Is It Safe to Climb? If So, How Safe?

Surprising Results from ER Study

Sport climbing is pretty safe. Leigha Powers climbing at Jurassic Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

How is safe climbing? According to a study published in the 2008 Volume 19 #2 Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, climbing is relatively safe, especially when compared with other outdoor pursuits like snowboarding, sledding, and skiing.

Study Conducted in 2004 and 2005

The study, which does have limitations including incomplete data on the numbers of participants in outdoor sports and the non-inclusion of hospitals in several western states, analyzed 212,708 people who were treated for injuries sustained in outdoor activities in American emergency departments during 2004 and 2005.

Snowboarding, Sledding, and Hiking Most Dangerous

The study found that 72.1 injuries occurred among every 100,000 Americans, with 68.2 percent of injuries to males and 31.8 percent of females. Not surprisingly, the most dangerous outdoor sport is snowboarding, with 25.5 percent of all injuries, and most of those to young men. The next two most dangerous outdoor activities are sledding with 10.8 percent of injuries and hiking with 6.3 percent. Climbing, including both rock and mountain climbing, accounted for 4.9 percent of outdoor injuries. Of course, since the total number of participants in climbing is unknown, the relation of climbing injuries to total climbers can’t be accurately made.

How Safe is Climbing?

So how safe is climbing? Based on this study, it’s pretty safe. To supplement the study, I looked over ten years of the annual book Accidents in North American Mountaineering published by the American Alpine Club. It finds that while there is some fluctuation in the number of fatalities every year, the number of climbing accidents seems to be fairly steady, despite the dramatic growth of participants in climbing and mountaineering. This could be attributed to a number of factors. For instance, more people sport climb rather than climb in the traditional manner, which tends to be more dangerous since more serious injuries occur when gear pulls out during a fall rather than when a climber falls onto a bolt. Another example is that more climbers are now using 60-meter (200-foot) ropes rather than 50-meter (165-foot) ones so fewer climbers are dropped to the ground by inattentive belayers, who let the loose end of the rope slip through a belay device while lowering.

Trad Climbing is Most Dangerous

The American Alpine Club’s analysis of climbing and mountaineering accidents indicates that traditional climbing is more dangerous than sports climbing. Part of the reason, of course, is that there is more potential for bad gear placements, either from inexperience or just bad gear, that will pull in a fall. Many accidents at trad areas like Yosemite Valley, Joshua Tree, and City of Rocks tend to be ones where not enough pro was placed or the pro placed was inadequate, in other words—climber error. Fewer severe accidents are reported from sports areas and those that occur are from mistakes when lowering off anchors and lower-extremity injuries like broken legs and ankles from falls.

Unroped Scrambling is Dangerous

The alpine club reports also indicate that many mountain accidents occur to scramblers, those unroped climbers who are ascending or scrambling up loose but not very difficult terrain. They usually fall from losing their balance, have a handhold or foothold break, are hit by rockfall from above, or get off route onto the more difficult terrain.

Buy the book and learn more about climbing and mountaineering accidents and how to prevent them.