Op-Ed: Black Marks

When I was 17, I ran my car off the road. I didn’t just miss a corner and trundle into a ditch. I plowed the car through a thigh-sized tree before it came to rest, both back wheels off the ground, on a rock big enough to comprise some very artistic landscaping. I got a quote for six grand in repairs on a $2700 car, so I got a friend to pull it out and sell the parts he could salvage, while I paid off the remaining $750 I owed my parents. I tell people about the balding tires and the broken sprinkler that wet the road, but the truth is that I was going 60 on a narrow dirt road in a ten-year-old station wagon. Accidents happen, and that one was irrefutably my fault. I drive a bit slower now.

And so we enter the world of climbing, where accidents are frequent and often just as serious. Rock and Ice Magazine runs an Accident Report in every issue. The American Alpine Club publishes the alarmingly hefty Accidents in North American Mountaineering every year. And we always want to know what happened. 

In February, a man in Ouray, Colorado rappelled off the end of his rope, apparently because he mistook the 15-foot end mark for the middle mark. He fell 30 feet, breaking his ankle and wrist in the fall. I read several forums and blogs online that covered the accident, where I was shocked to find that the overwhelming majority of opinion was a brutal assault of any rope manufacturer that puts end marks on its ropes.

So now it’s the manufacturer’s fault? Hypothetically, a guy who’s only owned ropes with middle marks buys one with not one but three marks on it. His mind seizes up. “If this mark is the middle,” he thinks, “then these other two must also be the middle. Hmm.” Not only are end marks marked differently, but (this is the baffling part) they’re at the end. I cannot conceive a situation where someone would set up a rappel and not notice that one side of the rope is 12 times longer than the other. Even on a 45-foot rappel like this one, the short end of the rope is sitting right there, 15 feet down. The kind of person that can thread the end of the rope through the anchor, pull three arm’s lengths, find a mark, and think “Was that a hundred feet already? Golly, I must be really strong.” needs some help rappelling.

The biggest problem is that this accident is always preventable. Tie a damn knot in the end and you can’t rappel off. We don’t often tie knots for short rappels, but that’s like saying that it’s OK not to put on your seatbelt for short drives. If you go through the windshield, it’s still your fault. Some counter that knots get stuck. Yes, sharp rock, low angles, bushes, and wind make getting the rope stuck a real possibility. If that’s a concern, use the saddlebag system to keep the rope close. A lot of people aren’t going to bother for a short rappel, but that doesn’t make it safe.

The unfortunate truth is that people make stupid mistakes. The stupider ones blame someone else. A woman sues an amusement park for making their ride too scary. A man files suit over burns caused by “unreasonably dangerous” onion rings. Is this what we want the climbing community to be? Do we want to see climbing access taken away because some idiot sues the park service when he falls? Do we want to see hardware manufacturers shut down by moronic litigation over improperly threaded belay devices? Do we want to see the price of a climbing rope double because some jackass tied in wrong and sued the company that made it? Gear manufacturers already must take precautions to destroy the gear they throw away so dumpster-divers don’t hurt themselves. How far are we going to let it go?

We can’t eliminate all the risk of climbing. If that were the goal, we’d quit climbing. We play a game of risk, alleviated by the equipment we use and—more importantly—our ability to use it right. When shit happens (as it tends to), we need to take responsibility for personal mistakes. Climbing leaves little room for error, and equipment failure cannot be tolerated. Personal failure is entirely different. Every climber who buys and uses gear shoulders the responsibility of knowing how to use it right and use it safely. No one likes to hear about climbers getting hurt, but the bottom line is this: that end mark didn’t break your ankle. You did.

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