Climbing Finally Safe for Everyone

posted by dpm on 04/01/2013

The recently founded Safe Climber's Alliance has launched a campaign to make climbing at our cliffs safer than ever before. The campaign was launched as the result of a lawsuit brought about after a near-fatal climbing accident last year. While recreating on the cliff side, a crag visitor fell and hit the ground. There were no safety systems in place to protect him.  

"I'm just like everyone else," said Dolt Dullard, who works at a tech firm in the Washington D.C. area and was the victim in last year's accident. "I just kind of go out and climb. Awareness and responsibility for my own personal safety is the last thing on my mind at the crag. I'm there to have a good time!"

Dullard stated that after years of climbing in the sterile environment of a climbing gym, he moved on to popular sport climbing cliffs. "The skills I learned in the gym really translated well to the sport crag. I'd show up with a rope, shoes, and chalk bag, then just climb to the top clipping the steel fixed draws before being lowered down. It was really simple and a ton of fun."

Last year, tragedy struck for Dolt on his first visit to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It was a day like any other as he put his harness on in the parking lot and clipped his shoes and chalk bag to his gear loop with a locking 'biner. With a full Camelback on his back, and a grocery bag full of chips in hand, he set off on the one-minute approach to the Bridge Buttress crag. "We got up there and these guys were just finishing up a route and I'm used to waiting in line so we jumped on the opportunity to go next," he said. "I tied in and started up this crack in the wall and I got like 20 feet up and there was still nothing to clip! I panicked and slipped. When I hit the ground I heard my leg snap and the next thing I knew I was laid up in a hospital bed."

During his time in the hospital, Dullard had plenty of time to think about what had happened. "I found out later that no one had installed the safety gear on the climb. It was totally negligent on the part of the crag managers. I could have been killed and my blood would have been on their hands."

Legal counsel advised him to file a lawsuit against the negligent crag managers. "Come to find out, there was no one in charge at all. The cliffs were just out there in the woods and I was expected to approach them with knowledge and personal accountability. I couldn't believe it. They hadn't even installed a guard rail at the top of the cliff. What's to keep people from falling off!?"   

Now back on his feet, the incident has spurred Dolt to take action. Through a kickstarter-funded project called "Think for Me" he was granted thousands of dollars to make sure the Bridge Buttress crag would be safe for all users. "I just want to make sure that what happened to me, doesn't happen again to someone else," he said. "I realized that someone would have to make it safe for climbers and no one else was doing it so I stepped up to the plate and started the Safe Climber's Alliance.

Thankfully, for visitors to the Bridge Buttress, it's almost impossible to get hurt now. "We've installed a staircase that leads from the road up to the wall. At the top, we put in a guardrail so you can take kids up there and let them run around, but most important to me is that we've equipped all the routes with the appropriate hardware."

Finally, the dangerouse route Marionette (5.11c) is safely equipped with fixed cams, nuts, and steel runners. 

It used to be a dangerous move, with unreliabe self-placed gear at your waist, to reach the jug and get protection. Now it's possible to clip the 4-foot permadraw from below before committing.


While in the hospital, Dullard learned about how climbing was done in the old days compared to how it's done now. "They used to carry a lot more equipment and as they were going up, they would stick it in the rock like a bolt but it could come out later. We paid one of these old climbers to go through and place the gear with an attached swaged-cable runner and a steel carabiner. Now modern climbers can show up and just climb with no fear of injury."

"It was also really important to me that we had plenty of safe, easy routes for beginners to learn on. To learn how to lead climb, you need very easy and mind-numbingly safe climbs. Without these routes, you'll never learn to climb. I have no idea how they did it in the old days. It's one of life's great mysteries I guess."

On Monkey See, Monkey Do (5.5), climber's used to face a scary lean off the fence to place the first bit of gear. Now it's possible to stick clip the fixed cam.


"We're working on a way to elevate the clipping 'biner," said Dolt. "It can be tricky to clip when it's laying on the slab like that."


Dullard went on to stress the importance of safety in the community. "Safe crags with easy, well-protected routes are what people want. Before we had crags like this, almost no one climbed. Now thousands of people can climb 'cause it's easy to learn and requires no skill. It just brings such joy to my heart to come out here and see so many kids having a great time. We have birthday parties out here all the time and no one ever cries or gets hurt. It's a beautiful thing."

Little Jimmy celebrated his 5th birthday with hotdogs, cake, and an onsight.


Dolt notes that future projects may include installing padded flooring around the boulders and building a restroom with running water so folks can "wash the icky chalk off their hands."  

Someday soon, the dangerous landing at the base of this boulder will be padded with a layer of chopped up car tires covered by a layer of thick foam.

Photos and text: DPM