Safety First!

When they purchased the land that was to become Muir Valley, Liz and Rick Weber had only a vague idea of what they would do with the place. Obviously, it had enormous potential for rock climbing on the seven miles of magnificently-featured cliffs, but just what would be developed and how to safely accommodate visiting climbers posed a huge number of questions. 

 

Over the first few weeks, an initial plan came into being, and although parts of it would prove to be laughably naive, it was a good start. One of the Webers' primary concerns, of course,  was safety — how to provide a reasonably safe climbing venue and how to respond to accidents, when they would inevitably occur.

They were realistic enough to know that accidents would occur, and that it was important to make a concerted effort to 1) do their best to preventing accidents, and 2) when they did occur, provide—as much as reasonably possible—the injured party with a fast, effective emergency response.

Actions Taken to Prevent Climbing Accidents and Injuries

Climbing accidents can occur for a number of reasons, including failure of the rock itself, anchor failure, climbing gear failure, and human error. And history shows us that the overwhelming majority of accidents are due to human error—bad judgement, lack of training, momentary inattention, fatigue, sloppiness, or complacency. At the start of climbing in Muir Valley, the Webers set about preventing, or at least mitigating as many of these reasons for climbing accidents as they could reasonably do. With input from experienced climbers and guides, they launched initiatives to prevent, or at least mitigate, climbing accidents in Muir Valley. These include the following actions that were taken:

  • Determined what were the best possible rock anchor systems used in the climbing world and conducting strength tests on them as installed in Muir's Corbin Sandstone. There was no way the Webers—both of whom were seasoned mechanical engineers—would permit route developers to use any old hardware to create rock anchors on sport routes. Rick purchased laboratory-quality testing gear that he and volunteers used to test various types of hardware installed in sections of Muir's sandstone walls. The gear consisted of a hydraulic cylinder to produce several thousand pounds of load on test anchors, and a digital load cell to measure the forces exerted on the anchors. Intersted in the details of this testing? Click Here.

  • Monitored, within reason, the personal climbing gear that visitors were using . This required frequent trips through the Valley to check on climbers. Climbing guides and experienced climbers volunteered as stewards to keep an eye out for unacceptable gear and unsafe climbing practices. These stewards were instructed to act as friendly, concerned fellow climbers rather than climbing police. 

  • Directed route developers to install bolted hangers on sport routes so that when a safely-belayed climber who has clipped into the first bolt and is on her way to the second bolt and takes a sudden fall will not hit the ground. This is a critically important rule for route developers to follow. Not spacing bolts properly has resulted in many injuries—mostly leg and ankle—at other climbing venues. Correct spacing requires the first bolt off the deck to be placed at about 14 feet up. This is a reasonable height that is reachable by most stick clips (discussed in the next bullet point), but not so high that if a lead climber who has not used a stick clip and is essentially free soloing to the first bolt takes a fall, it is not so far that a serious injury would necessarily occur. The spacing from the first bolt to the second bolt is also important to get right and should be no more than about 5 feet. Spaced as such, a lead climber who has clipped the first bolt and then blows clipping the second one, if properly belayed, should not fall so far as to impact the ground. After the second bolt subsequent ones should be spaced reasonably so that any lead fall should not result in a climbing decking.

  • Created and installed engraved metal discs at the base of each climb with its name, type (sport or trad) and difficulty rating. There have been several notable accidents that occurred when a climber got on a route that he misidentified and found herself way over her head and in trouble. Worse yet, there have been incidents when a climber inadvertently got on a route that was "R" or "X" rated, meaning that there were sections that were unprotected with bolts or unprotectable with trad gear where falling off meant hitting the ground.

  • Provided loaner stick clips to visitors at no charge and encouraged them to stick clip the first bolts on routes in order to prevent injuries caused by free soloing to the first bolt.

  • Strongly urged all visitors to wear helmets. If they came without one and wanted one, a loaner would be provided.

  • Installed a 2-way radio communication network with ten emergency stations spaced strategically throughout the Valley. Each station consisted of a tall post with a water-proof tube hanging from a chain. Inside was a 2-way radio tuned to a channel that was monitored by the Webers and volunteers.

  • Installed practice top anchor systems at several of the walls with softer climbs that were frequented by beginner climbers. Three sets of practice top anchors were also installed in the shelter at the entrance.

  • Created handouts with instructions to the nearest medical facilities to give to those injured climbers, or people  accompanying them, who who chose not to ask for an ambulance to be called.

  • Conducted, with assistance from seasoned climbers and local guide services, frequent climbing camps and training sessions and offered them free to beginners.

  • Offered and hosted Wilderness First Responder Courses, taught by Certified Wilderness Medical Association approved instructors.

  • Offered and hosted Single Pitch Instructor courses conducted by American Mountain Guide instructors.

  • Offered and hosted Technical Rope Rescue courses conducted by Rescue 3 international and Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

  • Built structures, such as stairs, walkways, and bridges to provide for safe passage in potentially dangerous areas.

  • Built a SAR building near the epicenter of the Valley and equipped it with a stokes litter and stocked it with first aid supplies. Unlocked 24/7, it was intended for anyone—not just official emergency people—to access and use the gear and supplies when needed.

  • Built an emergency road through the entire Valley for use by ambulances. Without it, significant time would have been added to carry-outs of injured parties to ambulances waiting at the parking lot. This made a life and death difference in several incidents.

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Located conveniently in twelve locations throughout the Valley are Information stations with waterproof containers that house instructions on what to do in the event of an emergency, the most probable of which is a climbing accident. Up until recently, these containers also housed an emergency radio that someone seeking emergency help could use to call one of Muir's emergency response volunteers. However, the radios are no longer used because cell service is so good throughout the Valley, that anyone needing help can call the county's emergency services directly.

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Students in Wilderness First Responder course assess and treat patients in this realistic climbing accident scenario.

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Certified Technical Rope Rescue instructors, Mark Ryan, and Rick Weber taught many courses in rope rescue at Muir. Here, they are demonstrating management of a patient in a litter hanging only a feet off the deck. Muir's shelter was designed and built with gear to facilitate rescuers learning and honing their skills in a safe environment before they head out to the cliffs.

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Julie Munger —World renown Instructor in Technical Rope Rescue, Swift Water Rescue, and Wilderness First Response and co-owner of Sierra Rescue International. As a highly respected Instructor Trainer with the Rescue 3 International organization, Julie trained both Rick Weber and Mark Ryan as rope rescue instructors. As such, Mark and Rick went on to do significant training of members of the Wolfe Co. Search & Rescue Team. This team has grown in stature and competency through the years and started participating, more and more, along side Muir Valley Rescue volunteers at Muir incidents. Today, Muir Valley Rescue has been phased out, and Wolfe Co. SAR is doing an excellent job in responding to all of Muir's emergencies. Many of the members of Muir Valley Rescue have been absorbed into the Wolfe Co. SAR Team.

Responding to Climbing Accidents in Muir Valley

As the number of visitors to Muir quickly grew, as we expected, the number of climbing accidents grew accordingly.

 

Early on, the Webers planned for local emergency services having vehicular access to the Valley by building a road down into the Valley from Highway 715 and along the length of the Valley. But, much to their surprise and dismay, they soon discovered that the county's ambulance service did not permit their personnel to leave the vicinity of their ambulances and hike up the trails to the climbing walls to assess, treat, and transport an injured climber back to the ambulance. Furthermore, there was no local search and rescue team that could perform this function.

To fill this very important need, the Webers created a home-grown emergency service, specifically designed for Muir Valley and the type of incidents commonly occurring in climbing areas such as this one. Here is a list of the goals that the Muir Valley Rescue initiative set forth and achieved by 2006. 

  • First off, the Webers were well aware that they had no training in responding to climbing accident emergencies and so immediately enrolled in a course to become trained as Wilderness First Responders and certified by the Wilderness Medical Society as such. Additionally, Rick Weber took training with Rescue 3 International and the American Mountain Guide Association, and became certified as a Rope Rescue Technician and Single Pitch Instructor.

  • Volunteers were solicited from climbers who frequented the Valley. These included medically trained people, such as doctors, nurses, EMTs, WFRs, and WFAs. The volunteers also included climbers who were not medically trained but who wanted to help with logistics, communications, litter carrying, etc. 

  • The volunteers were organized into an ad hoc group—that became known as "Muir Valley Rescue"—that were issued 2-way radios and understood that they were "on call" when climbing in the Valley and would respond to emergencies when called.

  • A communications network was built that included 10 emergency stations conveniently located throughout the Valley that included two-way radios that could be used by someone needing help to contact a volunteer

  • Volunteers were trained in Muir-specific subjects, such as how to  respond to a call for help, learning where all the climbing areas in Muir were located, and learning the fastest, safest way to transport a injured part via litter from a climbing wall to an ambulance waiting on the emergency road. 

  • A SAR building was built near the center of the Valley and equipped with first aid supplies and a litter that was open 24/7, not only to the Muir Valley Rescue folks, but also to anyone who needed help at those times no volunteers were available.

  • A relationship was established between Muir Valley Rescue and the Wolfe County Dispatcher and Emergency Services that provided for fast responses to emergencies in Muir.

How well did the Muir Valley Rescue initiative work? Beyond our expectations! Several lives were save and many injuries mitigated by the actions volunteers such as Jim Taylor, Karsten DeLap, Mark Ryan, Rick & LIz Weber, and many others who, while climbing in the Valley, responded to incidents. Most of these were minor. There were lots of ankle injuries requiring an ice pack and a trip in a vehicle back to the parking lot. And, unfortunately, there were a few serious injuries and three deaths. These presented much larger challenge. 

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Muir Valley Rescue volunteers responding to a radio call from a person who witnessed a climbing accident. Using radio communications, they assemble at the Muir Valley SAR building, pick up a litter and first aid supplies and head out to the accident location. At the same time, a phone call is made to the local ambulance service. A Wilderness First Responder with the group will assess the patient, apply field first aid, and package them for transport in the litter down from the climbing wall to the emergency road and onto a waiting ambulance. This is typical of a rescue mission carried out many times through the years at Muir.

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Becky Brewer, a seasoned member of the Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team, navigates a patient in a litter on a highline a hundred feet above a chasm. This was a realistic training scenario that was conducted dozens of times at a special location in Muir that allowed for a variety of scenarios to be created.

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Muir Valley Rescue volunteers learning Wilderness First Responder skills in realistic scenarios like this one. Julie Munger, the co-owner of Sierra Rescue and WFR Instructor set up many scenarios based on actual climbing accidents that occurred in Muir for her students to ply their skills on.

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Almost all of the climbing accidents that have occurred through the years at Muir can be attributed to human error. Even the best of climbers can screw up. Nobody is perfect. And, although very rare, when a climber does take a tumble and is injured, a cell phone call to 911 will dispatch the world-renown Wolfe  County Search and Rescue Team. This group specializes in mountain and technical rope rescue, and has established and maintains a training area within Muir Valley. Their outstanding emergency response actions have been responsible for lives saved and injuries mitigated.

The Issue of Personal Liability

Through the years, one of the most-asked questions of the Webers was, "How do you address your legal liability issues?" And, of course, this is an important question for the owner/managers of a preserve when, during any one day, there may be literally hundreds of climbers high high above the ground on one of Muir's many rock routes. And, the answer is that several years ago, in an effort to encourage landowners to open their property to visitors to engage in recreational activities, the Kentucky Legislature enacted the Recreational Use Statue. This law protects land owners against liability claims when they open their property, at no charge, to the public for recreational purposes, such as rock climbing and hiking. And, in this day and age of frivolous litigious actions, there would be no way that a landowner, including the Webers, would open up to the public without this protection. This law requires land owners who choose to open their places to the recreating public to comply with two requirements: 1) to not charge for admission and 2) to either "guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity".

As to the requirement of the law to not charge admission, that was not a problem for Liz and Rick, as they were willing to not charge for admission and to solely pay the Valley's expenses. The second requirement would be impossible to comply with if it had only stated: "guard against...". Due to the very nature of rock climbing, the only way to guard visitors against hazards would be to not allow climbers to climb. But, fortunately, the law also included the wording, "or warn against."

 

The Webers created a clearly-worded, comprehensive set of Warnings for Muir Visitors and posted them at the entrances and throughout the Valley. Visitors were required to sign waivers in order to enter Muir, and, the waiver required them to acknowledge that they had read the set of Warnings. This set of Warnings was also provided to guidebook authors. The requirements of the law were met, and the landowners didn't have to worry about being sued blind.

The current Muir Valley Warnings and Rules & Guidelines can be found by clicking HERE.