Are you afraid of falling to your doom? Many people have nightmares about it, whether they climb or not. In fact, most climbers aren’t as afraid of the heights as they are about what could happen if they should plummet from that height. That being said, there’s a good reason why we lug all that safety equipment along.
Obviously, if you fall off a low boulder onto an awaiting mat, you’ll likely be fine. But what would happen if you fell from a great height? How far would you need to fall for it to be fatal? The ‘death zone’ as it’s known is when you fall from any height 39 feet (11,88 meters) above the ground or the water.
The falling part isn’t the problem. It’s the crash at the end. Data from NASA is the most detailed of all in regards to the effects of rapid accelerations and decelerations on the body. Basically, NASA found the following to be true:
- Where you land and how you land makes all the difference. Ideally, if you land feet-first onto a soft mat-like surface, it’s the best option. Of course, outdoors on the crag, there is no mat, so keep reading.
- If you should land on a hard surface, up to 12m/s at impact, you should survive unless you land on your head. Then it gets a bit iffy. The term ‘survive’ here means you will live but you will most likely come out of it with severe injuries that could affect the way you live your life (such as paralysis for example).
- For falls between 12 to 17m/s, your chances of survival decrease even further.
- Anything over 17m/s and you will likely not live to tell the tale.
There are exceptions though they are extremely rare. In 1971, a flight attendant made headlines by surviving a fall of 33,300 feet (that’s 10,160 meters) without a parachute. Again, that’s basically miraculous.
According to the WHO (the World Health Organization, not the awesome classic rock band), falls are second in accidental death causes throughout the world with only traffic accidents surpassing it. While most falls aren’t fatal, falls are the reason for 424,000 deaths every year.
It’s all statistical, but let’s say you fell from a height of 48 feet (14,63 meters). That’s roughly a 4-story building. You’ve got around a 50% chance of surviving that fall. Quite a gamble, but if you fell from 7 stories (which is about 84 feet or 25,6 meters), your chances of dying are 90%.
Sobering information, yes, but when climbing, knowing the risks and how to protect yourself from those risks is everything. Knowledge is always powerful so keep reading and you’ll learn how to reduce your risks and stay safe doing what you love.
Falling in Water is Just as Bad as Falling on Land
Now, you might think that falling into water is a better option than crashing into the rocks below. This is a theory you don’t want to put into action. Have you ever landed the wrong way in the swimming pool after jumping off the high-dive board? That slap into the water can hurt and while a diving board jump won’t kill you, falling off a cliff from high up into a body of water can be just as deadly as landing on solid ground.
Deep-water soloing (aka. Psicobloc) is a risky venture because of this. If you stay low, you’d likely suffer the same slaps as making a belly flop into the pool from the big diving board. But if you’re way up high and you lose your grip, you’ve got nothing to stop you from plummeting into the water.
From way up high, if you don’t die on impact, there’s the very real danger of going unconscious from the fall and in water, that means you’ll drown.
Water won’t cushion your fall. It feels more like a solid the harder you come at it. Don’t treat it like the padding at the climbing gym. You may not live to regret that decision!
How to reduce your risk if you fall when climbing
What newbies are often concerned with is falling. But any advanced rock climber will tell you that falling is essential for learning how to push it to the edge. When you try hard, you fall. But that falling is covered with all the safety equipment. Top rope falls are no doubt the safest but you can also practice on well-protected lead climbs when your belayer is solid.
New or advanced climbers alike should always asses the situation where the potential for leader fall is great. A few things you should do as well as the things you shouldn’t follow below so keep reading.
– What to do (as well as not do) if you fall
- Look around below for any obstacles. You want to find the safest place to land.
- Breathe. You’re not helping anything by tensing up.
- Clue your belayer in with a “watch me” so they’re ready to act quickly.
- When you begin peeling away, yell, “Falling!” A common mistake is to yell, “Take!” But if you’ve already started falling, that’s a bad idea. You’ll have less of a rattling fall if your belayer is ready for it.
- Take a cue from cats. Have you ever seen one miscalculate a move yet land on their feet? The principle is the same. Relax your limbs and keep them slightly bent.
- Hands should go out a bit to the side to try to balance and keep from scraping them to bloody pulps on the rock or getting them caught in the rope. Legs should be the ones to absorb the impact.
- Watch that rope on the way down. If it’s behind your foot or leg, you’ll wind up with rope burn. Even worse, it could turn you upside down. Always be aware of how your rope runs every time you climb.
- Don’t push off the rock when you start to fall. The only exception would be if you’re going to smack into some other obstacle below, but this is a pro move. Pushing will only serve to make you off balance and crash back into the wall.
- Don’t grope around at everything to stop yourself. You’ll only wind up with rope burn or you could even lose a finger if you attempt to grab the rope, protection, or quickdraw. Count on your belayer and that rope to take care of you.
- Do practice falls. They make you better at climbing. Doing so in a controlled environment, like the climbing gym, can help prepare you for a real fall out in the wild.
- Choose a belayer you have confidence in. Ideally, it’s someone with experience in catching falls and someone you can really trust.
- Try doing falls on top rope first to practice.
- And practice, practice, practice! Just like with swimming, practicing falling in climbing builds muscle memory and also prepares your body for any unplanned falls.
Statistical Overview of Rock Climbing Accidents
There isn’t a ton of data on rock climbing injuries. Trying to separate that from the data that involves rock climbing fatalities is also tricky, but knowing a bit of the physics we got into earlier about falling on land or in the water, it’s not a good outcome.
In a Colorado study, they took the accident data from climbing at the top climbing areas in the state over a 14-year period (1998 to 2011). The number of accidents in this timeframe is incredibly low. According to the data, of all the victims from the mountains and wilderness that were rescued, which was 2,198 in total, only 428 of those people were climbers. If you break that down per year, that’s 30 people on average. These numbers also include injuries, not just fatalities.
Unfortunately, those numbers don’t reflect the severity of the injuries. Of those people though, 43% of them had become lost or stranded. That means only 244 injuries occurred which puts the average at 17 injured per year.
What’s more, only 23 deaths were reported in that 14-year timespan. Nine of those were from climbers that didn’t use ropes. In regard to the rock climbing victims, 42% of them were unroped. Also during this study, 12% of the accidents were caused by belaying problems while 4.5% were from falls. The most common injuries (29.5% of them) were to the lower body.
While this is helpful, you should know that this is only one small portion of the US where climbing occurs. This can’t accurately represent national safety levels or even global levels. But from this subset, we can see that rock climbing is a fairly safe endeavor, despite its seemingly risky appearance.
New climbers might think they’re more prone to injury, however, based on this data, accidents can (and do!) happen to climbers of all skill levels, even those with years of experience. Like anything, accidents tend to happen when you get careless as a climber or a belayer.
If you’re just starting out, you can increase your odds of enjoying the sport safely by learning from qualified professionals. Take classes and learn how to do it right. Know how to use all the equipment. When you do, you’ll find that it can be very safe. Complacency is where you’ll wind up with broken bones and trying to do things in dangerous conditions even when you’ve climbed that route before in more favorable conditions can cost you, no matter how much experience you have.
The Top Reasons for Fatal Climbing Accidents
Climbing is relatively safe when you’re doing things to the letter. Everything you do in life has its risks. You could be eating your dinner tonight and accidentally choke to death on it. You could be walking down the street and fall into a manhole. More likely, you could be on your way home from work and get into a fatal car accident. All these unpleasantries are the risks we take of being alive.
But we chew our food and refrain from talking with our mouths full. We watch where we’re walking on the street. And we wear our seatbelts to protect ourselves. The key here is practicing safety. The things that can be fatal during climbing are when you’re not being safe. Read on to find out about those.
– Free Soloing
Free soloing is when you climb without a rope. This is an extremely dangerous way to climb and something we don’t recommend. If you want to try the thrills of climbing free of ropes, you should try bouldering. Anything above 30 feet (10 meters) in height will be fatal if you fall.
You can try deep water soloing (free soloing over water), but again, that height rule still applies. The water isn’t some magical cushion that will save you from a fall. It could also spell your doom. If you’re staying low in height over the water though and following that height rule, you will likely be ok though it’s foolish to do so without others around who could come to your aid. Just stay as low as possible so if and when you fall, you’ll be alive and unharmed.
Believe it or not though, many fatal accidents occur among those that have been experienced in climbing for years. They go out on their own to get that high we all crave from the climb. When they come upon a small area that’s on the way to their intended climbing route, they foolishly skip setting up the equipment for the short distance. It’s not something we advise betting on.
– Rockfall and No Climbing Helmet
Another way fatalities occur during climbing is when stones fall. If you’ve ever seen stories in the news of teens throwing pennies or rocks from the top of buildings, you know how even the smallest thing from a great height can be deadly. In China, someone dropped tofu off a roof, and it crushed a car. So, there you go.
Always, always, ALWAYS, put your helmet on. Those stones don’t usually get loose on their own accord. Your climbing rope could jiggle things loose or if you’re belaying, your climber could accidentally send them down. Your eyes should always be up when belaying, end of story!
And while paying attention is important, that helmet is a lifesaver. Because knowing the rocks are coming isn’t going to help you one bit if your head is exposed to the cascade.
– Poor weather conditions
While a newbie would be more inclined to cancel the climb, experienced climbers tend to shrug off bad weather. A downpour can be dangerous for so many reasons. Rocks are slippery when wet. And lightning is something you don’t want to be out in the open for. If it’s gusty, you can be thrown off balance.
When the temperature drops suddenly from a change in weather, you’ll be less prepared to pay attention and stay focused. On a day climb, it’s easy to turn around and plan again for another day. But if you’re doing a multi-climb over a weekend, you should always pack and prepare for any weather occurrence. Don’t just read the weather reports. You’ll never regret packing rain protection or thicker clothing just in case. Chances are, you’ll need it.
The Myth of Gear Failure
Those new to the sport might be afraid of gear failure. While it seems risky to dangle from great heights by a rope, it’s much safer than you think. As we covered in the statistics earlier, the dangers come from being careless and not using equipment.
Yes, you should always check your gear every time. It’s not going to last forever, but when you buy a carabiner, it has to be rated a minimum of 20kn. Just 1kn is equal to about 225lbs so you’re fully covered here. Should you fall while tethered to all your gear, that fall only creates around 5kn, according to the UIAA. You should always buy trusted gear that is rated specifically for rock climbing and keep it up to date.
The same goes for your climbing ropes. They can handle around 5 major lead falls before you should replace them. It all depends on how you climb. For some, you’ll need to replace your ropes every few months. For others, it could be every other year. You should know what to look for when it comes to inspecting your ropes for safety so you know when to replace them.
Always look for the industry certifications stamped on your climbing gear. On ropes and carabiners, you’ll see ‘CE’ or ‘UIAA’ on them, sometimes you’ll see both. This means the equipment has passed the standards required for it to be issued as climbing gear. Your gear won’t fail you as long as you’re using it correctly. No climbing equipment manufacturer wants that kind of tarnish on its reputation. Accidents are all from user error, randomly freakish accidents, or weather-related.
So how can you stay safe when rock climbing? Keep reading!
Tips for Safer Climbing
Again, climbing is a relatively safe sport as long as you are careful. Those new to the sport tend to be the most cautious as they’re learning everything. But don’t let your guard down the more experience you gain. Here are tips on how to stay safe when you get up there.
Stay focused and be mindful of your surroundings
Now is not the time to go on daydreaming about the one you love. Climbing requires your absolute attention. Going on a climb while hungover? Bad idea. Mindfulness and concentration are absolutely critical at all levels of experience. You have to pay attention to everything. Once you leave the ground until you plant your feet back there again, you have to stay focused on your course.
Many mistakes are made when you don’t pay attention. For example:
- You didn’t tie the knot correctly which means it won’t hold under a load
- You didn’t clip the climbing rope correctly
- You put the rope over sharp edges
- You used an unsafe anchor that isn’t strong enough to handle a fall
- Your belayer is daydreaming
- You’re distracted by something else (headphones, which you shouldn’t be using for example, or things like dogs, other climbers, and so on)
Bring enough equipment
Being prepared with equipment is one of the most important things in climbing behind focusing. Always know what you’ll need for a particular route and have a backup plan just in case. Be ready for any weather as it can change in the mountains in an instant.
A good rule of thumb is to count the number of anchors you’ll need from the ground or from a guide and then bring a few more for backup. Climbing ropes should always be long enough to make it to the top. For newbies, going with someone experienced can help you learn the ropes, pun absolutely intended. But don’t forget the other things you’ll need too like water, food, and first aid.
Check your equipment
It doesn’t matter if you only used it once. Check your equipment with precision. Your climb is only as safe as your equipment so take the time to inspect it every time. Again, newbies will learn all this from an experienced climber. You’ll soon know exactly how to spot potential problems.
For your climbing harness, make sure it’s positioned correctly. Your leg loops need to fit tightly. That harness shouldn’t be sliding back and forth. All knots that you make in your ropes must be firm and done properly. Go over them with your climbing partner. Check and double-check it all.
When it comes to the climbing rope and belay device, you have to have correct threading. That rope should never run beside the track or you can damage it. Always check that rope for any signs of damage before setting out. For the belayer, that belay device should be fastened in with a locking carabiner.
And speaking of carabiners, just because they’re made from metal doesn’t mean they’re infallible. Always check them for sharp edges and make sure they lock properly. Replace them if anything seems off, or if you’ve used the same ones for many climbs. They wear out like anything else and the last place you want to find out you need a new one is while you’re up on your route.
Always wear a climbing helmet
Helmets certainly aren’t the coolest things to wear, but in climbing, they’re a must. You’ll see climbers without helmets though just like you’ll see people whipping down the highway on a motorcycle without one. It’s foolish, especially in an environment where even the smallest rock could end your life if it hits you square in the head.
Even if no rocks fall, suppose you do. A fall that would otherwise scuff you up a bit could be completely fatal if you whack your head, even if you don’t fall from that great a height. Don’t tempt fate. Just wear the helmet, please!
Only use safe anchors
Again, this goes back to checking your equipment. Would you get on a rusty ladder with broken rungs to climb up or down? Perhaps only if the building were on fire would any sane person attempt it. Your anchors are essential and one of the most common reasons fatalities occur is because of an unsafe anchor.
Check your anchor for rust. See if it wobbles. Be sure it feels sturdy and secure before you proceed. When you set your own anchor, you need to be certain it can handle a fall. Double the protection for an extra measure of safety by adding a locking carabiner to add even more security on your climb.
Falling is part of climbing, and practicing those falls in a controlled and safe way is important. Despite the great heights, climbing is a relatively safe sport when you focus, use the right equipment, and don’t get complacent. When you’re secured with equipment, if you do fall, you might get bruised up but you won’t die.
Fatalities occur when people don’t do what they’re supposed to in the way of safety. Going higher into the death zone of 39 feet or more without protecting yourself is playing with fire. You’re no safer from death over water either. If you want to free solo though, doing so at a low height over water is probably the only smart way to go about it. Always practice safe climbing protocols and you’ll always live to tell about your adventures!