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Rock climbing has exploded in popularity in recent years due to acclaimed films like Free Solo and Dawn Wall, and even made its debut this summer as a new Olympic sport. Becoming a professional climber has become a realistic feat for aspiring climbers with increasing sponsorship opportunities from clothing, shoe, and gear companies. However, many of these athletes who venture outdoors to document and push their limits have also become victims to serious injury or death.

Climbing magazine publishes a yearly tribute to climbers who die every year, and a quick online search of climbing accidents turns up multiple news reports of incidents in just 2021 alone. While many are too vague to identify what circumstances led to the accident, the goal of this article is to examine rock climbing injuries and deaths which were covered in the news, while also highlighting common mistakes that can be mitigated with training and preparation. Before reading on, you should familiarize yourself with different types of climbing.

April 25, 2021: A trad climber on Bruce’s Boulder (Leavenworth, WA) pulled three pieces of gear as he fell 30 feet, landing head-first on the ground below. It is unknown if he was wearing a helmet. His climbing partners performed CPR until medics arrived and pronounced him dead at the scene.

Safety Tip: Decking, or hitting the ground after falling on a climb, can lead to serious injury or death. The first 10-20 feet of a climb have high potential for decking as the natural stretch in the rope will render even well-placed pieces of gear or anchors useless in preventing a fall to the ground. Belayers and leaders must have heightened awareness during the beginning of a climb. Belayers may act as spotters with the goal of preventing the climber from hitting the ground head-first. Leaders should be vigilant to place adequate protection as soon as possible to prevent a ground fall.

May 11, 2021: A climber pulled a refrigerator-sized rock off a cliff while climbing a new route in the Waterfront area of Little Cottonwood Canyon (Salt Lake City, UT). The block rolled over him and caused severe injuries that required a helicopter evacuation.

Safety Tip: Route-finding is the act of finding a path to the top of a climbing route. When climbing both new and established routes, it is important to check the rock quality for both stability and strength as rocks can break or become dislodged. No gear or weight should be applied to any rock that could potentially break or become loose. Climbers will often mark suspicious or loose rocks with an “X” made of chalk.

May 15, 2021: A climber fell while cleaning a top anchor on Dream Slate in Little Cottonwood Canyon, falling 70 feet into a large bush. He sustained severe injuries and was evacuated.

Safety Tip: Anchor cleaning can be dangerous if not done in the correct sequence, as climbers transfer their weight from the rope to an anchor. This needs to be done prior to disassembling a temporary anchor or re-threading a rope through a permanent anchor. If not done properly, a slight misstep could mean a fall to the bottom of the route with no rope to arrest your fall. Leaders unfamiliar with cleaning anchors should practice this skill on the ground and communicate with their belayer throughout the process.

May 22, 2021: A climber fell 40 feet to the ground while being lowered off Eighth Day (Rifle, CO). His belayer had not tied a knot in the end of the rope and he was climbing with a 200 foot rope that was not long enough to lower off the 160 foot route.

Safety Tip: It is important to know the full length of the route and ensure that your rope is at least twice that length since you will need that same distance of rope to lower down from the top anchor after climbing up. A stopper knot should be tied into the belayer’s end of the rope before climbing to prevent the end of the rope from slipping through the belay device. Even if your rope length matches the route length, it is possible for the climber’s fall trajectory to exceed that of the route in case of overhanging routes and large swings. Failure to tie a stopper knot may result in the entirety of the rope feeding out through the belay device and the leader will fall to the ground.

June 6, 2021: A climber in Clear Creek Canyon (Denver, CO) pulled a person-sized rock off a route 30 feet above his belayer, who was hit by pieces of rock as it shattered on the ground near her. She was not wearing a helmet and suffered a head injury.

Safety Tip: Climbing helmets are either rated as single-impact or multi-impact. Single-impact helmets are made of a stiff foam that breaks when absorbing the force of an impact. This type of helmet can sustain a single hard impact such as a falling rock or hard object. Multi-impact helmets are made with soft foam that bounces back after each hit. Once the foam structure is compromised from multiple hits, it should be replaced. There are also helmets that combine both technologies to sustain a single hard impact from the top and multiple lighter impacts from the side. Helmets should be worn whenever there is a risk of falling objects or head injury.

August 18, 2021: A climber fell 1000 feet after unclipping from his rappel rope without clipping into an anchor and losing his footing. He and his two partners were rappelling off the west side of Mount Hungabee (Yoho National Park, Canada). His body was recovered by helicopter.

Safety Tip:
Rappelling accidents usually occur at the start and end of a rappel or during a switchover between rappels. It is important to attach yourself to a permanent anchor before detaching from a rappel rope, otherwise a misstep could lead to a fall. Similarly, ensure that you are correctly attached to a properly threaded rappel rope before detaching from a permanent anchor.

August 26, 2021: A climber fell off the third pitch of Wind Ridge (Eldorado Canyon, Colorado) causing both him and his partner to fall 150 feet and bounce off several ledges. They were both only secured to the rock by a cordelette that was girth-hitched around a boulder. One of them was pronounced dead upon arrival of search and rescue personnel. The other suffered a wrist and leg injury and was taken to the hospital.

Safety Tip: Multi-pitch trad climbing often requires climbers to build anchors between pitches. An anchor serves to secure climbers to the wall and should be designed to withstand the shock load of a fall, the consistent load of a rappel or haul, and have multi-directional functionality. Standard anchors utilize multiple knots or non-extending hitches in a redundant pattern to help maintain overall strength and stability of the anchor in case of a fall. Climbers unfamiliar with anchor-building techniques should practice this skill on the ground before attempting a route.

Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous activity and each time one goes out climbing there should be serious consideration of the risks involved with each route or area visited. Some factors, like proper use of equipment and safe climbing techniques, can be learned ahead of time. Proper preparation and risk mitigation strategies are important in preventing accidents when out rock climbing.

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