A look at the numbers, the experts, and the top things you can do to decrease your chance of accidents when climbing outside.
By Abi Cotler
Guess what? Outdoor rock climbing is not the most dangerous outdoor sport! What is? It’s snowboarding—a sport, by the way, I have done since its inception with almost no fear even in the backcountry (note to self: become more rational in 2018). According to an article in the 2008 Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, climbing is relatively safe, especially when compared with some of the other outdoor pursuits.
Despite this, climbing outdoors is not without risk. This article will explore some of the most common injuries and risks associated with climbing outside and what you can do to minimize them.
BUT FIRST, SOME DATA . . .
Snowboarding accounts for 25.5% of all outdoor sports injuries, and most of those occur among young men (you know, those guys our moms warned us about). The next two most dangerous outdoor activities are sledding with 10.8% of injuries and hiking with 6.3%. So, it seems, the old joke may be true: the approach truly may be the worst part. Climbing, including both rock and mountain, accounted for 4.9% of outdoor injuries.
In 2012, a paper in the Wilderness and Environmental Medical Journal (WEMJ) titled, “Rock Climbing Rescues in Boulder County, Colorado and Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado, 1998 – 2011,” further detailed statistics about rock climbing rescues and accidents over a 14-year period in that area. The website Thoughtco.com broke down the stats for climbers. This data is specific to the Eldorado area but there are still numbers that probably hold true across the board. Of note:
- 46% of climbing-related injury victims were between the ages of 20 and 29 years old. The next highest number of climbing victims (21%) were aged 10 to 19.
- 5.5% of climbing victims—23 total—were fatally injured. Five died from lead falls and nine from un-roped falls.
- Belay accidents, such as losing control of the belay, and lowering and rappelling off the end of the rope comprised 20% of all climbing accidents. The rates were similar between Boulder County and ECSP.
Recently, I wrote a piece on transitioning from gym climbing to climbing outdoors. A lot of the information I collected from the knowledgeable Mesa Rim staff touched on safety for obvious reasons. Specifically, Mesa Rim instructor, Mateo Navarro, gave me a wealth of safety knowledge I squirreled away for another article such as this one. Much of what he said dovetails with the WEMJ findings on how to avoid accidents and injuries while climbing.
Here, are some of the ways you can up your safety potential while exploring your local crag.
CLOSE THAT SYSTEM
According to the WEMJ study, 20% of all accidents could have been prevented by better belay practices such as tying a stopper knot at the end of the rope or wearing belay gloves. The WEMJ info can be divided into three categories: single-pitch, multi-pitch, and rappelling.
In this scenario, the climber typically ties in on one end of the rope leaving the other end open with no knot, which means there is a chance the rope can slip through the belayer’s device. To close the system, simply tie a barrel knot at the other end of the rope.
Navarro cautions gym climbers against being complacent about doing this.
He says, “For most people this seems silly to do because if we are climbing in a gym that requires a 40-meter rope and we are using a 60- to 70-meter rope, then obviously the climber will make it back to the ground without the rope slipping through the belay device. But this is where we can actually see how not doing something is building that ‘bad’ habit. I’ve personally witnessed someone break an arm because they were about 10 feet shy of the ground and the rope slipped through the belay device and they fell.”
During multi-pitch, most climbers tie into one end of the rope, climb to the top of a pitch, go off belay, and then begin to pull rope.
The issues that can arise from not closing the system in this case range from pulling the rope up and leaving the next climber stranded with no rope (really bad and scary); not having anyone to do a redundant safety check for the next climber; and of course there is a much higher and scarier chance of the rope slipping through the device.
To close the system in this case, the belayer or next climber will also tie into the other end of the rope. Now there is no risk of pulling the rope up beyond reach. Also before the leader leaves her climber she can see that the next climber is tied in properly and ready to go. This is especially useful for new climbers where the leader is likely a bit more experienced than their belayer/partner. Also, just like the single pitch setting, the closed system will not allow the rope to slip through the device in the case that the belayer loses control of the rope during a fall or lowering situation.
You guessed it—stopper knots are essential to avoid a rappelling accident.
Navarro says, “This one to me is a no-brainer and to this day it really blows my mind that so many people die every year from rappelling off the end of their ropes. Again, we see that people spend most of their time in a gym or single-pitch setting usually with more than enough rope to reach the ground. People say to themselves, ‘I am rappelling 40 to 50 m with a 70-meter rope; I don’t need stopper knots.’ Wrong!”
The takeaway from all of this is to build good habits. The WEMJ study also stressed that prior knowledge of a route’s rappel anchors and the walk-off descent route—as well as taking a headlamp—will prevent a lot of rescues (up to 45% of total). That’s a lot, and I personally have a friend whose climbing partner would still be alive today if he’d been more careful about knowing for certain where the walk-offs were on their multi-pitch climb.
Communication is another big piece in Navarro’s advice.
“Communication is one of the single most important aspects of climbing,” he says. “Everyone has either seen or experienced firsthand the frustrating and awkward experiences that happen from lack of communication.”
Here, too, it’s about adopting good habits and not breaking them. Navarro offers an example of a common accident:
Leader makes it to the anchor and clips in, says nothing and lets go of the wall. Meanwhile, the belayer heard the sound of anchors being clipped but is staring into the sky looking confused and unsure. Since the belayer heard the sound, their attention is not focused on catching a lead fall, and since there was still a good amount of slack in the system, the fall of the leader is enough to startle the belayer causing him to lose control of the rope, which results in dropping the climber.
Here’s how communication would have prevented this accident:
Leader makes it to anchor and clips in and loudly says belayer’s first name followed by, “Take!” This gives their belayer the cue to take all slack out of the system and then to stay in a locked position. Once in a locked position the belayer will respond with, “Tension on!” That lets the climber know he can safety let go of the wall. Once the leader has weighted the rope he can ask the belayer to lower when ready and then the belayer will announce that he is lowering.
EDUCATION IS KEY
The remainder of the key takeaways from the WEMJ study make it clear that really knowing your stuff before you launch yourself into the outdoors can make a huge difference. Specifically, there are three areas to focus on: anchor building, wilderness first aid, and rock integrity.
According to the WEMJ findings, anchors fail only 2.5% of the time. But when they do, it’s because of inexperience in setup. Receiving formal instruction on anchor building, like the class offered at Mesa Rim or similar one at your local gym, is a very good idea. Additionally, as recommended in my previous piece on transitioning to outdoor climbing, find an experienced and safety-minded climbing mentor, examine their anchors at the top of your climbs, and ask them their reasoning for building them the way they did. You can learn a lot from these kinds of discussions!
Wilderness First Aid
The WEMJ study cited that the most common injuries sustained by climbers are to the legs and ankles (30%) and to the head and spine (30%). They advise that, “Knowledge of how to improvise splinting and how to assess spinal injuries might be a great addition to a climber’s medical tool kit.”
This education is best obtained through a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder Course. These can be found in multiple locations in your area from sources such as the Red Cross, NOLS, and REI.
Michael Lindsey, MD, Wilderness Medicine Fellow at UC San Diego Health says, “I always encourage people to get formal medical training. In addition to being able to recognize and potentially help an injured climber, it provides a sense of calm to the scene when you seem like you know what you’re doing. Also, people who appear to be in control of a scene but have no idea what they’re doing can make things worse. That’s true in a medical emergency just as it’s true when people who act like they know what they’re doing teach novice climbers dangerous techniques. There are various organizations that offer a course so look for a price/timeline that fits your schedule. I would encourage ones that include CPR training as you may literally save someone’s life because of it.”
Rock fall and loose rock causes a small number of accidents (4.5%, according to the WEMJ study) and may be correlated to the freeze-thaw cycles of spring and climber use patterns. In early spring climbing, check the rock you’re about to climb on for security as a prudent preventative measure. Also, remember to wear your helmet both when climbing and belaying; a belayer isn’t of much use if they get hit in the head by a falling rock.
Most of what’s been written about safety and climbing echo Navarro’s refrain about building good habits and sticking with them.
“I recommend people start getting into good habits by doing all these things even when it seems silly or not necessary because at the end of the day when you’re beat from crushing your epic day of cragging or your long, exhausting multi-pitch adventure and you’re not thinking, you want good habits to be there for you to keep you safe and climbing another day,” he advises
People who spend most of their time indoors, and overconfident/experienced climbers alike, may find that negligence around communication, safety checks, and redundancy can be the most dangerous part of climbing—and these are all highly preventable dangers.
“Many of the same mistakes cause climbing accidents year after year, including failure to self-arrest on snow, failure to tie stopper knots in the ends of ropes before rappelling or lowering, and inadequate preparation or experience for a given route.”
The bottom line here is that complacency kills. The antidote? Start building good habits now, and never give them up. Your diligence can save your life.
Have fun, stay safe, and see you out there!