How dangerous is rock climbing? This is not a question you ask climbers… it doesn’t matter. Just like you don’t ask a motorcyclist how dangerous his or her bike is. It just doesn’t matter once you are part of the sport.
That being said, if you are thinking of starting climbing, you should definitely consider the dangers before beginning.
In this article we look at the statistics behind the dangers of rock climbing, the factors and hazards you need to watch out for when climbing, how to increase your odds of an injury free climb, and if bouldering is a safer option!
How Dangerous is Rock Climbing – Statistics
The fact of the matter is rock climbing is dangerous, but so are popular sports like basketball, football and soccer. There have been a ton of studies that analyze exactly how dangerous different sports are
The results of many of these studies might actually surprise you though. In a study published in 2010 under the Mountain Medicine project, researchers found that the injury and severity rate of rock climbing was LOWER than sports like basketball, football and soccer. Indoor climbing had the lowest injury rate of all sports!
The one major knock against rock climbing is the risk of fatalities. Although statistics vary, over the last 50 years climbing deaths seem to average 30 per year. In 2017 this report had the total number of deaths at 37.
So is rock climbing dangerous? Yes. But it is not as dangerous as many more main stream sports that are thought of as safer. In Rock climbing, things like Free Soloing and Lead climbing are significantly more dangerous than indoor rock climbing or bouldering.
You can also mitigate the dangers of rock climbing by taking certain precautions before and during climbing to avoid the most common hazards you’ll face on the wall.
What Are the Common Hazards of Rock Climbing?
While accidents will happen, and as we already mentioned, no sport is completely safe, there are hazardous situations that you will need to be aware of when rock climbing. By knowing these you can avoid many situations that commonly result in injury.
Hazards can be divided into environmental and personal. Environmental hazards are those that happen outside of your control, and include weather conditions, rockfall, avalanche and lightning. Personal hazards are mistakes that you make or equipment failures which are controllable, but could result in death or severe injury.
Ropes, carabiners, and harnesses all have a lift span, after a certain point, they won’t be safe to use anymore. A worn out rope can fail and snap in two, or a carabiner that has lost its’ spring ability can pop open.
If you are climbing with someone else and their harness is worn out or a carabiner breaks, you could also be seriously injured due to the any number of pieces of safety equipment not functioning as it’s intended.
Before climbing do regular inspections of your rope, carabiners, and harness. Make sure they are not frayed, the stitching is not coming loose, and other tell tale signs your gear needs replaced.
Lead Climbing Falls
Lead climbing is one of the more dangerous forms of climbing. Often you are climbing above the last tie in point so falls are much longer and jolting. If you fall while leading it takes 3-10 times your body weight to stop. If you weigh 150 pounds, it will take 450-1400 pounds of force to stop your fall.
If you fall while leading, the first thing to do is hold on as tight as you can in order to absorb some of the energy from the impact. If your partner is following you, they can also hold on for a much softer impact.
Lead climbers also face the possibility that a cam, bolt, piton or nut will pull out of their holds leaving the climber without protection.
Lead climbers should be the most experienced person in your group, and should feel comfortable on whatever route you are trying. A climber shouldn’t lead a route that is at the top of their abilities. Leads can also lower the risk by placing what may seem like extra, or redundant pieces of gear on the rock in case one piece fails.
If lead climbers have to be extra careful of gear failures, then climbers behind them need to be especially careful of falling rock. Loose rock is everywhere… flakes, rotten edges, loose handholds all can come falling down the second they are touched.
While climbing, climbers should also always be aware of where the rope is. If it travels over an area with loose rocks, climbers should be aware that they may need to grab a hold of the rope at any moment.
Lose rock can also be a problem if there is more than one climber behind each other on the rope. One climber can dislodge a rock that bounces on a second climber’s helmet, hits his or her head and causes them to fall as well.
Regardless of how it’s dislodged…. by foot, hand, rope, tools or weather, climbers always need to be on the lookout for loose rock.
Not Using Gear, Or Using It Incorrectly
Free Soloing, the most dangerous form of rock climbing, was popularized and brought to the main stream by Alex Honnold in Free Solo. His gearless climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park got headlines worldwide.
This style of climbing is just you and the wall. No gear or ropes in the case of a fall. Free soloing doesn’t result in injuries, it results in fatalities.
Almost as bad is using your gear incorrectly. The most common is people clipping into protection too early. You should never clip your belay device into the rope until you are ready to fall or hang on a piece of gear if it’s not there.
There is a saying among rock climbers, “Clip in once, Clip out once.”
Most Rappelling accidents involve failure of anchors or becoming detached from the rappelling rope. If your ropes seem frayed or there are any other issues, it’s better to take another route rather than risk your life. If there is another route, always back up the rappel anchor with either bolts or gear.
Don’t rappel from gear if you can avoid it. It increases the chances that you will become detached from the rope because of how it attaches to the rock. If you are rappelling from gear alone, double or triple up the amount of protection you’re using. You can never be too safe!
Rock climbing is notoriously hard to predict. Weather conditions can change very quickly and drastically. Weather can contribute to rockfall and will drastically affect your ability to restrain yourself from falling.
Wind can blow loose rock around creating dangerous situations for climbers below you. This also affects the rope, especially if it is tied into anchors above you and moves with the wind.
Not only that, but rain can make even easy routes very, very difficult. Always keep an eye on the forecast before starting any significant climbs and give yourself plenty of time to get off a wall comes before weather hits!
How Dangerous is Bouldering?
Just like rock climbing, bouldering indoors is safer than if done outdoors. Falling from a 5-7 foot man made boulder inside is different than falling from an natural boulder of the same size outside. Obviously the size matters as well, Bouldering on smaller and more solid boulders will result in less injuries if a fall occurs.
Even bouldering at home can be dangerous, though. Statistically, the most common cause of climbing deaths at home is falling from a height of 3-5 feet. You don’t need much space to set up a top roping anchor or build additional pads and landing zones for bouldering.
With indoor bouldering climbing pads or a softer floor can be used, where outdoors you need to be very strategic with the location of crash pads and spotters in case of a fall.
Because of the proximity of the ground, people are more willing to try high difficult routes and moves in bouldering than on larger rock climbing. Due to this, the instances of most injuries is higher bouldering than big wall climbing, although the severity of the injuries received are generally much lower.
The Final Pitch
So, how dangerous is rock climbing? Rock climbing is thought of as a dangerous sport, but then again, all sports carry with them some inherent risk. Studies have proven that rock climbing is not considered as dangerous as popular sports like basketball, football or soccer.
Though accidents can be a part of any sport it is important to always remember what you are doing and where you are doing it. Follow the correct safety procedures and mind what you’re doing… Take care on your next trip to the wall!