Rock Climbing – Could Swiss Cheese save your life?

headerimage_scIn a former life I worked for an Air Traffic Control service provider, producing training software for Air Traffic Controllers. Like rock climbing, ATC’s have a lot riding on the line, namely other people’s lives. So they take safety and risk avoidance very, very seriously and put alot of time into studying and perfecting accident avoidance systems.

It was here that I was introduced to the Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation. The concept is that between any potential hazard and accident there is a series of steps or layers. Each of these layers has a series of systemic flaws or holes that, given the right circumstances, allow access through to the next layer (Swiss Cheese). If a number of these, sometimes seemly unrelated, holes line up you end with a catastrophic accident.


Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

How does this relate to Rock Climbing? Pretty well I think. It’s not a perfect system but it definately makes you step back and consider your approach in how to proceed in risky situations.

Here’s an example of a scenario that turned out ok but at many points could have turned into a major epic or ended badly pretty quickly, in a very simple and on the surface easy looking afternoon of climbing.

We set off on a late start in a party of three (after a few drinks the night before) from our campsite to climb an easily graded 2 pitch route, that none of us had climbed before. Already we had poked a hole in a slice of cheese, in that we were all a bit tired and dehydrated from the night before. The late start also means there was less daylight available to complete the route in. A party of 3 on a multiple pitch can often take a heap more time that is expected and due to the amount of rope wrangling and general messing about on the ground and at belays that an extra person adds to the mix.

All these points are unrelated but put together all start to create a bit of funnel pointing towards where the journey is going to end up – most of the time everything turns out ok but it is always good to recognise the warning signs that things may not go totally to plan.

To get to the start of the route we need to walk up over a low mountain, this was ok we had done it before, it was a cool day so no problems there. We had to find our way off the back of the rock (a sloping granite dome). This proved a little more difficult as we didn’t know the decent, the sloping nature of the rock meaning that we couldn’t get really close to the edge to scope it out. We could however see the route on the dome across the gully so we were still very confident and after a bit of faffing we descended, crossed the gully and finally found the base of the route.

At this stage it was about 2pm in the afternoon, sunset was just after 6, we were climbing in the shade and we thought 2 pitchs, 3 people, 4 hours no problem.

We decided to leave our packs at the base of the route and the leader commenced climbing. Although the route was an easy grade, the natural protection was sparse and the moves were committing and runout on small nuts and rps and ended at a very small belay ledge with an average trad anchor. This had taken a good hour for the leader to do this, something that we hadn’t anticipated. The seconder made good progress but had trouble extracting one piece on route that again slowed down our progress. During this time period the temps had dropped and an icy cold wind had kicked in that you didn’t feel on the ground, as it was sheltered.

I was the third person in the party, I was keen to climb and didn’t quite hear the edge of concern in my partner’s voices when they asked me it I really wanted to come up. Of course I did, I had been sitting round all day waiting to climb. My partners told me to bring up something warm to wear.

Halfway up the pitch I felt the wind kick in it was icy and cut straight through my thin poly fleece jacket like it wasn’t there. I got to the anchor, the leader climber’s lips were starting to go a little blue and she was shivering as she had been onroute and on belay in a light jacket and shorts for the best part of 2 hours, subjected to a blustering, icy wind. The seconder had long pants on but only a cotton tee shirt, we were all cold, really cold.

At this point we could have set an slightly better anchor, left the gear in situ and just rapped down, but we had read that the second pitch was a lot easier. At this stage it seemed the best option to proceed and also we were pretty cheap, we didn’t want to abandon gear.

The seconder was given the job to lead the second pitch as he was starting to get cold and original leader was in no position to lead another pitch. He confidently climbed upward placing gear and disappeared over the curve of the dome into the advancing twilight. As the rope spooled out the we huddled on the ledge as the wind continued to pickup in force.

We had previously climbed together as a three on multi-pitches before quite successfully but the difference being that it had always been on warm, sunlit, vertical crack pitches, that you could both see and usually hear each other from belays. We had no system for communicating in a situation where you could no longer see or hear each other, as we had never experienced this before.

The rope stopped paying out from time to time, sometimes it dropped back down a bit sometimes it ran for 10 or 20 metres before coming back down. On belay we couldn’t work out was going on, it felt like we were fishing. Shouting out into the wind did nothing it just carried our voices away.

Finally after about 30 mins of this it stopped, we waited another 5 and thought well that must be it, we must be on belay. We started simulclimbing as we had started to run out of the single rope we had bought with us. We both reached the top to find our belayer hip belaying us up using the granite dome’s rough surface for added friction. It turned out in the fading light he couldn’t find the anchor and had been running all over the top of the dome looking for it.

We had all reached the summit, we were pretty stoked but any joy was now purely reserved for getting the hell off the top. It was 5.45pm, probably 20 mins at the most until total sunset, blustery cold conditions and our single head torch was in the pack at the bottom of the route, along with all our water, food and extra warm clothing. We were all roped together on top of a granite dome with no rap anchor, higher than the full length of the single rope we had, from the ground. At this point we realised that we didn’t know how to get off.

In our naivety we had never thought to question how we would do this, somehow we had all thought the descent would be apparent when we got to the top or that we would “just hike off the back” – unfortunately it sloped off dramatically on all sides meaning that we couldn’t get close enough to the edge to actually get a look. Cold and a little scared we started running off in all directions trying to spot a descent.

We could see a couple of climbers who had come up to the top of the first mountain we crossed to do a sunset climb and take photos. We jumped up and down and yelled and waved to them. Although they couldn’t hear us over the wind they obviously understood our predicament and started pointing at the side of our dome that was directly in line with them.

We ventured over and made pretty much a blind descent to a saddle shaped groove in the rock that was the natural rap point for the first rap off. Without the other climbers assistance we would not have found the descent in the dark. The first rap went fine, though on the second rap the rope stuck when it was pulled and we had to reclimb and solo down the final pitch, which was easy but in almost complete darkness.

Out of the wind, things improved quickly on the ground, though we had to move slowly in the dark back to our packs. With our headtorch on things got considerably better as we covered the gulley, reclimbed the first mountain and returned to camp at around 8pm, about 7 or so hours after we kicked off for a easy afternoon climb.

You could write this off as a bit of a minor epic, nothing really went that wrong, nobody got hurt, we all just got a bit cold, hungry and scratched up.

Looking at this incident using the swiss cheese model you can see, if a few of elements of the story had been different, how quickly and easily minor epics like this, could go badly very quickly.

Particularly the “luck” of having other climbers telling us how to get off was a major factor in us getting out ok. If we hadn’t have had that assistance we probably would have been either benighted in conditions that potentially would have seen us hypothermic by the morning, given that there was no shelter at all on top of the dome or we could have fallen off the edge risking trying to downclimb in the dark. As we were camping, nobody knew what route we were doing and we had no mobile phone with us, nobody would have even noticed we were not around until at the very least the next morning. Had one or all of us been injured we would not have been found for potentially a day or two, even though we were probably less than two kilometres from fairly populated campsite.

So I guess the moral of the story is and the point of the whole swiss cheese model is to have a look at potential holes in your safety proceedures and in the way events unfold when you are out climbing. In most cases taking a few moments to access the way forward, when events start turning in unexpected ways or things “feel wrong”, won’t majorly impact what you are doing at that instant and may actually stop something really bad from happening.

We learned a heap from this event, it taught us a lot of lessons and gave us an insight into some of the potential holes in the cheese that we just didn’t factor or even consider could add up.

1. Firstly don’t have a big night of the booze before a solid day’s climbing. It never works out you always climb crappy and nobody wants to see you barfing or complaining at the crag about your hangover. Seriously though you are going to be dehyrated, tired and not thinking straight, potentially endangering yourself and anyone you are belaying. Call it off, sleep it off and don’t do it before a climbing day.

2. Doing a multi-pitch in a group of three or more? For each person added to the mix your time onroute is going to increase exponentially. Factor this in, get the earliest possible start you can. If you have a group of 4, consider spliting into two parties if you have two leaders, this is way better than running one big party of 4 or more. Belay ledges get crowded really quickly.

3. If you can’t climb with someone that has done the route before (esp multi-pitch) get as much info about the route as possible before hand, especially pay attention to the little things like the approach and particulary how to get off. Getting back down accounts for the majority of climbing accidents, just like in our case don’t just think it will all become apparent once you get there. In all likelyhood it won’t and it will be less straightforward and nowhere near as easy as described, when you are tired and just want to get out.

4. Practice what will happen if you are doing a multi-pitch and you can’t see or hear each other. Discuss this with your partner/s, talk about options, do your research, go do a multi-pitch course. Don’t think these communication skills will once again become apparent when it happens. It won’t, you will feel very lonely, confused and a little scared sitting by yourself on a ledge with a slack rope, wishing you had a back up plan.

5. Communicate truthfully with your climbing partners. Have you sold yourself as an  experienced trad leader, multi-pitch specialist or have you just been along for the ride a couple of times? These things will become very apparent, very quickly once you are up on the wall with someone, so give your partner the full story before you get 3 pitches up and then let them know you have never abseiled before. This goes for difficult discussions on route as well, if you have really had enough and want to go down but your partner really wants to keep going, you probably need to have it out sooner rather than later.

6. Check the forecast and do a bit of scoping of the access, especially for a multi-pitch. You can’t anticipate everything but atleast if you can’t avoid the weather prepare for it. An extra piece of warm clothing or even a rain jacket to cut the wind on our effort would have made a big difference.

7. Lastly if there is any chance of you being benighted especially on a multi-pitch (which is always possible if something goes wrong, no matter how early you head off) put a charged headtorch in your pocket.

Consider minor epics you have had in past. Perhaps you have just blown them off as “bad luck” or just forgot about them because everything turned out ok and you just moved on without thinking twice  about it. It is all the little things you do wrong or that you ignore that will get you in the end. All those little holes in the cheese that you fall through 95% of the time everything turns out ok, until that one time it doesn’t.

Plug up as many of those holes now with a bit contemplation and planning. There are plenty of unexpected things that can happen to you out on the rock. Don’t get nailed by something that is within your control to avoid. Put it to the Swiss Cheese test, you will be amazed at how it can change your thinking, not into being someone who totally avoids risks but a climber that takes charge of your partner and your own personal safety and doesn’t just leave things to chance.

We will be bringing up this accident avoidance model again down the track in our “Avoiding Epics” blogs. Hope it makes a difference to your climbing safety.


Blog Post Author

Scott has been a traveling climber for the past three years and has a keen interest in having a long and healthy climbing career. Favourite past times involve thinking about the holes in Swiss Cheese as well as eating Swiss Cheese, most often melted on a toastie sandwich.