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The Choss Factor

Submitted by hanschlorine on 2003-03-24

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Rockfall is everybody's worst nightmare. No matter how careful you are, if you're at the wrong place at the wrong geological time, you're number's up. Your odds of getting tagged go up tremendously if you've got a bunch of idiots climbing around on the rocks above you.

Rule One: Wear a helmet!

Rule Two: See rule one!

Generally, it's unusual to have anything break loose while you're climbing on a well-established route, in a climbing area that's seen lots of traffic. Pretty much everything than can come off will have been removed by somebody. As long as people are careful with ledge rubble (don't count on that!), loose rock is not a huge issue at many crags. Just remember, the freeze-thaw cycle is the main force at work to bring rock down, and it happens every winter. Few areas see more traffic than Humphrey's Head at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, but last year a refrigerator-sized chunk decided to come off, nearly crushing a climbing guide who was teaching a class.

If you're climbing on a more obscure route or at a newer or less-trafficked area, you've got to be thinking loose rock all the time. If you're leading, think about the position of your belayers and bystanders if you should pull something off. Is there any way to move them to a safer position? How about your rope - is it stacked in the safest possible spot at the belay? Then, as you climb, test your holds! Before committing, tug on them, thump on them and listen for any sound of movement, any crunching or creaking. How well attached is the hold? Is it continuous with the surrounding rock, or is it cracked on all sides? Tap it with a biner, and compare the sound with a tap on some obviously solid rock. Does it ring like a gong? That's not a good sign.

Having identified suspect rock, what next? Obviously you avoid using it and warn those below. If it seems like it's about ready to come off, it's a judgment call as to whether to try to get rid of it, or let your second try to. If you think you can throw the choss off without hitting anybody, or your rope, then give it a shot. Frequently, you'll decide to clean some bad rock, only to find that, after you've loosened it up nicely, it just won't come off. Try working on getting out the smaller chips and chunks surrounding your target; this will frequently do the trick. When you get something loose, control it and toss it safely clear. NEVER throw rock upslope from people on the ground! It can send high-speed shrapnel down on them. (NOTE: Removal of loose rock is prohibited in some areas, including the Gunks. When in doubt, just report the problem and leave it to experienced local climbers to clean it.)

What if you're one of the vulnerable folks below? Obviously, you want to find the safest spot you can, out of the likely fall line and shrapnel zone. If you're belaying, it may be impossible to find a totally safe spot. Do the best you can, and always have a plan in mind. When she yells "rock", what are you going to do? Is there a cave, an overhang, a big tree or a rock you can dive under?

To look or not to look? Some people say, never look up for rockfall, you'll get hit in the face. Plenty of people have dodged the bullet, though, by looking and jumping out of the way. Try to develop the instinct to know whether there's time to look and dodge, or only to duck and cover. The only way to do this, short of hard experience, is to run scenarios through your mind all the time while you're out there.

If you're belaying and there's no good place to hide, plan on being able to hug the face of the rock, in a depression if possible. Many times, rockfall will hit the face above at some point and bounce outward, so the closer you are to the face the safer you should be. If you're exposed, don't duck your head! You don't want to get hit in the spine. Stand up straight and shrug your shoulders hard. This reduces your profile and helps support your cervical spine in case of a shot to the helmet.

(Speaking of which, don't let that brain bucket give you a false sense of security. Rockfall can generate huge forces. Several years ago, a woman was at Rifle, the Colorado sport climbing area, just hanging out when a falling rock completely severed her leg. Fortunately, she was a registered nurse. She took good care her errant limb until she reached the hospital, where it was successfully reattached.)

If you have a second or two, think about grabbing a pack and hoisting it over your head. Anything to deflect and cushion the impact.

Man, it's scary out there! Wouldn't you rather take up bowling instead? You can drink beer while you're bowling.

This article has been adapted, with permission, from one appearing on All rights reserved.


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