Statistics for Climbing Accidents, Injuries, and Fatalities

Colorado Study Details 14 Years of Climbing Accident Statistics

Rock climber getting ready for a climb on a mountain
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In 2012 the Wilderness and Environmental Medical Journal published a paper "Rock Climbing Rescues in Boulder County, Colorado and Eldorado Canyon State Park, Colorado, 1998 - 2011" that details statistics about rock climbing rescues and accidents over a 14-year period.

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group Analyzed Incident Reports

It's difficult to collect data on climbing incidents, accidents, injuries, and fatalities, with the best and most comprehensive studies and data available from the National Park Service. Several members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most popular climbing cities in the United States, analyzed incident reports from the rescue group written from 1998 to 2011 to determine the most common causes of accidents and fatalities by recreational climbers.

Statistics of Climbing Victims and Accidents

The study details a lot of interesting statistics that provide lessons for climbers on skills to work on and aspects of climbing safety to consider to avoid becoming one of those statistics, a rescue victim, and a fatality.

  • From 1998 to 2011, the RMRG rescued 2,198 mountain and wilderness victims in Boulder County. Rock climbing victims were 428 or 19.5% of all victims.
  • 78% of climbing victims were male (295) and 22% were female (83). This is to be expected since most climbers are male.
  • 46% of climbing victims (137) were between the ages of 20 and 29 years old. The next highest number of climbing victims (21%) aged 10 to 19 (61).
  • Most climbing incidents occurred on weekends during spring, summer, and fall at 3:30 p.m. 37% of climbing incidents occurred in summer (June to August), while 29.5% occurred in autumn (September to November) and 23% occurred in spring (March to May).
  • 57% of climbing incidents occurred between noon and 6 p.m.
  • 58% of climbing victims were roped climbing.
  • 42% of climbing victims were unroped climbing.
  • 12% of climbing victims were involved in a belaying incident.
  • 4.5% of climbing victims were in a rockfall incident.
  • 43% of climbing victims were stranded or lost.
  • 29.5% of climbing victims had a lower extremity (legs, ankles, and feet) injury; the most common injury.
  • 5.5% of climbing victims were fatally injured; 23 victims (5 from lead falls and 9 from unroped falls).
  • 85% of climbing incidents occurred in the popular climbing areas--Eldorado Canyon, The Flatirons, and Boulder Canyon.

Specific Causes of Eldorado Canyon Accidents

Since Eldorado Canyon State Park (ECSP) is the most popular climbing venue in Boulder County and also the scene of the majority of climbing incidents and accidents, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group broke down the report on their website, specifically addressing Eldorado Canyon climbers. These are their talking points:

  • Belay accidents, such as losing control of the belay, lowering and rappelling off the end of the rope comprise 20% of all climbing accidents and are similar rates between Boulder County and ECSP.
  • ECSP has a higher instance of lost climbers, who request assistance in the later hours of the day (8 pm - 1 am) than other areas of Boulder County. Lack of knowledge of rappel anchors or downclimbs and lack of preparation for nightfall are common reasons for this.
  • ECSP has a higher instance of climbers stuck on rappel, often due to ropes being caught in the structured terrain.
  • ECSP has a higher instance of lead climbing accidents and a much lower incidence of un-roped climbing accidents that the rest of Boulder County.
  • Climbing fatalities in ECSP result primarily from lead fall, lowering off ropes and rock fall. No fatalities from unroped climbing were recorded during the study period.

How to Avoid Climbing Accidents

This is their summary of how to avoid accidents and injuries while climbing:

  • Anchors rarely fail (2.5% of total) and when they do it is because of inexperience in setup.
  • 20% of all accidents could have been prevented by better belay practices such as tying a stopper knot at the end of the rope or wearing belay gloves.
  • Rock fall and loose rock causes a small number of accidents (4.5% of total) and may be correlated to the freeze-thaw cycles of spring and climber use patterns. In early spring climbing, check the rock you're about to climb on for security as a prudent preventative measure.
  • Prior knowledge of a route's rappel anchors and the walk-off descent route as well as taking a headlamp will prevent a lot of rescues (up to 45% of total).
  • The common injuries sustained by climbers are to the legs/ankles (30%) and to the head and spine (30%). Knowledge of how to improvise splinting and how to assess spinal injuries might be a great addition to a climbers' medical tool kit.

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