Unsent: A Climbing FAQ for Non-Climbers

Photo: Andrew Burr 801-463-3821

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Unsent /un-sent/ 1. To have failed so badly on a route you had previously climbed that you negate your redpoint. 2. A humor column.

Rock Climbing FAQ
Photo: Andrew Burr

The most difficult challenge we climbers have ever faced is not the Dawn Wall. It’s explaining rock climbing to our mothers. The general public’s perception of our sport tends to be wildly inaccurate. In an effort to bring greater understanding, we have provided the FAQ below. We encourage you to print it out and send it to any parent, relative, significant other, coworker, acquaintance, doctor, teacher, or NY Times commenter who needs clarification.

That just seems dangerous.

Not a question, but when performed properly, rock climbing is relatively safe, likely safer than the drive to the crag. It’s true that accidents do happen. They’re almost always due to user error. If you believe your beloved climber and her partners are smart and responsible, you don’t have much to worry about. If she’s a reckless idiot, feel free to worry as much as you do when she commutes to work or visits a bar near a tattoo parlor. Yosemite National Park estimates that visitors climb a cumulative 25,000 to 50,000 days in the park every year, and the average number of annual climbing deaths is 2.5. That’s .01% if we estimate high. Showering while elderly is much more dangerous. 

But what happens if you fall?

The rope catches us. Why do you think we tie into the rope? Climbing falls are very common and usually a non-event. We typically free fall 10 feet or so, then the rope begins to stretch, slowing us down gradually. It’s more common to injure an ankle swinging into the wall during a fall, or hurt a finger due to overuse, than anything serious.

Doesn’t that one guy climb without a rope, though? You don’t do that, do you?

An extremely small percentage of climbers, including “that one guy” Alex Honnold, sometimes climb without a rope. Millions of people go rock climbing in the United States every year, and most of us view climbing without a rope as an unacceptable risk because, like most human beings, we fear death.

How do you get the rope up there?

We climb up with the rope hanging from our harness and clip it to thingies in the rock as we go up. Sometimes we clip the rope to metal bolts drilled into the wall. Sometimes there are no bolts, and we place aluminum devices and chocks called protection into cracks as we go. Both are more than capable of holding the weight of a car. They’re very secure, designed by smart people with engineering degrees, and thoroughly tested. If we fall while climbing above our last clip, we’ll fall twice the distance between us and the clip, plus a little more for rope stretch. The rope stretch absorbs most of the force, so the load on the bolt or pro isn’t substantial. Actually, the higher we are off the ground, the more the rope can stretch, and the safer it is to fall. Weird, right?! We do have to worry about landing on ledges below, which is why climbing across roofs, while appearing the most dangerous, is actually the safest, Mom.

Are climbers adrenaline junkie daredevils?

No. Thrill seekers go for sports based around hucking your body off things (BASE jumping, wingsuit flying, freestyle motocross). The goal of climbing is not to plummet through the air. Climbers like to be calm and controlled. Our sport is closer to gymnastics than jumping a skateboard over a flaming bus. It’s kind of like solving a puzzle using every muscle in your body. 

You must be so strong! I bet you can do like 100 pull-ups.

It doesn’t hurt to be able to crank out pull-ups for days, but—believe it or not—it’s not that important. Rock climbing is more about finger strength, core strength, and most importantly, technique. We try to keep our weight on our feet and use leg muscles to push us up the wall whenever possible. If you see someone pulling himself up a wall then he is, yes, absurdly strong, but also a terrible climber.

If a climber is injured and requires rescue, will my taxes go up? I am not concerned with human life, only taxes.

It’s true, NY Times commenter, search and rescue teams receive tax money, but not much. Rocky Mountain Rescue is all volunteers and operates on just $40,000 a year (and some of that is from donations and grants). Yosemite’s team only spends 10% of their time on climbers; they mostly help lost or injured hikers. And spending every moment worrying about taxes is a sad way to go through life. Consider finding a hobby. May we suggest rock climbing?

Don’t you get scared up there?

Yes. As with any scary activity we do on purpose, like riding a rollercoaster, watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” or singing karaoke in front of strangers, that’s part of the fun.

Why do you do it?

It could be the satisfaction of overcoming seemingly impossible physical challenges. It could be the gratification that comes from experiencing beautiful natural areas from vantages few others will ever see. It could be the simple joy of spending a day outside with friends. I don’t know. It’s better than sitting on the couch watching Netflix.

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