Are we just about done with this Anthropocene BS?

I came across this in a supermarket a couple of weeks ago… it made me feel rather depressed.

Yep, that would be an orange shrink wrapped in plastic.

Now I may be totally barking up the wrong tree in this matter, but I always thought that oranges were one of those fruit where nature had actually provided a wrapping – but no, obviously this is not so! We need to go and wrap it in a non-renewable, petrochemical packaging. Isn’t that simply fabby-doo, I mean, what can possible go wrong from here?!


This is a mess. It is in moments like this that the possibility of extinction of the human race feels somewhat like a foregone conclusion.


Keep your nose to the grindstone, the daily grind, the rat race…

Many of the idioms we use to describe routine and every-day activities have negative connotations. Why is this so? I experience routine actions on the contrary as something that can be very soothing and as something that creates structure, leaving my senses free to focus on other matters, rather than on the nuts and bolts of every day actions – those just flow.

Ok, you say, but routine can be deadly. It can make you complacent and lead to unsafe actions.

Fair point, yet it is down to the quality of your routines whether this is true or not. If you consider the activity in question and what the foreseeable errors might be, you can create routines that take this into account, which on the contrary make such errors less likely.

For example: When I reach my anchor point in the canopy of the tree and I pass my pulley saver around the limb, the first thing I will do, before I do anything else, is always to pass the pulley through the soft eye, as a matter of routine. That’s a no-brainer, you say. In theory I would have to agree, yet under fire weird things can happen. I had the following happen to me once, in cold, wet weather, I was stressed and tired, it was towards the end of the day, in a tall tree. I reached to top of the tree, passed the saver round the limb – to then fiddle around with my climbing system, trying to sort something out. I then passed the line through the pulley. Before releasing my lanyard, I have it a last check, and, of course, it looked wrong – to realise that I had forgotten to pass the pulley through the soft eye that was dangling round the back.

Further variations of this theme are for instance forgetting to pass the line through the pulley, having it only run over the retrieval thimble and so on. I am by no means saying that I am a total goofball and that I do stuff like this all the time, but on very rare occasions, when multiple factors come together, I have had things like this occur. Very scary. I would certainly rate this as an accident without consequence. After it happened I discussed it with the crew in the team meeting, also explaining in which way I intended to change my behaviour as a consequence to prevent this from happening in the future.

One such remedial action might be to always set the pulley saver correctly from the get-go, not just drape it over the limb. Or to always finalise installation of an ascent system before you walk away from it. If it is not going to be used, pull the line out of the tree. Over time, these responses to incidents become second nature and routine. This take on positive routines can, in my experience, make you a safer climber. There is  a strong logic to always setting things up in the same fashion, as something looking wrong can be a strong visual indicator to flag up something that is wrong! If, however, I set things differently every single time, I am forcing myself to consider every time how to set it up and also I loose that visual indicator when something does not look right…

The other insight, again based upon observation, is that unusual configurations and work-around solutions are in general more prone to this kind of occurrence. This is not a argument against such work-arounds, merely the need to be more attentive when such configurations and/ or technique are being employed, as you are stepping away from well-trodden paths – and unexpected situations might ensue as a consequence of this

Routine is a further tool that we can use to our benefit, one that can make us safer and less prone to mistakes caused by fatigue or stress, so long as we use it wise and reflected fashion – so long as the routines we are relying upon are “good” ones.


One really interesting insight from vertical connect last week had to do with a cross-disciplinary overview of anchor point selection.

For years every time the topic of anchor points in tree care came up, there was a small, niggling voice in the back of my head pointing out that most other industries work on rated anchor points – as opposed to us –, and that residual worry that if health and safety focus on fact all too hard we conceivably might find ourselves shut down. Add to that the fact that, again, as opposed to most other @height disciplines, we do not work with a permanent back-up using sharp (power)tools and things get really interesting.

So I was really fascinated by the talks on Saturday morning at vertical connect, where four representatives from different professions, geo tech, intervention, arborist and industrial rope access, described the challenges they fact and solutions they have identified when selecting tie-in points.

Guess what? It turns out that every single person ended up talking about how regularly operators will find themselves in situations in which they are having to make a call on whether a structure or element is safe to tie into and how you are using your judgement, common sense and experience to assess this. Okaaaay, that is really quite a long way from always climbing on rated points. It is logical, you say? This was to be expected, you say? Of course, but I found it really helpful to have it spelt out to me and having it in the open, because once that is the case we can start to have meaningful discussion on procedural safe guards and tools to aid consistently good anchor point selection, on an intuitive level.

And no, we are by no means the odd ones out, far from it, but rather another group of professionals working at height looking to answers to these questions. And without a doubt we need those answers, pronto. Poor anchor point selection and resulting failure remain a very worrying cluster of incidents to my mind. The good news is, this is not rocket science to address, all it takes is an adapted mind-set, an understanding of the structure that is being worked on, a basic understanding of the forces involved and some communication skills and I would expect many of these incidents to be nipped at the bud.

Truth is stranger than fiction

While we are on the subject of myths, fairytales and things that are hard to wrap your head around… here is a miscellaneous collection of things I came across these past few weeks. Whilst I can accept and understand that subjective perception of what is safe and acceptable may vary, these examples do make me wonder.

A climber was climbing on the friction hitch cord above. The knots were not set especially tight – the person in question did not see a problem.

A different climber tied into this limb on a horse chestnut, it is 5,5cm in diameter – the person in question did not see a problem.

The photo above shows the rigging gear a local company used to dismantle a big oak tree right next to overhead power lines on a busy road – I am pretty sure the crew running this gear did not see a problem.

As I have written about before, whilst every person may have a different interpretation and perception of acceptable levels of risk, I still found the examples above pretty crass. I struggle to understand how it is possible to have such a thorough lack of understanding of the gear you are working with (at height!) and the structures you are working on – and survive it. Yet this is probably where the resilience inherent to these systems kicks in.

But would I bank my life on it? No way!

And the fact that someone would be prepared to do so merely goes to prove once again that truth, as they say, is indeed stranger than fiction.

Snow White, Peter Pan, Cinderella and…

… hairline fractures in aluminium karabiners. If you believe in the former, you probably also believe in the latter.

Time and again I find myself confronted with the pervasive myth of hairline fractures in karabiners as a consequence of aging and/ or being dropped. These cracks, or so the story goes, can only be detected under a microscope.

Arghhhhh! NO, NO, NO!

This is a MYTH. This is not how aluminium karabiners age! Hairline fractures. Do. Not. Exist!

Well actually, let me qualify that: hairline fractures in karabiners can occur, but if this is the case, they were there from the get-go, resulting from faults in production, such as problems in forging or botched heat treatment. The best way to protect yourself against this kind of incident, rather than buying a scanning electron microscope (which might strain your bank account somewhat), is quite simply to avoid buying PPE of unclear provenance and quality, and rather to invest in high-quality equipment from reputable manufacturers.

In such connectors damage can be assessed visually as a part of a routine thorough inspection, checking for mechanical damage to the body or gate and/ or loss of function of the locking mechanism.

So there you go, a simple remedial action allows us to sort that one – and we get to put the hairline fracture in karabiners myth to bed once and for all… along with Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Grumpy.


Vertical Connect 2016 – looking back

So, vertical connect 2016 has come and gone — seemingly in the blink of an eye…

I am relieved that all went well, happy about the quality of the event and the very positive feedbacks – and rather weary.

What a blast the past few days have been… vertical connect really succeeds in portraying the diversity of professions and the diverse aspects of working on rope:

  • The cave rescue demo by the Spéléo Secours Schweiz-Team was really impressive, lots of counterbalancing, the team working like clockwork, very little tech involved, but rather clever, well applied techniques insensitive to dirt and crud.
  • A deep dive into the characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of synthetic fibers.
  • Multiple presenters discussing how their professions address the issue of creating rope friendly environments.
  • A demo of stunt rigging techniques, this often involves dynamic, spectacular movements that need to be replicable, safe and controlled. I find this use of ropes interesting, because besides safety there are other requirements in play here, specific to this field, such as remote locations, lines often needing to be low profile, specifically tailored low-profile harnesses etc.
  • A wide-ranging, cross-profession discussion regarding anchor point assessment and selection process. Highly interesting to my mind. For the first time it was clearly stated that it is true of all the professions being discussed, i.e. industrial rope access, high-angle rescue and geotech access and arborists techniques, technicians often find themselves in situations without rated anchor points and therefore need to be able to assess and select anchor points suitable to the work planned.. in the past it almost seemed as though this was something that only affected the tree world.
  • Vector forces on anchor points were explained in a very comprehensive manner on bi- and tripods, as well as using worked examples to illustrate vector theory in practical applications.
  • And so on… (lists are never a good idea, as you always leave some things out, which give the impression of rating some higher than others. In this case though, I though all talks and presentations were really good – in fact some even outstanding)

Add to all this a wide range of manufacturers and vendors displaying and demoing their goods, lots of interesting visitors from all sorts of high-angle professions, the fantastic weather… and you end up with a truly memorable event!

(Thanks to Tom Nickel and Dani Vonwiller for their photos)

The dates for next year are 1 and 2 September 2017, the topic for the first day is Connectors, for the second day it is Risk. Also for next year, we will be looking at adding English translation to the French we had this year already – I think this would be a good thing to do. If you have ideas for the topics mentioned above, do not be shy to get in touch. Should you be considering a trip to the area, why not plan it to coincide with next year’s edition of vertical connect? Consider yourself invited.

So, despite the title, this is not just looking back, it is also looking forwards! These kind of platforms are essential to cross-pollinate the various areas of work at height and on rope, to allow the exchange of experience and ideas, to forge friendships and to break down barriers.

Bring on vertical connect 2017, I say.

Just… maybe not tomorrow!


Vertical Connect 2016

Set up was well underway yesterday for this year’s second edition of vertical connect, the inter-disciplinary work at height forum which is once again is taking place in Meiringen in the Bernese Alps.

Meiringen, I have to mention, is of course where Sherlock Holmes fell down the waterfall whilst having a jolly good old punch-up with Professor Moriarty. Obviously they were not very up to speed on their fall protection gear – QED. Next time, Sherlock, you really ought to pop round the training centre of Seilbahnen Schweiz to vertical connect before you go off swanning around waterfalls…

The place was a hive of activity yesterday, with the four presentation stages for Friday and Saturday’s presentations were being finalized: a truss cube, the tower, a stem and a simulated cliff. Vendors and manufacturers arriving and setting in the trade show area. Presentation crews running through their set-ups.

Last year, as I wrote about then, on the first day of the event it was so interesting to see strangers starting to talk with strangers and that I felt that this was the moment that vertical connect acquired a soul. This time if felt like there was already a drive and an energy during set-up, with a sense of focused energy and tingling anticipation.

This, I believe, is Itsuarpok!

By the way, the trailer below is most certainly the heaviest load I have ever pulled with the Hilux. Got to love crawler gears. Even so, the clutch smelled quite toasty afterwards… I could probably have fried an egg on it (mind you, don’t ask me why you would want to fry an egg on a clutch, that seems like a sure-fire receive to a major mess. And a waste of an egg).

One of the exciting thing about this event is what a diverse group of people it attracts with a correspondingly wide range of abilities and competencies. Things just seem to get done… in way I would never have thought of myself – and if I had ever needed a motivator to help organize an event, there is the killer motivator right there: muck in and learn? Yep, count me in!

The last crew on-site yesterday were the folk from the Swiss caving rescue group setting up in the dark. Of course, cavers being nocturnal creatures and all that… (Thanks, Tom, for the pic)

vertical connect will be taking place today and tomorrow, should you happen to be in the area, do not hesitate to pop by, this is going to be good.