The Girth Hitch and Risk Assessment

As someone who works professionally in the rock climbing environment, one of the most common things that I witness is an individual with some form of Personal Anchor System girth hitched directly to the belay loop on a standard modern harness. While not the most dangerous orientation for a PAS, this example provides a useful example for applied risk assessment.

When performing an assessment of potential dangers in any given environment, it is integral to identify three key steps: hazard identification, vulnerability assessment, and impact analysis. Performing these three steps allow any individual to accurately assess the potential eventualities in any given scenario. Within the hazard identification, one must utilize various phenomenological sources of information to gain a concise yet complete picture of a given hazardous situation. Upon appropriately identifying the hazards it follows that a probability and magnitude analysis be made upon the hazards placing the analysis within the context of action. Upon determining hazards along with probability and magnitude analysis, a proper assessment of vulnerability must follow. Namely, what assets are placed in direct danger given the hazard identification. It is integral to not over or under estimate the degree of vulnerability that threatens each at risk asset. With the accurate estimation of vulnerability, the assessor can then complete the assessment with a comprehensive impact analysis. The impact analysis enables the assessor to gain an accurate appraisal of the complete eventualities of the hazardous activity based upon applying the previous steps.

To apply the process of risk assessment to the issue of girth hitching a PAS to the belay loop of a standard modern climbing harness, one can then follow the process outlined above. The primary hazard related to girth hitching directly to a belay loop can be understood by investigating the accident of Todd Skinner on the Leaning Tower in 2006. Todd Skinner, a legendary Yosemite climber with multiple FAs, kept his daisy chains girth hitched directly to his belay loop. Eventually, these daisy chains cut through the belay loop resulting in Todd becoming separated from his rope system and plummeting to his death. Therefore, the belay loop failing resulting in the climber becoming separated from the system without redundancy is the particular hazard associated with having a PAS girth hitched to the belay loop.

In terms of what actually happened in this case, it is important to first understand what the belay loop is designed to do. A belay loop is universally designed by manufacturer’s to belay. While seemingly self-explanatory, it is useful to examine the capabilities and design philosophy behind this particular piece. Tests done by Black Diamond have shown that the belay loop is capable of withstanding forces up to 15kN. However, what the belay loop is not designed to handle is repetitive binding abrasion resultant from the pinching due to a girth hitch under load. When a girth hitch is loaded against a singular piece of material, elasticity fails and abrasion becomes inevitable. While typical applications are not likely to cause an immediate catastrophic failure, the continual use of a PAS under stress in this orientation will greatly increase the degree of wear on the belay loop thereby decreasing its useful lifespan.

Thus, by utilizing the lab tested data, one can make an accurate hazard identification of potential separation from the rope system. That being said, a probability analysis does show that the likelihood of this happening in a catastrophic situation remains low, despite historical data proving it has occurred i.e. Todd Skinner. Therefore, probability for catastrophe is realistic yet low; however, abrasion and gear wear is guaranteed. The magnitude can only be determined by the particular situation; however, it is reasonable to assume that any situation wherein a PAS is utilized incurs inherent risk of a significant fall. Therefore, moving into a vulnerability assessment it is reasonable to and accurate to see danger to health and life as the assets at risk in the situation. While risk to the assets of life and health is a perpetual reality within rock climbing activities, it is equally important to mitigate these risks as much as possible. Arguably, the activity of rock climbing is primarily about mitigating the inherent danger to life and limb–an exercise in applied risk assessment and management. Therefore, the impact analysis of girth hitching a PAS to a belay loop yields that death is the potential outcome from utilizing this technique. That being said, that is the most catastrophic result of the impact analysis and there exists a range between death and simply accelerated wear on the belay loop.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of every responsible climber to utilize the tools of risk assessment to mitigate the risks inherent with the activity and make wise decisions within the context of the activity to maintain safe practices. Applying these tools to the issue of a PAS and the belay loop, it seems wisest to refrain from this practice and follow manufacturer’s recommendation to girth hitch into the two hard points on a standard modern harness. While benefits can be presented to not following the manufacturer’s specifications and setting up a PAS on a belay loop, anyone who presents these benefits should also test the theory against an empirically verifiable risk assessment process.

Hopefully, analyzing the issue of girth hitching a PAS onto a belay loop has helped elucidate risk assessment procedures. With this understanding, apply risk assessment processes to every rock climbing activity maintaining safe practices while also enjoying this unparalleled outdoor sport.

Sources:

Gear Guy, “What’s the Correct Way to Girth Hitch to Your Harness?”, Rock and Ice 240 February, 2017, accessed May 10, 2017 at http://www.rockandice.com/climbing-gear-tips/ correct-way-to-girth-hitch-to-a-climbing-harnes

Colin Powick, “Climb Safe: Worn Belay Loops and When to Retire a Harness”, Rock and Ice March 31, 2015 accessed May 10, 2017 at http://www.rockandice.com/climbing-news/climb- safe-worn-belay-loops-and-retiring-a-harness

“Risk Assessment”, Ready accessed May 10 2017 at https://www.ready.gov/risk-assessment

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