Rock Climbing Safety

Indoor and Outdoor Rock Climbing each have distinctive safety concerns that need to be addressed.

Indoor Climbing Safety

Injuries at a rock gym rarely occur from falls or accidents. The most common injuries result from too much training and climbing. Almost everyone who climbs in a gym will suffer some sort of muscle or tendon injury at some point. Because of the steep and strenuous terrain, gym climbing puts a tremendous strain on fingers, elbows, and shoulders.

These areas of the body are held together with connective tendons. Muscles develop roughly twice as fast as tendons, so it is not unusual for a gym climber to quickly get literally too strong for his or her own good. Following are some tips to avoid injury:

  • Do not overdo it. Avoid overtraining. Tendonitis (inflammation of tendons) usually occurs because of too much climbing. No climber can crank hard every day without paying a price.
  • Rest. Getting enough rest between gym sessions is as important as the training itself. A good rule of thumb is to never climb hard the day following a major pumpfest. Cross-train with other activities if you must do something.
  • Be balanced. Mix endurance training with strength-building and technique exercises. Blend weight training and cross training. Evolve your schedule with the seasons.
  • Use preemptive taping. Support the areas in your fingers between the joints with strips of tape to support the tendons before they get sore.
  • Let go. Training at the gym is just that – training. If something hurts, let go and drop off.
  • Avoid extreme moves. Highsteps, dynos, long reaches, tiny holds, and one-finger pockets are examples of moves that can hurt.
  • Do not do things that hurt. If a certain type of move or terrain hurts, avoid it. For example, steep cave climbing can tax your shoulders. If you are prone to shoulder pain, avoid caves.
  • Use soft holds. Some holds have sharp edges or cause your fingers to flex unnaturally. Look for hold that are “soft” and conform to your natural grip.
  • Heed warning signs. If you wake up at night with a sore elbow, it is probably a sign not to climb the next day.
  • If it keeps hurting, see a doctor. A good rule of thumb is – if you are injured, rest until the pain goes away. Then, rest that time period again to ensure healing. If that does not work, see a professional.

Outdoor Climbing Safety

Everyone knows climbing is dangerous. So what are the risks and how can they be minimized? Risks fall into two categories: objective and subjective.

Objective hazards are those inherent in climbing outdoors and are often environment-related: rockfall, weather, the difficulty and dangers of approaches and descents. Objective hazards can be assessed and often reduced by the climber-if the rock is very loose, climb elsewhere; if the weather is threatening, leave early. Accidents arising from objective hazards are often deemed “acts of God.”

Subjective hazards are those brought to the crags by the climber themselves: poor route choices, having anchors, being sloppy or casual, not taking reasonable precautions, and cutting corners. Subjective hazards can be controlled by the climber knowing his or her limits, staying alert, and being technically prepared for emergencies.

Accidents arising from subjective hazards are usually blamed on “pilot error.”

In order to minimize risk, climbers must recognize and assess the various hazards and create safety management systems to deal with them. Hazards can he as big as a thunderhead or as small as a loose bolt hanger.

Safe climbing requires that hazards be continuously analyzed and managed on both the macro and micro level. Climbers need to be aware of the weather and at the same time be diligent about buckling their harnesses and tying their knots correctly; they must recognize the rockfall potential, and put their helmet on. Building a great anchor but failing to keep an eye on the western sky can put you at significant risk.

Approaches and Descents

Sometimes getting to the (limb and returning to the car can be more dangerous than climbing the route itself-at least you are belayed while climbing.

An alarming number of accidents occur just getting to and from the climb: climbers slip on wet slabs, stumble on teetering talus blocks, trip on tree roots, fall off short cliffs, and wade through poison ivy-all the time with their eyes dreamily focused on the crags.

Do not forget to look at your feet on the way in, and do not let your guard down on the way back to the car.

Edges and Tricky Terrain

A dangerous edge is any precipice you can fall off, or that can drop something on you. It does not take much of an edge for it to be dangerous. While the top or bottom of a big cliff is obviously dangerous, people often fail to realize that a short slab or section of talus also can be hazardous.

Be a prudent climber, stay alert on even the most benign terrain, and be quick to take precautions: Detour around the slab, pick a better line through the talus, put your helmet on before reaching the cliff (you have to carry it anyway, so you might as well carry it on your head).

When you get to the cliff, look for hazards: loose rock, climbers above, irregular ground at the base that could make belaying difficult, poison ivy, et cetera. If hazards exist, do your best to avoid them: Choose the most solid route and position people on the ground out of the fall line, climb to the side of other parties, pick the best spot for the belayer and position him or her to maximize stability.

Falling Objects

Okay, so you made it safely to the crag, assessing hazards and making the right decisions along the way. The harnesses, shoes, and helmets are on and the climber is about to make the crux moves. Everything is under control when suddenly you hear a cry from above: “Rock!’ This is the universal cry that indicates something is falling.

It alerts all other climbers of a potential hazard. If you see something fall, yell ‘Rock’ loudly and keep yelling until the object is on the ground-and yell it even if you think you are alone in the area. What should you do if you hear someone yell “Rock? Get very small under your helmet, do not panic, and:

  • Stay put. Running away could be dangerous and is rarely the best action; after all, “over there” is not necessarily any better than where you are; the only exception would be if you can quickly get under cover without putting anyone else in danger (running while belaying can be dangerous to the climber).
  • Do not look up. It sounds obvious, but it is not; train yourself to keep a level head (one exception might be when the alarm comes from very high above or way off to the side in these instances, a quick look may help you determine whether you need to do something to avoid getting hit).
  • Do not look down. If you are going to get hit in the head, it should be the top of your helmet, not your neck, that takes the impact.
  • Keep your arms at your sides. Be a small target-and do not put your hands on top of your head; your helmet will protect your head better than your hands can.