining what can go wrong.

Essentially, the sling can become almost invisibly connected ONLY by the rubber band. I am sure no one would like to think of hanging 100 feet from the ground by a grocery store rubber band.

The additional component to the tragedy that prompted this post is that both of her slings were attached only by the rubber band. Climbers build redundancy into their systems to prevent accidents like this, but here both failed.

5 thoughts on “The Human Factors of Rock Climbing – A matter of life and death”

  1. Scary… Why don’t they make the longer slip have a smaller end that always hooks to a carabiner, but still allows it to be doubled over to adjust the length? You could still use the rubber band when it has been shortened, but the small end would always be hooked in (unless someone skipped a step and still hooked it as though it didn’t have that small hole). That would cause quite a scare if you are hooked by the rubber band, but it would still catch you when the band snapped. It would be designed similarly to the “quickdraw”. Still not as safe, but safer in cases of error.

  2. Very interesting post. I think that folks can forget sometimes just how globally relevant human factors and usability are. I haven’t done any climbing in a long time, but I can remember thinking that there seemed to be the potential for numerous mistakes.

  3. Very interesting place to find a discussion of a recent accident affecting the climbing community. I compliment you on your presentation of the facts if this was not compiled by someone who climbs often!

    I wanted to reply to this post because there appears to me to be another fact that is omitted from your otherwise comprehsive analysis. That fact is that the equiptment that she was using for attaching herself to the anchor was not intended for such use. Furthermore, the rubber bands that were used were a climbing specific rubber band which in its instructional pamplet clearly designates this method of failure and identifies that product as not being appropriate for open length slings due to the potential for error.

    To respond to the first comment, these slings have a variety of uses other than allowing one to shorten or lengthen. Those uses would be impeded by having a sewn section for the biner and that is why they are designed as such.

    One more comment, and please don’t take this to be callous or hurtful. The top of your blog says “Not blaming the user since 2007.” I want to make sure to mention that the climbing community (and other extreeme sport communities such as skydiving) does not absolve someone of blame when they are responsible for their own injury or worse even if it seems unsightly. The truth is all that matters in preventing similar situations from occuring.

    thanks!

    Jeff

  4. For the rope side, could you girth hitch one end of the sling to the beaner instead of using a rubber band? It seems like that would prevent the beaner from moving about.

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