What can be learned from a climbing tragedy?

20th November 2020|2min

The unfortunate deaths of Conor Smith and Sarwan Chand in Fiordland. Conor Smith and Sarwan Chand were youthful, energetic and experienced climbers who tragically died while doing the sport they loved.

On 22 April 2017 the bodies of 22-year-old Conor and 27-year-old Sarwan were found on the south face of Marian Peak, Darran Mountains in Fiordland.

Friends, mentors and fellow climbers described them as experienced and skilled rock climbers. Sarwan was the higher-level ice climber and mountaineer of the two, while Conor was more experienced on rock.

There were no survivors or witnesses on that tragic autumn day. To develop conclusions as to how the fall most likely happened, several experienced and qualified climbers have reviewed evidence from the scene. This includes photos the recovery team took of the equipment attached to Conor and Sarwan’s harnesses, the rope and the anchor configuration.

Considering these conclusions, as well as further available evidence, the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council has pulled together learning points that are relevant for any climber who engages in trad climbing:

Anchor setup

  • For trad anchors, at least three pieces should be used. Two pieces is only suitable if using bolts or if slinging solid items such as trees or boulders.
  • Anchors should be equalised and built for purpose so that they perform as intended when loaded in the expected direction.
  • On multipitch routes, remember that additional gear may need to be placed to prevent an upwards or outwards loading before the next pitch begins.

Lead Trad Climbing

  • The dangers of a factor two fall on multipitch routes should never be underestimated. Protecting against this possibility should always occur as early as possible by placing your first pieces of gear as soon as one can after leaving the belay. Ideally this should be two pieces, or a well-placed Cam, set for both outwards and downwards loading (the expected directions of loading from a fall).
  • Clipping into one of the anchor points as the first piece of lead protection often does not achieve this desired result on trad as it may do in sport climbing. Doing so may compromise the integrity of the anchor while adding rope drag for the lead climber as they ascend the face.
  • The anchor (where the belayer is attached) and the climber should ideally be independent besides the indirect connection through the belayer. Once the lead climber is on belay, the anchor should solely be for the safety of the belayer.

Placing Runners

  • Consider the direction of pull if you (the leader) are to fall. Incorrect orientation of carabiner gates could result in the gate being opened by the rope in a fall.
  • Ensure there are no twists in slings that could cause it to rotate when loaded as this can cause gear to pop out of place, or for carabiner gates to change their orientation.


  • All of the above should be practiced to the point that they are second nature and decisions can be made quickly and efficiently.

This was an unfortunate accident and a reminder to never let safety slip. Even after gaining significant experience in an outdoor pursuit, don’t forget the basics and essentials that would have been taught early on. Be critical of your safety management and ensure that you don’t lose sight of this when put under pressure.


You can find the access findings here.