So yesterday, for the first time in my 20+ years of climbing, I saw a climbing sling break during the stopping of a lead fall. Ok. I didn’t so much ‘see’ the sling break as I did ‘feel’ it because I was the person who was climbing. I have actually broken two biners before climbing due to kicking or twisting them and getting the nose notch caught in the bolt but this was the first I have ever heard of a sling breaking.
I was trying a route called Don’t Call Me Coach, a name I particularly appreciate, at the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. I have tried the route a few times this winter but not too seriously and since coming back from Costa Rica I thought it would be a good change to build up my callouses and fitness. Yesterday I made my way up into the crux and decided to skip a draw in the middle of the crux. As I was exiting the crux I had my right hand in a mono and all I had to do was reach for a really large hueco hold. I actually didn’t feel tired or nervous but couldn’t figure out what to do with my feet and as I reached up my foot slipped and I was airborne. When I fell my waist was probably 12-15′ above the last clipped bolt but I was 60-65′ in the air so not a big deal. As I was falling I was waiting for a nice soft catch and looking at the wall to brace myself as I swung in. I felt the rope start to grab me and then there was a very quick and violent snap of the rope that actually threw my head forward. I heard my belayer yelling and from the sound of her voice I knew something was wrong and immediately sensed that the issue wasn’t with my belayer but above me. I didn’t know what had happened. I have broken biners in the past so thought maybe that had happened, or I broke the bolt or actually broke some rock and so I looked up expecting something to come down and hit me. What I didn’t expect was to see a lone biner spinning down the rope towards me (reminded of vertical limit somehow). It was then that I looked up and saw that the sling had snapped. Once I realized I was ok I looked around and was only about 10′ off the ground but safe. My head hurt a bit from hitting the rope but other than that I was fine. My belayer was actually worse off. When the sling snapped we both fell down and she really wasn’t expecting it and landed on, or hit, her ankle hard. It was both of us hitting the end of the rope that snapped me forward.
Fortunately we were both ok and it could have been a lot worse. Here’s the thing though: I consider myself quite a cautious climber. I inspect and replace gear quite regularly and am always leery when I see people put blind trust in their equipment, whether it’s slings, draws or even bolts. I had actually inspected these draws fairly recently but what I didn’t notice was some very minor abrasion and I’m assuming a long, long time in the sun.
Here’s two photos of the sling.
Now fortunately Kolin Powick and the Black Diamond QA crew have done a pretty good job over the years testing new and used gear. Kolin was also quick to comment on my facebook post that he thought it was because I was fat. Hey, he’s at home while his wife is out crushing so I expect him to be trolling facebook . Actually Kolin pointed out that he thought the gear was 5-6 years old which is WAY too long for any webbing to be hanging in the sun. Here’s a link to the BD site and in particular an article about used slings&webbing. Some of the results are pretty scary. Lately a lot has been made about how carabiners wear down but that damage is usually easily detected (as long as you look for it). What surprised me was that I couldn’t actually see much damage and I guess some of the slings the BD crew tested ‘looked’ ok but rated significantly lower than newer gear. One thing I did notice and will incorporate into my inspections is that the biner was discoloured by the sun. The discolouration won’t do anything to the strength of the biner but would be a good indication of the sun damage on the sling. Personally I’ve never liked the spectra slings and I don’t like the trend towards skinny draws. I understand they have their place in the alpine and on long routes but for sport climbing I want burly gear that can take repeated abuse. I’ve heard in the past that spectra doesn’t last as well in the UV and I think that contributed to this breakage but I’m not sure.
I don’t blame anyone for what happened. The gear on the climb wasn’t mine but that doesn’t change the fact that it is my responsibility, and the responsibility of each climber, to inspect and make sure the gear you are climbing on is safe. This isn’t just for fixed gear but belay devices, partners harnesses etc… I was lucky I wasn’t 10′ closer to the ground (I probably wouldn’t skip a draw closer to the ground) and was unscathed. Fixed gear is a convenience but a convenience that must be maintained by each and every climber in the community. Be safe out there people.
Posted on February 18th, 2013 by Mike Doyle
Filed under: Uncategorized