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Clinton Begley works on setting up safety webbing.

This is a little blog about a big thing: Safety.

A few weeks ago, I took an afternoon off work to go out to a local creek with my adventurous friends Clinton Begley and Ryan Craven for my first-ever lesson in rock rappelling. It was drizzling lightly when we arrived, and we set off down the steamy creek bed looking for a suitable cliff face for a beginner like myself. Clint and Ryan are both experienced rock climbers and rapellers, and it was interesting for me to listen to their discussion of each cliff’s strengths and weaknesses for our adventure. That one has too much overhang. Those rocks look like they could be loose. There isn’t a strong looking anchor tree near enough to that one.

Pausing for a picture during my first rappel.

Once we had found a cliff that both Clinton and Ryan liked, we hiked downstream and then up-hill to our chosen location. Clint plopped his bag of climbing gear down away from the cliff edge, quickly put his harness on and proceeded to set up a safety anchor. As he set the small piece of webbing, he explained that everything in climbing is redundant. You always use a safety anchor as you work near the cliff edge to set up your main climbing anchor. Carabiners should either lock or be set up in an opposite and opposing fashion, so that if one fails, the other will take your weight. All climbs, no matter how small they seem, should have at least two anchors.

While he was setting up the anchors, Ryan was fitting me to my climbing harness. The straps of the harness double back on each other so that they don’t slip out.  The way to know that you’ve got it on properly is that you shouldn’t see the red portion of the strap. “Red, you’re dead,” Ryan told me. That’s a safety phrase that sticks with you!

After we were all in our harnesses and no red was showing, the guys went through the procedure with me. They showed me the type of descending or “belay” devices we would be using. The small metal apparatus is called an ATC (Air Traffic Controller), and it was beautiful in its simplicity. The rope is pinched and then strung through the ATC, and as the climber feeds the rope through it, the belay device provides the friction for a controlled descent.

I clipped into the safety webbing so that I could be near the cliff face to watch Clint’s first-descent. Like any good teacher, he explained each step as he was doing it and took note of places that might be tricky to get past. He was down the 35- to 40-foot cliff in no-time, and then it was my turn. Ryan would be watching my technique from the top, and Clint would have the rope at the bottom and could help stop my descent if something went wrong. Even in teachers, I had a redundancy.

Once Ryan gave me the go-ahead, I slowly started backing off the lip of the cliff. That first test of my weight suspended from a rope over that drop was exhilarating. I was grinning ear-to-ear despite also being a little nervous, and in no time I was half-way down the cliff. I stopped for a second to look at the way the cliff wrapped around the creek bed and when the guys called out to ask me if something was wrong, I simply answered, “No — just looking! This is awesome!”

Clinton, Ryan and I had a great afternoon of rappelling, but it’s important to remember what made the afternoon great: redundancy. In climbing, everything has a back-up system. It’s the key to being a safe climber and to have an adventure not turn into an emergency.

Ryan Craven trained for rappelling and other climbing and outdoor activities at the Outward Bound Leadership School

Earlier this summer, Ryan and I, along with his wife Kirstin and my husband Justin, actually were on the scene when a young man fell off a cliff because he’d been climbing around the edge of the 120-foot drop-off in sandals with no gear. We helped keep the teen calm while paramedics were dispatched. Because of the steep terrain the injured teenager had to be rescued by boat. The process was slow and difficult. It was so frustrating to know that the whole accident could have been avoided if the teen had just thought about the situation and realized how dangerous it could be.

Any adventure can take an unexpected turn, and I’ve been in more than one situation where I wished I had been more careful. Safety means being prepared. Bring first-aid kits. Wear life jackets. Bring more flashlights and batteries than you think you need. Don’t just rely on your cell phone for GPS, bring a printed map. Know emergency phone numbers. Wear the proper footwear. Have at least two ways to start a fire. It’s all simple advice, but being knowledgeable and redundant will ensure that everyone has a fun and safe adventure every time they go.

Original Post September 9, 2011

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