Second Coming: An Example of How to Manage Risk when Climbing

Second Coming: An Example of How to Manage Risk when Climbing

August 12, 2022 fmg-adminGuides' Tech Tips Guiding Rock Climbing Route Beta

A few weeks ago, myself and another guide were climbing with guests and witnessed an experienced climber fall and break his ankle at the crux section of Second Coming, a popular 5.7 multi-pitch climb at Looking Glass Rock in North Carolina. We managed to get the climber to the ground, splint the ankle, and help him walk down the trail to meet with the local rescue squad. While the injury was not life threatening, it resulted in surgery and an estimated six months of recovery for the climber involved. While climbing is an inherently risky activity, this particular accident could have been prevented. Read on to find out how.

The Route

Second Coming follows a beautiful crack system for roughly 300 feet up the south side of Looking Glass. The first pitch starts off easy as 4th class terrain, but around halfway up it begins to steepen gradually. The top of the first pitch is guarded by the technical crux of the route which has some polished foot and hand holds and is steeper than the terrain below. Depending on conditions and overall comfort level, this is where you’re most likely to fall, which is roughly 80 feet off the ground. In the case of the climber whose fall we witnessed, the rock was damp that morning from a storm that had passed through earlier, making those polished holds extra slippery. After pulling the crux bulge you end up on a decent-sized ledge for a belay. The remainder of the route is much easier and straight forward and is typically done in one long pitch. 

The Problem

Because of its moderate grade, Second Coming is particularly attractive to newer trad multi-pitch leaders, but when preparing to climb the route, they are confronted with warnings from multiple sources. The first comment on Mountain Project states, “Second Coming has scored numerous injuries from people blowing it at the crux and tumbling down the slab. Make sure your gear is solid before you commit.” A popular local guidebook has a similar statement about Second Coming claiming the most broken ankles at Looking Glass and advising climbers not to be complacent with their protection.

While the recommendation about having solid gear is a good one, that is good advice for any climb you choose to do and doesn’t address the real problem with blowing the Second Coming crux: rope stretch. The climber who sustained the broken ankle a few weeks ago had placed solid gear, and the piece that held the fall was a cam placed just under the crux sequence. The issue wasn’t that he placed bad gear, but rather where his belayer was positioned and how much rope was in the system. 

The Solution

We use dynamic ropes for climbing because we want a nice, soft catch in the event of a leader fall. While this works well in steep terrain, it can be a problem when the terrain is lower angle or ledgy. The stretch of the rope during a lead fall is referred to as dynamic elongation and is measured as a percentage. Without getting lost in the weeds, just know that dynamic ropes are designed to stretch (hence the name dynamic) and that the stretch is a percentage of the amount of rope in the system. For example, if a rope has 25% dynamic elongation it will stretch an extra 25 feet per 100 feet of rope during a lead fall. This number is based off an 80 kg weight so it will depend on the situation and how much the leader weighs. The big take away is that the more rope out in the system the more it will stretch in a fall. So, how do we solve this problem?

Well, in the case of Second Coming, instead of leading all the way up onto the ledge above the crux, splitting the first pitch into two smaller pitches reduces the amount of rope in the system thus reducing the length of fall and in turn keeping the leader from hitting the slab below if they blow the crux. The way myself and other guides manage Second Coming specifically is to lead up the 4th class terrain, stopping on a ledge just before the climbing starts to get steeper. We build an anchor here, bring up our guests, and then lead through the crux to the standard belay ledge (see topo below). We then may choose to split the last pitch into two pitches as well just to maintain a closer distance to our guests and to minimize static elongation in our rope. This protects our client from hitting a ledge below if they slip while following the pitch. Static elongation for single ropes is usually around 10%, so much less than dynamic elongation, but still something to consider. 

second coming topo

Final Word

As guides our job is twofold: we must provide a quality experience for our guests while also managing risk for ourselves and clients. Usually, the quality experience piece is straight forward – we take you climbing, and you have fun (of course there’s more to it than that, but you get the point). The risk management piece can be a bit more nuanced, requiring a comprehensive understanding of the equipment, terrain, conditions etc… So, next time you’re out climbing, think about how you’re managing risk for yourself and your partners.

I’m not saying that you need to be like a guide, but I am advocating for gathering as much information as possible and in turn applying that information to make good decisions while out climbing. Guidebooks and Mountain Project are great resources, but that is all they are. You must be able to use that information to make your own decisions in the field. Just because the guidebook tells you where each pitch ends doesn’t mean that is the only place to build your belay station, or necessarily the best. Try to avoid sticking with absolutes and think about the big picture. If you’ve heard that a specific route has been the location of many accidents, find out why, and then determine the best way to manage for that situation.  If you need advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our guides; we’re happy to share our beta and help you have a great day in the mountains!

Forrest Stavish,

AMGA Apprentice Rock Guide, Wilderness EMT

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  • Gary Curran

    Thanks for the tips about safe climbing. Thanks also for your excellent guiding and rescue assistance at looking glass rock. Advice like this is very helpful for climbers who do this route often and know it well, such as local guides. However, this is not going to help the numerous beginning and intermediate climbers who use only the guidebook and the ground-up appearance of the route for their safety.

    They repeat ankle fractures that have occurred on the second coming have all occurred on the single move located directly below the bulge. If you ask anyone who’s climbed this route, this moveis not 5.7, as the route is rated. Most climbers agree this single move is approximately 5.9. I commend the future guide books acknowledge this difficulty level, despite the rating given by the first assentionists.

    Second, given that this single move has resulted in numerous ankle fractures in the Climbing community, it represents perhaps the greatest hazard in all of looking glass rock. It’s time for the Climbing community to recognize this risk, and install a single bolt to protect this move. This move has greater risk than any other run out at looking glass. It should be protected accordingly.

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