High-profile Systems Failure

The weekend before last the unthinkable happened: a climber fell out of a tree during a Masters’ Challenge at a tree climbing competition. It is unnecessary to specify where and to whom this happened, not because it is a huge secret , but rather because it is not key to this discussion. I have however spoken to the climber since and he appears to have walked away from this one with minor bruises, which comes as a big relief.

The reason for the fall was a total anchor point failure during the climber’s ascent once he reached about 20 feet. He hit the ground and rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding being hit by the top of the tree as it impacted next to him.

Initially I meant to write about this sooner, but have to confess to having been so distressed by the whole matter that I decided it would be preferable to let it settle a bit first in order to be able to give the matter a bit more thought and to gain a better understanding of what actually happened – rather than simply charging in.

So here are my thoughts. The comments below are intended in a strictly non-judgmental spirit, I am all too aware of how situations like this can develop their own dynamic – been there, done that – , what follows it is an attempt to reflect upon the various factors that led to this failure.

The obvious key question is, how could something like this happen?

A perfect storm, you say?

Well yes, that was a phrase that also popped into my mind first off. But actually, upon reflection, this is not a random chain of events that aggravated a situation that ultimately led to system failure. So therefore I do not think that this is an accurate metaphor to describe this specific incident: there is a clear chain of conscious decisions made by a number of people, including the climber, that led to this result.

The recipe for the cocktail Massive Anchor Point Failure goes like this:

  • The tree was a Siberian Elm, a tree known to shed limbs. The internal decay on the base of the limb the anchor point was installed on was extremely extensive, with only a very narrow ring of healthy wood remaining.
  • The town the event was run in has a history of rough tree work, leading to trees with bad pruning cuts, extensive pockets of decay and extensive cavities.
  • The event was run in one day, so the Masters’ set-up involved a crew whipping round the Masters’ tree in a bucket truck setting a couple of bells. No one had climbed the whole Masters’ ahead of the event to make sure it was feasible due to time pressure to get the whole thing done in a day.
  • Many experienced volunteers did not show up this year.
  • The climber had misgivings about the anchor point, but decided to use it regardless as he was keen to perform well in Masters’
  • A number of volunteers in the ring had misgivings regarding the anchor point but did not express these prior to the climber leaving the ground.
  • The climber und a judge performed a vigorous bounce test on the anchor point.

Et voilà. Mix that all together and it results in a person falling out of a tree.

Let’s start our examination of this accident with the climber. This individual is very experienced and competent. He also says of himself that he is a highly competitive person who wants to win. On the day, due to time constraints, he decided not to manipulate the throw line in the way he would have in a work situation to get the best possible point, but rather to go with what he had.

This is classic case of target fixation.

The operator realises there is a problem, yet decides to push it to one side as he or she is close to the goal and has invested so much they are no longer able and/ or willing to turn around or to consider alternative plans of action so late in the game. Warning signs are ignored.

I do not subscribe to the point of view that as it is a comp no holds are barred. My understanding of the tree climbing competition is that they are supposed to be a professional skills competition allowing to showcase the way arborists work. The vision that anything goes seems to me to be in stark contrast to this and belongs more in an extreme sports arena.

The anchor point was bounce tested.

The information gained from a so-called bounce test is null and void. Depending on the species, even a small dead stub of a branch, so long as the line is right up against the stem will withstand such a bounce test. However, when performed by two people, assuming a load of 200 kg, a dynamic bounce test may generate considerable peak forces and may induce primary failure (see graphic below) of an anchor point – and in a next step lead to ultimate, catastrophic failure during ascent.

Do not bounce test. Two person testing yes, by all means, but make sure it is a static, steady force you exert on the anchor point.

Set-up in a Siberian Elm under time pressure.

The aim of Masters Challenge is to allow the climbers to demonstrate best practice. In this instance, however, the combination of choice of species and set up meant this was not possible. The probability of this happening increases if the set up crew does not have the ability and/ or time to trial run the climb. Also, a set up that forces the climber to choose either between good line angles/ bad anchor point or good anchor point/ bad line angles has to be questioned.

Set achievable challenges in appropriate trees in a realistic time frame.

People did not voice misgivings they had regarding the anchor point.

This touches upon something much bigger than just a competition.

I am of the conviction that by empowering all members of a crew, you are creating a powerful tool to prevent exactly this kind of failure. Everybody can at any point in time call a halt to proceedings if they feel that something is not as it should be.

These various factors stacked up and culminated in the failure of an anchor point. I am clear in my mind that the when and where of this happening was fairly random, there have been many other occasions where we were extremely close to having something similar happing, possibly with more serious consequences. The fact is we urgently need to up our game in regards to all of the above, we have to focus upon the fact that we, as an industry, are not doing a good job on systematically assessing our anchor points, recognizing warning signs and/ or overload and putting in place remedial actions.

What are suitable remedial actions?

Well, for instancy by applying stringent criteria every time you select an anchor point. The same requirements should apply regardless of what line configuration you are using. A secondary anchor point failure in a stationary line set up remains that: an anchor point failure, as it could well result in a significant fall and/ or contact with structure below you. Choose anchor points that you can assess thoroughly from the ground, use binoculars to do so. Do not rely on bounce tests as an indicator whether a point is safe or not.

Also, learn to recognize sketchy situations, perform buddy checks on each other, discuss anchor point selection in your team, strive to create a culture of dialogue that allows concerns to be expressed and heard.

And finally: Be diligent and meticulous. Every. Single. Time. After all, who is going to sort this, if not us?!