Rock Climbing Risk

Photo: Erik Sundberg

There are old climbers, and there are bold climbers, but few old, bold climbers.

I don’t know who said this, I’ve heard it attributed to dozens of climbers, and I tend to think of it a general understanding of the sport and what to expect as you age into it.

Granted, I’m not as old as many of the far more proficient and accomplished climbers out there, but kids who were born when I learned how to climb are now driving cars.  Its a struggle of mine, against this aging thing, but that’s a different article for a different time – and I don’t find it terribly appropriate to talk about aging when I’m the younger of many colleagues.

This is about behavior.  Not necessarily ethics – one thing that Harrison Ford and I both share is a dislike for Dr. Hannaford’s teaching of the subject – but more along the lines of what I’ll call usual conduct.

Its easy to forget that the sports we participate in carry an inherent risk.  These things we do, for fun, are dangerous.  People get killed, seriously injured, maimed, and crippled for life – and we accept these things as de rigueur.  Why?


I’ve had more crashes on my bicycle than I have had accidents climbing.  By far.  If you throw in close calls, you might wonder if I ever rope up at all.  I was brought up riding a bike far earlier than I knew about rock climbing…as a kid in the suburban Chicago of the 80’s, rock faces and climbing gyms were as foreign to me and as hard to find on a map as Turkmenistan while bike trails and forested singletrack were out my back door.

Falling off a bike was pretty common as a kid.  Skin some knees, get a little gravel in the palms, see some stars for a minute after bouncing off a tree – these were part of learning where the boundaries of current capabilities sat.  No big deal.  Nowadays coming off the bike means a whole host of potential risks – for one it’s a lot further down to the ground at a much higher speed.  A crash like Brad’s from a few years ago would likely have meant to my 6’2” with gangly arms and legs, an extended stay in hospital, pins, rods, screws, plates, and sweet, sweet painkillers.  I’ve learned this because I’ve had a few big crashes, broken some bones, and learned to slow down, be more aware, and be more openly hostile to bad drivers – ok, maybe that doesn’t keep me any safer, but…

When I was 17 and learned about this rock climbing thing, I had a few people scare the hell out of me.  Stories of tragic falls, of people not inspecting gear, foolishly trusting old protection of unknown origin, rappelling off the end of a rope, having a belayer that you didn’t know that well…I was innundated with the sheer magnitude of risk that was part of climbing.  Just part of it – not associated with, not aligned, not something to be passed over.  It was drilled in, from day one, that every time you leave the ground, you and your belayer could be killed – it doesn’t matter where, when, or how – dead means dead.

The best piece of climbing advice I ever got was this: “There are two ways a climber can get hurt or killed: acts of God, or by being stupid.”  Personally, I haven’t been hit by a lightning bolt yet, so I’d like to think that the reason I’m still here is by not being stupid on rock or ice.  This doesn’t mean I’m adverse to challenge or risk – ask around some of the folks I’ve been climbing with for 15 years, and they’ll tell you we’ve all taken calculated risks and made bold ascents.  But the common thread in any one of those discussions is this phrase “I thought about it for a few seconds and…”

I have a handful of people that I’ll willingly and without hesitation push my abilities with – I know them well, and I know they have the same mindset towards safety that I do.  I know they’ll speak up when something isn’t right, and they know I’ll do the same for them.  Good climbing partners like that are hard to come by.

Why all this, why now?  Because it’s fall, and in the Upper Midwest, that means the humidity is low, the stinging and biting insects are diminished, and its time to cram in all the outside rock you can get before that couple months of purgatory – where its too cold for rock and not cold enough for ice.  Also because I’ve been hearing of a number of accidents out of some popular crags – accidents that could easily be avoided, people and animals easily kept in one piece and alive by the simple act of using that 3.5 pounds of gray matter between the ears.  And because one of my partners was in an act-of-God accident, and kept alive and in one piece (aside from a bit of torn cartilage) by being a smart climber and having a smart belayer.

Using a rope too skinny for a Grigri, using a Grigri improperly for lead belaying, clipping an obviously worn carabiner/quickdraw, taking hard falls on old quickdraws (speaking of, mine need replacing!), not inspecting ropes, harnesses, webbing, clipping old pins and fixed gear without backing them up, not wearing helmets – these are all recent examples of accidents at popular crags, and its not limited to the Midwest.

Us older climbers need to remind this crop of bolder climbers that there are certain things you just never, ever, ever do, and why.  We need to step up and step in when we see bad practices happening around us.  We need to be that cranky guy at the crag that tells those damn kids to turn off that rock and roll, keep the dog on a leash and away from the belayer.  That climbing hard does not equal climbing smart, and that they can crank hard well into their 60’s if they pay attention and use their heads.  Yes, its a buzzkill, but no one likes spending their afternoon out at the crag by carrying an injured climber off to the medics.

Be smart, be safe.

Additional Resources:
American Alpine Club: Accidents In North American Mountaineering
Statistical Tables: 1951-2007 Mountaineering Accidents – PDF File

2 responses to “Rock Climbing Risk

  1. By the way, we here at PEMBA have several GriGri belay technique demonstrations scheduled in climbing gyms throughout the territory this fall. At some, we may even have a GriGri 2 to show.

    Watch this space for details…

    Coming soon.

  2. I learned to climb during my teenage years by reading Royal Robbins’ Basic and Advanced Rockcraft. There were no books on rock climbing at the time. I also learned on Boy Scout trips and from old codgers at the Mississippi Palisades in my late teens when I could go on my own. I watched what these older climbers did and they also took the time to show me better ways of doing things. All part of a great climbing experience growing up.