Climbing is dangerous, there’s no getting past that; ultimately, our sport is built around going up and down cliffs that could be fatal to fall from.
Bouldering may be an exception, with climbers typically no higher than a few metres off the ground, but it has still claimed many ankles, knees and elbows.
We often don’t hear about the bad accidents that happen in our area, which are rarely publicized due to patient confidentiality and out of respect for the victims. This can lead us into a false sense of complacency as we reassure ourselves that accidents only happen in the big mountains and not at the little crags of the Smoke Bluffs.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of severe accidents this year in the Sea to Sky, resulting in life-changing injuries or fatalities. We can never eliminate risk in climbing, but many accidents are preventable, which makes them even harder to come to terms with. While everyone’s acceptable level of risk varies, there are a number of ways we can stack the deck in our favour.
One of the most common severe accidents is a climber rappelling or being lowered off the end of a rope. This can happen for a number of reasons — missing an anchor, climbing on a rope shorter than the route requires or not setting the rappel with the middle of the rope at the anchor. Knotting the end of the rope every time, even when it seems redundant, is the best way to guarantee you will never fall victim to this preventable accident.
For many people, pushing their limits is central to the climbing experience. In a sport that requires so many different skills, the safest way to test yourself is to only challenge one aspect of your skills at a time. If you want a physical challenge, do it on a route that’s well bolted or easy to protect if you’re trad climbing. If you want to do a long multi-pitch, choose one at a grade below your maximum.
Injuries don’t always happen when we are operating at the edge of our ability — complacency or naivety can be just as dangerous. A common contributing factor to severe trad climbing accidents is “running it out.” This means leaving large gaps between the protection you place to catch a fall. Running it out can be useful when trying to move quickly, but the consequences are often severely underestimated.
Another underappreciated way to manage risk is to climb and surround yourself with the right people. Climbing with a more experienced mentor helps you to learn best practices and get feedback on your methods, but it’s important not to blindly follow. Always strive to make your own calls, and have frank conversations with your partners about potential hazards, what you consider acceptable, and at what point you will call it a day.
Finally, a helmet can be the difference between some minor scrapes and something much worse. A helmet will never prevent an accident from happening, but it is your last line of defence once something has gone wrong.
Alex Ryan Tucker is a Squamish resident and Squamish Access Society board member. Go to squamishaccess.ca for more information on SAS.