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Safety First—Expert Advice for Avoiding Climbing Accidents

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Climbing is a gravity sport and the adage that what goes up must come down will apply until someone builds an anti-gravity machine that actually works. For over 50 years Climbing has published countless articles about how to go up and come down safely. Topics have ranged from spotting and rappel back ups to how to belay and stay safe in the gym. This week we’re highlighting those efforts with our special Safety First installments. Read. Absorb. Stay safe.

HOW TO IDENTIFY DANGEROUS CLIMBING BOLTS

When we encounter a bolt, we often have no idea whether it’s good, bad, or just ugly. The reality is, bolts can fail due to metal fatigue, oxidation, improper placement, or hidden internal processes like stress corrosion cracking (SCC), in which tiny fissures form in the metal due to chemical reactions. While the design and construction of modern bolts make this a rarity on, say, routes from the past decade, older bolts with smaller diameters can fail. Identifying these bolts can help you assess the risk in clipping and making that next move. I’ve been rebolting for 30 years, and have replaced almost 1,000 bolts. Some old bolts looked great, while others have broken with a flick of the rope. Knowing the difference can save your life.

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IS SPORT CLIMBING MORE DANGEROUS THAN TRAD CLIMBING?

For more than 70 years, the American Alpine Club has published an annual collection of hard lessons learned, the Accidents in North American Climbing (ANAC). The periodical includes tables cataloging injuries, deaths, key causes and other relevant information.

As a longtime climber expecting my first child, I took an interest in risk and accident data. But the official ANAC tables didn’t show the most dangerous causes by type of climbing, or reveal relationships between factors.

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WHY GIVING A DYNAMIC BELAY CAN MATTER

Many climbers view trad- or ice-climbing falls as more serious than sport whippers. Most of us have become so accustomed to dropping onto bolts that we now fall more often than we send. The casualness has trickled down to belayers, who scratch their dogs and lounge in lawn chairs as their partners plummet earthward.

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(Photo: Jan Novak)

AVOIDING ACCIDENTS IN THE GYM

A little research showed that while serious gym accidents are rare (occurring less frequently than falls while hill walking, for instance), they do happen, the majority of which are basic pilot error. The question is: how did we, with decades of experience between us, simply fall asleep? The answer became clear when I read an article about industrial safety protocols, with the tagline being “complacency is safety’s worst enemy.”

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SAFER LANDINGS FOR BOULDERING

One of the true joys of bouldering lies in its simplicity, which also makes it an excellent introduction to the sport of climbing. There are no complicated rope systems, you typically don’t get too high off the ground, and all you really need are shoes and some chalk. Bouldering seems safer than other forms of climbing, but the short falls are high-impact and can easily lead to injury if you hit the pads wrong. Since many gyms’ bouldering areas are covered in cushy padding, having a spotter inside isn’t usually necessary, but just like with roped climbing, knowing how to fall safely and land softly will help prevent injury. Feeling comfortable falling on the pads will also help you focus on trying hard on the wall, instead of being scared of hitting the ground.

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A sign warning of avalanche risk in the European Alps during winter. (Photo: Getty Images)

AVOIDING AVALANCHES

“There is no avalanche danger unless a human is there,” said Dick Jackson of Aspen Expeditions at the start of a Level 1 avalanche course. His words reminded me of Erwin Schroedinger’s famous thought experiment, where a cat is placed in a box containing radioactive material. The experiment proves that an event does not happen until you observe it (the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened).

Avalanche awareness is just as confusing and unknowable a science as quantum physics, which explains why research indicates that climbers know so little about identifying dangerous terrain.

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