Watch for Rattlesnakes When Climbing

Avoid Snakebites at the Cliff Base

Rattlesnakes like dry hot places like the Utah desert.
A rattlesnake basks in the sun at the start of the East Ridge of Looking Glass Rock near Moab, Utah. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

If you go rock climbing and hiking in most places in the United States during the warmer months, usually April through October, eventually you will encounter a rattlesnake on a trail, at a cliff base, and even on a vertical climbing route or on the top of a boulder. When we are out climbing and approaching cliffs, we often pass by rattlesnakes without being aware of them.

Rattlesnakes Want to Avoid Us

Snakes are rarely seen because they are well camouflaged and because we usually don't disturb them, scare them, or they feel disguised.

Rattlesnakes have an undeservedly bad reputation for a few bites but most of the time they are mild mannered and they really don't want to have close encounters with humans. They know we are too big to be prey. Rattlesnakes usually just go about their daily business, trying to find a tasty mouse-de-jour, or coiled up in the sun or under shady bushes.

Most Bites by Rattlesnakes

Over 7,000 people a year are bit by venomous snakes in the United States, with about 12 annual fatalities, most from bites by eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes and 99% by pit vipers or members of the Crotalidae family which includes rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths or water moccasins. Pit vipers are named for the heat-sensitive pit between their eye and nostril that allows them to sense prey. There are about 120 snake species in the United States and 20 of them are poisonous. Poisonous snakes are found in the lower 48 contiguous states; only Alaska and Hawaii have none.

Chances are Slim that You Will Die from Snakebite

While we might encounter rattlesnakes and copperheads when we are out rock climbing, the chance of getting a snakebite is slim and the chance of dying from a snakebite in the United States is 1 in 10 million. You are more likely to die from bee stings or a lightning strike than a snake bite.

If you are bit by a rattlesnake, it's comforting to know that almost half of all bites are "dry bites," that is no venom is injected. Pit vipers have retractable hollow fangs that fold back into their mouth. They know that you're too big to be prey so rather than risk damaging their fangs, they bite with them folded back.

Recognize the Places Where Snakes Live

If you spend much time climbing outside, you need to know and recognize the places where snakes hang out. Snakes are usually found close to places where they can catch food as well as places where they can warm up. Snakes like rocky slopes that collect heat. Look for snakes either under boulders in the shade or on flat rock surfaces where they can bask in sunshine. Snakes are often found in brush along river and creek bottoms where food like other snakes, lizards, and mice are plentiful.

Carry a Snake Stick in Brush

Keep an eye out for snakes in brush piles, heaped rocks, and among old logs. If you are descending a slope with small boulders and logs, watch where you put your feet. If you're bushwhacking in dense undergrowth in places like Arizona and Utah, you might feel protected if you carry a five-foot-long snake stick to probe interesting areas.

I learned the value of this technique when I had to cross endless swamps on the approach to Frenchman's Cap in Tasmania. Before stepping from one island of button grass to another, it was prudent to poke the grass to make sure a six-foot-long poisonous brown snake wasn't at home.

Tips to Avoid Snakebite

Rattlesnakes, the most common kind of poisonous snake that you will meet, only strike when they are threatened. This is when they are surprised, stepped on, sat on, and handled. Watch where you put your hands and feet if you're scrambling on rocky terrain. Look for snakes in the shade of boulders or in bushes above the hot ground during summer. Don't try to pick up a poisonous snake. That's the surest way of getting bit. If you do encounter a snake-don't kill it. Remember that you are visiting the home of these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Rattlesnakes are Most Common Venomous Snakes

Rattlesnakes are the most common poisonous snake in the United States. Most populations are concentrated in the Southeast and the Southwest. There are 16 distinct species in the United States and they vary greatly in length, color, pattern and markings, and the degree of danger they pose to humans. Only a few species exceed four feet in length and only three exceed six feet. The most dangerous rattlesnakes are the eastern diamondback in Florida and the southern coastal plains; the western diamondback in Texas and the Southwest; and the Mojave rattlesnake in parts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. Rattlesnakes rely on their coloring and patterns for camouflage, blending into leaves on a forest floor or rocks on a slope. They usually try to retreat from humans by squirming under boulders or rattling and hissing as a warning to move away. They only bite as a last resort but don't always rattle before striking.

Top Snake-Infested Climbing Areas

The climbing areas where you are most likely to encounter poisonous snakes are:

  • West Virginia: New River Gorge, Seneca Rocks
  • Virginia: Old Rag Mountain
  • Kentucky: Red River Gorge
  • Texas: Hueco Tanks
  • New Mexico: White Rock, Organ Mountains
  • Colorado: Shelf Road, Penitente Canyon, Flatirons, Eldorado Canyon, Castlewood Canyon
  • Utah: Moab area, Zion National Park, St. George area
  • Arizona: Cochise Stronghold, Mount Lemmon, Queen Creek, Jack's Canyon, Phoenix area, Superstition Mountains
  • California: Joshua Tree National Park, Bishop area
  • Oregon: Smith Rock
  • Idaho: City of Rocks