Climbing Requires Individual Risk Assessment

Although there are certainly things in life that are widely believed by most people to be safe or unsafe, there are a lot of things that fall into a more individual area of assessment. For the most part, climbing as a whole can be considered one of those things. There are a lot of different types and styles to climbing, and each individual climber has different perceptions of what is safe or unsafe to them. For instance, I’ve known people who feel confident and secure bouldering, but are terrified on ropes. I’ve known people who can comfortably take big risks sport climbing, but get nervous on even relatively simple trad. Then there are people like Alex Honnold, who can free solo while feeling secure and stable, and others that feel he is constantly putting his life in danger. Everyone has a different sense of risk, and different thought processes in why. That is okay and it makes sense. No one knows your body, your limits, and your abilities like you do. For this reason, I encourage people to be mindful and understanding of other climber’s needs to maintain their own ability to assess appropriate risks.

This has been on my mind lately due to a few events where people have tried to impose their individual risk assessments onto my safety. I thought it might be worth sharing my perspective in these situations, because it might help others keep an open mind or consider their interactions more carefully.

In the first scenario, I was working on a bouldering route at the gym. It is one that is at my limit and challenging to me. It happens to be a boulder on one of the higher walls in the gym, which I normally avoid due to fear, but I wanted to safely push myself. This wall also happens to be slightly overhung. I was just a couple holds from the top when I fell. Due to the overhanging nature of the wall, and the dynamic move I used to go for the hold, I fell back quite a bit further than anticipated and half of my body missed the crash pad. Luckily I had a spotter who reached in to protect my neck, and nothing happened. This didn’t stop me from continuing the climb, but it did make me think that having a second pad to cover the area I actually fell was wise. I didn’t want to move that first pad, because the start was pretty tricky and there was just as much chance I’d fall closer too. With the two pads arranged how they were, I continued my efforts. I fell several more times at that same area, and fell perfectly. The second pad was just what I needed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the climb in this session. When I returned to it later, I placed my pads where they were before. I felt safe because I had taken this fall so many times now and knew the pads were right where I needed them to be. That security was important to remaining uninjured, but also mentally it made it easier for me to try hard. I felt I was safe and could climb fearlessly.

I started positioning myself for my climb, when a man came over and started moving my second pad. I jumped off the wall, and was ready to say I was using it, when he said “oh are you using this?” I said yes, and thought he would drop it and this would be the end of the story. Instead, he tried convincing me that using both of them was unsafe. I calmly told him how I fell from the top and that I needed a pad there. He proceeded to move my pad around anyway, telling me at the very least I should position them better. I had them overlapping and he thought this wasn’t good. As someone who has had an ankle injury from falling on the edge of the pad, I prefer them overlapped. I could understand his point, but I knew where I was falling, and how I was falling. I knew my set up worked for me. I can understand the desire to help, but if someone is able to tell you they know what they are doing, you should accept they understand what’s best for them. It would be different if I was a new climber that looked baffled and didn’t know why the pads were that way, or if when asked about it I agreed I didn’t know. I let it go and tried to tell myself he was just attempting to be helpful. Helping someone is fine, but there is a line. Then another man came over and pulled the second pad in a different direction too. He wasn’t using it for anything, but apparently disagreed with the way I had them and the way this other man thought they should be. You can have a difference of opinion, on your own climb. As the person climbing and the person knowing the fall, I need to be the one to decide where they go for myself. If I had fallen the same way I fell those four other times, I would have landed either where there was no pad or with my neck between two pads. Neither would have been good for me. If you are thinking that maybe this was an issue with my hogging pads, I can assure that wasn’t the case. The gym was almost empty and there were tons of other pads available. In fact, ones were available closer to where they were climbing than mine was. This was all because they thought they knew better than I did. They weren’t on the climb though. Who knows if they’ve ever been on that climb or if they’ve ever fallen from that climb. I, however, had.

Another time, I had stacked two pads because my crux was a dynamic move to the top out. This climb was in a corner, so the rectangle shape of the pads was a bit awkward, and the overlapping helped me feel like I had complete coverage. Again, I knew my fall well and where I was landing was good with my set up. A man walked up to me and actually just started making fun of me for being “too scared,” and implying I was some kind of wuss. I just ignored it. People can think what they want, but I’m not suffering through another sprained ankle and months without climbing because someone else wants to call me names or ridicule me. I just shrugged it off and said it worked for me. Then he tried lecturing me that two pads is somehow strenuous on your knees and bad for you. He said he would feel so much more afraid with two pads. That’s fine. I’ve never heard of having more cushion to your fall being worse for your knees, but if he feels unsafe with two pads that’s his prerogative. What if I started making fun of him for using only one pad? It is the way he feels safe and the way he feels confident, so it would be just as stupid for me to do that. I can’t even count how many injuries I’ve seen happen because of poor pad placement. It’s something that is important to me and that I put a lot of thought into. If I don’t feel totally safe and secure, I wouldn’t be able to climb. Also, since I have had to deal with a few ankle injuries that have caused me to feel more nervous when falling, I take lots of practice falls on climbs to make sure the pads really are safe how they are. I’m not saying I’m an expert on all pad placement, I’m saying that I’m becoming an expert of what my body and mind need in terms of pad placement. I’m becoming an expert of my own risk assessment. Each person will fall in a different place depending on what their individual crux is, the size of their body, how they are going for the hold, etc. So where someone else falls and needs protection, might not be the same.

I’ve seen situations where people who are like V10 climbers will do a warm up V0 without a pad, and someone will rush in to provide one for them. Most of the time they don’t get angry per se, because it is clear the person means well. It is often still annoying to them. I don’t want to discourage helpfulness, but I do want to encourage understanding someone knows their own risks. It’s important to respect a climber’s knowledge of what they can do and what they might need.

If you see a climber struggling hard on a climb and looking like they are about to fall where there is no pad, by all means ask them if they want you to move it over for them, or spot them, or do something to help. Just also be respectful to the fact that people have different ways of assessing risk. I saw on a forum today that people were arguing over whether a person should use more than one pad. I think this up to the individual and their situation. It needs to be. If someone is on a long traverse, that is probably going to need a few pads. If someone is doing a highball, they probably want a few pads. If someone is scared to death of another ankle injury, like myself, they might feel better with a couple pads. If you are in doubt and worried about a person, I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking if they had their pads that way for a reason. I saw someone doing a climb once, and I knew people who fell off the top almost always fell a few feet back into a certain spot. I noticed there wasn’t a pad there and I didn’t know if they knew the top was like that or not. I just went up and asked before they climbed it. I told them the experience I and some other people had with that fall, and if they knew what the top was like. In this case, they didn’t and they were grateful for the advice, but if they did, I would have respected that and backed off. Maybe the beta they were using didn’t put them in that position I was in. It’s not a problem for people to want to help.The problem I have is with people talking to each other with disrespect, making someone feel wrong for what they know works for them, or just doing what they want with their set up without asking.

It comes down to respecting each other, but it also comes down to valuing individual risk assessment. These situations are what applies to me, but there are other types out there. You can start a conversation and learn someone’s thinking about it, but understand that they know what is an acceptable or unacceptable risk for themselves for the most part. The exceptions of course are with children, misuse of gear, or knowing for sure the person lacks knowledge. If you are an adult with kids, you probably can assess risk better than them. Children aren’t developed enough to really process all that. If someone’s completely misusing gear in a way that is cut and clear dangerous, feel free to offer some words of wisdom to help. Be respectful about it, but let them know the risks they might not be aware of. If you are bringing your friend to the gym who has never climbed before and you know they just have no clue what’s what, then feel free to help them along. I guess my final thought is that it’s really about how you approach it. Are you being honestly helpful and respectful, or are you being a pompous asshole about it?

What do you think? Would you agree or disagree with this?


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