Common climber mistakes and how to avoid them
I've been climbing for more than 15 years, and the mistakes I've made cover the gamut. My knot came partly untied while I was climbing at Joshua Tree; I've threaded my belay device backward; partway up El Capitan, my partner once completely unclipped me from a belay. Worst, I dropped a dear friend while lowering him off a sport climb in Rifle with a too-short rope. (Fortunately, he wasn't seriously injured.) If you're lucky, like I've been, your mistakes result in close calls that help keep you vigilant. If you're not, the results can be tragic.
Not all errors in climbing are deadly— some may just sour your own or other climbers' experiences. But if you never learn from your screw-ups—and other people’s—you'll be slower to improve. In climbing, as in life, bad experiences are the foundation of good judgment. With this in mind, we've assembled 50 of the most common mistakes made by climbers everywhere—and suggested how to avoid them—in hopes of speeding your journey toward being a safer, smarter climber.
1. Not double-checking your belay and knots
If you’re belaying, make sure the rope is threaded correctly through the belay device and that the locking carabiners in the system are actually locked. If you’re the climber, double-check your knot. Is it tied correctly? Is it tightened? Threaded through the harness correctly? Is the tail long enough? Check your partner’s knot, too.
REAL LIFE: One famous double-check mistake was Lynn Hill’s accident in Buoux, France, in 1989. When Hill—already a 5.13 climber at the time—weighted the rope at the top of a warm-up climb, her unfinished knot zipped through her harness. She fell 75 feet to the ground but survived. Hill says she got distracted by a conversation and forgot to finish the knot; a bulky pullover hid the error.
2. Not wearing a helmet
Take the whip, take the whip!—ooh, but not like that... See mistake number 6. by Andy Mann
Trad climbers wear helmets much more often than sport climbers, but why? You can deck, slam the wall, or flip upside down in sport climbing, and loose rock is always a hazard. Evaluate all the risks before you make a fashion-based decision not to protect your head. 3. More confidence than competence
Push yourself to become a better climber, but understand the risks and assess your ability to mitigate them. The American Alpine Club rates “exceeding abilities” as one of the top causes of accidents. 4. Careless belaying
There are many ways to screw up when belaying. In multi-pitch climbing, slack in your tie-in or an unreliable redirect piece can result in dangerous shock loads. When belaying on the ground, taking your brake hand off the rope (even with an assisted braking device) can quickly lead to a dangerous fall. Another common mistake is standing too far away from the cliff when lead belaying— it’s easy to get dragged across the ground when the climber falls. A big loop of slack lying in the dirt is the lazy, incorrect way to give a "soft catch" belay. Finally, save the crag chat until your climber is safely back on the ground. 5. Failing to knot the end of the rope
You can endlessly debate how to equalize a three-piece anchor, but it’s more common to get seriously hurt being lowered on a sport climb than having an anchor fail on a trad route. If you’re belaying a single-pitch route, tie a knot in the end of the rope, tie it to the rope bag, or tie it yourself. Do it out of habit, not just when you think the rope might not reach. Knotting the end of the ropes is equally important when rappelling. Slipping off the ends of rappel ropes is tragically common, even among very experienced climbers.
REAL LIFE: In 2007, Lara Kellog, an experienced mountaineer, rappelled off the end of her rope while retreating from the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Wake in Alaska's Ruth Gorge. She was killed after falling about 1,000 feet.
SPORT CLIMBING MISTAKES
6. Rope behind your leg while leading
Anytime you traverse, go out an overhang, or do a step-through move, you're in danger of putting your leg on the “uphill” side of your rope. If you fall in this position, you'll likely be flipped upside down. Serious head injuries can result. Develop a “Spidey sense” about when a leg has moved across the line, and fix the problem immediately, even if you have to ruin your redpoint attempt to do so. 7. Poor communication
Maybe it's windy, or the route is long, or you're trying to climb at the Virgin River Gorge, where the interstate noise numbs your eardrums. Regardless, agree with your partner before you leave the ground about your plan when you get to the anchors. Are you threading the rope through the anchor? Lowering off draws? Planning to rappel? A miscommunication can be disastrous.
REAL LIFE: Earlier this year, Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club and a skilled, veteran climber, fell from the top of a sport climb near Denver, where communication was likely hampered by the roar of the river and the traffic on nearby Highway 6. Powers was seriously injured but is making an amazing recovery. 8. Carabiner over an edge
When you clip a draw to a bolt, check to see where the rope-end biner ends up. If it’s hanging over an edge, the biner could break in a fall. Use a slightly longer or shorter draw. 9. Back-clipping
When clipping the rope into a quickdraw, make sure your end, aka the “sharp end,” comes out of the carabiner away from the wall. If the sharp end leads out of the carabiner toward the rock, you are “backclipped.” There’s a higher chance that the rope could unclip itself from a carabiner during a fall. 10. Z-clipping
There’s nothing like a closely bolted sport climb to make you feel safe—and to increase the probability of pulling up rope from below the previous clip and “z-clipping,” a recipe for impossible-to-move rope drag. Make sure you pull up slack from above your last draw, even if you have to do a series of short pulls. Bite the rope between pulls to hold onto the slack you gain, but be careful: People have lost teeth while clipping! 11. Using fixed quickdraws with deeply grooved carabiners
Those perma-draws in the Cave of Pump sure are nice. But look before you clip. Rope-end carabiners on fixed draws can become deeply grooved over time. Many grooved carabiners will hold a significant fall without breaking, but the sharp edges of the groove can slice a rope or remove its sheath, ruining the cord.
12. Blindly trusting bolts
Harness doubled back, knot checked—Jules Cho is ready to go.
by Andrew Burr
It’s possible for bolts to fail. It’s very possible for old bolts to fail. Be wary of any rusted or corroded bolts, especially at seaside crags; saltwater breezes are very caustic to climbing hardware. A 2009 report by the UIAA showed that 10 to 20 percent of bolts in tropical marine climbing destinations would fail if a fall generated a force of 1,125 pounds. (A “hard” lead fall may generate 2,600 pounds of force.) Similarly, some old-school bolts from the 1980s or earlier will still hold falls, but many won’t. Finally, give a second look to homemade hangers, which can develop hairline fractures where they bend. When in doubt, find a safe way to escape and choose a route with better hardware. 13. Standing in the drop zone
Rocks frequently fall from the tops of cliffs, especially during spring runoff or rain showers. Find sheltered belay spots if possible, and locate your hangout areas well away from vertical or slabby cliffs, or close underneath overhangs. 14. Toproping through fixed anchors
The sand and dirt in ropes can wear through metal, and repeated toproping or lowering through the rings or chains on a sport climb ruins the hardware. Always toprope through your own quickdraws, and lower through the fixed hardware only once, when you’re done with the route. Even better, rappel instead of lowering unless the route is too overhanging or wandering to safely clean it while rappelling. Never assume, however, that your partner will rappel instead of lower (see No. 7). This mistake causes many serious accidents! 15. Spraying beta
It’s awesome that you sent that climb using the tiny foot chip with your left foot and gastoning the sidepull with your right hand. But keep it to yourself. While no one has ever died after being sprayed down with beta (that we know of), your big mouth could blow someone’s onsight attempt or just ruin the peace and quiet some climbers prefer. 16. Letting your dog run free
Your dog deserves to enjoy the great outdoors with you—emphasis on with you. Dogs running free, trampling ropes, and begging for food negatively impact many climbers’ experience. Please control your beast.
DO: Focus on the task at hand until it’s done. Once you start putting on your harness, finish putting it on, doubled back. If someone starts talking to you after you begin tying your knot, finish the knot before conversing. Completion before distraction!
TRAD CLIMBING MISTAKES
17. Trusting all fixed slings
Just because someone else rapped off that rat’s nest doesn’t mean it’s safe to use again. Make sure to check for sun damage (fading or crackling) and fraying. Also, make sure a critter hasn’t chewed through the slings hidden behind a tree or rock. Concerned? Replace the webbing with your own.
REAL LIFE: In 2009, a webbing rappel anchor failed at the Red River Gorge, killing two young climbers. 18. Clipping into belay anchors with just a daisy chain
Daisies are great... for aid climbing. They’re not designed to hold more than body weight, however, so they don’t belong in the belay system. Specially designed personal anchor tethers are safer, but require careful use; they aren’t able to stretch significantly, so a fall onto a slack tether can severely shock-load the anchor. Tie into your anchor with the stretchy, shock-absorbing lead rope to avoid these problems. 19. Ignoring outward pull on your first piece
Unless your belayer is directly underneath you, a fall will put outward and upward force on the fi rst piece of pro as the rope goes tight in the system. This may pluck out the pro and even “zipper” out all your gear from the bottom up, as the perpendicular forces move up the wall. Climbers have decked when all their gear zippered out. To avoid this, make sure your first piece will hold a solid outward and upward pull. 20. Not protecting your second on a traverse
The only thing worse than leading a difficult traverse is following a traverse that the leader didn’t protect. Be sure to leave gear along the way to prevent a giant pendulum in case the second slips. And remember, it’s the gear placed after cruxes that protects the second on those moves. 21. Failing to place enough gear above a ledge
It’s critical to closely space your gear when you’re leading above a ledge, especially high on a pitch where you can expect significant rope stretch in a fall.
REAL LIFE: In 2005, a climber on the Northwest Books (5.6) in Tuolumne Meadows, California, hit a small ledge in a lead fall, breaking one ankle and spraining the other. It happens frequently. Sew it up above ledges and save your ankles. 22. Using all the same size gear in the belay
If you’re building a belay at the base of a long, sweet finger crack, don’t use all the finger-sized pieces in the anchor. With a little creativity, you can often figure out a way to save the crux-protection pieces for the next lead.
23. Carrying no tied slings
Dang—only one more wide-hands piece on my rack?! Brittany Griffith ponders her mistake.
by Andrew Burr
That fistful of skinny sewn slings may save weight, but they’re not your first choice for leaving behind as rappel anchors when you have to bail. A tiedwebbing runner is easy to un-knot for threading through a hole, tying around a tree, or adjusting anchor length for equalization. With a sewn sling, you may have to cut the webbing to build your anchor (you did clip a lightweight belay knife to the back of your harness, right?), and it’s tough to tie those slick-as snot suckers back together. Keep a couple of tied slings on your rack, just in case. 24. Lowering directly off webbing
Never run a piece of moving nylon (your rope, for example) through a sling without putting a carabiner or metal ring between the two—the sling can burn in seconds under a taut, moving rope. Rappelling directly off slings always is perilous; if the rope slips—due to unequal tension on different-diameter ropes, for example—it can cut the sling. Improve such anchors with a quick link or a carabiner taped closed. 25. Forgetting the nut tool
Leaving behind gear on a pitch is an expensive bummer. 26. Forgetting your headlamp
Even if you don’t think you’ll need a headlamp, stick one in a pocket or clip it to the back of your harness for long climbs. A light can make the difference between a cold, thirsty bivy and a pleasant evening hike back to camp. 27. Wearing a backpack in a chimney
Many classic lines, such as Epinephrine at Red Rock, Nevada, or the Steck-Salathé in Yosemite Valley, have long chimney sections. If you hope to have any fun squeezing up the slots, don’t wear a pack full of water and energy bars. If you must carry a pack, hang it by a sling from your belay loop as you climb short chimney sections. DO:
Back-clean when needed. If you notice that you’ve created heinous rope drag with your first few placements (sometimes unavoidable if you want to protect the climbing), place a couple of pieces of solid gear and down-climb or lower to remove the troublesome gear. If you try to fight it, the drag will only get worse. You may not be able to reach a belay, or be able to pull up the rope to properly belay your second. You’ll save time and frustration if you fix the problem early.
28. Lame spotting
You shouldn’t text and drive. You also shouldn’t drink water, play with your smart phone, or check out that hot gal/guy while spotting. Focus 100 percent on keeping the climber safe.
29. Forgetting to check your descent
No chit-chat, no bullshit. Louis Koppel gives a proper spot in Hueco Tanks, Texas.
by Ryan Wedemeyer
Nothing is worse than manteling out the final moves on your highball boulder project (nice send), only to realize you don’t know how to get down—it’s possible that you just climbed the easiest route to the top. Scout the descent before your ascent. 30. Climbing with dirt on your shoes
Dirty shoes don’t stick well, and they grind grit into the footholds and polish them. Wipe your shoes clean before you start, and step directly from your pad or a nearby rock onto the problem. 31. Leaving tick marks
Many climbers mark hand or footholds with a bit of chalk—sometimes with a big, ugly line. If you prefer to climb with this kind of visual aid, fine, but make sure you brush off your graffiti before you leave.
ICE CLIMBING MISTAKES
A leader fall on a steep sport climb is part of the game. On ice, it’s a dangerous mistake. A crampon point can easily catch, snapping your ankle, or an ice axe can skewer your thigh. Before leading on ice, learn how to test your placements, how to conserve your strength, and how to bail if you realize you’re in over your head. The leader must not fall! 33. Belaying directly below an ice climb
Heavy chunks of ice often rain down below the leader, and icicles may snap off without warning, especially on sunny climbs. Save yourself the headache (literally) and, whenever possible, set up your belay off to the side or under an overhang.
REAL LIFE: Ice climber Rod Willard was tragically killed in 2002 while belaying in Vail, Colorado. A huge piece of ice fell from above and hit him, causing fatal injuries. 34. Letting anchors melt out
If you set up a toprope anchor using ice screws (three is a minimum), check them regularly to make sure they aren’t melting out, especially on sunny days. You can insulate the screws by packing the tops with snow 35. Climbing an ice route before it’s fully formed
Much as you’d like to snag the first ascent of the season, climbing a poorly formed ice route is extremely dangerous— and it can also ruin the climb for later ascents.
REAL LIFE:In 2010, a climber attempting to lead The Fang near Vail, Colorado, took a 100-foot fall when the poorly formed pillar collapsed. He survived, but sustained serious injuries.
36. Placing ice screws above your head
Ice climbing without eye protection
It’s tempting to place screws as high as possible, and if you’re standing on a ledge, it’s no problem. But when you’re leading steep, pumpy ice, place the screw at chest level, where you can generate maximum leverage to drive in the screw quickly and efficiently. 37. Not wearing eye protection
There’s nothing like an adze or ice shard to the eyeball to really darken your day. Wear sunglasses, goggles, or a face shield. 38. Ignoring avalanche conditions
Ice climbs often form in or below gullies that can funnel snow and make for high avalanche hazard, and the approaches and descents to climbs also may be avy zones. Check whether your climb is in avalanche terrain, and evaluate conditions locally before you head out.
REAL LIFE: In 2009, ice climbing icon Guy Lacelle was killed after finishing an ice route in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Lacelle was apparently resting at the top of the climb when a party above him triggered an avalanche, which swept him back down the cliff.
DO: Dry and sharpen your tools and crampons after every outing. The hard steel of crampon points and ice-tool picks will rust if left in your pack while damp. Take them out, dry them, and tune the edges with a few strokes of a file. (It’s a lot easier to maintain an edge than it is to create a new edge on a dull pick.) Finish with a once-over witha lightly oiled cloth for rust resistance.
39. Not acclimatizing
Even if you’re as fit as a marathon runner, altitude does not care. The body needs time to adjust to low-oxygen living. Spend the first days of your expedition climbing high and then sleeping down low. Pay attention to the early signs of altitude sickness: headaches, nausea, and lack of appetite. If you feel mildly ill, it’s a good idea to stay at the same elevation until you feel better before you continue the ascent. If you have more severe signs—a splitting headache or a wet cough—descend immediately. 40. Going unroped in crevassed terrain
Tie in even if crevasses look well covered or if you’re following others’ tracks. Snow bridges collapse without warning. And make sure you have the tools and skills you’ll need to rescue your partner or yourself from a crevasse.
41. Roping up without pro on steep, firm snow
Roping up can protect your party on soft snow, but please do a reality check—see number 41.
by Andrew Burr
Roping up while moving together on steep, snowy terrain is often a good idea—but not always. If you don’t have pickets, ice screws, or other pro between you, and if the snow conditions don’t allow reliable self-arrests, roping together adds risk for the entire team. Don’t let the presence of the rope trick you: You may be safer soloing.
REAL LIFE: In 1981, a team of seven Japanese climbers, roped together, was descending from an unsuccessful attempt on Gongga Shan (7,590 meters) in China. When one member slipped, all seven fell to their deaths. 42. No plan for a whiteout
Weather changes fast, and straightforward terrain gets tricky when you can’t see. Always have a plan for retreating safely when visibility drops to nil. Take back bearings with your compass. Leave wands to mark your route. Use a GPS to mark waypoints. 43. Deyhdration
On big, snowy mountains, cold temps can suppress thirst, but being hydrated helps you perform better and acclimatize quicker. Drink before you get thirsty, drink often, and drink copiously. 44. No emergency sunglasses
Snow blindness is temporary, but it can paralyze your ability to function, and it hurts like a bitch. 45. Leaving sunblock off the underside of your nose
Life on the glacier is all about reflected sunlight. Don’t forget to slather up between your nostrils.
DO: Carry a map. A forced change in plans often will drop you into a different drainage than where you started, and the return journey may not be as simple as you think.
AID CLIMBING MISTAKES
46. Not tying in below your jumars
Having an ascender pop off as you jug a fixed line is not all that uncommon—having two pop off could be lethal. Don’t forget to tie in to a locking carabiner on your belay loop as you go; every 30 feet on steep, clean ascents is about right. Always tie a back-up before tricky overhangs or traverses.
47. Looking at a placement while bounce testing
Aid climbing with no helmet = always a mistake.
by Andrew Burr
What’s worse than having your piece pull when you test it? Having that piece smack you in the face. Turn the top of your helmet toward that mank. 48. Bringing too much (or not enough) water
Nothing slows a multi-day climb like hoisting a swimming pool in your haul bag. On the other hand, you’ll also be slowed to a crawl by becoming so dehydrated that you start to consider drinking your own urine. Carefully estimate water needs based on the sunniness of the route, season, and water content of other foods that you’re bringing (soup for dinner = less water). Three quarts of water per person per day is a good rule of thumb in the late fall and early spring; a gallon or more may be appropriate on sunny walls in August. 49. Passing another party when you’re not actually faster
Passing a slower party is copacetic, with their consent. But make sure they’re actually slower, and not just grappling with a crux that would slow your team just as much. If you crowd a team above you only to stall out after passing, admit your mistake and offer the other team its original front position. 50. “Soiling” your partner
Don’t allow urine or excrement to touch your partner, your rope, or any of your gear. Plan ahead, account for wind, and find a stable spot. Most “emergencies” are easily avoided by heeding the warning signs, just as you would at home or at work.