A friend of mine was recently rappelling from a climb, meaning that she had the rope through a device that was connected to her belay loop on her harness. As she rappelled, she yelled that her harness broke, and the waistband of the harness slid nearly to her armpits. Fortunately, she remained calm and collected, and was still able to rappell safely, if awkwardly, to the ground. On the ground, her partner saw that her waistband with belay loop had become disconnected from her leg loops. The leg loops were intact, though a keeper-strap that helps the leg loops stay centered was no longer connected.
So, what happened?
First, for the non-climbers, a primer. A climbing harness is composed of three major parts, attached to each other in various ways depending on the manufacturer. The first part is the waistband, which is load-bearing, meaning that it is meant to take the weight of a climber.
The second part of the harness is the belay loop, a load-bearing stitched circle that connects the waistband and leg loops and is also used to hold a belay device, to hold the climber’s weight when rappelling, and for anchoring to the ground or a wall when needed.
The last part of the harness is the leg loops, which are also load-bearing in the parts that connect to the belay loop and around the legs themselves.
Figure 1 shows the general composition of climbing harnesses, with these three parts diagrammed in the Base Concept.
On most harnesses, the leg loops are kept connected to the belay loop by a “keeper strap.” This is usually a weak connection not meant to bear weight, but only to keep the leg loops centered on the harness (shown in blue in figure 1). In the case study that prompted this blog post, the keeper strap was connected through the belay loop, rather than the full-strength leg loops (figure 2.) When loaded, it came apart, separating the leg loops from the waistbelt. My own tests found that the keeper strap can be very strong, when it is loaded on the strap itself. But if the leg loops move so that the keeper buckle is loaded by the belay loop, it comes apart easily.
There are two ways to mis-attach leg loops to the belay loop of a harness. The first way is by connecting the leg loops back to the harness, after they were removed, using the keeper strap. The video below demonstrates this possibility. Once connected, the harness fits well and gives little indication the leg loops are not actually connected to bear weight.
The second (and I think more likely) way is by having the leg loops disconnected from the back of the harness, usually for a bathroom break or to get in and out of the harness. The leg loops are still connected in the front of the harness, but if a leg loop passes through the belay loop, suddenly the keeper strap is load bearing when the leg loops flip around. However, the harness does not fit differently nor does it look particularly different unless carefully inspected. Video below.
The non-load bearing parts of the harness are what determine the possibility for this error. In figure 1, some harnesses either do not allow disconnection of the leg loops in back or only allow their disconnection in tandem. When the leg loops are connected in this way, the front of the leg loops cannot be passed through the belay loop. Video demonstration below.
In sum, this error can be examined for likelihood and severity. It is not likely that the error occurs, however if it does occur it is likely it will go undiscovered until the keeper strap comes apart. For severity, the error could be lethal, although that is not likely. The waistbelt will hold the climber’s weight and having leg loops and a waistbelt is a (comfortable) redundancy. However, the sudden shock of suddenly losing support from the leg loops could cause loss of control, either for an un-backed-up rappell or while belaying another climber.
What are the alternatives?
Many climbers reading this are thinking “This would never happen to me” or “You’d have to be an idiot to put your harness together like that” or my usual favorite “If you wanted climbing to be perfectly safe, you shouldn’t even go.” Blaming the victim gives us a feeling of control over our own safety. However, there are other instances where gear was assembled or re-assembled incorrectly with tragic consequences. No one (or their child) deserves to pay with their life for a simple mistake that can be prevented through good design.