So there I was.... in the latter stages of the 2016/2017 season. That variable time of the season when one day you can be climbing soft blue ice, then the next day at another location you've found that denigrated snowcone ice. You know, the stuff that has a bleached appearance and takes kicks to the ankle bone to lodge your frontpoints. The digging is tiring, the snow crystals flying in your face as you chop is refreshing, and that piece that disappears down your open collar is oh so tingly as it melts, as you finally have enough ice excavated for a decent screw.
This was not a day for the former. The only thing blue was likely my water bottle.
I was climbing with a buddy that has been upping his game lately and liked to lead, but how this lil ole dementia patient me came to scoop the sharp end, I don't remember. I've lead many of the trade routes, I've taken the sharp end when partners have baulked, but I'm also a lazy bastard who's happy to let others have at it. The name of this climb is irrelevant, and the name of my partner, well I see no reason to share that. There was a couple of alternatives to the first pitch. The steep line looked nice, with a groove at least part of the way. However the idea of digging for screws on steep ice didn't fill me with longing, so I defaulted to the easier line with a shorter crux groove. I'd climbed a fair way on nice easy ice when I decided to place my first screw. A quick peep into a small cave revealed what I was hoping for - some decent ice away from the temperatures that had been deteriorating the surface ice. It was both my first screw and my best screw. Away I went higher and into steeper terrain. Not fully steep yet but a less than inspiring apron. Top of the apron I decided it was time for a screw before hitting the steeper groove so I broke out the pneumatic hammer and started digging. Well a guy can wish can't he? I chopped away the surface ice with my pick and my adze as suited. Got the first couple inches clear. Didn't like the ice yet - kept digging. I got to a nice little shelf dug before I decided the ice wasn't getting better. Take what I got, clip a screamer, move higher and find better ice.
I didn't find better ice.
I did place more screws, but my en route Alzheimers says "nope, don't remember how many". A little voice in the head said "move well, make double certain your placements are good, because just maybe you're soloing". In fairness the screws weren't all complete shit but the confidence factor in them was low. I exited the groove onto lower angle ice and spotted a threaded rap anchor in the ice. At this point the little voice in my head said "go get that rap station, set up a TR and fuck climbing the rest of this crap".
When I got to the two old threads I realized they were less than ideal as a rap anchor. Hmm, it'll do as a backup for now I figured. I placed a screw to backup the threads and clipped in, just in case this idiot found a way to fall off a no hands rest. A little digging and I managed to find ice that was better than the groove by an order of magnitude. I was happy with the three screw anchor and the way it extended close to the old threads. Good enough to run a couple laps on toprope, however whoever rapped off needed to drill and thread a new rap anchor. I have to admit I was a little frazzled by the head game of the lead and for whatever reason decided to get lowered and build the new thread next time up. I think I just wanted to get back to the ground and take a break. A break I got, and a quick bite/drink. Then my partner was ready to climb. We discussed the anchor and I said it needed a new v-thread. He offered to take care of it so I suggested he set it so we were weighting the new thread with the anchor as a backup. In this way the thread would be tested and weighted before we called it quits for the day. A fairly simple concept that in my antiquity I assumed every leader was cognizant of. However when my partner gained the anchor he had some sort of question. Between the top to bottom communication echo and my assumption of my partners familiarity the brief conversation about weighting the new thread didn't register with me just what he was talking about. In due course he was finished and asked to be lowered. Taking in the slack and swapping the usual "got" - "lower" - "lowering", I began to feed slack. My partner reached the edge and fully weighted the rope.
You're waiting for me to say something catastrophic happened right? Haha nah, the rope twanged as the rope fully tightened and I lowered my partner safely to the ground. There was the usual banter about how crap the ice was. I ruminated about how I was glad not to have chosen the steep line if the ice was as bad, and the pro as uninspiring. Then in order to affirm that decision I launched into the steep line safely on TR. As I reached the final bulge to top out I looked towards the anchor. I could see he'd changed it around but I couldn't quite see how he'd set it up. His new v-thread looked odd. I climbed over the bulge and went up to the anchor. It took me a moment to realize why it looked odd. The v-thread was broken - "whaaa??"
I changed the setup. Redid the v-thread and lowered. We had a simple discussion about what had happened without any recrimination or hoopla. My partner accepted what he'd done, he ought to have known better but here's the thing - accidents rarely have a single cause, but rather a synergy of circumstances or mistakes that lead to the accident. Frequently the accident doesn't happen because one circumstance is missing from the synergy. We call these close calls, but we need to learn from these close calls. We often learn best from our own close calls, but pay heed to other peoples near misses, they make for less stressful lessons when coming from other folks tales such as this.
So how about an analysis of what went well, and what went poorly?
I'm going to claim the first mistake as mine in that I should have just done the anchor fully in the first place. Instead I set it up "good enough" and wanted to get down.
Second mistake was mine because while my partner is a competent climber, I was blase assuming he would be familiar with what I was doing/planning when he went up to clean my lead gear.
The next factor would be the location of the new v-thread however I can't fault my partner for this as the quality of ice often leads to where you site a thread. I'm going to take a step back here and although a photo of the anchor setup would help, unfortunately I don't have one. The premise of my intended setup is that the v-thread bears the weight of the climber so as they are being lowered, if the ice, cord, or knot failed, the screw anchor would provide redundancy. Ideally you want the backup anchor to not be weighted when the v-thread cord is loaded so therefore maybe 3-4" below the v-thread dependant on the length of the cord and potential stretch under load. Having it significantly more might result in a larger shock load should any part of what is essentially your primary anchor (the v-thread) should fail. Having it much less or equal to the v-thread means the thread isn't fully weighted, ergo not fully tested. In a rappel scenario we often suffice with a single screw backing up the rappel thread. First to rappel is the test subject with a backup, last to rappel removes the backup relying on the threads integrity having been tested. In a TR setup, we can do a similar thing although by having a two or three screw anchor, we build redundancy into the backup, which in turn is the redundancy for the thread being weighted. Essentially increasing the margin of safety, or reducing the margin of error.
So in returning to the anchor setup description, the new v-thread was above most of the screws in the anchor, however he added a draw to the top screw as redundancy to the thread, and to reduce potential extension should any part of the v-thread fail. In addition to this, the whole three screw anchor was still connected to the rope via its common power point albeit relying on this would result in some extension.
Next in the synergy list comes the communication. I had to walk back to be able to hear him at the anchor but a conversation was still difficult. I remember him asking a question or making a comment regarding weighting the v-thread and saying yes to do it. The difficulty in conversing lead to some confusion about just what was being said both ways I think and neither of us twigged to the crossed wires.
Next we reach the overriding problem in this setup. In setting up the rope he had passed it through the v-thread cord instead of using a couple of biners (locking biners recommended) resulting in a cord on cord situation. While we do this on rappel, we don't have the rope moving over the cord when weighted. When rappelling and retrieving the rope, it is unweighted. In a toprope situation when lowering the climber, the rope is weighted. For those who know, this will be no surprise. For those learning from this story, here is your primary lesson -
A WEIGHTED ROPE RUNNING OVER ANOTHER ROPE OR A PIECE OF CORD, WILL RESULT IN SUFFICIENT FRICTION TO CUT THE STATIONARY CORD, sometimes with as little as just a couple feet of movement.
When this happened the weight of my partner transferred from the now broken thread to the draw on the highest screw. This was a good thing. By having that draw, the system had redundancy that reduced extension.
The thread was in good ice, the knot was good, this was all done right. The redundancy was there. There was a further margin of safety having the three screw anchor still connected. These were all good factors. Had he relied solely on the three screw anchor for redundancy, the extension length may have become a factor. The additional draw to the top screw eliminated significant extension.
Remember the twang I felt? Sometimes its the rope moving sideways flipping over a bulge, sometimes its a cord getting cut and failing. I realized that fact later. I don't know if my partner felt it or remembers it. Had our system not worked, despite its failings, that would have been the moment both of our lives might have changed. In that moment the synergy of circumstances failed to reach accident status. We walked out that day, both of us a little sobered, reflecting on the gravity of gravity.
What lessons might be learned?
Don't assume a strong partner has the same experience as you.
Don't underestimate the danger of miscommunication.
Don't get complacent or lazy.
Make sure your system has redundancy.
If any of this in any way confuses you, seek professional instruction.
Learning from the internet is only one step up from learning from your own mistakes.
NEVER lower off with a rope running over another rope or over cord. CORD ON CORD = BAD.
Above: A close up of the v-thread and the cut cord.
Below: The third screw is out of the picture but you can see the locking biner from the three screw anchor lifted by the rope to my harness. It would have been a greater than desirable extension without the draw on the upper screw. Locating the v-thread lower might have been a better option had the ice been equally good quality but my partner wisely chose to locate it in the better ice he could find. Also note the screw had been placed after excavating down to better ice. Plus despite it being just a 13cm screw it did its job. Most of my longer screws had been used during the lead.
So as we move into a new season, I thought it a timely reminder to keep your guard up. You're going to make mistakes but try to make sure that single mistake isn't the one that completes the synergy. Redundancy is a good thing but becoming better versed in your systems will stack the odds more in your favour. I hope this tale of woe entertained you; I hope this tale of synergy prevents you making similar mistakes.
So there I was lowering my partner when all of a sudden..... the system worked.