Climbing Safety – Minimising Risks

This article is entirely based on my own opinions and observations, designed to spark debate and thought.

Rock climbing does, of course, come with a huge array of risks and dangers – whether it’s inside, outside, short boulders, multi-pitch routes, rock, ice, snow, or resin. There’s a multitude of things that can, have, and will go wrong at some point, and it’s down to both luck and skill of those involved as to the personal outcome. The British Mountaineering Council provides disclaimers at indoor walls stipulating the danger of serious injury or death when undertaking the activity – surely everyone is aware of these possibilities?

I was asked by a friend to write an article about Climbing Safety, and how the risks are minimised. Now I read ‘minimised’ as possibly meaning two things which I plan to cover – 1) how these risks are reduced and minimised to limit the likelihood of them happening, and/or 2) how these risks might be swept under the carpet and minimised suggesting they’re not as bad as they might appear. Whilst these are seemingly contradictory ideas, they can in fact link up rather clearly.

The first – all climbing is done, in my experience, with a certain degree of safety in mind. Harnesses, bomb-proof knots, various metalwork gear, ropes, big mats, helmets – these are all designed to keep climbers safe whilst they push the limits of their bodies, minds, and nature itself. Or just have some fun. In indoor climbing walls, particularly in the south, safety checks are stringent and you cannot climb without instructor supervision without having passed these, proving you are able to control a rope and a partner sufficiently. Helmets are often imposed on children, and in some cases novices – this item itself is subject to heated debate, about who should wear helmets when. The answer is not yet clear as some centres request all novices wear them, others all under 18s regardless of experience, others at the discretion of the user/guardian. Personally, I don’t wear helmets indoors unless I’m instructing, and that’s due to my centre’s policy. Outdoors is a whole other ballgame – many are even more adamant that helmets should be worn. I only wear one if I’m doing traditional climbing, in which protection is placed by the climber and so has the possibility of falling out. Otherwise, if I’m sport climbing (in which bolts are secured into the rock), I don’t bother. I find helmets frustrating, and confining, and I’m confident in my ability to read the rock and know if it’s safe.

Other aspects of safety of course include the rope – the most common question I get asked by children who are climbing for the first time is “will it snap??” The assurance I have is that ropes go through rigorous tests, and are designed to withstand forces that far surpass any that can be exerted by a 4stone kid jumping from the top. That, combined with the metal work that is regularly checked and tested, in my opinion little can go wrong in a climbing centre. Bouldering (climbing short routes without rope or harness, protected by a large mat) is another argument – the question of spotting was tackled by the Climbing Business Journal and suggested that it may do more harm than good. But overall, climbing indoors and out is safe, and the risks are reduced to the extent that the participants wish them to be.

Outdoors, you get people who solo routes – climbing tens or hundreds of metres completely unprotected. But they’d claim to climb little that pushes their grades, and so are confident in their abilities to continue or retreat. Additional equipment is for use on crags, and these again go through stringent checks.

However, all of this might in fact be minimising the appearance of risk – by loading yourself up with gear and equipment, books and know-how, is it possible that you are in fact kidding yourself of how dangerous it might be? Whilst accidents in indoor centres are rare, a large proportion happen on the bouldering side of things with people who have signed a disclaimer expressing their acceptance of risk, and yet find themselves injured due to poor respect for the sport. If you jump off the 4.5m wall after being told to climb down, and find yourself with a broken ankle, were you really aware of what you were doing?

And of course, it is heartbreaking to read stories of climbers who have lost their lives whilst out on the cliffs. People with years of experience, but who continue to put themselves in dangerous situations – someone I knew lost his life on a sea cliff despite climbing with an incredibly experienced partner. These things happen – tides change, weather turns, a fall, gear pops out, and that’s the end of it. No amount of safety equipment is enough in some situations. Even the helmet that we rely on so well can’t always save you entirely – just last month a mountainous adventure in Afghanistan almost ended in tragedy after a nasty rock fall. Yes the helmet did retain his life, but it was a close call.

Climbers cannot deny that they regularly put themselves in positions that could end badly – when you start exploring the limits of nature and human ability, even if it’s your own limited ability, there’s always a chance that something can go wrong. Reading Lynn Hill’s Climbing Free is both inspiring and moving – so many of the people she loved met premature ends when they forgot to respect the rock. Hill herself nearly lost her life due to a slip of the mind, and was remarkably fortunate to continue on after such an incredible accident. It is possible, that by downplaying risks, or even just getting used to the exposed nature of the sport, climbers increase the chances of something not going quite right, and the risks becoming increased due to human error. Familiarity leads to absent-mindedness, which isn’t helpful on a rock face.

This isn’t to say that climbers should be constantly on edge (excuse the pun) about the extremity of their hobby, sport, or profession. That would most definitely wipe the fun out of everything. The safety equipment, when used correctly, is near failsafe and can ensure that everyone from the complete newbie to the hardened vet is able to walk away. Minimising risks by being careful and using appropriate gear for its purpose of saving lives could counterbalance the way ignoring or forgetting risks minimises them. The two go hand in hand – increase one, decrease the other, more chance of getting home alive. For me, I’m interested in this balance – have fun, stretch yourself, engage with something exciting, but always walk away at the end.

“…flirting with death [is] not necessary. [Be] content with the challenge of free climbing as a means of finding peace and harmony…” – Lynn Hill

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