How to Avoid 4 Common Climbing Mistakes

Learn Climbing Skills and Judgment to be Safe

Rock climbing is a skill-based activity. Climbing requires many specialized techniques, knowledge of climbing equipment and safety systems, and experience climbing on cliffs to be safe. Climbers need to be proficient with climbing gear and skills such as building anchors, tying proper climbing knots, belaying another climber, and how to safely rappel. Climbers also need sound climbing judgment, which includes calculating risks and making safety decisions based on those calculations.

 

Beginners are usually Cautious Climbers

Katie and Lauren sit on the airy summit of South Gateway Rock at the Garden of the Gods, Colorado.
Beginning climbers like Katie and Lauren, on top of South Gateway Rock at the Garden of the Gods, are naturally cautious to avoid dangerous climbing situations. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Novice climbers are often safer than more experienced climbers because they are new to the sport and are usually unsure about their climbing judgment, so they tend to err on the side of caution and make prudent decisions.

 

 

Experienced Climbers can make Mistakes

Climbers rappel in tandem off Wilson Arch near Moab, Utah.
Experienced climbers can make mistakes by being complacent about dangerous climbing situations like rappelling. Always use the buddy system and check each other before climbing and rappelling. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Experienced climbers with good skills can make mistakes simply by being careless and nonchalant about climbing. It’s easy to develop bad habits and to use shortcuts that might speed up your climbing, like not double-checking knots or creating a toprope anchor with only two pieces of gear, but cutting corners always compromises your safety. Don’t do that. Do not think that you can take chances because you are a good climber, those chances become mistakes that will eventually catch up with you.

4 Climbing Mistakes to Avoid

Dennis belays Martha Morris on Lizard Rock at the Fisher Towers, Utah.
Pay attention when you are climbing and belaying to avoid getting into dangerous situations. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

It’s easy to make mistakes when you climb. Some are not a big deal but others may be fatal. To live long and prosper, avoid making these critical climbing mistakes:`

  1. Don’t climb over your head and ability.
  2. Don’t be afraid to retreat off a route.
  3. Don’t let miscommunication between you and your climbing buddy ruin your day.
  4. Don’t leave essential gear for anchors and protection in your pack on the ground.

1. DON'T CLIMB OVER YOUR HEAD

Lauri Striker climbs
Don't climb over your head by leading routes that are dangerous unless you have the skills. It's best to improve your strength and technique by climbing safe sport routes at places like Shelf Road. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

It is sometimes easy to attempt routes that are beyond your climbing ability and experience. An essential part of climbing judgment is to know when to say “No” to a route or your climbing partner. If you have premonitions of disaster and falling, trust your intuition. It keeps you alive.

Follow these tips to avoid climbing over your head:

  • Do not lead routes that are beyond your ability and experience.
  • Is your partner experienced and trustworthy? Do you trust his judgment or is he rash?
  • Is the weather and rock conditions good for climbing?
  • Can you place good protection gear like cams and nuts?
  • Can you retreat off the route easily?
  • Don’t feel bad about retreating from a route that you are not up to leading or if you have a bad feeling about climbing it. Your intuition saves your life.
  • Climb for your own reasons, not for anyone else’s reasons, including your partner.
  • Don’t let peer pressure make you climb a route that puts you in a dangerous situation. Remember that you’re the boss of you.

2. DON'T BE AFRAID TO RETREAT

Susan Joy Paul rappels off South Gateway Rock at the Garden of the Gods on a cold winter day.
There's nothing wrong with retreating off a route. Sometimes you're having an off-day or the weather turns bad. In those case, rappel down to safety. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

There is nothing wrong with retreating from a route. Sometimes retreating is the safe and prudent thing to do. Maybe you don’t feel well or the situation just doesn’t feel right. That is not to say that every time you feel scared and fearful you should retreat and rappel. If the route is hard and you might fall, consider the protection. If it is well protected with bolts or cams and nuts, then maybe go for it. If you fall, you probably won’t get hurt.

But always remember—the cliff will still be there tomorrow—but you may not be. Here are a few tips to think about before retreating off a climb:

3. BAD COMMUNICATION CAUSES PROBLEMS

Ian Spencer-Green climbs the first ascent of Flat Earth Society at Elevenmile Canyon in Colorado.
When you're climbing above a raging river like Ian at Elevenmile Canyon, then communication can be a problem. Aim for clear concise commands or use rope tugs to stay in communication. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Miscommunications or bad communications can cause problems and put you in danger while you’re climbing. Learn proper climbing communication words and signals before heading out and make sure your climbing partner also knows them. Use the same words for communication and you will climb safely.

Follow these tips for better climbing communication:

  • Use formal voice commands to communicate with your climbing partner to avoid miscommunications.
  • Bad communication creates dangerous situations. If you don’t clearly understand your partner, don’t make assumptions about what she is saying to you.
  • Never take your partner off belay unless you are absolutely sure that she has yelled down, “Off belay!”
  • If the cliff is crowded with other parties, then use your climbing partner’s name as part of the command to lessen his confusion and the danger.
  • Use a system of non-verbal commands with your partner if it is windy out or you’re climbing above a rushing river. Using a series of sharp tugs on the rope usually is the best way to communicate without yelling. Decide on how many tugs and what they mean in advance before climbing.

4. BRING PLENTY OF GEAR FOR PRO AND ANCHORS

Sugarite State Park offers many crack and face climbing routes on basalt cliffs.
Dennis carries plenty of cams to climb a crack route at Sugarite State Park in New Mexico. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

You always need to carry enough gear like nuts and cams to create anchors and place protection on routes. If you’re climbing a single-pitch sport route, it is easy enough to stand at the base and count the number of bolts, including the anchors, on the route. Traditional-style routes are different. It is hard to decide what gear to carry. It’s best to scope the route out before climbing and then decide what to bring. Here are a few tips to help you decide what gear to carry on your next adventure:

  • Remember that the sin is never in taking too much gear, but in not taking enough.
  • Before climbing a route, eyeball it and see what you might need. Don’t implicitly trust a guidebook description about necessary gear. Decide for yourself.
  • Climbing a route without enough gear is dangerous and scary. Bring plenty of nuts, cams, slings, and carabiners.
  • Be prepared for runout sections where you can’t place gear, rope drag, bad cam and nut placements, and insufficient gear for a solid belay anchor.
  • Before leading a sport route, count the number of bolts. Bring at least a couple extra quickdraws in case you drop one. A couple slings might be handy too. 

Follow the 1865 Climbing Advice of Edward Whymper

The Matterhorn reflects in Riffelsee Lake.
Edward Wymper's climbing party met with disaster and death on the descent after the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Photograph copyright Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

It is wise to heed the words of famed mountaineer Edward Wymper, one of the climbers who did the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, who wrote in his classic book Scrambles Amongst the Alps 1860-69:

"There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end."