Is Rock Climbing Dangerous? The Facts May Surprise You


Sports, whether recreational or professional, can be very dangerous or generally safe depending on what you’re doing and how careful you are. This is true for rock climbing as well, whether indoor or outdoor. If you aren’t careful, things may not end well. In this article I’m going to tell you the facts and statistics regarding the safety of rock climbing, including indoor and outdoor rock climbing, and using ropes, harnesses and other equipment versus bouldering and free solo climbing.

So, is rock climbing dangerous? Most forms of indoor climbing (such as bouldering and lead climbing) are generally safe when you follow a few easy to remember rules regarding safety. Outdoor rock climbing can be a little more dangerous than indoor climbing because of faulty equipment or lack of needed equipment (such as falling and hitting the rocky floor after missing a crash pad when bouldering). However, this is very rare if you are sensible enough with your routes and have a group of people who have enough experience to help guide/spot you. Free-soloing (climbing over 40 feet above the ground without a harness) is one of the most dangerous sports resulting in many deaths.

Keep reading if you want to know more about the dangers rock climbing poses and how to be safer so you can limit any bad experiences. We’re going to go through indoor and outdoor bouldering and lead climbing separately and look at the dangers of free-soloing. Injuries can also be caused by rock climbing in a dangerous manner so we’re going to look at what these serious injuries are and how they can be avoided.

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Is Indoor Bouldering Dangerous?

As long as you’re aware of your surroundings, indoor bouldering is generally quite safe, albeit a few injuries you may pick up. Indoor bouldering is usually more dangerous than indoor lead climbing, but less dangerous than outdoor bouldering. The dangers usually come from falling at a wrong angle or without using the proper method, being fallen on, using more strength than technique, lack of common sense, and hitting something or someone on the way down.

Of course, like any other sport, all forms of climbing can involve injuries. But bouldering can cause a few long term injuries due to incorrect falling form (or jumping off climbs instead of climbing down them) which can be very dangerous. For example, over time landing on your feet from a great height, whether on a soft mat or not, can damage your spine because of the pressure on the vertebrae. Falling wrong can also cause your knee to lock, your ankles to twist, and even whiplash. For my method of how to fall you can click here.

Rarely (generally because someone hasn’t been safe enough), indoor bouldering can be dangerous for people who aren’t even climbing because someone may land on them. It can either be the fault of the person below because they have settled themselves right underneath the climber; or it can be the fault of the climber if they start climbing without letting someone know that they are under the route. Use common sense in this situation, and always be aware of your surroundings when indoor bouldering – especially in busy rock climbing gyms.

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Is Outdoor Bouldering Dangerous?

Outdoor bouldering can be quite safe with the right equipment and people around to spot for you. It’s considered a little more dangerous than indoor because of a few reasons:

  • Outdoor bouldering hasn’t got the benefit of soft mats all around, which would cushion any fall whereas indoor bouldering has this option.
  • If something does happen to you, you’ve got help all around and a working phone for an ambulance.
  • Rock can be sharper than the plastic climbing holds within indoor climbing gyms and can take off chunks of skin from your hand.
  • Sunburn only happens outdoors.

One benefit of outdoor bouldering rather than indoor bouldering is that you generally don’t have to worry about people falling on you if you’re in an empty area suitable for climbing.

As long as you have spotters, don’t climb above 15 feet, and place quality crash pads in the fall zone then you shouldn’t have to worry about outdoor bouldering causing death unless you’re very unlucky.

Is Indoor Lead Climbing Dangerous?

As long as the equipment is working and is fixed in properly, indoor lead climbing is generally quite safe. However, due to complacency, things can go wrong. It’s very rare that his happens, though.

Indoor lead climbing is usually safer than outdoor because the fixings are less likely to come loose. If you hit the wall, you’re also less likely to get a bad injury than if you were to hit yourself on a rock wall.

Indoor lead climbing does not seem to cause many worldwide deaths.

Is Outdoor Lead Climbing Dangerous?

Outdoor lead climbing can be dangerous if the climber is cocky and/or complacent, or the equipment they’re using fails. If the correct safety measures are put into place, lead climbing can be considered quite safe. Helmets are your best friend when it comes to outdoor lead climbing – remember that!

The ego of a more experienced climber can be fatal. Safety should always be priority but sometimes it gets overlooked by the unconscious arrogance someone has which can cause an accident that results in a very serious injury or worse, death. When you’re over 30 feet above the ground you’re considered to be so far up that you probably wouldn’t survive the fall; therefore you must be as careful as possible placing your fixings and buy decent equipment that you know will work! Sometimes you feel so safe on the wall because you’re so used to it that you forget just how dangerous it can be if something goes wrong.

The Dangers of Free Solo Climbing (aka Free Soloing)

Free soloing is the art of climbing up a high route without ropes (usually above 40 feet from the ground). It’s one of the most dangerous sports or activities you can take part in and is classed as an extreme sport. Personally, I just don’t see the point as I don’t know why someone would risk their life when they could mitigate so much of the risk by simply using a rope. But I suppose I’m not an adrenaline junky so what do I know? Although impressive, it’s highly dangerous.

When you’re 40 feet off the ground there’s a very high chance that you’re going to die if you fall. And this does happen every now and then. Many people have died from free soloing. However, free solo climbers are usually very experienced and very technical climbers. They rarely fall even when free soloing. If they did fall they’d most likely die.

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Alex Honnold, probably one of the most famous climbers in the world today, is a free soloist. He’s being climbing since the age of 5 and is now 33 years old. He’s currently the only person to ever free solo the El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. He’s not dead yet so it just shows that if you’re good enough, free soloing shouldn’t be dangerous. But you’d really have to trust in your skill and keep a cool head in sticky situations.

Biggest Reasons Rock Climbing Can Be Dangerous

Rock climbing can be dangerous for a few reasons. Whether indoor or outdoor rock climbing can be fatal or cause serious injuries. This includes all different types of rock climbing.

  • Falling wrong can cause bone breaks, ligaments to tear or stretch, tendons to snap, and muscles to pull.
  • Falling from a great height onto a hard area below can cause severe injuries or worse, death.
  • Being fallen on by someone above can cause injuries, severe or minor.
  • Injuries due to bad technique or generally being unlucky can also be a factor.
  • Equipment not doing its job – carabiners snapping, for instance – can result in death.
  • Hitting the wall with your head (although rare) can cause bruising and/or concussion among other injuries.
  • Complacency is probably one of the biggest reasons why people have accidents when climbing.

Severe Injuries Caused by Rock Climbing Dangerously

Broken/Sprained Ankle

Twisting your ankle and either breaking it or spraining it can be caused by a few reasons such as falling off the wall with improper form when bouldering, or climbing too aggressively when transitioning. If you do either of these it’s regarded as quite dangerous and a way to increase the chance of injury.

It is very important that you learn how to fall properly from the wall when bouldering if you have no choice but to drop. I’ve mentioned this before in this article, but I can’t stress this enough. A lot of acute injuries, such as a broken ankle, are caused by using the wrong form when falling and can be easily avoided by following the correct method of how to fall. Landing on the side of your foot can easily break or sprain your ankle, and can be avoided by learning how to fall.

If you’re climbing too aggressively you may find that you twist your ankle on one of the foot holds, or you may get your foot caught between two holds causing an injury. Watching more experienced climbers will show you that in most cases it’s best to climb with intent – slowly with careful hand and foot placements. You should only use explosiveness at certain points that require its use to avoid situations that can cause injury.

Slipped Disc in the Spine and Other Back Problems

Spine/back injuries can be caused by rock climbing dangerously. As mentioned, this can be caused by falling off the rock wall with improper form when bouldering. Back problems can also be caused by dangerous climbing techniques.

Imagine trying to power your way through a whole climb or even just one part of a climb you’re having trouble with while using minimal technique, only to find out that you’ve slipped a disc in your spine because of this. Afterwards you find out this was quite easily avoided if you’d have just climbed more safely. Remember this now before you next jump onto the climbing wall. Spinal injuries can be avoided most of the time by climbing with less aggression and more technique.

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Due to the high impact of falling off the wall when bouldering, your spine can be hit with high amounts of pressure and the vertebrae within may collide. Overtime, if you continuously fall off the wall, this turns into a chronic condition and back pain may become a big issue in your normal life. This can be avoided in two ways: learn how to fall with proper form, and climb down the bouldering wall rather than jumping from a great height if possible.

Torn Ligaments/Tendons in the Finger(s)

Although this may be an unlucky accident, tearing your finger tendons/ligaments can also be the cause of climbing dangerously. By putting too much pressure on your fingers, you’re increasing the chance of a serious injury.

A lot of the time when it comes to rock climbing, serious finger injuries such as these can be caused by overtraining. The reason for this is because people think that to increase the strength of the fingers they have to increase the amount they train on crimpy holds. This is true to an extent, but overtraining is dangerous and can cause severe injuries such as tearing tendons in your finger which can lead to 5+ months of no rock climbing and wearing a splint.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury

ACL injuries used to be one of the most awful injuries, retiring sports stars and causing many problems for the future. However in these modern times, with surgery an ACL injury can repaired with a pain-free range of motion and stability. The surgery poses many risks and complications, but is fairly common, taking around 6-9 months to heal from.

In climbing it’s caused by twisting your knee in uncomfortable positions and putting too much load onto it while transitioning from one part of the wall to another. It can also be caused by falling off the wall in bouldering and landing with your knee in an awkward position (what do I keep saying about learning how to fall?).

Subluxation (Part-Dislocation) of the Shoulder and other Joints

Subluxation can be caused by trying to power through a climb too aggressively. This is usually more common in the shoulder area and can be avoided by using more technique than strength. Resisting the temptation to try out more dynamic movements (dynos) that require you catch a hold with your hand can also help you avoid subluxation in the shoulder area, as this pulls your shoulder out of its socket. Use correct technique, climb slowly and with intention.

Death

Death can be caused when rock climbing due to complacency. This usually happens when climbing outside more often than not, but there have been deaths (although uncommon) indoors. This is usually caused by more experienced climbers acting cocky and forgetting to attach certain pieces of equipment into the wall. It can also be caused by faulty equipment.

Can you rock climb alone? Rock climbing alone is called Solo Climbing. It is easily done when bouldering indoor or outdoor, but if you’re wanting to solo rope climb then you can do this by attaching your rope to some sort of anchor at the top of the climb.

What is the highest free solo climb? The highest free solo climb in the world is El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. It’s a granite wall measuring at about 3000 feet on its tallest face.

How many people die from rock climbing? Between 1951 and 2012 (although there was no data from 2006-2011), there were 1,680 people in the US that died from climbing. This is an average of around 30 a year. This includes climbing in terms of bouldering and rock climbing (indoor and outdoor), climbing buildings, roped climbing (indoor and outdoor) etc.

Paul

I'm the owner of Rock Climbing Central and I fell in love with climbing about 5 years ago as soon as my feet touched the wall. Since then all I've pretty much done is research about climbing and climb whenever possible.

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