Rock climbing involves scaling rock walls indoors and natural formations outdoors so it is natural to wonder if it is actually safe. You may be new to rock climbing or maybe you have had a passing interest for years and are now ready to get more involved in the sport, but want to know what researchers have to say on the subject. This article will cover the safety statistics regarding ourdoor rock climbing.
So, is outdoor rock climbing safe? Rock climbing is one of the safest outdoor sports, however there have been a many accidents over the years. Research has shown that injuries are quite common, some even fatal, but that it is no more or less dangerous than other similar sports as long as safety precautions are taken. Though there are often minor injuries, most fatal climbing-related accidents involve snow or ice and over fifty percent of injuries take place while ascending.
- How Safe is Outdoor Climbing? The Statistics
- Common Dangers of Climbing Outside
- Why Do People Climb If There is a Risk of Death or Serious Injury?
How Safe is Outdoor Climbing? The Statistics
Scientists from the Preventive Medicine Residency Program at The Johns Hopkins University analyzed 127 climber related injury reports to try and determine if the sport was especially dangerous and how the majority of injuries occurred. What they found was that falls while ascending made up approximately seventy-five percent of injuries. In addition, “Falls on snow or ice were longer than falls on rock, and injuries on snow or ice were more likely to be fatal.” Their conclusion was that better rock safety methods needed to be developed to curtail an increase in injuries as the sport itself becomes more popular. You can read more about the study here.
There are plenty of studies on this particular sport so there are a lot of statistics to choose from. One study conducted by the St George Sports Injury Clinic in Australia found that “rock climbing if undertaken in the normal safety conscious manner, should not be regarded as an extremely high-risk sport.” The highest percentages of injuries took place during solo climbs or were due to overuse injuries. Both of those statistics were at 37.5% compared to the 25% injury percentage sustained by lead climbers. The full report can be read here.
Several doctors at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City were able to find a very reliable way to determine climbing injury statistics when they looked at the records for Grand Teton National Park where it is mandatory that all climbers check-in and all injuries are reported. This record allowed them to look at ten years worth of data on 71,655 climbers. You can read it here. And the risk factors for serious injury involved in the following.
- Being the lead climber
- Ascending steep rock faces
- Climbing rock walls above experience level resulting in mistakes
- Almost all fatal accidents involved snow or ice
The large majority of fatalities and serious injuries happen to male climbers, but statistically, this is most likely due to the fact that there are more men than women who take part in the sport. During an analysis of climbing injuries over the course of several years in countries researchers discovered a “53% reduction following the introduction of new safety measures in 1994”.
While it is true that there are dangers that come with rock climbing and bouldering there are also many sports that actually are much more dangerous. The risk of serious injury or death is almost 50% more likely with swimming when compared to rock climbing.
Common Dangers of Climbing Outside
Landing from a Boulder
Dismounting from a boulder can cause harm to your knees and ankles if not done correctly. Most people who boulder use a crash pad to catch them if they fall and when they dismount to decrease the chance of injury.
Not Wearing Proper Gear
You want to make sure you are wearing clothes that will not restrict your movement in any way. The gear that you will want to have when climbing includes the following.
- Ropes, carabiners, slings, and webbing
- Climbing shoes
- A helmet
- Proper harness
- Climbing packs if you need to bring items with you
- Ice and snow tools like axes and crampons
Scrapes from Rock Wall
When out in nature it is only a matter of time before you graze a knee, elbow, or shin. Skin is very sensitive and vulnerable so experiencing a flapper (breaking open a callous) or getting scrapes and cuts while climbing can lead to infection and pain. Make sure you properly treat any wound.
The study by the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah which we mentioned several sections above looked at the weather as a risk factor and found that it was actually inattention to detail or mistakes due to rushing to avoid the weather that caused the most harm. You can read their full conclusion here.
Falling rocks of any size can happen anywhere climbers are ascending and descending. Often there is little or no warning. Keep a lookout for signs indication loose rocks in the area.
Not Using Equipment Properly
When lead climbing there are certain ways of using your gear that is more effective and safer than others. For example, back clipping can be dangerous. You can find more details on this and how to safely use your equipment in our article here.
Why Do People Climb If There is a Risk of Death or Serious Injury?
There are multiple reasons why people may choose to rock climb even though there is some risk of injury or death. Extreme sports can help people become more aware of their own bodies and mind. It is an experience that can be meditative in that the only focus is on the next handhold. There are also a lot of health benefits that come from being this level of active.
Another reason why people choose to climb outdoors is to connect with nature and feel a kind of peace with the universe. This may sound very zen, but many climbers have reported that their main motivation is to capture some form of self-empowerment and self-realization that they are not able to get in other areas of their lives.
Some extreme sports enthusiasts try rock climbing as a kind of way to get a high from doing something that has inherent danger involved. This is not something that the majority of climbers feel as most of them are doing it for the love of nature or as a way to improve their physical health or mental discipline.
How to Start Climbing Outdoors Safely for Beginners
The main way to keep yourself safe is to fully understand the proper procedures, gear, and climbing forms before starting outdoor climbing. You can find outdoor guides who can help you learn how to handle yourself in a natural environment which can be jarringly different when compared to indoor climb walls. Do not go solo climbing outdoors without being fully prepared, trained, and letting someone know.
A great way to get experience is by starting out using an indoor climbing wall and then slowly transitioning outside. This allows you to strengthen your grip, learn your body, and gather some tips from other experienced climbers. It is also good to start small so that you do not overstress your body. When outdoors you want to also make sure you choose boulders or rock faces that are not above your experience level.
Make sure to climb in an area that is regularly visited by other climbers or mountaineers. If you experience an accident you are more likely to survive if you are in an area where you can more easily get access to help. This brings up one of the most important aspects of bouldering which is learning how to fall safely. We have an article that goes into depth on the safest way to fall. You can read it here.
If you are bouldering then make sure that you have some kind of pad available to catch you when if fall and when you are ready to land. Even with a pad it can still sometimes be dangerous since it is possible to miss the pad or only partially land on it which can lead to broken bones, sprained ankles, or other bodily injuries.
While one of the things that makes bouldering exciting is that you do not need ropes or another person there it is always a good idea to make sure that someone know where you are going at all times and when you plan to return. That way if you have an accident or get injured they will know where to search for you.
Keep an eye out for any kind of warnings posted in the area where you intend to climb. This can include warnings about predatory animals that have been seen nearby or natural spots that tend to be more dangerous. Also make sure that when you choose a spot to climb it has already been tested by other climbers rather than choosing someplace at random and trying to climb it. Untested rock faces and boulders can be dangerous and potentially lethal.