A week ago, I nearly died in a climbing accident. The calls to stop climbing started in the emergency room in Massa when one of the nurses said to me, in beautifully Italian-intonated English:
"Chriiiis-topherrrrr. No climmm-bing! Feesh-iiing!"
The ER doctor suggested poker as an alternative to climbing. When I talked to my father a few days ago he muttered about a family Fatwah to prohibit me from climbing.
The accident can't be dismissed as a fluke
Whether or not climbing is safe in the abstract, my recent experience suggests that it's dangerous for me. Sure, I could argue the accident was a fluke, a "black swan" event. But I don't think that would be a legitimate argument, for two reasons:
1) the accident itself was pretty mundane. I wasn't paying sufficient attention, and I slipped. Perhaps it's bad luck that I slipped, but it doesn't feel like a highly improbable outlier event -- slipping is going to happen from time to time.
2) the basis of climbing safety is to avoid problems when possible, but to always be prepared when problems occur. You wear a helmet because a rock may hit you on the head. You are roped in because no matter how careful you are, given enough time, you are certain to fall.
So I can't dismiss the accident as a fluke event that's never going to occur again. But should I stop climbing because of it?
Indoor vs. outdoor climbing
For me, the first step to answering this question is to distinguish different kinds of climbing. Different kinds of climbing have very different risk profiles, and so it's important to consider them separately.
The most important distinction is between indoor climbing on a gym-wall, and outdoor climbing on a rock face.
In indoor climbing, everything is in place for you, and someone is being paid to maintain it all. To climb, you need only a rope, a harness, climbing shoes, and climbing partner to belay you. Actually, you don't even need a climbing partner -- you can choose to climb in the padded "bouldering" area, and in many gyms you can use a "self-belay" device to climb on the gym walls.
Regardless, the indoor climbing gym is a very controlled environment. There's no danger of falling rock, because there is no rock -- the holds are made of plastic resin. It's indoors, so weather is a non-issue.
Can you hurt yourself in a gym? Absolutely. I’ve done it — I strained a finger-pulley tendon when I swung too hard on a hold while bouldering. If you make a serious mistake (e.g. your belayer forgets to hold on, and you fall), you could die. But it’s highly unlikely.
And studies back up that indoor climbing is very safe. For example:
With a sample size of 500,000 visits to climbing gyms in Germany, the study found an injury rate of 0.02 injuries per 1,000 climbing hours. The conclusion of the study: indoor climbing is safer than badminton and other indoor sports, and much safer than contact sports.
I assume that the study is excluding minor injuries, such as the pulled tendon I experienced, from the statistics. But that seems legitimate to me -- a pulled tendon is an annoyance that may prevent you from climbing, but it's not life-threatening.
Because indoor climbing is so safe, there's no reason to give it up because of the accident.
It's true that seeing someone high up on a wall, holding on by their fingertips, with only a rope for safety, feels dangerous. And the first few times you do it yourself, every cell in your body cries out that it's dangerous. But in the case of indoor climbing, that subjective feeling of danger isn't supported by the facts, in the same way that most of us feel at risk when we take commercial flights, even though the evidence shows that on average commercial flights are much safer than driving your car the same distance.
And a big part of the appeal of climbing is being able to face that fear, and (safely) overcome it.
I climb indoors at Espace Verticale in Grenoble. Here's what the gym looks like (usually there are far more people climbing -- it's practically empty in this picture)
If indoor climbing is safe, outdoor climbing is inherently more dangerous, because the environment is so much less controlled.
A rock can come loose and cause you to fall, or the rock can fall on your belayer or someone else. It rains and the rock gets slippery. You can get stung by a wasp while in a part of the climb requiring concentration and focus.
The quality of the equipment in place will vary from site to site. Some sites have no equipment -- you attach protection devices to the rock yourself. Others may have equipment that's very widely spaced, so that a fall may have serious or fatal consequences.
Different kinds of outdoor climbing
It's useful to distinguish different kinds of outdoor climbing, because they also have different levels of risk. Reflecting the state of climbing in France, where I mostly climb, I'm going to distinguish
- "free solo" climbing (no equipment at all)
- "traditional climbing" (no prior equipment in place)
- "sport climbing", further divided into multi-pitch sport routes, and outdoor "climbing school" walls
(my accident happened on a multi-pitch sport route).
"Free solo" climbing
Here there's only the climber and the rock -- no ropes, no harness, and a mistake is certain to be fatal.
Dean Potter is one famous free-solo climber. Here he is free-soloing in Yosemite:
Free-soloing is exhilarating but dangerous. It's definitely not for me :-)
Dean Potter survived many free-solo climbs, but was tragically killed in 2015 in a Yosemite wing-suit accident
In "trad" climbing, there is no equipment in place in the rock before the start of the climb. The climber wedges devices into the rock to support a fall.
Trad climbing leaves no permanent trace of the climb in the rock, and so does a better job of preserving the natural environment than other forms of climbing. But the temporary nature of the anchors also makes this kind of climbing riskier: in a fall, the anchors can fail one after the other -- "unzip" -- as the climber falls to the ground.
There's no question that traditional climbing requires more skill than sport climbing. Given that practitioners of traditional climbing tend to be very experienced, it's arguable whether it is on average more or less dangerous than sport climbing. However, there's no question in my mind that for me, traditional climbing would be much more dangerous than sport climbing.
Trad climbing is also outside the envelope of what I'm willing to do.
In "sport" climbing, the route-setter identifies a route in advance, and then attaches "hangers" to the rock using permanent bolts drilled into the rock face. Someone later climbing the route clips their "quickdraws" to the hangers, then threads their rope through the quickdraws. A fall is then supported by the bolt in the rock.
In France, I often see Fixe bolt/hanger combinations like this one in the rock:
before it goes into the rock, the whole assembly looks like this:
These things are solid. The current Fixe model is rated at 6,750 pounds, with an ultimate breaking strength of 10,000 pounds.
The idea behind sport climbing is that by having bomb-proof protection, you are free to focus on the climbing, knowing that a fall will be caught by the protection.
It's also hard to miss the route -- after I clip into one bolt, the first thing that I do is to look for the next bolt up the rock face, knowing that my climbing route will go in that direction.
As climbing is structured here in France, a further division within sport climbing is useful, between "climbing school" climbing walls, and multi-pitch sport routes. I'll talk about each of these in turn.
"Climbing school" outdoor sport-climbing walls
In France, climbing school walls are the outdoor equivalent of indoor climbing gyms. A group or organization (usually the FFME) identifies a cliff of suitable height with good routes on it, and then bolts a series of side-by-side climbing routes on the wall. The routes are rated by difficulty,and often described in guidebooks. The routes are a single-pitch in length, meaning that you climb to the top, thread your rope through the anchor, then rappel back down, all supported by your belayer. There may sometimes be a second or third pitch higher up the rock face, but these are always optional.
Some of these climbing walls get so much traffic that the rock gets worn -- "patiné" in French. This can actually make climbing quite a bit more difficult, as it's hard to get traction with your shoes.
"Climbing school" walls tend to be well-maintained, and because you're only climbing one route at a time, the level of complexity outside the climbing itself, is relatively low.
Multi-pitch sport climbs
Multi-pitch sport climbs take you from the bottom of a cliff to the top over a series of climbs, or pitches. There are always at least two climbers (you can also climb with 3 climbers). One climber, the leader, climbs a pitch while belayed by the second. When the leader gets to the top of the pitch, they secure themselves to the anchor, and then belay the second from the top as the second climbs the same route. For the following pitch, the leader and the second may switch roles, or the same leader may lead each pitch.
The pitches are often of widely varying levels of difficulty, and some may be closer to hiking than to climbing.
The quality of equipment varies a lot. On some multi-pitch sport climbs, the leader may need to build equalized anchors using webbing; more commonly there are steel chain-link anchors already in place.
When Giuditta and I climbed the Via Erik, I led each pitch while Giuditta belayed me. I fell on the seventh pitch.
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Created: June 19, 2015Englishfrançais