Preventing Ground Falls at Sport and Speed Competitions
"THUMP!" is a terrible sound to hear at a sport climbing event. Ground falls should never happen when a climber is being belayed. Period. Yet, ground falls (i.e., "decking" or falls that result in a climber hitting the ground) have happened.
You may be aware of the ground fall that occurred during the speed climbing event in a recent regional youth competition. We are glad to report that the climber is ok. Read USAC's response to this incident: USAC Official Statement, May 18 Statement, and June 1 Statement; see USAC News for further updates. See the statement by the host facility, here. We include these links for transparency; our intention is not to stir up controversy. We want to focus on solutions.
An incident like this is a reminder of how dangerous climbing can be. Personally, it makes us hesitate as we contemplate our son's being belayed on lead and on the tall regulation speed wall during next season's competitions. For the whole community, it is an opportunity to ask: How can we prevent this type of incident in the future? The whole community needs to make an effort to protect our climbers' safety: USA Climbing, the event organizers, the belayers, the climbers, and even the spectators.
First of all, USA Climbing, as our head organizing body, bears the responsibility of investigating any ground falls and making changes as necessary to the regulations and requirements to protect our climbers more effectively during competitions.
Secondly, the event organizers (the local USAC leadership in conjunction with the host facility) also bear responsibility for improving risk management during actual competitions. They must implement the proper safety precautions and organize the event in such a way that maximizes climber safety. USAC rules should also support the event organizers by regulating unwieldy logistical situations (more about that later.)
Now, as climbers and parents of climbers, we'd like to address the immediate actions that we and you can do, right now, to make our competitions safer:
Volunteer to help. Our sport is growing at an amazing pace, and with that growth, we need more people to make the events work well. Our competitions are dependent on volunteers. Give your time and energy so that the whole experience will be safer and more enjoyable for everyone. Be an informed, proactive, and involved member of the community.
Become a skillful belayer. If you are a belayer, it is your responsibility to make sure you have the proper training and preparation for the job you are undertaking. Get trained specifically how to belay youth climbers, especially for lead and speed climbing. Attend the volunteer meetings. Ask questions. Always perform the necessary safety checks and communicate well with your climber.
Climb with awareness. If you are a climber, know the safety protocols for the specific events you are participating in. If you lead climb, sharpen your clipping techniques and practice your stances to minimize risk. Communicate with your belayers. Do the necessary safety checks. Say something if you suspect a safety issue. Walk away from a climb if you're not comfortable with the belayer. A DQ is better than a ground fall.
Be a helpful spectator. If you are a spectator and you notice a safety concern, do something about it. Tell someone. Ask questions.
Make your voice heard. If you have constructive ideas for the improvement of safety policies, express them to USAC (firstname.lastname@example.org), the host facility staff, and your regional coordinators.
We don't know exactly what happened in the ground fall incident mentioned above. A proper investigation should be done and we should not jump to conclusions. However, constructive ideas should be considered right now and we would like to submit to USAC and the climbing community:
Prevent logistical situations that may compromise climber safety. Climber safety must be first priority. Certain circumstances put extra pressure on event organizers, belayers, and judges to prioritize other matters, such as punctuality and expediency. For example, a large number of onsight climbers pushes people to maintain a tight schedule so as to not go overtime. A shortage of proficient belayers increases the chances that the belayers at a competition may be overworked or under-prepared.
Limit the number of climbers per competition. Perhaps there should be a more strict prerequisite to participate in larger events like Regionals (e.g., placement in the top 20 in at least one local competition). Or, perhaps the boundaries for populous regions should be redrawn to make the number of climbers smaller. (Edited on 9/4/2018 to add: The USAC rules were updated for the 2018-2019 season to require one top-20 placement in a local competition.)
Start a national program to certify belayers specifically for competitions in order to ensure quality and consistency of competition belay instruction and testing.
Allow certified parents and coaches to belay their own kids.
Have judges do visual safety checks of belayers and climbers for redundancy.
Train speed climbing timers to make eye contact with belayers and pullers to ensure readiness.
Reduce the number of lead routes, or set only top-rope routes if a competition does not have a suitable number of proficient lead belayers. (We know, we know, some terrain doesn't work for top rope. We know it seems odd to top rope a 13a. But, it's an idea worth considering.)
Consider auto-belays for speed climbing. These are being used in the international circuit. (Edited 6/1/2018: USAC now allows the host facility to choose the belay method for Speed Climbing that they prefer. Auto-belays were not allowed before this amendment.)
Safety is a community effort, at every level. We love the climbing community and are glad to be a part of it. Many of you are already deeply invested in the sport and in its people. Thank you for all of your hard work, time and care. If you are just getting into climbing, we urge you to get involved in this great community. Let's make our sport even better and safer!
Share your suggestions in the comments below. As a community, we need the constructive criticism to make climbing safer for our kids.