Five Sure Ways to Die Climbing

How to Climb Safely

Climbing is dangerous. There is no other way to say it except that climbing is dangerous and you can be killed every time you go climbing. The good news is that most climbing accidents and fatalities are preventable and most can be directly attributed to human error. Ignorance and inexperience cause climbing accidents and deaths.

If you don’t know, then don’t assume that you do know. Learn from an experienced mentor, double check all of your climbing systems, and be alert to potential dangers and always aware of your personal climbing safety. Your safety is your responsibility.

If you are an experienced climber, then don’t have a casual attitude about climbing and its risks. Distraction and that cavalier attitude cause many climbing accidents. Many experienced climbers bite the bullet because they think that they do know and they simply go through the motions of climbing and using important climbing skills like tying in, setting anchors, rappelling, and belaying, not realizing that repetition is not a substitute for vigilance.

Death awaits the unwary. Be aware, climb safe, and go home at the end of the day.

01
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Leader Falls

Climber scaling rocky cliff face
//Getty Images

Lead climbing is dangerous since protection, including bolts, cams, fixed pitons, and nuts, can pull out; you can fall upside down or sideways; belay anchors can fail, and route finding is often problematic. Fatalities occur because climbers attempt hard routes without enough protection or because the protection failed during a fall.

The reasons that climbers fall are many, but some are hard moves, getting pumped, and broken holds. Most injuries are caused by head-first falls or sideway falls that lethally injured internal organs or broke the neck.

Remember that climbing movement and placing safe protection are two entirely different skills that are interdependent and also keep you alive. Both are necessary to be a safe climber. Just because you might climb 5.11 doesn't mean you should lead 5.11 routes that require protection skills. Know your limits and lower your limits.

Be aware that every piece of gear, no matter how bombproof it appears, can and does fail so back up anything suspect, use lots of slings to ease rope drag, and don't blindly trust fixed pitons and bolts. Also, read a guidebook before climbing and learn how to find the route, particularly on loose and easy terrain.

02
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Loose Rock and Rockfall

Ian Spencer-Green cleans loose blocks from a crack in western Colorado.
Loose blocks wedged in cracks are one of climbing's biggest safety hazards. Avoid knocking rocks off so you don't kill anyone below you. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Loose rock is everywhere on cliffs--big blocks, precarious thin flakes, boulders on ledges, rotten rock, and loose handholds--and much of it is ready to fall off, even when we climb very carefully. A significant number of climbing injuries and deaths occur from rocks falling from above. Almost every loose rock fatality is not caused by spontaneous rockfall from above but when a climber accidently knocks a rock off or if it is triggered by the rope or the victim.

Because loose rock is everywhere, you need to be always vigilant. Be especially careful on ledges and in gullies; watch where you place gear; pay attention to how your rope runs over loose terrain; watch gear placements in rotten rock since if they fail then loose rock will spray everyone below; be careful when pulling a pack or haul bag up; stand to the side when pulling rappel ropes; and avoid climbing below other parties.

Lastly, always wear a helmet to protect your head.

03
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Climbing Unroped

A deep water soloist cracks clean rock above the Mediterranean Sea on the coast of Mallorca.
The consequences of a fall while free solo climbing without a rope is usually death. To live long and prosper, tie into the rope and place gear. Your mom will love you for it!. Photograph copyright RFurra/Getty Images

Climbing unroped or free-soloing can be a lot of fun but it is also extremely dangerous, no, it's extremely deadly. The consequences of a climbing fall while soloing is almost always death.

All of these accidents are preventable by simply following proper safety protocol and using a rope and safety gear. Remember that if you climb higher than 30 feet above the ground without a rope and gear then you are in the death zone and a fall is usually unsurvivable.

Sometimes you find yourself climbing unroped in some situations such as easy 3rd Class terrain on an approach to a cliff or descent off the summit or if you are scrambling in the mountains on a mostly easy rock with occasional short hard sections.

If this happens, it is usually a good idea to pull the rope out of your pack and tie in to be safe. It's easy to figure that you will safely boulder or climb the moves without a rope up the hard section, especially since your rope is safely tucked in the pack, but the consequences of a fall are death. If you feel you need to be tied in and on belay, then follow your intuition and bust out the rope and be safe.

04
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Rappelling

Susan Paul rappels off West Point Crack at Garden of the Gods, Colorado.
All your rappels will be safe if you use beefy redundant rappel anchors are beefy, check your knots and rigging, and use back-up safety knots. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Rappelling is one of the most dangerous climbing activities since the climber relies exclusively on his equipment and anchors to safely slide down the rope. The consequence of most rappelling accidents is death since most climbers take long falls after becoming detached from the rope or if the anchors fail.

Usually, the cause of fatal rappelling accidents is human error and most of those deaths are preventable by being cautious and double-checking everything. Statistics indicate that experienced climbers should pay attention when rappelling instead of adopting a casual attitude.

Causes of rappelling accidents almost always involve the failure of anchors or becoming detached from the rappel rope. Check every aspect of the rappel anchors and rigging before committing to a rappel by staying clipped to the anchors; checking that a proper knot ties the ropes together; that the rope is through metal anchor material like a rapid link or locking carabiner and not slings; that there is more than one rappel anchor; and that slings and rope on the anchors are in good shape, equalized, and redundant.

When rappelling in unknown territory or in unpredictable circumstances like a storm, use a backup safety knot like an autoblock knot or Prusik knot to keep you attached to the ropes, tie stopper knots in the end of the rope, and double check that both ropes are secured in your rappel device. Always ask the question "What if…?" and always back yourself up.

05
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Weather and Hypothermia

A lightning storm over the Grand Valley north of Independence National Monument in western Colorado.
Lightning along with severe thunderstorms can kill or maim climbers caught outside. Keep an eye on the weather, retreat when prudent, and bring warm clothes and rain gear to avoid deadly hypothermia. Photograph copyright Robert Ingelhart/Getty Images

Weather and other environmental dangers kill many climbers. Lightning strikes climbers on cliff-tops. Prolonged heavy rain leads to hypothermia, bad judgment, uncomfortably forced bivouacs, and sometimes death. It's best not to be too casual about the weather, especially in the mountains. Serious storms can occur at almost any time, even on a benign bluebird day. Intense thunderstorms are accompanied by lightning, strong winds, hail, heavy rain, and even corn snow or graupel, leading to freezing runoff, including waterfalls off cliffs, that can soak climbers.

Hypothermia, a drastic lowering of the body temperature, from rain and wet clothes causes misjudgments, dropped gear racks, dumb mistakes, stuck ropes, unclipping from anchors, and can eventually lead to a deadly "don't care what happens" attitude. Be prepared by checking the weather forecast; retreating before storm hits; and bringing proper clothing and insulation to deal with inclement weather. Remember the old saying: There is no bad weather, only bad clothes."