Rock climbing seems like a pretty extreme sport. As climbers, we often spend our time hanging out far up cliffs, protected only by a skinny rope and anchoring points that can look intimidatingly spaced out. And we fall. A lot.
As climbers, almost all of us have asked ourselves – often when contemplating an uncertain move way above our last piece of protection – whether what we’re doing isn’t just a little bit crazy. Anxious ideas might float through your mind:
Is falling safe?
Will my rope catch my fall?
Will all the bolts below me rip out of the wall as I crater down to certain doom?
First, the bad news: these fears are normal and widespread. Fear of falling is a basic instinct, present from birth across a wide range of species (8).
Now, the good news: climbing is actually really, really safe. Although our sport is inherently dangerous, when practiced with proper safety precautions, rock climbing is in fact safer than most popular sports. Heck, it’s safer than volleyball!
Subtitle: Table of injury risk across various sports, compiled by Schöffl et al. (2010).
A literature review by Schöffl et al. in 2010 drew on hundreds of studies around injuries in rock climbing and thousands of studies across a wide field of sports. Their research found that, although there are some pretty substantial differences between climbing disciplines, overall, climbing just isn’t very dangerous.
Now, upon reading this, the skeptics amongst you might respond the same way as my wife did immediately after I told her that climbing makes nordic walking look badass. “Yeah, sure,” she said, “but I’m sure those sports just have higher rates of small injuries. But if we get hurt climbing, it’s probably going to be bad.”
Amazingly, this is not the case. In fact, most climbing accidents are just overuse injuries and soft tissue damage (2)(6). Great news! I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve backed off boulder problems because I was concerned about popping a pulley or spraining my ankle, but these are hardly life-threatening concerns.
Acute injuries happen, and climbing is dangerous, but by following safe practices, it’s possible to minimize risk. And take comfort in the knowledge that what you’re doing is probably safer than the average game of beach volleyball.
Below, we’ll break down the different risk categories of the various subdisciplines of rock climbing, as well as recommending a few key safe practices that will help you enjoy climbing and avoid serious injury.
How Dangerous Is Outdoor Climbing?
On the surface, the popular opinion seems to be that we climbers stare death in the face every time we head outdoors.
“Climbing? Oh yeah, I did that in high school gym class. But you guys outdoors are crazy.”
“Do you use a rope?”
“Have you ever fallen off? Did you get injured?”
These are the sorts of comments we hear all the time as climbers.
And it’s true, some forms of climbing are objectively dangerous, no matter how much you try to control the risks. But outdoor climbing actually takes in a range of different sports, including bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, ice climbing, alpine mountaineering, and free soloing.
Although all of these sports take place on a rock wall, they all have very different risk factors and different scopes for controlling the risks we run. Here we’ll explore the real risks of sport climbing and bouldering, both indoors and outdoors, as that’s where most climbers spend most of their time.
What Is Bouldering?
When bouldering, climbers perform a small number of movements at maximum physical intensity at low heights, usually about 8 to 15 feet high. The potential for equipment failure is nearly zero since the only gear essential to bouldering is climbing shoes and a crash pad (and maybe a beanie!).
Can You Die While Bouldering Outdoors?
As you would imagine, fatal accidents while outdoor bouldering is basically unheard of. No scientific journal articles or search engines consulted while writing this article turned up any evidence of bouldering deaths (indoors or outdoors).
Equally, no fatal accidents could be found in the American Alpine Club’s accident database(1). According to John Sherman (9), the godfather of US bouldering, at least one fatality has occurred in outdoor bouldering.
In his book on the history of American bouldering, Sherman recounts the tragic story of a fatality that occurred at a local crag when a hold broke off a boulder and fatally cut the climber’s neck. This anecdote is lamentable for the poor climber involved, but its exceptional nature only further emphasizes how low the risk of death is for outdoor boulderers.
What Are the Most Common Bouldering Injuries Outdoors?
Although you are extremely unlikely to die while bouldering, outdoor bouldering is actually the form of climbing most likely to cause minor injuries. Research by Josephsen et al. (4) found that a majority of outdoor boulders injured themselves at least once across a one-year study.
However, far more injuries occurred while climbing than while falling (81% vs 23%). As you might expect when pulling hard on tiny holds, most accidents involved finger injuries while climbing (61%). Most injuries from falling, though far less common, involved ankle injuries (13%).
In fact, falling injuries were less common than in indoor bouldering. Some climbers were also injured while spotting (10%). There was no common risk factor to injuries such as climbing experience, gender, use of crashpads or the average height of boulders climbed.
The lesson here is that the most dangerous part of outdoor bouldering is the impact on your soft tissues when trying too hard on extreme moves. To mitigate risk, warm up properly and make sure you spot your buddies properly to avoid a broken ankle.
Sport Climbing Outdoors (Lead Climbing)
What Is Sport Climbing Outdoors?
When sport climbing outdoors, climbers climb natural cliffs, usually about 35-100 feet high, that have been pre-installed with drilled anchor bolts. Sports climbers use harnesses, ropes, carabiners, and a belay device to secure their falls.
Now, a climber lead climbing outdoors will fall often; however, serious injuries whilst lead climbing on sport routes outdoors are rare.
At most of the popular outdoor sport climbing crags, the environment has been developed to minimize objective dangers. The potential to take a ground fall, or for broken bones, is low when bolts are properly installed and spaced to modern standards.
You see, most outdoor sport climbing areas are developed with safer climbing in mind so that climbers can enjoy the athletic challenge of linking together a series of complicated climbing moves.
What Are the Most Common Sport Climbing Injuries Outdoors?
Sport climbing outdoors has a very low rate of serious injury, but a reasonably high rate of soft-tissue injuries, mostly from overstrain and overuse (6). Roughly one-quarter of outdoor sport climbers will injure themselves in some way over a lifetime of climbing.
Now, research has found that sport climbing outdoors has a rate of about 0.2 injuries per 1000 hours of practice. About 80% of these injuries will fully heal, and less than 1% result in death. And similar research focused on emergencies reported in the Austrian Alps found that 2.3% of sport climbing emergencies resulted in death, though no deaths were recorded for falls of less than 30 feet (7).
Out of context, this might sound scary, but remember that even school volleyball has an injury rate of 6.7 injuries per 1000 hours – 30 times as high as outdoor sport climbing!
Most injuries in outdoor sport climbing occur when falling (6).
Despite the tragic case of Todd Skinner, gear failure is so unlikely that it doesn’t even make it into the statistics of most research, and we could only find one study that cited it even contributing to 0.6% of injuries.
Do New Climbers or Experienced Climbers Have More Accidents?
More experienced climbers are more likely to have experienced injury than novice climbers. This may be because the more experienced climber is more likely to be climbing at the limit of their body’s physical capabilities.
However, research by the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing suggests that most of these injuries probably happened in the climbers’ first three years in the sport (5). The researchers found that amongst these new climbers, the most common causes of lead climbing accidents were a hard catch while belaying, or rock climbers trapping a foot behind the lead rope when .
Is Falling Outdoors Dangerous?
Schöffl and Küpper (11) point out that one of the key risks for sport climbers is falling improperly. Their research shows that grabbing the rope while taking a lead fall, or grabbing a quickdraw, is extremely dangerous and can lead to many injuries.
Grabbing the rope may cause a lead climber to tangle their fingers, arms, or even their whole body in the rope while falling, and can cause accidents ranging from rope burn to finger decapitation. Equally, grabbing quickdraws while falling can lead to impaling your hand on the metal of the quickdraw.
All this being said, outdoor sport climbing is actually a very safe sport, and per hour of practice, one of the safest ways you can spend your time.
To avoid injury, make sure to double-check your buddy’s knot before climbing, replace your personal gear when it starts to look too worn, wear a helmet when there is a danger of falling rocks at the crag, give your buddies soft catches, and learn to fall properly.
So How Do I Avoid Injury When Falling?
It’s important that climbers learn to fall safely to avoid these risks. When falling:
[T]he climber should extend his arms forward at shoulder level to stabilize his body position. […] Just before contact with the rock, he should put his feet forward as he swings into the wall in order to lessen the impact. If necessary, he should bring his hands and arms forward to protect against any direct head or chest trauma. Immediately after the full impact of the fall, he should put his hands on the rope above the knot to avoid ﬂipping over (11).
How Dangerous Is Indoor Climbing?
Away from the rock face, the reality is that many climbers do most of their climbing in the gym. Whether you’ve just started climbing, are training for weekends away free climbing, or just love going to the climbing gym to work out and have fun, chances are that this is where most of your climbing happens.
So how dangerous is it really?
Indoor bouldering gyms have popped up like mushrooms across cities worldwide in the last decade. And for good reason; you can have most of the fun and exercise of climbing without the hassle.
No need to organize a climbing partner, buy heaps of your own personal gear, or worry about things like loose rock or proper crash pad placement.
Unsurprisingly, indoor bouldering is the least dangerous form of climbing. We’ve all heard stories of broken ankles and tweaked fingers at the local bouldering gym, but the truth is that this is rare.
What Are the Most Common Bouldering Injuries Indoors?
A study by Schöffl et al. (10) of over 515,000 visits to a local climbing gym revealed only 6 bouldering injuries. That’s 0.02 injuries per 1000 hours of climbing – 10 times less than the already low injury rate of outdoor sport climbing. These injuries were mostly the result of improper falls onto mats. Research by the Climbing Wall Association of the USA puts indoor climbing injury rates even lower, at only 0.007 injuries per 1000 hours’ climbing (1).
There are a few reasons for this low rate of injury. Indoor bouldering practically eliminates most risks of roped or outdoor rock climbing. Safety mats are preplaced and regulated to minimize risk, heights are low, and no complicated equipment or climbing experience is necessary; just turn up and have a good time.
So, this is about as far as you can get from free solo climbing, or even the risks of complicated gear placement like in traditional climbing. Learn to fall correctly and your chance of serious injury is next to zero.
However, it’s worth noting that the main research into indoor bouldering injuries comes from reported figures from a gym’s own records, so overuse and overstrain injuries haven’t really made it into these numbers.
Given that even in outdoor bouldering – where falls are less easily controlled – most injuries happen from pulling too hard while climbing, it’s fair to assume that it’s the same case indoors. So make sure to warm up properly before trying anything hard, try to end sessions early if you’re feeling too tired to climb properly, and ask for a buddy to spot your fall if you’re ever unsure.
Indoor Sport Climbing
Indoor sport climbing is just about the safest fun you can have with a rope in public. A roped climbing gym allows you to enjoy all the athletic movement of sport climbing without the inherent risks of climbing on a natural rock wall, such as rockfall and unregulated equipment.
What Are the Most Common Sport Climbing Injuries Indoors?
So what are the major risks of indoor sport climbing then? Belay mistakes are one of the top causes of injury. Fittingly, bad belaying is not just a danger to the climber, but may also injure the guilty belayer.
Another common cause of injury is failing to properly tie-in before beginning climbing. These mistakes more commonly cause injury to rock climbers who are lead climbing, but top rope climbers also make up a significant number of climbers injured indoors.
However, indoor sport climbing is still extremely safe, no matter how you look at it. Studies record an average of about 0.01 to 0.079 injuries per 1000 hours (10)(12). And most of these injuries, like in most climbing disciplines, are actually overuse injuries.
To avoid injury in indoor sport climbing, double-check your buddy’s knot when tying in, make sure to belay correctly and attentively, and always warm up properly to reduce your risk of overstrain injuries.
Has Anyone Died Sport Climbing Indoors?
The USA did not even record a death at a climbing gym until 2003. Since then, a handful of deaths have occurred, several as a result of climbers forgetting to clip into their auto-belay system before climbing.
Still, indoor sport climbing deaths are extremely rare, and several large-scale studies covering over one million gym entries did not even register a single death (12).
Main Hazards of Rock Climbing
As we’ve explored in the earlier sections, rock climbing is surprisingly safe, especially in contrast to its popular image as an extreme sport. In fact, if you follow proper safety procedures and keep your gear in good condition, rock climbing is one of the sports least likely to get you injured.
When Climbing, These Are the Main Risks to Look Out For:
- Overstrain injuries from climbing at your physical limit. Make sure to thoroughly warm-up before jumping on a climb that you find difficult to reduce your chance of injury.
- Ankle injuries when falling from a boulder. Ask a buddy to spot you, even when climbing indoors if you’re unsure about the fall. Also, learn to fall properly and to place boulder mats correctly outdoors.
- Belaying accidents when roped climbing. A belay that’s too tight or too static can lead to the climber and/or the belayer smashing painfully into the wall. Learn to belay dynamically and give soft catches.
- Failing to properly tie your knot before roped climbing. Always get your buddy to double-check your knot before you climb.
- Not falling properly when lead climbing on a rope. Don’t let your foot get caught behind the rope, don’t grab quickdraws while falling, and don’t grab your rope until you’ve completed your fall.
- Gear failure is a very minor concern, but that’s because most climbers check their gear and replace it when it’s starting to look like it’s had too much love. Inspect your climbing gear regularly, read the manufacturer’s guidelines, and replace anything that looks suss.
How Dangerous Is Rock Climbing Compared to Other Sports?
Sport climbing and bouldering, both indoors and outdoors, are actually some of the safest sports you can do. In fact, they’re safer than school volleyball and nordic walking! Hardly the extreme sport your mom thinks you’re doing.
How Common Are Rock Climbing Accidents?
Rock climbing accidents happen, but most of these – 93% (2) – are overstrain-related injuries from trying too hard. And even these only show up at a rate of 0.02 to 4.2 injuries per 1000 hours, depending on who you ask, which is still less than volleyball or soccer.
Why Is Rock Climbing Dangerous?
Rock climbing in its riskier disciplines, like traditional climbing and free soloing, is dangerous because of low margins for error and the inherent dangers of unstable mountain environments. In the mountains, something like rock fall caused by snow melt in the afternoon sun, though totally out of the climber’s control, can in fact be fatal. However, life-threatening injuries are almost non-existent for bouldering and sport climbing, where safety margins are large and environmental dangers are mostly controlled. In these cases, the main danger is trying too hard when you climb and injuring a finger or ankle.
How Many People Die From Rock Climbing?
Less than 1% of all emergency room visits related to rock climbing result in death (3). These deaths are most likely to be the result of huge falls (>60ft) when alpine climbing and free soloing (7).
What Is the Highest Free Solo Climb?
On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold completed a free solo climb of Yosemite’s 2900 foot Freerider route (5.12d).
Can You Rock Climb Alone?
If you want to climb alone and do it safely, you should probably stick to bouldering or the auto-belay system in your gym. Free soloing gets a lot of media attention, but the safety margins are much lower than roped climbing with a buddy. As the saying goes, there are old climbers and there are bold climbers…
All this talk about safety got you thinking about investing in a helmet? We’ve got you covered with a write-up of the best helmets to protect your melon.
Or maybe those stats about the high number of accidents based on belay mistakes got you interested in revising your belay techniques? Same, we’ve got you covered.
And hey, while you’re at it, remember that most injuries are actually caused by overstraining while climbing. Learn to warm up and stretch properly to keep overuse injuries at bay.
Editorial staff for The Wandering Climber. An expert roundup of climbing nerds from across the world!