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8 Common Climbing Accidents And How to Avoid Them

© Alan James

1: Abseiling off the end of the rope


Abseiltastic!   © Mike Lates
jamie hageman, Nov 2010
© Mike Lates
It is a completely avoidable accident yet it does happen, especially when climbers are tired. You are abseiling down your route (often a multipitch) and you just zip straight off the bottoms of the ropes. This could result in anything from a short thud to the ground to a 1000m free fall down a huge alpine face; it just depends on where you are when you make the mistake.

How to avoid it:

The most important thing is to tie knots in the ends of your ropes to stop them from slipping through your belay device should you accidentally reach the ends. It's also good to use a prussik knot as a brake whilst abseiling, so that you can take a hand off if you need to, and also so that you don't just zip down the ropes should you let go for any reason. Always pay attention to how much rope you have left and if possible before you set off on the abseil, try and see if your ropes have reached the belay you are aiming for. On many multipitch routes remember that abseil stations are often set 50 or 60m apart, so unless you know your ropes will definitely reach it is often not a good idea to try and skip a station to save time.

2: Lowered off the end of the rope


Dave MacLeod on crutches after being lowered off the end of the rope in 2012  © Dave MacLeod Collection
Dave MacLeod on crutches after being lowered off the end of the rope in 2012
© Dave MacLeod Collection
This is very similar to the above accident, but perhaps even more common. You have climbed a long sport pitch and when you get lowered back to the ground the rope isn't long enough and zips through the belay device of your partner, sending you in to free fall. This can again result in anything from a short thud through to quite a long and serious fall.

How to avoid it:

Firstly, as above, tie a knot in the end of the rope. One way to get in the habit of this is to always have your rope tied in to your rope bag at both ends. The next thing to do is to make sure you know the length of the route and the length of your rope. Is it your mate's rope? Has she cut it down a bit? Will it reach?

And if you are on a really tall indoor climbing wall the same thing applies - tie a knot and make sure you know the length of the route and the length of your rope.


Real Life Story: Dave MacLeod

This accident is very common and can occur no matter how experienced you are. In 2012 professional climber Dave Macleod hit the ground from exactly this. Check out his 2012 Blog Post for more details.

3: Dropped by your belayer


David Lama takes the lob off Parthian Shot (E9 6c) at Burbage South  © Visual Impact | Rainer Eder
David Lama takes the lob off Parthian Shot (E9 6c) at Burbage South
© Visual Impact | Rainer Eder
It's not so easy to pinpoint this one as it has many variables, but being dropped by your belayer does happen so here's a check list of things you can do:

1: Don't climb with bad belayers. Lazy, inattentive, selfish belayers are all too common. If you know one, don't climb with them. End of story. If you have witnessed on several occasions, and after a 'chat', that someone doesn't belay safely, then tell them you won't climb with them, and tell them why. It might save your or someone else's life.

2: Shout before you fall. Communication is key. If you think you are going to fall, or might fall, then shout to your belayer to get their attention.

3: Have that awkward conversation. You've seen your mate looking at the hot girl at the climbing wall when he really should be looking at your lardy arse about to fall off this 6b+. Have a quick word before you set off, making sure you bring to the forefront of his mind how important belaying is and how lame he would look in front of his new goddess if he dropped someone to the floor.

4: Check their device and rope diameter. Ropes have got thin these days, and they are not that easy to hold if you have a wide belay device. Have a look at your belayer's set up and change it if you are concerned that it doesn't give enough friction.


4: Hit by rock fall (or ice)


Richmond MacIntyres' helmet. It undoubtedly saved his life.  © Rich Parker
Richmond MacIntyres' helmet. It undoubtedly saved his life.
© Rich Parker
Now this one is really hard to pin down, as rock fall can be caused by climbers, goats, melting ice, rain, or a whole number of other factors, but regardless of the cause here's the number one cover-all answer:


And then have a think about these points:

Climber-dislodged rock fall is extremely common:

Is it safe to climb underneath another party? Can you choose another route or wait until they have finished?

If you do climb underneath can you stay to one side, or belay somewhere out of the possible 'fall zone' (especially on ice gullies)?

If you are hanging around at the base of the crag think about where you sit to have your lunch, make sure it isn't underneath a climb or abseil point, or even under a bit of crag that climbers walk along the top of - pick a safe spot.

Weather dislodged rock fall is tricky to predict:

But if your winter or alpine route is below lots of frozen ground and loose rock, then the warming of the sun or an increase in ambient temperature can cause huge rock falls. Look above the route, not just at the route itself.

Real Life Story: Accident in Afghanistan

"...he had lost the vision in his left eye, describing it as milky and cloudy with a strange sensation of pressure... that probably meant a bleed inside his skull somewhere. We had to accept that he might deteriorate and die..." 

READ THE: UKC Article - Head Injury at 5400m


5: Avalanched on the approach


Avalanche debris  © Simon Caldwell
Avalanche debris
© Simon Caldwell, Feb 2008
Winter and alpine climbing involves snow. Where there is snow and slopes there can be avalanches and unfortunately for us climbers many of the routes we want to do involve tramping up snow slopes on the approach or descent.

Avalanches can bury you, causing suffocation. They can carry you over cliffs and down steep mountain slopes causing impact damage. Both of these things are not going to be much fun, and many climbers are killed or injured in avalanche related accidents.

How to avoid them:

Education is key here. There is a lot to learn about snow science and avalanches, and even the very best still make mistakes. But the more you educate yourself about them more you can asses the risks and avoid them.

Do the following mean anything to you?

  • Windslab
  • Whoomphing
  • Loose Graupel

No? Then why not start your learning right now with this UKC 2 Part Article Series: Avalanches 

6: Landing badly while bouldering


Dave Johnson mid-fall off White Wand  © http://Climbers.net/
Dave Johnson mid-fall off White Wand
Nick Smith - Climbers, Dec 2008
With bouldering mats being the norm, and the often incorrect assumption that bouldering is the safest form of climbing, I felt it important to cover bouldering injuries in this article. I've witnessed, been in or heard about many climbing accidents and one of the most common, if not the most serious, is the sprained ankle or broken wrist from bouldering.

How to avoid it:

Use bouldering mats effectively. They mean you can land on hard or uneven ground with much less chance of injury but bouldering mats do not guarantee an injury-free fall. Make sure you A) actually land on the mat, and B) know if there are any holes or protrusions under the mat and land accordingly.

Learn how to land. It takes practice and training to be able to land from a great height. Start off low and build up slowly. Practice falling and jumping down.

Have a good spotter. They help to keep you upright, protect your head, and guide you to the mat.

Don't climb too high and expect to be safe! Don't just leap off from 6 metres - it will hurt! Attempt low problems, or adopt an 'I must not fall' approach when above a certain height. Remember you can climb back down a few moves before you jump off if you need to - and this applies on indoor walls too.

Use a rope! What?! I know, it's not bouldering, but some highball boulder problems used to be classed as routes you know - and can actually be protected by ropes and gear - so if in doubt and it seems too high to be a boulder problem then you can always stick in a wire or two. Don't rule it out.

Real Life Story: The Photo on the right. CLICK HERE to view the photo comments from this shot of Nick Smith's. Taken at Stanage on White Wand (E5) this fall resulted in a broken heel, despite good spotting and lots of pads.

7: Abseil anchor / belay failing


018 019 020 021 Anchors-2  © Libby Peter Article
Every climber's worst nightmare situation. Just when you should be at a safe haven - the belay - suddenly it all rips out, Vertical Limit style. It isn't that far fetched. Often on multipitch traditional routes, and especially in winter, in can be tricky to find and build a decent belay, but it really is worth that extra effort because if your belay does rip out it could mean death for you and your climbing partner.

How to avoid it:

1: Build a strong belay!

It may sound trivial, but building a strong belay is one of the basic and essential skills of a climber. Have a system that works for you, stick to it and if you are not happy with your belay then build a better one, even if this means climbing on for a few more metres to reach better protection.

Being able to equalise bits of gear that are close together and far apart will enable you to be more flexible with your belay building.


2: Don't move above the belay, especially on a static sling.

Shock loading your belay is not a good idea, and if you are clipped in to the belay via a 'cow's tail' (often made from a sling) then shock loading is quite easy to do. If you clip a sling to your belay point and then climb a little way above the belay (perhaps to dislodge a stuck rope, or just to stand on a more comfortable bit of rock) then you run the risk of falling and adding a huge shock load on to the system. It's quite likely that this shock load will rip out any dodgy anchors, but it can even be enough force (in certain circumstances) to snap a sling.

Check out this DMM Video called How to Break Nylon and Dyneema Slings

8: Not tying in properly

CHECK OR DECK(Climber is Photoshopped)
Perhaps the most simple and most common mistake in climbing, but one that could cost you your life. Either making a mistake when tying your knot, or simply not finishing it due to being distracted means that you won't be connected to the rope properly, and this could result in a ground fall and a serious accident.

How to avoid it:

Do a buddy check. Get in to the habit of checking your and your partner's knot and harness and belay plate before stepping off the ground. And hopefully they will check yours too!

Don't talk to someone whilst they are tying in. Just wait another two minutes and then tell them that bit of gossip about how Steve fell off that HVS. If they stop tying the knot halfway through, they might not finish it off properly.

This is my personal recommendation: Use figure of eights with stopper knots, not bowlines. Bowlines are great and I have used them lots of times, but I would recommend a figure of eight knot with a stopper knot, especially for multipitch routes where you might stay tied in to the rope for hours. They are in my experience less likely to come undone, and less likely to be tied incorrectly with disastrous consequences.

Whatever knot you use, make sure it is tied correctly and check it at each belay stance.

Trad Climbing + Rockfax Cover  © ROCKFAX

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8 Jan, 2015
Common sense stuff is always useful to be reminded of.
8 Jan, 2015
It is Photoshopped, Chris
8 Jan, 2015
It´s a photo-shop that UKC have used before, not everything you see in the media is true!
8 Jan, 2015
It would be nicer if the caption stated this.
8 Jan, 2015
Excellent, sensible article. The DMM video showing how easy it is to break slack slings is sobering but really educative.
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