Rock climbing, when done properly with the right knowledge is an incredibly safe extreme sport in which few injuries and even fewer deaths ever occur. As with any activity that includes this sort of inherent risk factor it is always possible, so those who choose to participate in rock climbing as a hobby or sport should be made aware of this. In this article I aim to share with you some of the things that are very important when it comes to rock climbing safety and some of the things I’ve seen people do on the crags that made my blood boil – those that behave irresponsibly and get hurt doing it give the sport a bad name for being dangerous. Let’s have a look at some of the important rock climbing safety rules.
Sudden vs Sustained Injuries
When I give talks about rock climbing safety; I’m often asked what injuries I’ve seen. Rock climbers falling and injuring themselves is actually a very rare occurrence on the crags and there has only been a handful of occasions where I’ve seen this happen, all of which have been minor scrapes and bruises and, in one case, a broken arm. A far more common injury in rock climbing is overuse where climbers are pushing themselves further and further and harder and harder and end up injuring themselves. Usually these injuries manifest themselves in the hands, wrists and elbows but can happen elsewhere in the body too like shoulder rotator cuffs and muscle tears and strain injuries. It is very important to know your body’s physical limit and although you want to push yourself further, remember to do it slowly and patiently and build up the strength you need rather than forcing your body to strain it to give it to you. Rock climbing safety is about looking after your body both short and long term.
Preventing Overuse Injury
You can do a number of things to prevent these sorts of injuries from occurring. Tape up between your finger joints, around your wrists and even your elbows to prevent hand strains. Always warm up for a minimum of 10 minutes by stretching out well before you start to climb and make sure this includes stretching all the important muscles that are at risk while you are climbing like your legs, neck, shoulders and arms. Use elastic bands around your fingers while you’re not climbing to build finger tendon strength as well as a regime of push-ups and pull-ups to build bicep and arm strength.
A rock climber relies almost solely on his gear for rock climbing safety and that means, like a skydiver will check and recheck his parachute before jumping, a climber should afford his gear the same privilege. One of the most important rock climbing safety steps you need to do is before you head out on a climb, check every inch of your climbing rope for frays or twists that could cause a weakness in the rope. The same should be done with your slings and other tapes – especially those that are attached between quick draw karabiners as they are often overlooked. You should also check your harness buckles aren’t breaking or wearing and ensure your shoes are solid and the soles aren’t breaking away from the shoe.
Wearing a Helmet
One of those things I mentioned that makes my blood boil is those climbers that climb without a helmet. Sure, nobody looks great in a brightly coloured plastic climbing helmet, but imagine being caught off the back of a factor two fall by your carefully placed gear only to hit your head on a rocky outcrop and seriously injure yourself. There have been occasions on long multi-pitch climbs that I’ve desperately wanted to take off my helmet, but the risk for falling rocks from above and falling onto rocks below is too great. To be responsible about climbing safety, always wear a climbing helmet.
Know What You Are Doing
This might seem entirely too obvious to some of you, but it amazes me time and time again when I see a pair of climbers, one leading up a route and the other hand-holding the rope without a belay device or climbers abseiling without a rope brake in case they lose their handle on the rope. There are so many golden rules when it comes to climbing that it would require an article all on its own to go through them, but I will touch on the crucial non-negotiable rules of rock climbing safety.
First, never climb alone. Climbing is a social sport and even if you are doing low risk bouldering routes, you should never venture out on your own if you want to practice good rock climbing safety. Always have a friend who can act as a spotter or call for help if something goes wrong. If you’re doing crag routes, there is zero excuse for not having at least one belay partner with you.
Secondly, if you’re belaying or abseiling, NEVER let go of the rope – not even for a second. Most rock climbing safety gear is designed to work with very little risk of the user doing something wrong. The exceptions to this rule are the belaying devices and abseil devices. Both of these devices require some tiny force to lock the rope into the device and do its job properly. The rule of thumb – when in doubt, hold the rope.
Lastly, never try to climb anything you aren’t confident you can climb. Mentally preparing yourself for the climb is a large part of successfully doing the whole route and if you don’t believe you can do it, you’re not going to be able to. Before each climb or pitch, take a short break to focus your mind on the challenge. It might sound silly, but having a clear mind is a huge part of rock climbing.
If you keep your wits about you and always do things properly and thoroughly in everything you do when you’re out climbing, you can go a long way to ensuring your climbing experience is fun, safe and fulfilling. Rock climbing safety is all about the meticulous details – check, check and check again.