Last weekend Melbourne Climbing School ran an “Essential Rescue Skills” weekend in the Grampians National Park (click here for the trip report). We spent a whole two days NOT climbing and instead the participants spent the entire time learning, discussing, problem-solving and practicing a whole slew of new skills that will come in useful in their everyday rock-climbing trips.
So what’s the big deal about learning rescue skills anyway?
There are a number of reasons that climbers should endeavour to learn some basic rescue skills, such as:
- Climbing is dangerous
You know this already because you’ve read it on the label to every single piece of climbing equipment you own, in the front page of every climbing guide-book you’ve ever picked up, displayed on the waiver forms of any climbing gym you’ve ever visited and generally it is a well-known fact in the climbing community.
- Accidents do happen…
…when you least expect them to (otherwise you’d just avoid them… right?)
Okay so borrowing a term from immunology might not seem like it quite fits here but I’ll explain – many climbers these days do not have any rope skills beyond the basics they need to finish their day at the crag, and for most situations that works fine. Consider also that at many crags you are likely to be within shouting distance of one or two other climbing parties…maybe. If you or another party are in strife and you DON’T know how to get out of it, you kind of want someone around who can help. So it makes sense that the more people who learn rescue skills, the more likely that some of those people within shouting distance will know them… right? Hence, like in immunology… herd immunity means that more people stay alive/safe when a higher percentage of the population knows how to. Not a fantastic metaphor I’ll admit, but it will do. Another good example along the same lines is St John’s mission to educate as many people as possible with basic First Aid skills.
- These skills are useful (part 1 – z-drags)
The skills covered in courses like this aren’t only useful in a rescue situation. Take for example a z-drag, a method of erecting a mechanical advantage to haul a person’s entire body weight up a climb from above. As a guide, I often belay a client up a climb from above. If they are finding a particular section of the climb difficult, I can whip on a z-drag and start hauling gently or more forcefully to help them climb up, and if I’m careful, this happens without the client even noticing. When the client gets past the hard bit, I can smoothly dismantle the z-drag and continue belaying. It’s simple, effective, fast and ensures a minimum of fuss and an enjoyable day out without extreme delays or frustration. And outside of guiding, when I am climbing with partners, I know I can still take them up some amazing rock without fearing the consequences if they cannot climb through the most tricky sections.
- These skills are useful (part 2 – prusiks)
One comment heard at the end of day 1 of the recent course run “I’m never climbing without a prusik again!”. They are that useful, seriously. Backing up an abseil. Escaping a belay system. Cleaning a sport climb from a dodgy-looking bolt or leaver-biner. Setting up a progress-capture system when using an ATC. There are so, so many uses for the prusik, and it is the simplest, cheapest piece of climbing gear you will ever own. So much so that it is Melbourne Climbing School’s policy to ensure that as many people as possible carry one. To that end you will notice that we give a prusik loop away to all participants on our courses, as well as teaching them how to make their own!
- These skills are useful (part 3 – attempting routes beyond my limit)
On my personal trips, no longer are “hard” climbs out of my reach to even try – if I get into a situation where I can’t get up a climb for whatever reason, or find myself having fallen and now helplessly hanging in space over a bottomless void unable to regain the wall… well I know that with these skills I can comfortably regain the wall without too much fuss. This simple knowledge allows me the freedom to try climbs beyond my limit without fear of getting into a situation I cannot control. (And hey, it paid off because “guess who” sent Serpentine a couple of weeks ago!)
- You don’t already know these skills, even though you think you do
Many climbers pass off these courses or the techniques in them by saying “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be able to make it up if or when the time comes”. I hear this so often and it is dismaying to hear. Sure, a lot of the basic climbing skills set you up to safely “make up stuff”… as long as you are not under any sort of time pressure, or don’t have any important distractions around you… like a seriously injured screaming/unconscious climbing partner for instance. The climbers that assume they’ll be able to make up something on the spot, often haven’t considered how having someone’s life hangs in the balance changes their ability to do that. So a weekend spent learning and practicing simple rescue techniques can relieve a whole lot of that pressure. Now if or when you find yourself in that unfortunate situation, you will already have a “base” of proven skills that you can draw from.
- Learning these skills is fun
Spending a weekend in the Grampians NOT climbing might not appeal to a lot of climbers, but do yourselves a favour and ask the participants on the previous course. We all had a blast hanging around on ropes for two days, discussing and learning new techniques. I had fun and the participants did too – I got nothing but positive reviews for the course.
See you on the next course!