Dangerous Belays

By Bruce Smith

It has long been my belief that many rescue situations can become deadly if high angle rope techniques include a belay.  Wow! Now isn’t that a strange statement.  So often I hear the statement, “You can never be too safe!”  Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!  Is it safer
to fly in an airplane with an extra set of wings? Is it safer to drive two cars on the way to work in case one fails? Is it safer to send multiple ropes in close proximity down a deep drop when time after time it has been proven that ropes operating in the same approximate area tend to twist together and become hopelessly entangled?

(Fall Creek Falls Photos coming soon)

Fall Creek Falls Cane Creek Falls High Line. 350’ across and 150’ high. Notice the waterfall on the left in the second picture.  This water fall is sending high winds across the surface of the water causing the rotation of the reeving passenger. This event caused the passenger to rotate 40-50 times. 

Years ago, I came up with some very personal conclusions about drops that included waterfalls.  I experienced in every case violent winds and tornado forces in places like Fern Cave Pit, Mystery Falls, Ellison’s Incredible Pit, and other plunge pool drops where winds at the bottom were generated.  On one occasion at Fall Creek Falls during a technical rope training class in the early 1990’s, I was reeved down a 100’-150’ reeve line in the center of a long high line across the Cascade Falls area.  About 40 feet from the water, the wind from the nearby waterfall became a dominant presence and began to spin me.  I would guess, I suffered 40 to 50 rotations resulting in no hope what-so-ever of reeving me back up.  Eventually, the two sides of the highline had to simultaneously lower me while at the same time tag line me across the span to an area out of the wind.  This allowed the reeve to begin to unwind. Eventually, I was able to step off the reeve onto a rock while the untangling of the reeve could be completed.  Eventually, the team was able to raise me back out of the gorge out of the force of the wind. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had been in a stretcher?  It would have acted like a sail and spun me even more.

Even two people rappelling side by side, 3-4 feet apart will experience some rotation.  In late April, 07, during rescue training in Mystery Falls 291’, the payload was monitored with “liter attendant” rappelling and ascending along side the patient who was attached in a sit harness (not in a litter).  Like clock work, about 70 feet off the floor the tornado conditions began and the patient and attendant began to slowly spin together.  After touch down, this stopped, but began again after lift off.  It was only after the two had cleared the lower high wind area did the rotation stop and the unwinding started.

It is extremely clear to all that were involved in the grizzly body recovery in Incredible Pit (Ellison’s Cave in 1999) that the cause of death was the rotation of two ropes rigged side by side which became hopelessly entangled, entrapping the climber about 140’ off the floor.  He could not go up. he could not go down.  It was gruesome and took close to 24 hours to remove the body from the freezing early grave.

5-68 On Rope showed some of the problems with top belays back in 1996 when it was published.  Spreading the belay and rappel line apart seems good at first.

5-69 Any twisting of the lines will lock the system up and not allow either line to move up or down. A knife seems like a solution, but any safety system that requires a loaded knife with life on the line seems excessively dangerous .

5-70 A belay that rotates with the mainline generates a dangerous and possibly a deadly situation.

5-71 Imagine what happens if the main and belay are far enough apart so they don’t twist together and the main line fails. Another type of injury can be most evident.

Consider helicopter short hall operations.  They use one line only! Why?  High forces, high winds and the high possibility of a rotating load from rotor wash.

Myth No. 16. “Belays are required”  Don’t be stupid!

Belays are only required when it is safe
to operate them and
they prove to increase the chance
of the patients survival.

Let’s look at options:

  1. Against walls and faces where rotation can be retarded belays have proven successful.
  2. Belays in free space can be deadly and thrust a rescue effort into total dysfunction.
  3. If in free space, belays may work if the two lines are spread out at least 1 foot for every 50 feet of rise, as long as wind and water is not present.
  4. Consider having the litter attendant climb 6-8 feet from the Haul/Lower line with a tether on the head of the litter so they can monitor the patient’s condition. Fern Pit’s rescues worked because the climber was 8 feet away the haul/lower line.


Rescue groups and Fire Departments that routinely, without thinking, use a belay because their SOP says so, needs to change those SOP’s to SOG’s (Standard Operating Guidelines).  Conditions (the situation) should dictate safe procedures and the approach to each high angle raise or lower.

Belaying a litter:

This double Prusik configuration provides an incredible holding force.  When tied in this manner tests verified that it held14 to 18 kN. Attaching the litter to the attendant line (which seconds for a belay)  seems to be the best free space alternative when providing a belay.

Buddy Lane, Captain of the CHCRS Cave/Cliff/Technical Unit suggests that in free space the main haul/lower line and the attendant line should be 6-8 feet apart.  Even this distance can not guarantee spinning and winding of the patient and attendant will not take place.