Staying Safe Rock Climbing Outside

You may have heard that climbing has been closed in Hawaii, and the access fund is currently hard at work assisting with passing Senate Bill 1007 and bringing access back. If you are interested in helping, please get more information.  

If you are wondering why you should care, I would urge you to consider simply that we can learn from access issues. The reason one area closes, could be the reason our local area soon closes. In this particular instance, the area has been closed due to liability from a high number of hiking deaths. While they do say hiking deaths, and not specifically climbing deaths, this article had me thinking about outdoor safety. 

One thing we need to consider is bolts and anchors. For the most part, bolts and anchors are established by people interested in developing a route so that they can climb it. They set up the bolts and anchors, and people continue to climb after them. There are a couple problems with this process. While it is great people take on the developing initiative, especially since it is not an aspect of climbing that caters to everyone’s passions, some of them don’t really have a firm grasp on how to bolt. They could set bolts poorly, which would mean that they are not long lasting or just not safe at all. Another problem is that although an area was lucky and had a fantastic developer who was totally on top of their bolting game, those bolts still won’t last forever. There will be rust, wear, and tear. That developer will likely have been done their project and moved on long before this happens. We cannot rely on the person who developed to consistently come back and check that their bolts and anchors are still up to par. 

What can you do? Make sure you check the bolts before climbing. You could rappel down from the top and examine each bolt, you could check with someone who has climbed it before you if it is a busy area, you could check out each bolt before clipping in and have a back up plan for what to do if it is not great. If you clip into a bolt that doesn’t feel secure, you probably want to get lowered instantly instead of just going through with the climb. You may want to down climb just in case. 

What you want to look for is rust. Do the bolts look new, clean, and nice or sketchy? You also want to see how stable the bolt is in the wall. It shouldn’t be swinging all around. It should be firmly placed. You want to see how the rock quality around the bolt is. If it is a really chossy area or an area with soft rock, it might be better to just through up a top rope and play it safe. If the rock quality is good and the bolt is in a very secure looking spot, you should be fine. 




If you see bad bolts, it is good to have them replaced. If you understand how to replace bolts and have a solid education, you can. If you know someone who does, let them know. Let a local climbing coalition know, like the Western Massachusetts Climber’s Coalition would be mine. Make sure that someone knows and someone is on top of it. A climber might come to climb after you that doesn’t know any better and could get really hurt. We want to make sure that bolts and anchors are replaced when they need to be. That is every climber’s responsibility because as I said before, the developer may not come back and if it is not brought to the attention of a coalition, they might just never know. 

Whether you are top roping or sport climbing, you want to make sure the anchor is safe. Make sure you really know how to clean and/or set an anchor if it is to be your responsibility to do either. If you are climbing on someone else’s anchor, don’t be scared to check it out and make sure they know what they are doing. For a beginner to the outdoors, it might be worth it to take an anchor setting class just to be knowledgeable and able to check. Some climbers feel confident in less than perfect anchors. Just because they do, doesn’t necessarily mean you want to. Make sure you know what you are anchoring to, and that it has all the proper safety precautions.

Another tip is to be aware of any and all things with the climbing area you plan to visit. Some climbing areas have certain rules that are created to keep you safe, other’s safe, or keep access available. Some might have information about particular dangers. For instance, when we went to the New River Gorge, there was a climbing spot that mentioned having a real problem with people breaking into climber’s cars and stealing their belongings. Other areas have times they are closed for animals such as Falcons to nest. I’m sure these closures are probably more to preserve wildlife, but on the other hand, do you want to know the wrath of a mother falcon that fears you are after it’s eggs? Probably not. Look into your climbing areas. Search guide books, websites, etc for important up to date information before you plan to head out.

Use common sense and caution when dealing with nature. If you are heading out to a mountain in the winter, you might want to check on any potential avalanche information or warnings. You might want to know if it is going to be overly hot, overly cold, or poor weather. You want to have a plan for what to do if that weather causes you problems. If you get caught in that 10% chance of a thunderstorm that you risked, what will you do about it? Know that nature has the potential to throw danger at us in any moment and be prepared to handle it. 

You want to make sure you are fully prepared and know what to bring with you. This is particularly true if you don’t have much outdoor climbing experience. Someone I know went climbing outside for one of their first times and just wore regular sandals. She had a really hard time when she discovered what a steep, difficult approach getting to the cliff actually was. One of my first times outdoor climbing, I wasn’t quite prepared for what a long day it really would end up being and did not have enough snacks or water. You want to make sure you are ready for the area, and that you know what your climbing partners have planned. Make sure you are dressed appropriately, have plenty of water/drinks and a way to pick up after yourselves, any things like sunscreen or insect repellent that you may need, and any safety equipment. I know lots of people who climb without helmets for instance, but even for them there are areas where they would still bring one because rock fall is a high risk or the rock is bad quality and likely to break off. Make sure you bring a headlamp or flashlight if there is a chance of getting caught in the dark. You want to be prepared. 

You also want to make sure all your gear is safe and upgraded when it needs to be. You also want to know you know how to use it properly. 

When deaths or injuries happen in outdoor climbing, it is usually a sad mistake that people learn from. Something that wasn’t checked properly, something that was forgotten, and it is almost always something that could have easily been prevented. As boring as it may seem to be safety concerned, it really can help a lot. There are reasons for these practices. Please remember to think about making your day as fun as possible, but keeping it as safe as possible.  



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