The Best of the Worst: Five Gumby Climbing Videos and What We Can Learn From Them
by Paul Nelson
Iphones, GoPros, and youtube have been both a blessing and a curse to the rock climbing interwebz. We’ve all been beginners, and most of us have done really stupid things when we were n00bs. However, most of us who have been climbing for a while are fortunate enough to have minimal evidence of our mistakes on the internet. Not so with these guys. Although it is easy to laugh at most of the people here– all of whom survived their mistakes– we can also treat these videos as cautionary public-service instructional pieces. Remember, as G.I. Joe said, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!”
The videos in this article are not just “scary fall” videos, or “weekend whipper” videos like other sites may have. As this great compilation video shows, both experienced and inexperienced climbers take big falls, but usually (with the exception of Ammon McNeeley), the pros are all right after their falls. Not so with these guys. So, without further ado, here are the five worst noob mistakes of the entire internets!
5. Rappeler Falls Sixty Feet
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Okay, so this is not technically a climbing video, it’s a canyoneering video taken in Utah’s Zion National Park. And, in case you didn’t know, those crazy canyoneers tend to be MUCH more accepting of risk in setting up sketchy rappels than most climbers are. However, the mistakes that this guy makes apply to all climbers who rappel.
There’s a lot of potential for mess-ups in this video. The rappeler is descending a mossy, slippery surface, and trying to move left to avoid the wettest rock. He is keeping his feet way too low, a common mistake that a lot of n00b rappelers do. He also is wearing his backpack. As anyone who has tried this knows, a heavy backpack on your back instantly wants to flip you over backwards while rappeling– by the time you hit the ground, your core will probably be totally worked from trying to stay upright with the pack on. It is almost always a good idea to tether your backpack off of your belay loop so it hangs below you, making your center of gravity more secure.
But the one mistake that results in this guy cratering is simple: he takes his brake hand off. You can see it right around the 38-second mark: he is already probably worked from trying to stay upright with the backpack on, and as soon as soon as his feet slip on the wet rock, he instinctively lets go with his right hand to stabilize himself while holding on with his left hand above the rappel device. Never do this!
In the comments for this video, multiple people ask about what sort of autoblock (a prussic cord tied above or below the rappel device, which can bind onto the rope if there is an uncontrolled fall) the guy was using. To me, this misses the big picture: autoblocks are ONLY a safety backup of last resort; they can be easy to mess up, don’t always work, and should no more be assumed to save you than a seatbelt would in a 60 mph crash.
Bottom line: the guy could have used an autoblock, he could have used a double-rope instead of single-rope rappel for more resistance, he could have even used an assisted-lock device like a grigri, which may have saved him. But if he had had the forethought to do ANY of these things, he probably would have been experienced enough NOT TO LET GO OF THE ROPE.
All of the most experienced climbers (including ballsy free soloists) whom I know consider rappelling the scariest routine procedure that they can do. I personally never rappel off of a single pitch sport route, and know two people who have died doing so. But newer climbers, still enthralled with the “extreme” nature of climbing and its enticing tricks and gadgetry, often go out of their ways to rappel! They are the precise demographic that should not be doing this.
Most of us who are free climbing on a rope can put multiple safety backups in place: we use strong ropes, pieces of protection below us, experienced belayers, and most important, our own fingers and feet to keep us on the rock as much as possible. But when we rappel, we are relying on just one backup: our brake hand. That’s it. So tie knots in the end of your rope, use prussic backups, don’t hesitate to ask for a fireman’s belay from your partner, but above all, keep your hand on the rope.
4. The Swinging Toprope Fall
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There’s a lot to laugh at in this video, as a good portion of its 350,000 views probably have: Southern-accented bros mocking the predicament of their friend, Beavis and Butthead style laughing, great quotes like “Ah got video, son!” and “Stuck between a rock and a hard place!” And there’s a lot we don’t know about this. I’ve climbed on quite a bit of Southern Sandstone, but have no idea where this marginal piece of choss is. We also don’t know if the climber actually broke his ankle, though he certainly could have when he sideswiped that tree.
The lesson we can learn from this bro-fest, however, is pretty simple: toproping traverses, overhangs, and especially overhanging traverses is sketchy! Most of the time, the best way to avoid a bad swinging fall like this is to clip your toprope into directional pieces– either bolts or gear– that the toproper unclips on his way up, and then clips back in on his way down. Furthermore, whenever you are considering toproping a steep or traversing route with directionals, strongly consider whether or not you should just lead it, since often falls on steep rock are the same whether leading or following.
But on this route, not only do they not have directionals, but it looks like there are no options for directional pieces. Even if there were, it's unlikely that these bros would have had trad gear to place for that purpose. Since these guys obviously wanted to toprope this thing, they should have realized that there was no way to safely protect it, especially given the fact that there was a big honkin' tree right in the swing zone. The climber was in a no-fall scenario from the moment he left the ground, he should have been aware of it, and he should have been fairly confident in his climbing because of it. As you can see, watching his technique, he is NOT confident in his movement, footwork, hand placement, or anything else.
3. GoPro Fall at City of Rocks
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For years, some people have used the term “Kodak Courage” to describe someone doing stupid things that they would not otherwise do because they are on camera. Now, with Kodak withering away, we have a new 21st century term, coined by a recent New Yorker article: “GoPro Guts!” I’m not sure if this particular video is a case of GoPro Guts– the climber just appears to be a regular guy getting in over his head, whether or not he has a camera attached to is head. GoPros usually do not capture the best climbing shots, since good climbers tend to spend all their time moving statically and staring down at their feet. However, in the case of this video, or this one, we can see the shaky, gripping leadup to a climber as he approaches meltdown, failure, and finally a big fall.
City of Rocks, Idaho, can be a great place for climbers to start pushing their limits in both sport or trad climbing. There are lots of moderates, great camping, and both gritty, high friction slabs with quite a few big, incut holds– a rarity on granite or monzonite domes like this. However, City of Rocks was also bolted in the days before sport climbing was necessarily assumed to be safe. If you get on a 5.10a sport route, the crux moves will probably be well-protected, but there may also be quite a bit of unprotected 5.6-5.8 climbing. That is definitely the case on the route that this climber gets on, a 5.10a called “Scream Machine" (not "Coffee and Cornflakes" as the video mistakenly says).
Fortunately, the climber falls right at the crux of the route, so he does not crater or anything like that. But beyond this, he takes the worst possible fall imaginable. The reason is that he blows his clip, falling while he has a bunch of rope pulled out to clip his quickdraw. But the lead-up to this is even more calamitous. As anyone who has belayed or climbed into this situation can attest, we can see the climber gradually approaching system failure as he reaches the fateful clip. He is getting pumped, and as he pulls rope up, we see the precise point at which he decides, “I don’t have it!” and grabs the draw in defeat.
Most of us have grabbed a draw or two in the past; it is a standard (and often hilarious) maneuver in sport climbing. However, we need to realize that this can be risky: you grab a draw because you are pumped, but you may be so pumped that you can’t make the clip even AFTER you grab the draw! I personally witnessed a good friend (name withheld to protect the guilty) grab TWO anchor draws at the Red River Gorge, then hang on for several minutes, unable to clip, before launching into a safe but huge whipper. This is precisely what happens with this guy at City of Rocks– he is so gripped that he can’t make the clip, but holds on for a few seconds before taking the big whip.
There are a few things we can take from this, both as climbers and belayers. If you are a climber, get used to both downclimbing and taking safe falls, so that you can be completely comfortable by the time you get into this situation. More important, know your own body and failure points well enough to make the call as to whether you can make that clip after grabbing the draw.
If you are belaying someone who makes the fabled draw-grab maneuver, pay attention to their movement and position. Are they poised, in-control, and leap to the draw-grab from a textbook dropknee with catlike agility? They probably will be able to make the clip, and yell “take!” losing nothing more than their dignity. Are they shaky, hesitating, and then latch onto the draw with bent arms while whimpering? They are probably not going to be able to make the clip. You should be hyper-attentive, paying out slack in case they can make the clip, but being read to reel it in while still giving a soft catch if they don’t. This is one of the most complex scenarios that a single-pitch belayer can be thrown into. Be ready!
2. Groundfall at Frog Buttress
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I was hesitant to include this video, since it is more painful than funny. “Clint” simply takes a fall while trad climbing, none of his gear holds, and he decks. He craters. Most of what we may be able to speculate on in this video is just that– speculation. Obviously, the gear placements were bad, but because I don’t have direct experience with this route or crag, I can’t really critique them other than to say “those should have held.”
Here are a few things that may have gone wrong, however. First off, we do not see what his first piece off the ground is. If it had been a stopper, there is a strong possibility that it was not set for multidirectional pulls, which all first pieces off the ground should be. Furthermore, we do know that both the second and last pieces that he places are cams. Though I’ve never climbed at Frog Buttress, I do know that it is hard, columnar, volcanic rock. Often, this sort of rock forms cracks that are flared, and the rock is actually so hard and slippery that cams can simply track out of it. This may have been a factor in Goran Kropp’s fatal accident in Eastern Washington years ago, as well as occasional gear failures at Northern Arizona's Paradise Forks.
Finally, just a bit of backseat criticism on Clint's climbing technique (rather than gear placement skills). Again, though I have not climbed at this area, I have climbed quite a few cracks, and it struck me that he rarely climbs the route with straight-in jamming technique. Rather, he is laying back off of the crack. Although laybacks can often lead to blind gear placements, it does appear as if Clint is able to peak around the corner at his placements (though they were still bad). But more broadly, the fact that he is laying back an apparent jam crack means this: he is climbing a route that is at (or above) his limit, on bad gear. He simply fell in a no-fall situation; if he had known better crack skills, he may not have fallen.
Also, although the belayer did his job quite sufficiently, I have seen some belayers in this situation go above and beyond the call of duty, switching from rope belayer to bouldering spotter in a microsecond. This climber was near enough that ground that maybe, just maybe, his belayer could have helped him out with a spot at the last minute. This is not always possible, but something to think about when you’re belaying someone on sketchy gear near the ground.
1. The Pennsylvania Free Soloist
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I saved the worst for last. Whereas the #2 video really came down to a climber falling and having some bad luck with his gear, something that really could happen to any of us at some point, this one shows the unfolding epic of a free soloist doing the one thing that you should not do as a free soloist: falling.
In a way, that’s the basic lesson we can take from this video. Don’t free solo. If you do free solo, don’t fall.
But we can go further with this. He is soloing next to a fixed line (others had probably been toproping this rad 5.9). The psychology of soloing is complex and subjective, but I can personally say that the presence of a rope nearby often puts you into a different headspace, one in which one tenth of a percent of your brain is saying, “you might be able to fall, there’s a rope there!” You may have been in this situation before as well: being in the middle of a free solo, and the middle of a crux where you are roped in but facing a groundfall may have identical consequences, but have very different mental spaces. Of course, the fact that this guy grabs the rope as he falls very well may have righted his body enough to prevent his head from splattering onto the rock at the base of the route, and saving his life. But you know what else would have saved his life? Not soloing!
Free soloing, even free soloing on camera, is nothing new in climbing, despite what some “soul climbers” will try to tell you about keeping soloing on the downlow and not publicizing it. John Bachar, Peter Croft, and Michael Reardon all were pretty upfront about publicizing many of their solos, and this was well before Alex Honnold became the Most Famous Climber Ever ™. However, the most obvious difference between these greats (although even Bachar died soloing) and Mr. Pennsylvania Choss here is that he is clearly NOT an in-control climber. His footwork, complete with socks over his shoes, is sloppy, and he tends to bounce dynamically up the rock, rather than moving up statically and in control.
Going further, there are a few problems with this whole group that he is soloing in front of. It is clear that they are all friends, out for a good time, and that he is probably the radguy alpha-male of the group. But, check out this screenshot of some of the other climbers as they gawk in amazement at the cratered soloist’s miraculous survival.
What is wrong with this picture? No brake hand on, while belaying with what looks like a figure 8 biner, while the climber is on the rock! This video could very nearly have been “Guy survives free solo fall and then nearby roped climber decks from bad belay!”
So, don’t fall free-soloing, kids. And remember, there is no glory to be had in Pennsylvania.
4 Comments Add a Comment
The best part of number 1 was the forum thrashing that guy received right here on RC.com. A true classic it was.
|Good stuff, Paul.|
Needs a part 2. Lots to learn from this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIuUL91QN3s
Ignoring weather, how not to tie a munter, and of course how to do "big things".
This one is good too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHAACtDEerw
Crack climbing technique, pad placement, "gear"...