10 Tips To Keep You Safe When Outdoor Rock Climbing

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

Is Rock Climbing Dangerous?

The short answer is yes, rock climbing is dangerous. But so is driving your car to work every day. It is all about risk versus reward.

Sure, driving your car is relatively low risk and a necessity for today's modern lifestyle. A lot of people feel the same way about rock climbing. Sure, rock climbing might get a bad reputation because all the media picks up on things like Alex Honnold free soloing (climbing without a rope) El Cap in Yosemite.

But that is the story of one incomprehensibly talented and bold individual. For the rest of us rock climbing can be enjoyed with relative safety. 

There are different forms of rock climbing that all come with their own particular hazards. A progression exists that allows relative beginners to start climbing in a controlled manner until they feel comfortable and confident enough to explore different types of climbing.

The first type of climbing you would encounter is called top roping. Which basically means that you are connected to an anchor directly above you via a rope. At any point and for any reason, you can let go and sit back in your harness with zero consequences. While this might feel exhilarating, you are in no real danger.

All that being said, there are unfortunate accidents every year involving climbers. Everything from minor injuries to serious ones and even fatal accidents. Those accidents are usually attributed to human error and rarely bad luck.

Minimize Risk When Outdoor Climbing with These Safety Tips

No matter the level or type of climbing, there are some universal precautions that you should take.

Not all of these safety tips are applicable to every style of climbing. However, they are universal enough to warrant consideration every time you go climbing.

As a certified guide and having worked as a high angle mountain rescue professional, in no particular order these are my recommendations.

Man rock climbing safetly

Safety Tip #1: Always Do Your Partner Check

This one is simple and often beginner climbers are more diligent about this than folks who’ve been climbing for a while. Complacency is a dangerous thing in climbing. Every time you leave the ground it is important to do your partner check.

This ensures that both climbers are attached to the rope system and attentive to the task at hand.

A partner check consists of checking your partner’s harness, the rope and the belay device. Make sure that both harnesses are worn properly and are in good condition. Make sure that the rope isn’t tangled or otherwise compromised.

Lastly, check that the belay device is attached to the rope and harness correctly with a locked carabiner. Whenever in doubt, always double check.

Safety Tip #2: Close The System

Even the great Alex Honnold had an accident when he was lowered off the end of his rope because it wasn’t long enough and there wasn’t a knot to close the system.

He was injured, but incredibly fortunate considering. Too many others haven’t been so lucky. Accidents happen every year that involve the end of the rope slipping through a device because there wasn’t a knot to stop it.

Many years ago, I myself rappelled off the end of my rope. Like Alex, I was incredibly lucky and mostly uninjured. I was setting up a top rope and for some reason didn’t have both ends on the ground.

On my way down, the short end flew through my device and I plummeted to the ground. Luckily it wasn’t very far and was in the winter after a big snowstorm. But the lesson remains, close the system.

Safety Tip #3: Climb Within Your Abilities

This isn’t to say don’t push yourself, but rather do it in a systematic way. Train your weaknesses and play to your strengths.

In climbing, there are three categories of skills: movement (actual climbing abilities), technical systems used to be safe and mental fortitude.

If you push all three categories at the same time you are begging for disaster. Isolate and train all three individually and a rising tide will raise all ships.

To train climbing movement is probably the most obvious, go to the climbing gym. There are many different programs out there by professional coaches, one of which I am not. But the bottom line: to get better at rock climbing you have to go rock climbing.

The technical systems are my specialty and I help people develop those skills all the time. For that, you can find a professional mentor such as myself, but also try leading increasingly complex routes well within your movement abilities.

Last and maybe the most ambiguous is mental fortitude.

This can apply to anyone who feels afraid while climbing. Which is perfectly natural, by the way.

Fear is an appropriate response to danger. How we overcome that is different for everyone. But confronting that fear in a controlled environment or as controlled as possible is important to achieve bigger rock climbing goals.

Safety Tip #4: Have a Plan, Communication Is Key

Climbing is a team sport and any breakdown in communication within that team can be dangerous.

Does your partner have you on belay? What happens if you can’t see them or hear them, did you discuss contingencies before leaving the ground?

The complexity of your plan is directly related to the size and scope of your objective. Often seasoned climbers who’ve been partners for years will communicate non-verbally. But before they got to that point, they took many incremental steps.

I encourage all climbers to assume nothing, ask questions often and over communicate if there is any doubt whatsoever. Always check in with your climbing partner when in doubt.

Safety Tip #5: What Goes Up Must Come Back Down… Safely

This one should seem obvious, but all too often I’ve seen folks launch up a rock climb without thinking about the retreat. Success requires that we come back down to Earth. Is your partner going to lower you? Are you climbing a multi-pitch route that requires a rappel? Is there a walk off from the top?

These are great questions and all things to discuss with your partner before launching.

For larger more complex objectives sometimes retreat can take hours or even days in the mountains. Having enough equipment and knowledge to safely retreat from your objective should be a prerequisite for attempting it.

Yes, the mountains are inherently dangerous, but no mountain is worth dying for.

Safety Tip #6: Do Your Route Research

Rock climbing is challenging enough, don’t make it any harder on yourself.

With illustrated guidebooks and the internet, information has never been closer. So unless you are putting up a first ascent of an unclimbed route, someone else has climbed it. Chances are good that a plethora of information is available at your fingertips. Researching your climbing route and knowing what to expect is critical to staying safe in the mountains.

How hard is the route? What is the style of climbing and is that in your wheelhouse? Where on the route is the crux or hardest part? How long is it? How will it be protected? How will you get back down?

These are all things that you can find answers to before leaving the ground. Climbing is already an adventure, don’t make it unnecessarily dangerous.

Safety Tip #7: Learn How To Belay Properly

Probably one of the first things we learn as a climber is to tie into a rope and also belay our partner. This is a fundamental climbing skill that can have disastrous consequences if done incorrectly.

Climbing is a lot of fun and we can sometimes forget that important safety measures are necessary to ensure it remains fun. Seek qualified instruction on how to belay if you are unsure.

To belay in a top rope setting use the following acronym: PBUS. Which stands for Pull, Brake, Under and Slide. This is the modern industry standard.

Start by pulling rope through the device. Move your brake hand below the device and grab the rope underneath your brake hand. Slide your brake hand up and repeat.

Belaying a leader is an entirely different process and should also be practiced under the supervision of a qualified individual before going live with the skill.

Safety Tip #8: Wear a Helmet

Not all styles of climbing require a helmet and every climber has to make a decision for themselves about when to wear one. For example, I have never met a boulderer who wears a helmet, but I am sure that person exists. Don’t succumb to social pressure to not wear a helmet. Helmets are cool and traumatic brain injuries are not.

Several years ago, I was top roping a route well within my abilities that I had done before. At a particularly unfortunate spot my foot slipped and I hit my head pretty hard on the rock. The resulting concussion took a very long time to recover from. 10/10 do not recommend. Protect your head.

Safety Tip #9: Inspect and Retire Equipment When Necessary

If you have equipment that is old enough to be retired that probably means you’ve been climbing for a while. However, sometimes newer climbers acquire used equipment from friends/family/yardsale because they don’t want to invest in brand new equipment.

This is perfectly fine as long as you inspect the equipment.

The biggest offender is soft goods made from nylon. Because nylon degrades over time. Even a “brand new” looking rope or harness that is more than five years old should be retired.

There isn’t a single time that I go to the climbing gym and don’t see at least one harness that should be retired.

Will those old harnesses likely fail? No.

But what is your life worth? Store and maintain all your life safety equipment properly and in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations. 

Safety Tip #10: Seek Qualified Instruction

This one is an unabashed and shameless plug for self-promotion as a certified rock climbing guide in Colorado. Simply put, the fastest and safest way to improve your climbing experience is to hire a professional.

Sure you can learn from your friends and maybe you are even lucky enough to find a mentor willing to show you the ropes. Pun intended.

Those are great resources, but a word of caution about what they might be teaching you. Unless you go to the source how do you know that you are being shown the latest techniques?

I’ve seen brand new climbers using techniques that have been outdated for 20+ years. How did they learn those skills? From their friends.

Even though recreational climbers may be knowledgeable and have the best of intentions. They might not be the greatest teachers or have the most patience to thoroughly explain a topic. I’ve seen too many climbers hastily explain how to belay to their friends because they themselves want to climb.

Woman using proper rock climbing technique for safety

Frequently Asked Questions About Climbing Outdoors

Questions about rock climbing are numerous and span the full spectrum from “how do you get the rope up there?” to technically specific questions.

Hopefully, this section will answer some of your questions.

What Are The Risks of Rock Climbing?

The vast majority of climbing injuries are actually from overtraining and not trauma. This means things like a pulled finger tendon or a swollen digit. Climbers also tend to injure their shoulders or rotator cuff because of the large strain put on that complex. Aside from those things, minor cuts/scrapes and bruises are to be expected.

All are usually worn as a badge of honor for engaging in the vertical world. After that twisted ankles and the occasional broken leg aren’t unheard of. But those don’t occur at a higher rate than other full-contact mainstream sports.

Why Do People Climb If There is a Risk of Death or Serious Injury?

Some people climb because of the risk, but most climb in spite of it. Everyone’s motives are different.

Some people love the physical challenge and pushing their limits. Others love the exploration of rock climbing, historically risk has always been associated with exploration. Often climbers talk about the focus and lessons they’ve learned from climbing being applicable to other aspects of their lives. This is why climbing and climbers often define it as a lifestyle instead of a hobby.

In interviews with the world's best climbers, they often talk about entering a flow state or having such laser sharp focus that they are able to accomplish unbelievable feats.

The belief that climbing is an “extreme” sport is incorrect in that it should not induce an adrenaline rush. Climbing is a calculated and thoughtful activity that often requires immense amounts of repetitive failure until success is achieved.

What Do The Statistics Say About Rock Climbing Safety?

As you might imagine it is quite challenging to quantify the safety of rock climbing relative to other sports or outdoor pursuits. Those who know me, know that I am not a sports enthusiast for things like basketball, baseball, American football etc… However, I have never heard of a traumatic accident resulting in a fatality during one of those competitions.

In this, climbing is different. Unfortunately, climbers have died and will likely die in the future. A study involving 71,655 climbers in Grand Teton National Park from 1970-80 tried to quantify the per capita rate of injury among climbers who registered with the Park Service.

There were 144 accidents and 30 deaths. Which means that 0.002% of climbers were injured and 0.0004% of climbers died during the study period. While this study is far from exhaustive, it paints a pretty clear picture. For all intents and purposes climbing is a safe activity.

For reference, consider these statistics from this NHTSA source. In 2019, there were 228,679,719 licensed drivers and 299,267,114 registered vehicles in the United States. These drivers drove a total of 3,261,772,000,000 over three trillion miles.

In 2019, there were 6,756,000 police-reported motor vehicle crashes, including 1,916,000 crashes involving injury and 33,244 crashes involving death according to this source.

This means that every time you get into the car to go to the grocery store you roll the dice to the tune of 0.03% chance of an accident and a 0.0001% chance of a fatal accident, respectively. 

Is There Any Rock Climbing Safety Gear I Should Have?

I generally advise people that if they plan on renting any climbing equipment for more than 7 days, they should just purchase the item(s) for the same price.

Pretty much every single piece of climbing equipment is considered life safety equipment. That is what I told my parents as a teenager in order to acquire the necessary equipment for my newfound obsession.

A typical entry level climber should think about purchasing their own: climbing shoes, harness, belay device, locking carabiner and helmet.

Final Thoughts On Outdoor Rock Climbing Safety

Climbing is inherently dangerous, it says so on every warning label attached to all the gear you buy. But it is so much more than an adrenaline fueled rush.

Climbing has so many things to offer us beyond the benefits of physical exercise and activity. Climbing can teach us perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Climbing can teach us self confidence and creativity. Climbing can teach us the benefits of teamwork and so much more.

If you're in the Denver/Boulder metro area and interested in going on an outdoor rock climb with professional safety guidance, feel free to contact me to schedule a climb.

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