Dramatising vs. trivialising

I stumbled across a video this morning discussing the issue of gaffing out, which describes the situation in which spikes or gaffs are used as a work positioning aid and are unintentionally knocked out of the wood, resulting in a slip or a fall.

The video’s general tone was that it is not a big deal and suggested that if you think gaffing out is a big deal you ought to harden up. It also suggested that gaffing out is as much part of working on spikes as tripping is part of walking.

This got me thinking.

Is it really a simple as that? Gaffing out: is it a big deal, a major hazard we have to deal with – or a minor risk that we just take into account? This post is not intended in a confrontational fashion, rather it is an attempt to gather the thoughts that have spent a day kicking round my head whilst contemplating this question into something more or less coherent, so bear with me.

So if indeed our premise is that, as I wrote above, gaffing out is a much part of working on spikes as tripping is part of walking, then my response to that would have to be: ok, but when I walk I attempt not to trip, as depending upon when and where a trip occurs the consequences can be either negligible – or very significant.

Probably the same can be said of gaffing out: it is ultimately down to the situation in which it occurs whether is is more or less serious.

Gaffing out while using a chainsaw is obviously not a good idea. Doing so on low diameter, smooth-bark stems with no or little taper can lead to potentially hazardous situations, this can be exacerbated by an unfortunately positioned stump in the way of your fall. Wet or freezing conditions can further change the picture radically.

If we are complacent and suggest that all that is needed in order to address this situation is to harden up, then we do so at our own peril, as the solutions to addressing this risk are really quite easy and plentiful, such as:

  • using the right length gaffs for the tree species you are working on. Hard wood is easier to position on with short spikes, whereas thick-barkes species are easier to work with longer ones. Switch this around and you will find yourself struggling either to get a good purchase through the bark or to place the spikes well into the stem.
    Gaffs come in all sorts of shapes and lengths. Use the right ones for the type of wood you are working on. Image: Treetools NZ
  • double wrap the lanyard on low diameter stems to prevent sliding down. This is not a trivial matter – essentially it is an uncontrolled fall, despite the fact that you have a lanyard around the stem whilst it is happening.
  • use a link between the two parts of the lanyard either side of the stem, for example a low diameter prusik loop with a karabiner on it. This link can be pushed up against the stem, by doing so you are able to prevent a sliding fall. In France this is a legal obligation as defined per legislation.
  • understand the tool you are working with: I alway cringe a bit when I see people ramming their spikes into the stem repeatedly before making a cut… Just making sure it is really well in!. This to me is indicative of a person who does not trust their tools. If the spikes are sharp and well placed, there is a low risk of them popping out.
  • place the spikes in a radial orientation towards the middle of the stem rather than tangentially, across the stem. Do not balance on the spikes, rather rotate your foot in, so that your big toe makes contact with the stem, this position increases the contact area and is therefore inherently more stable.

I am stymied by the fact that for a tool that is so ubiquitous in our trade there is so little formalized guidelines on how to use it. I assume this is because the general assumption is that it is self-explanatory. I disagree with this position quite strongly as it is not reflected by my experience when training people to use it or observing climbers moving around on spikes.

I agree with the sentiment expressed in the video that used correctly, gaffs or spikes are a great tool. I am less convinced by the argument that gaffing out is inevitable and therefore simply to be accepted. Rather, I would suggest that this is a further example of a risk that we are perfectly able to manage and have the means to address. By doing so, the question of whether gaffing out is a drama or a triviality becomes a moot point.