I’m an obsessive person by nature. When I set my mind to something, I often forget to eat or get a proper amount of sleep in the pursuit of my new obsession. This usually lasts until I’ve reached a certain amount of expertise in the subject, and then I move onto the next thing, often never coming back to my prior passions.
Rock climbing was one of these obsessions that I began tampering with over a decade ago. However, unlike my usual pattern, I was gripped by climbing and haven’t been able to escape the sport. The occasional gym climb turned into a membership, which led me spend hours every day working on various indoor projects. Eventually I wanted more, so I found a friend and mentor to teach me the ways of outdoor climbing, fueling my passion even more. At this time, I’ve climbed countless routes in different crags all over the United States, and like to encourage others to do the same.
But, is it really safe to be swinging from a rope dozens (if not hundreds) of feet above the ground? What are the risks of rock climbing, especially the outdoor version?
So…How Dangerous is Rock Climbing?
I’m not going to sugar coat anything here. Rock climbing is a dangerous sport that causes more than a handful of serious injuries and deaths each year. There’s always that inherent risk of user error, gear misplacement or malfunction, blown anchors, or rope cutting on the jagged edge of a rock. And more often than not, these scenarios lead to a climber falling a fair distance onto a bed of sharp boulders or hard ground.
My purpose isn’t to scare you out of climbing, but to inform you that rock climbing is an extreme sport, and extreme sports walk hand in hand with risk. However, if you don’t get complacent or overestimate your ability, this activity is a lot safer than you might expect.
What Causes Injury?
We know that an average of 30 people die each year from climbing related incidents in the US, and significantly more get injured with broken bones, twisted ankles, torn ligaments, or scraped knees. There are a lot of reasons why this might happen, but let’s take a look at a few of the most common ones.
Faulty Gear – Personal
It sounds simple, but I’m referring to a wide variety of incidents. It can obviously mean a gear malfunction, but there are plenty of cases of user error as well. Did you do all of your safety checks before climbing or belaying? Were you redundant with your gear placement? Do you actually know how to use that new piece of pro? Many climbers have gotten hurt simply because they didn’t know what they were doing or got complacent in the process.
Of course, plenty of others have gotten injured because the core of their rope was shot or their harness was fraying to the point where it broke. It’s a good habit to check your gear regularly for excessive wear and tear, and replace it accordingly, especially for items made out of fabric. Metal gear, like your carabiners, are much sturdier and need to be changed out less often, but are still susceptible to damage.
Most accidents related to faulty gear are preventable. Just take some time check your equipment for any damage, and make sure you know how to use it prior to climbing.
Faulty Gear – Crag
It felt necessary to make a distinction between your own personal gear, and any gear that might be found at the crag. Bolts, chains, and carabiners are often placed on routes when they’re first being created, and as such, they’re exposed to the elements every day for years. While most are maintained fairly well, there are some that end up in a state of disrepair, and can end up snapping or pulling out of the rock. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this other than be extremely cautious if you plan on climbing in an area that gets little traffic. Stay redundant, always being attached to the wall in at least 2 places. These are all things you’ll be happy you did, as you continue to learn how to climb.
Sometimes a climber will build a top rope anchor out of a tree trunk or rock, and leave it there for one reason or another. Personally, I’m not a fan of climbing on someone else’s anchor, mostly because I’m not aware of their skill level or the state of their gear. Too many accidents have happened because a climber trusted someone else’s anchor or gear placement, only to have it fail them and cause a serious injury. As a rule of thumb, it’s better to climb off your own systems, unless you completely trust the other person.
I’ve done a lot of climbing high up in the mountains, and I can tell you that weather is volatile in those sorts of places. It can be sunny when you start the climb, and raining by time you get to the anchor (especially if you’re a slower climber).
Always keep on eye on the sky, and check the weather forecast before heading out, if you’re able to. Also keep in mind that most injuries associated with wind and rain are a result of climbers attempting to get to shelter too quickly, slipping and falling on the wet rock as they go! Which is to say that many weather related injuries have nothing to do with rock climbing itself.
Bouldering is a more dangerous form of climbing simply because you aren’t attached to any protection. No rope, no harness, it’s just you and the rock, and every fall is a ground fall. To mitigate the impact that comes from hitting the ground, most boulderers will bring a crash pad to break their fall. Even so, it’s still possible to fall at an awkward angle or land on the wrong body part, causing you to hurt something. And if you don’t have a crash pad…well, it’s going to hurt. A lot.
I’ve come to terms with these. No matter how good you are at climbing, scraping some part of your body against the rock is inevitable. Usually they’re nothing more than an annoyance, although depending on how deep the cut is, you’ll want to have some first aid supplies on hand to bandage yourself up.
One of my favorite local crags used to be a quarry, meaning there’s still the occasional metal spike sticking out halfway up the route. I’ve never cut myself on one, but they’re quite rusty and have a few sharp areas. Wherever you’re climbing, it never hurts to keep your tetanus shot up to date.
An hazard that comes with the sport, falling rocks are a lot more common than you might think. Typically they’re from the climber breaking off pieces of stone as they ascend, but sometimes they can come from the ignorant hiker who started walking too close to the edge of the cliff you’re trying to scale. And of course, weather changes can break off hunks of rock as well.
It never hurts to wear a helmet. While I don’t always put mine on when I climb, I almost always wear it when I belay. There tends to be a good amount of loose rock at my local crag, and my climbing partner has a habit of unintentionally pulling them off when he climbs. Usually they don’t land anywhere near me, but it’s still good to be prepared.
So many people get hurt while rappelling each year, mostly because they get cocky or fail to double check their systems. Always remember to tie a stopper knot at the ends of your rope, so you don’t accidently lower yourself off the rope. Make sure you have a third hand in place, whether it’s a prusik or a klemheist knot, to act as an autoblock if you happen to let go of the rope. And don’t forget to lower yourself at a slow, comfortable pace. There’s no rush, and attempting to speed through the process can create a number of hazards.
A big issue among many climbing partners, miscommunication can be more than annoying – it can be deadly. I’ve heard stories of climbers who reach the top of the route and call to be lowered, only to have their belayer misunderstand what they said. So instead of lowering, they think their partner is going to rappel down, and end up taking them off belay. Now the climber has no one holding them up, and they lean back to weight the rope… You can imagine what happens next.
This is only one scenario out of many that can occur due to bad communication. Make an effort to listen to your partner and understand what they want you do before you make a move. If you’re trying to say something, make sure you’re loud enough to be heard, as sound can get lost along the way if you’re far away or out of sight.
What Can We Learn?
In 2018, Tim Klein and Jason Wells fell 1,000 feet to their death in a climbing accident on El Capitan. The next year, Brad Gobright also fell 1,000 feet to his death after a rappelling accident. 2020 saw the passing of Nolan Smythe who dropped 1,500 feet to his death after the ledge he was standing on collapsed and the rockfall severed his rope.
These are only a few names out of many climbers who have died in the last couple of years while pursuing what they loved. Climbing is a very safe sport when done correctly, but that doesn’t mean accidents can’t happen and tragedies don’t occur.
If you’re a climber, don’t get complacent or cocky with your gear or technique. Be thorough, and do everything you can to mitigate risk and ensure you stay safe. If you’re a belayer, do your checks properly every time your partner is tying in, and make sure you communicate with each other. Never forget that you’re holding your friend’s life in your hands (literally), and if you can’t handle that sort of responsibility, don’t be a belayer. Learn from the mistakes of those who have passed on, and remember that most climbing related deaths and injuries are a result of poor planning and bad technique.
If your instinct is telling you something is wrong, listen to it without hesitation. Even if it ends up being nothing, better to triple check your knots and gear on the ground than have them fail halfway up the wall.