Advocating Safer Climbing

This website is about exactly what the domain name says: safer climbing.

First of all, climbing is not a safe activity. Full stop. You may get hurt, or worse, even die during climbing. Of course, so are other sports. Climbing can be safer than some sports or less safe than another. It is only relative. Also, although you can not eliminate all the risks in climbing entirely, you can most likely reduce some, or maybe even all, of them more or less. Let's make our climbing activity safer without (much) sacrificing the fun part of it. This website is advocating, as well as seeking for, the ways to achieve it.

Climbing is in one definition a fight against the gravity. Simple. The law that describes the gravity and kinematics is not a rocket science, but a straightforward physics, called Classical mechanics, and any student who has finished the first-year of Physics course in university should understand it or at least its basics. It is a zillion-times proved theory since the formulation by the great Isaac Newton over 300 hundered years ago, and so there is no quetion left for its validity.

Indeed there is no mystery, or mythical power involved, when a climber falls, from a point of view of physics, no matter how much a climber wishes to believe. If the gravitational pull of climber's body exceeds the amount of the friction between the climber and rock to stop it, then s/he falls. Siimple is that.

I believe climbers have to be a realist, or otherwise they would not live long. Imagine a climber who believes her/himself to be indestructible. Or, imagine a climber who believes god helps her/him to levitate at the crucial moment. The reality is, of course, there are moves you could do and those you physically possibly can't, and if you fall off and crush to something you will hurt more or less, or worse.

However even when you fall, if the safety chain you or your partner set up and use works, the consequence can be well acceptable, maybe just a hurt ego. Therefore we use the safety equipment like ropes and harness, and they work exactly as the physics states. In other words, climbers have to be one of the few kinds of athletes, who heavily rely on and trust the physics, maybe just after snooker/billiard players and sailers (and motor-sport ones).

Or, you can look at it like this. Non-climbers would easily get scared in abseiling, and some even do it as a charity challenge. Climbers know much of those fear in abseil is irrational (with certain conditions satisfied, such as, the bombproof anchor), and so the experienced climbers would not get scared in abseiling beyond reason, primarily because they know all the gear they use is strong enough, as wel as trust their judgement. But what do they rely on? A major part of it is the physics-based certificate each gear they use has. Consciously or not, climbers heavily rely on the law of physics.

However, if you have a look at almost any, if not all, textbook of climbing, or as far as I know all the textbooks written by Brits at the time of this writing, it is obvious the authors' understanding of how the classical mechanics work is poor, and there are loads of incorrect to wrong descriptions and suggestions in ropework for climbing, often leading to wrong recommendations. I repeat, it is not a rocket science, but 300-years-old zillion-times-proved theory. How uneducated we climbers are, and how much unneccesary risk the majority of us climbers are taking, are actually staggering. And also it is embarrasing as well for the climbing community, considering how basic and old the underlying physics is. Well, to be fair, it is not only climbers — physical phenomena are displayed incorrectly or even absurdly wrongly all over, from old Tom and Jerry to films like Vertical Limit or even Gravity.

I am not against climbers taking a risk. A solo climber may decide to climb a 100-metre cliff free-solo, for whatever reason, be it for personal challenge or ethical ground. That is their decision and I have no problem with it. After all any sport, let alone climbing, involves some risks, and how to balance out is up to individual. However, for example, when a climber constructs a belay with gear in a less safe way, while there is a safer (and as easy) alternative way readily available, the risk s/he is taking is by definition unnecessarily high, or higher than it ideally should be. That is sad. Climbers had better be knowledgeable enough to avoid such a situation.

A word of caution is although the principle of the underlying physics is undoubtedly correct, to apply it to each individual case may not be straightforward or even practical. For example, to estimate the stress in a knot accurately is extremely difficult in general. Nevertheless it is also true many cases climbers encounter in the ropework are rather straightforward, at least qualitatively, if not exactly quantitatively.

I am a physicist (or more strictly, astrophysicist), so it is fair to say I have a reasonably good understanding of basic physics, which is pretty much all one needs in any climbing situation at least at its basic level. My physical ability of climbing is not great by any means, but knowledge of physics is my advantage, and it is useful to maintain my climbing activity safer. So, here I am advocating what is good and what is poor comparatively.

I will sometimes include the descriptions about the background physics, maybe with some equations in separate boxes — equations are often much clearer than any wording for those who understand, as one equation could tell 20 lines of descriptions easily. However at the same time I will try to keep the main descriptions plain and intuitive for general readers. After all, climbers do not have to understand how a theorem of physics or mathematics is derived, but all they need is to understand or even simply memorise the results that physics tells.

Unfortunately there is no easy way… If you happen to be one of the people that have made a substantial amount of effort to learn basic physics in the past and have managed to keep your knowledge, congratulations, you are lucky in this case and are rewarded a little (at last!?). Many things related to climbing safety described in this blog will be felt straightforward for you, though that may not always mean every ropework you have been doing in climbing is right, as you will realise (sorry, if that is not the case, but my observation of climber-physicists, including myself in the past, tells that is often the case). On the contrary, if you haven't, like the vast majority, it is now the time for you to need more effort to memorise more things to keep your safety standard in climbing high. But don't worry, it would be still a considerably less effort than to learn physics from the scratch, and a good news is that is exactly what many good and old mountaineerers have been doing. You don't need a talent, but perseverence (to study), which keen climbers should have a bucket load of!

Note I will sometimes refer to climbing in Britain and by British throughout my posts. It is simply because that is pretty much the only climbing community I know well enough to get a good overall picture of, be it to praise or criticise, as my climbing career has been developed predominantly in Britain and with Brits, while my ascent abroad is much more limited. I hope this blog will be a small contribution from me to help the climbing community be a slightly safer one!

Finally, although I am reasonably confident in what I am writing about (unless explicitly stating otherwise), particularly if it is related to physics, and although my background of physics should keep me on the right track in that field, that does not mean what I mention is always right. I may be sometimes wrong. If you spot any error or of my misunderstanding, please feel free to leave a comment, and I will welcome and appreciate it. As a scientist I have trained to be happy to bin my ego to learn the truth. And as a climber, the most important thing for me is to acquire the correct understanding of the safety-related things to keep my climbing safer so that I will live long to enjoy more climbing!