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A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (1954), edited by Hervey H. Voge


Introduction

Safety Precautions

ESSENTIALLY, safety results from the judgment and competence of the climbers. Without these, rules or warnings are futile. Therefore it is most important that every climbing party should be aware of its abilities and limitations and should not attempt ascents beyond its power. The only safe way for a climber to develop ability and judgment is in prolonged practice climbing within a few feet of level ground or with an upper belay, and later on, in actual climbs with experienced persons. This guidebook is in no sense a substitute for such experience, and it is strongly urged that climbers limit themselves to class 1 or class 2 climbs until they have had opportunity to gain experience with competent climbers. Even on class 1 and class 2 climbs there are possible hazards, and all climbers are urged to refrain from attempting anything they are not confident of successfully completing. In mountaineering it is a sign of competence to retreat if the weather turns bad, if the party proves too weak, or if the route proves to be more difficult than expected. An adequate margin of safety should always be maintained.

The chief hazards in climbing are:

  1. Falling off because of loss of balance or loss of grip.
  2. Falling off because of loose rock, as when a handhold or foothold breaks.
  3. Being struck by falling rock from above.
  4. Slipping on steep snow or ice.
  5. Being struck by or carried down by an avalanche of snow.

Hazard 1 is commonly recognized, and is the chief justification for the need of practice climbing. A competent leader knows his limits and is not at all likely to fall for these reasons.* In the event that a fall does occur, proper rope technique offers a strong secondary defense against serious injury. Hazard 2 is a very real one and must be constantly guarded against. Especially dangerous is the rare but quite possible occasion when a large block, perhaps one to ten feet in size, is pulled loose by the leader. Many serious accidents have resulted from such an event. Falling rock, listed as hazard 3, may result from natural causes or from actions of a member of a climbing party. Natural rock falls are rather rare in the Sierra and do not constitute an intolerable risk except under certain circumstances, as in a chute when there is heavy rainfall or much melting snow and ice. On the other hand, knocking down of rocks by climbers is very common, and the hazard thereby created must be minimized by (a) avoiding whenever possible (and it usually is!) knocking or throwing down any rocks, (b) keeping the party spread out horizontally when this is feasible, or staying close together so that the velocity reached by a falling rock will be low, or staying in a sheltered spot while waiting or belaying, and (c) by calling out rock! whenever a rock is accidentally loosened.

* For an excellent discussion see the article by Morgan Harris, “Safety Last?” SCB, 1942, 65-74.

See “Belaying the Leader,” by R. M. Leonard and Arnold Wexler, SCB, 1946, 68-90 (available as reprint).

Snow or ice is chiefly dangerous because the climber may slip and slide onto rocks below, even though the snow is not especially steep. Since so much Sierra climbing is on rock, both footgear and experience are often ill-adapted to deal with this hazard. Furthermore it is not always possible to avoid crossing such slopes. When they are crossed good steps should be kicked or cut and the rope should be used for belaying.

Snow avalanches are uncommon in the summer but they may occur when snow lies on smooth slabs or when there is a steep slope of wet snow. Warm afternoons are the most dangerous times. Experience is the prerequisite for judging the safety of a snow slope.

In the above paragraph a few hints on safety have been given with the hope that they will help the users of this Guide to avoid trouble. These brief remarks are not intended to supply instruction, for, as noted elsewhere, this can best be obtained from organized groups. Those desiring information in print should consult one or more of the following:

Manual of Ski Mountaineering, David R. Brower, editor, University of California Press, 1947. Three excellent chapters on climbing techniques are included.

Handbook of American Mountaineering, Kenneth A. Henderson, editor, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1942.

Mountaineers Handbook, published by the Seattle Mountaineers.

General safety rules—Safety comes primarily from a state of mind and cannot be insured by the blind observance of any number of commandments. A few rules, however, help to build safety consciousness. Some valuable ones are:

1. A climbing party of three or more is best. Two is tolerable if nearby support knows of the plans of the climbers. Solo mountaineering exposes the climber to very grave risks and may work unnecessary hardships on friends or would-be rescuers.

2. Climbers should at all times carry adequate clothing, food, and equipment.

3. The rope should be used on all exposed places. (This assumes a knowledge of rope management.) The leader should never refuse a belay if any member of the party requests it.

4. The party should be kept together. All must agree to obey the leader or the majority rule.

5. Climbers should never attempt anything beyond their ability and knowledge. Physical and mental condition at the time of the climb must be considered.

6. Judgment should not be swayed by desire when a retreat or an easier route is necessary. No climb is worth the deliberate risk of life.



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