Securing yourself near a cliff top


A fatal accident happened at Horsethief Butte WA in spring 2009, apparently because climbers were setting top rope anchors in an exposed area without an adequate backup. Let’s learn from this tragedy and never let it happen again.

When setting up a toprope or rappel anchor on a clifftop, a good rule of thumb is always secure yourself if you’re within 2 meters of the edge.

This distance may be greater if the terrain slopes toward the void, there’s loose gravel/stones underfoot, the rock is wet, or other factors.

There’s various ways to secure yourself, but a standard method is to use your climbing rope as follows:  

  1. First, locate or build a secure anchor well back from the cliff edge.  This anchor can be a stout boulder or rock spike, tree, or a constructed gear anchor.

  2. Tie one end of your climbing rope to this anchor.  

  3. Tie a friction knot (prusik, klemheist, etc.) onto the fixed line, and clip the friction knot to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. (If you have a Grigri, you can also use it as a self belay.)

  4. Walk to about 2 meters from the cliff edge, sliding the friction knot / Grigri along the rope as you walk. Then, pull up about 3 meters of slack rope, tie a figure eight on a bight, and clip this with a locking carabiner to your belay loop.  The friction knot allows you to walk out to an exposed area under a self belay. The figure eight back up is there in case the friction knot fails in any way.  With this simple rig, you can work at the edge of a cliff fully protected from falling.

If you’re building a toprope anchor, after the anchor is built, simply pass the free end of your fixed safety line through the master point carabiner, and drop it to the ground.  Then walk away from the cliff edge (still attached to your safety line) to a secure area, untie the end of the fixed rope, and toss it to the ground. The rope should be through your anchor and both ends should be on the ground, ready to climb.

(A report of the Horsethief accident is below.)

From The Columbian newspaper:

Deaths of rock climbers in Gorge blamed on error

Tuesday, May 26 2009



A state investigation of a rock-climbing accident that claimed the life of a Washougal man and his sister-in-law has determined they fell due to errors in placing metal stoppers in cracks and attaching them to their webbing.

The early afternoon fall on April 5 killed Tony “T.C.” Silva of Washougal and Laura Dyal-Silva of Oregon during a family outing at Horsethief Butte, in Columbia Hills State Park in Klickitat County.

Tony Silva was a popular and well-respected detective with the Gresham, Ore., Police Department who was known for his advanced computer skills and helping other officers.

An investigation revealed that the deaths were accidental and not caused by equipment failure, Lt. Julie Myer of the Washington State Patrol, based in Olympia, said Tuesday.

For such a climb, three wedgelike metal stoppers, wider on top and narrower on bottom, typically would be placed in cracks, Myer said. The climbers would fasten their webbing to cables on the stoppers.

Myer said Dyal-Silva had more training than Tony Silva, who was attempting to lodge the three stoppers.

Tony Silva had successfully placed one stopper and attached it to the climbers’ webbing.

The second stopper had been placed in another crack, but wasn’t attached to the webbing.

The fact that the webbing was all one color, gray, may have caused some confusion about whether the second stopper was attached to it, Myer said.

Tony Silva is believed to have been working on placing the third stopper when something happened, perhaps a slip. At least one witness said Tony Silva fell first, then Dyal-Silva, who was attached to the system with him.

Their webbing was attached to only one stopper, Myer said.

“We know he was connected to one stopper that failed when all their weight got onto it,” Myer said.

They fell about 42 feet.

Dyal-Silva’s husband, Bobby Silva, had been on top of the cliff but went down to get the families’ children out of the sun, Myer said.

Rock climbing takes a lot of training said Myer, herself a climber.

“You have to constantly practice to retain that skill level.”