Risk assessment for traditional climbing
Assessing the potential risks associated with climbing is not normally something that climbers do consciously. We do it through experience, using large amounts of common sense and being systematic in our preparations. Taking part in a potentially life threatening pastime concentrates the mind.
Risk assessment begins with the selection of the climb, how you will reach it and how you will return from it. To this end the guidebook and first-hand information from other climbers is of vital importance. Stories recounted in bars about an ascent or an ensuing epic are useful sources of information from which much can be learnt - if only to ensure that the same predicament doesn't befall you!
Stories recounted in bars about an ascent or an ensuing epic are useful sources of information from which much can be learnt
Short approaches to crags usually present little problem but something in a remote location is a much more serious proposition. You might spend a day or more reaching the climb, you might need to carry camping or bivvy gear with you and of course there is always the possibility that you might finish in a different valley to that in which you started out.
Avail yourself with as much information as possible before you leave so that when you arrive at the crag it is already familiar to you and you can recognise key features. If the route to the climb is complex or the way off is obscure, allow some time to reconnoitre.
Your head is a precious part of your body and is vulnerable not just from debris falling from above, but also if you take big air on the climb there is more than 50/50 chance you could land on your head. Some cliffs are notorious black spots for stonefall - caused by animals moving around, other climbers, snow melt or just by natural erosion. How else does scree appear at the foot of the cliff?
Keep your equipment in good order. Any worn out or obviously damaged bits of kit need to be replaced on a regular basis. Your life may depend on it one day and the cost of scrimping and making do could be high.
If you take big air on the climb there is more than 50/50 chance you could land on your head
On the climb itself, be alert to dangers all around you. Construct sound anchors and place good runners wherever possible.
Know your partner
Choose your partner for a big, serious climb with care. Make sure that you get on well together - at least socially. The pressures placed upon the climbing team in a gnarly situation are unfathomable until faced with the immediacy of an epic of life threatening proportions.
Establish ground rules for communication from the outset - especially for those times when none are possible! 'Traditional' climbing calls may be of little use to a well oiled team who understand how each other works, and in these situations communication is often through understanding what is required rather than verbally.
The best laid plans...
Make a plan
It is difficult sometimes to stick to plans made in the comforts of the valley. Nonetheless a plan is always a good idea. Estimate how long a climb will take you. Are you able to carry sufficient food and drink for the estimated time slot? This can be a heavy weight to carry so you'll need to calculate in advance how much you need and how you will manage it.
Plan too for an alternative course of action if something goes terribly awry. You may find that progress is much slower than anticipated and if that is the case, do you have enough time to complete the climb without too much suffering? What will you do if the weather turns nasty? You should have some kind of 'opt out clause' decided in advance for the various stages you might find yourself at. Of course, weather is the least predictable of all the elements that you put into the evaluation pot. If you are able to get a good, long term forecast prior to leaving for the rock, then this will help, but it may not be possible (or accurate) in a remote valley far from habitation.
If you decide to continue with your plan and ignore all the warning signs you have to be aware of any consequences and accept the outcome of your decision. One of the greatest thrills of climbing is venturing into the unknown, without it there is no doubt it would be a less worthy life.