Rock climbing is generally thought of as a pretty dangerous activity by the general public. I attribute a lot of this to all of the media attention that is associated with free solo and climbing deaths. This leads the general public to have a misconception of what the typical climber does and just how dangerous/safe climbing is for the average person.
In general, rock climbing is a relatively safe sport. Indoor rock climbing is typically safer than outdoor climbing due to the controlled atmosphere and additional safety precautions. Collected data shows that rock climbing as a whole is generally less dangerous than scuba diving and cycling but more dangerous than canoeing.
There are many factors that go into determining how dangerous rock climbing is. For instance, certain types of climbing are inherently safer than others. Also, there are common causes of climbing injuries that can be easily prevented by taking the proper measures. This article explores just how dangerous climbing is, what makes it dangerous, and how it compares to other sporting activities.
How Dangerous Rock Climbing Is
To understand just how dangerous climbing is, we need to understand what “dangerous” really means. I would argue that sitting at home eating fast food, smoking, and drinking alcohol all day every day is actually more dangerous in the long run then climbing. However, we rarely think of the long term consequences of our activities and primarily focus on their short term effects.
Typically when we think of how dangerous something is, we are weighing how severe the consequences are if something goes wrong with how likely that is to happen. For instance, many people see skydiving as dangerous because although the likelihood of something going wrong is low, the consequence of that is typically death.
Certain types of climbing are inherently more dangerous than others and have a higher risk of serious injury or death associated with them. Free soloing a big wall where one wrong move can send you falling thousands of feet is obviously more dangerous than bouldering indoors 5 feet off the ground with all of that foam padding beneath you.
A study published in 2012 analyzed over 400 sport-specific injury studies and found that bouldering, sport climbing, and indoor climbing have small injury rates, minor injury severity, and few fatalities associated with them in comparison to other sports. This was not the case for ice and alpine climbing which had much higher injury rates.
In general, free soloing is the most dangerous type of rock climbing although lead climbing typically has the most serious injuries associated with it. This is likely due to the fact that there are a lot more lead climbers than there are free soloists.
On average, indoor climbing and bouldering are much safer than outdoor climbing and bouldering. This is because indoor climbing gyms provide climbers with a controlled atmosphere that eliminates common hazards found when climbing outside.
The most common hazards associated with rock climbing are discussed in detail later in the article so stay tuned!
Rock Climbing Minor Injury Statistics
Minor injuries are ones which are not life threatening and generally do not warrant a trip to the hospital or emergency room. Minor injuries in climbing typically manifest as overuse injuries, blisters, twisted ankles, scraped knees, broken nails, sprains, and pulled muscles among others. A study published in 2009 found that overuse injuries account for over 93% of all climbing related injuries.
Most, if not all, climbers will experience these minor injuries at some point or another during their climbing careers.
Some safety precautions can be taken to prevent/mitigate the effect of these minor injuries such as wearing proper climbing pants, keeping your nails short, making sure you properly warm up before a hard session, and practicing correct falling technique.
While doing these will definitely help, minor injuries just kind of come with the territory and are somewhat expected to happen eventually in climbing. By treating these early and taking proper care of them, you can make sure they don’t become a bigger issue than what they are. This will keep you healthy and climbing for a long time!
Rock Climbing Serious Injury Statistics
Serious injuries are much less common in climbing than what many people believe. They typically happen when something goes very wrong and definitely not according to plan. These typically will cause the injured climber to visit the hospital/emergency room and can be anything from serious overuse injuries to broken bones or worse.
A study published in 1993 surveyed 59 rock climbers regarding their injury history. It was found that only 0.4 serious injuries (0.9 total injuries) occurred for every 1000 hours of climbing. To put this in perspective, this means that (for the statistically average climber) it would take approximately 2,500 hours of climbing to sustain a serious injury.
If you are still scratching your head at what this means then hopefully this will put it into perspective: the average American work year is 2,080 hours (40 hours per week for 50 weeks). However, this does not mean that you can go climbing for 40 hours a week every week and not expect to get injured. Overuse injuries are serious and when left unchecked can become serious problems.
Serious injuries unfortunately are not the only danger of rock climbing.
Rock Climbing Death Statistics
Unfortunately, rock climbing related deaths happen every year and this number appears to be rising with more and more people participating in the sport. According to a study published in 2019, literature has found the fatality rate of climbing accidents to be all over the place ranging from less than 1% all the way up to 41%.
These higher fatality rates were reported in association with more ice climbing and mountaineering activities rather than “rock climbing”. The studies focusing solely on rock climbing related accidents to be between less than 1% and 6%.
A lot of factors play into this rate such as what was classified as an “accident”, the period of the study, where the study was focused (i.e. more secluded wilderness climbing areas vs more readily accessible outdoor crags), etc.
While these rates may seem high at first, keep in mind that these are only related to reported accidents that happened while climbing. For example, 6% of climbers who were in a “climbing accident” ended up dying. This is not saying that 6% of climbers died during the study’s period. That would be outlandish and ridiculously high.
In general, the total number of climbing-related deaths in Canada and the United States averages between 20 and 50 deaths each year with an average of approximately 30 deaths a year. Assuming the same mortality rate, this indicates that between approximately 140 and 350 of the estimated 35 million climbers worldwide die each year.
If these statistics are accurate, this would mean that climbing has an approximate mortality rate between 0.0004% and 0.001%. In other words, a climber’s chance of dying is between 1 out of 250,000 and 1 out of 100,000. It should be noted that these stats include all types of climbing including ice climbing, mountaineering, etc. The mortality rate and chance of dying for rock climbing by itself would be much lower than these numbers.
How Dangerous Rock Climbing Is Compared To Other Activities
Every activity you do, even everyday mundane ones, come with an inherent level of risk associated with them. Some obviously, are more riskier and dangerous than others. This is not an attempt to scare you out of doing things, I believe people should understand the danger involved with the activities they are doing.
Injury Rate of Rock Climbing Vs Other Sporting Activities
The 1993 study referenced above indicated that climbing is a relatively safe sport and had a lower injury rate than soccer (2.0 per 1,000 hours), squash (1.2 per 1,000 hours), and netball (1.0 per 1,000 hours). This agrees with the study published in 2012 which stated rock climbing had a lower injury rate and severity associated with it than basketball, sailing, and soccer.
According to an article by thewanderingclimber.com, outdoor sport climbing has an injury rate of 0.2 per 1,000 hours of practice, indoor bouldering has an injury rate of just 0.02 per 1,000 hours of practice, and indoor climbing in general of 0.007 per 1,000 hours. These statistics and the ones obtained from the 1993 study are summarized in the graph below.
As seen in the graph above, indoor climbing and indoor bouldering have much lower rates of injury associated with them than other types of climbing and other sports. Schöffl et al. published a study in 2010 which combined the results of over 28 other studies analyzing the injury rate of various sporting activities. The graph below summarizes some of the collected data.
While the actual injury rate per 1,000 hours of the sporting activities is not the same from every source, the vast majority of published studies seem to agree that climbing is one of the safer sporting activities there is. However, just because climbing was found to be “safer” than most sports, does not mean that no risk of injury or death exists with it.
Chance of Death While Climbing vs Other Sporting Activities
While the injury rate of climbing is low compared to other sports, that doesn’t necessarily indicate the fatality rate is low in comparison as well. If a larger amount of climbing accidents resulted in death than other sporting accidents, then the chance of dying while climbing would be higher even though the chance of sustaining a serious injury would be lower.
An article published in the Bandolier Journal compared the risk of dying in 15 different sporting activities. The results of their analysis is summarized in the table below.
|Cause of Death||Odds of Dying (1 in )|
|BASE Jumping||2,317 jumps|
|Scuba Diving||200,000 dives|
|Rock Climbing||320,000 climbs|
As seen in the table above, the chance of dying while rock climbing is less than dying while scuba diving but more than dying while canoeing.
It should be noted that these statistics above are not 100% accurate. No one knows how many people actually do the activities above each year, how long or often they do them for, or how many deaths attributed to them are not recorded. As with any statistics you see, these should also be taken with a large grain of salt.
10 Hazards That Make Rock Climbing Dangerous
The 10 most common hazards that make climbing dangerous are discussed below. Most climbing accidents occur when a climber takes a fall that leads to them hitting the ground or the ledge of the wall. A lot of these hazards below are common causes for that.
1. Unexpected and Improper Falls
Unexpected falls and improper falls are lumped together here because typically most unexpected falls (especially for newer climbers) end up having “improper” technique. Falling with the wrong technique puts climbers at greater risk for hitting the wall or getting caught in a bad position.
Some newer climbers will even reach out to grab onto something (rope/quickdraw/rock/etc.) to try and stop their fall. This is wrong and actually puts them at more risk of injury. To see the proper way to take a fall while lead climbing check out my article that details the process step by step.
2. Inattentive Belay and Poor Communication
The bottom line is, there has to be somebody to catch you when you fall while rock climbing (unless you are bouldering at low heights). If your belayer is not paying attention or if there is a miscommunication between you and them, you can end up taking an extremely dangerous fall. This is one of the safety concerns with the highest potential to lead to serious injury or worse.
3. Bad Rope Management
You should always have the rope in-between you and the wall. If for some reason it is not between you and the wall, you should stop climbing and fix it immediately. Taking a fall with the rope behind one of your legs is an extremely easy way to get caught up in it and break something or ram into the wall really hard.
Another possible way to get injured due to bad rope management is by z-clipping while sport climbing. Check out my article that discusses everything you need to know about z-clipping to learn more.
4. Weather Conditions
While weather conditions typically come more into play during multi-day alpine and big wall climbing treks, these can present issues at local crags as well. Climbing during inclement weather such as severe thunderstorms puts climbers at high risk or injury. Bad weather can cause climbers to take more unexpected falls, have the holds break off from under them, or have objects fall off at them from above.
It is always a good idea to check the weather forecast before going to climb outside. If a bad storm looks possible it is better to miss a day of climbing rather than get caught up in some nasty stuff. When in doubt, wait it out.
5. Tying Knots Incorrectly
You never want to take a fall on an incorrectly tied knot. If it is wrong and comes untied on you, your fall will have just gotten a whole lot bigger. You should always double check the knot and have your partner do so as well just to be extra sure.
6. Fragile Rocks and Holds
Fragile rocks and holds can cause them to break off when you climb on them or worse, they can pull out and take your protection with them. While breaking off a rock/hold is not great and will damage the route, it is a lot safer than having the rock break and take the protection with it. If the protection pulls out from the rock then there will be nothing there to catch you.
Making sure that you are climbing established routes on good, solid rock will help reduce the chances of this happening. Always avoid climbing on certain rock types (like sandstone) in the rain as they become extra susceptible to breaking off. Check out my article that details everything you need to know while climbing on sandstone to learn more.
7. Falling Rocks and Objects
Falling rocks and objects (such as your climber’s gear that they dropped while you are on belay directly beneath them) are something all climbers need to be aware of. Wearing a climbing helmet anytime you are near the wall will help prevent any serious injuries from occurring (this includes the belayer as well).
The most common cause for falling rocks is typically when your climbing partner pulls them off from the route by accident. Therefore, the belayer needs to be extra vigilant while on belay. Also, the climber should communicate to the belayer when they feel the rock loosening and give them a heads up.
8. Dangerous Landings
Taking a dangerous landing is most applicable in bouldering but can happen in rock climbing as well. It happens in rock climbing when the climber falls onto a ledge or other feature protruding from the wall.
In bouldering, a dangerous landing occurs when the climber falls with improper form or lands on an object or sharp surface below them. Using crash pads correctly will help minimize how often this will happen and will protect climbers when they fall off the problem. Always make sure that you are putting your pad on a clear flat area. Spotters are needed to help direct the climber onto the pad and away from dangerous objects (when present).
9. Potential Equipment Failure
Climbing gear failure is one of the least common causes for injuries of the ones listed above. This is because all climbing gear needs to pass the UIAA safety standards in order to be used as certified climbing equipment.
Gear failure really becomes an issue when it is getting old or worn out. Always check to make sure your gear is working and is in good condition before using it.
10. Not Using The Proper Protection and Safety Equipment
Climbing without the proper protection and safety equipment is just asking for something bad to happen. All of the nine reasons above are already safety hazards that climbers need to be aware of. There is no need to exacerbate this by using the wrong gear.
Climbing gear needs to meet UIAA safety standards in order to be considered safe to use for climbing. Gear that does not meet these standards is putting you at risk.
It is always good to double check that you and your partner have all of the proper gear and equipment before you go to the crag and definitely before you start climbing.