The Dangers Of Alpine Draws: A Case For Shoulder Slings
When I trad climb I carry a mix of quickdraws, alpine draws and shoulder length slings, each fitted with a single carabiner. My rationale for the mix is to provide the versatility to adequately protect the route for both myself and my second. Shattered limestone, for which the Canadian Rockies are notorious, often complicates the protection strategy, as ideal placements are often difficult to find and usually require ample extension to ensure your climbing rope runs in as straight a line as possible. This serves a number of purposes. It reduces rope drag for the leader, prevents rope movement from walking pieces of protection, helps keep ropes away from sharp edges and reduces the impact forces on pieces subject to sharp bends in the rope angle.
The Dangers Of Alpine Draws
So what is the issue with using only alpine draws? In short, nothing. With proper management of the rope and your aggregate climbing system, there is no harm in using only alpine draws, nor will I attempt to instil fear into any users. But I would like to share a recent personal story where the use of an alpine draw proved problematic.
On a limestone trad climb I placed a #1 DMM Dragon cam (roughly the same as a #0.5 Black Diamond Camelot) below a short bulge and unshouldered an alpine draw with two carabiners that hadn't been reracked properly after the last pitch. Now, with DMM Dragons, I prefer to clip my runner directly to the racking biner , rather then thread the alpine draw biner through the doubled up dyneema sling on the cam. I find the opening paricularly tight and in this instance I was using a climbing partner's alpine draws with Wild Country Helium biners, which employ a hooded nose, increasing their width. For expediency-sake, I clipped, left the free carabiner and continued up a short step to the belay ledge.
After securing myself I began to haul the ropes to prepare the belay but didn't get far before feeling a snag. Several progressvely firmer tugs proved futile and as I knew the pitch was somewhere around 45m and therefore must be snagged on something. Leaning over the edge I noticed my last piece of pro had tangled itself. Fortunately it was within reach and I extended my clove hitch, down climbed slightly and investigated the snag.
The alpine draw had wrapped itself around the rope and the loose carabiner acted as a blocker to what effectively became a Klemheist rope grab.
In this particular circumstance, the situation was remedied quite easily. The piece in question was near the belay station, ample rope remained, the terrain was moderate and communication was easy with my belayer. Had this occurred out of sight or on a steeper pitch it would have most likely necessitated fixing the ropes, down-prussiking to correct and reascending the line.
What Went Wrong
There are a number of factors that could have prevented this inconvenience. First, I could have clipped into the doubled up sling of the cam directly . A few seconds of fumbling to clip in directly would have saved several minutes correcting the mistake. Secondly, a few moments at the previous belay station to properly reassemble the alpine draws would have kept gear more organized. Lastly, I probably didn't need to extend this piece as far. A quickdraw probably would have sufficed. The danger of over extending placements, aside from the unlikely Klemhiests, is the increase in potential fall distance. You add double the length of your last piece of protection to your effective fall distance and while an additional foot or two may seem inconsequenial, that could mean a ledge or ground fall.
Recently, I've grown quite fond of carrying slings over my shoulder, as each of my cams is equipped with a racking biner to which I'll clip the shoulder-length runner directly. Not only can the weight savings of eliminating the redundant carabiner prove substantial (10 carabiners x approximately 30g each = nearly a pound) but the simplicity results in speed and efficiency. Now of course certain circumstances call for two carabiners, such as clipping a fixed pin, bolt or extending a nut to prevent it from walking and I will always bring along several alpine draws for this purpose.
Does this mean the dangers of alpine draws outweigh their practicality? Of course not. They will remain a mainstay of my trad, alpine and ice racks. Their usefulness on routes with plenty of fixed gear or routes requiring extensive nutcraft can't be overstated. Henceforth, however, I'll be increasingly more cognizant of how they're employed within my climbing system to avoid such a snag again.