How To: Navigate Loose Rock

A friend of mine used to joke about climbing in the Olympics, “if you don’t like your options for handholds, pick the rock up and move it somewhere else.” Learn about the hazards and how to deal with them.
Placeholder Contact Profile James Pierson
Bellingham Branch Leader
October 12, 2016

Rock fall is one of the more common causes of injuries in both climbing and scrambling. The rock in the Olympics is notorious for its poor quality, and the Cascades, although overall it is of much better quality, has its share of choss piles as well. A friend of mine used to joke about climbing in the Olympics, “if you don’t like your options for handholds, pick the rock up and move it somewhere else.”

Even on high-quality routes, we often have to deal with loose gullies on either the approach or the descent. No matter what we do as alpine climbers, it's hard to avoid dealing with loose rock. And when the rock is loose, it has a chance of falling.

Hazards

It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when”, we'll pull or knock something free. I’ve surely trundled my share of stone, regardless of how careful I might try to be.

I’ve scrambled up Sahale Peak without incident, then belayed a partner up, only to have him pull free a block roughly the size of your dorm room mini-fridge. If I hadn’t had him on belay, he would surely have fallen. Luckily, he was able to hold the block in place long enough for the other climbers below him to clear out of the way.

I’ve also had times that I’ve knocked large blocks down on purpose in order to help clean up a route and reduce the chances of someone having it fall on them. One must be very cautious when doing this and be positive that there are no other parties below you that could be in the line of fire.

But just because you think your partner or other climbers are out of the way, it doesn't necessarily mean they are out a danger, as a Mountaineers party found out a few years ago on Exfoliation Dome near Darrington. As the leader was moving through a brushy section of the climb, he slipped and dislodged a rock. The rock fell to the left of the route, and the rest of his party was off to the right and out of the fall line.

However, when the rock crashed down, it exploded apart, sending shrapnel-like fragments down the rest of the climb. Luckily, none of the other climbers in the party were hit by any of the fragments. This was a close call and could have easily resulted in numerous injuries.

Sometimes the hazard comes not when a rock shatters apart, but when it stays solid and bounces down erratically. You can never know for sure which way a falling rock will go. It could ricochet off of a larger, more solid rock and make a sharp change in direction.

ROCK!

If you are the one who knocks something loose, be sure to let everyone around you know by yelling, “ROCK!!” If you are in the alpine and hear someone yell this, you have two courses of action, depending on the terrain:

  1. In lower-angle terrain, look up to see where the rock is coming from and try to move out of the way. If you see a large, stable rock you can hide behind, then do so. Otherwise, move off to a side or to a high point in the hopes that the falling rocks will get funneled past you.
  2. In steep, technical terrain, don't look up. The rock could be free-falling through the air and could hit you in the face. Instead, grab on to a hold in front of you, pull yourself in close to the wall, shrug your shoulders up tight towards your ears (this will move your pack up and conceal the back of your neck), and try to make yourself as small as possible. Don't leave your hands exposed as they could easily get struck. Once the main threat has passed you, stay in this defensive position for a few more seconds in case there are any other smaller rocks dislodged as the first one fell.

If you are roped up at this time, continue with extreme caution since you won't be able to tell if your rope is damaged. Inspect your rope as soon as you can so you can decide whether you are able to continue the climb or not.

Mitigating Risk

How do we reduce that chances of setting a rock loose? A number of things can help mitigate this risk:

  1. When hiking, stay on established paths as much as you can. Rocks are usually more compacted and more stable.
  2. In scree or talus, keep your group close together. If something comes loose, it won't have as much distance between group members and won't build up as much speed. This could give your group enough time to move out of the way. Travel in a way that you are never directly above/below someone else.
  3. If you are moving through a narrow gully where there would be no chance of moving out of the way of falling rock, travel through the area one-at-a-time. Once the first person reaches an area of relative safety out of the way of any potential rockfall, send the next person up/down.
  4. In more vertical terrain, test your holds before fully weighting them – especially if you are on a lesser-traveled route. Smack the rock with your hand. If it sounds hollow or you see any movement, pick a different hold. If it's your only option, pull down and not out on the rock. Focus on your feet and try not to put too much weight on the loose rock.

As I wrote earlier, it's not a matter of “if,” but “when” you are going to knock a rock loose. It is an inherent risk in these activities that we love. But hopefully these tips will help you reduce the chances of getting injured by rock fall.

Last, but definitely not least is this tip – WEAR YOUR HELMET! Protect that noggin so it can help you make good decisions while you are out there.


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Doug Sanders
Doug Sanders says:
Thu, Oct 13, 2016 5:37 AM

Thanks for the excellent blog. My own little term for the area where a dislodged rock might go is "kill zone." I would add to your good points: Belayers should be protected from rockfall the leading climber might dislodge. This usually accomplished by selecting a location with overhead protection or by being off to the side. Also, in unroped terrain there maybe the option for scrambling parallel to each other, implied in #2, so that no one is in a kill zone.

Paul Brown
Paul Brown says:
Fri, Oct 14, 2016 1:22 PM

How do you propose that the decision to "clean up" a route should be made? In my humble opinion, the mountains should be left to Nature's devices rather than being subjected to an arbitrary notion of suitability or safety. One person's notion of choss isn't a mandate.

Bob Margulis
Bob Margulis says:
Sat, Oct 29, 2016 3:59 PM

This is all good advice that has stood the test of time. Take heed...