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ARTICLE: Staying Alive! Climbing and Risk

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 UKC Articles 09 Jun 2021

These days, climbing is often lazily described as a sport and sponsored climbers glibly branded as athletes. While competition climbing certainly is a sport, there's a lot more to climbing than competitions alone. Many climbing disciplines involve significant risk. Getting it wrong may result in serious injury – or even death.

So how do you avoid getting it wrong? Mick Ward asks...

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In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent article Mick, written from a perspective of long experience and thoughtful reflection. I can connect with so many parts of it, but can't help feeling that sometimes its just been the throw of the dice that has let me off the hook, even though I don't see myself as particularly bold or rash. It has a strong message for the newish climber venturing on to real rock - you need more than physical aptitude and self-confidence  to acquire the judgement that will prolong your life. Thinking a lot about your adventures is mostly a good idea. As the old saying goes - the definition of experience is when you realise you are making the same mistake again.

Dave

 Michael Gordon 09 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Interesting article. But the example of complacency is surely just complete stupidity. If it's been established that someone is going to do a sport route and then lower off, why on earth would you take them off belay?

 derryclimbs 09 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Another great article Mick. 

When risk these days gets compartmentalized into risk assessments, you sometimes forget about the deeper and personal meanings it has, and what has shaped most people's climbing experience.

I remember you telling me about your first excursion as a young teenager, but didn't realise it was so formative, or daring! 

Post edited at 19:17
 LakesWinter 09 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent article cheers

 maxsmith 09 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thanks Mick, Best thing I've read on here in a long time, maybe ever.  Topped off with a legendary Whymper quote.

Post edited at 21:08
 Sean Kelly 09 Jun 2021
In reply to maxsmith:

Enjoyed that immensely Mick. Writing about risk in climbing/mountaineering is quite common and perhaps it's because we are really examining our own perception and understanding of risk. I'll mail you my own thoughts on this and would welcome any comments. It is rather a long read. I found that when you look really deeply into 'risk' something totally unique to this obsession we all have, much more is revealed. To incorrectly attribute the Hemmingway quote, there are only 3 sports....all the rest are games. My own take...we often hear that you are more likely to be killed in a RTA that climbing but unfortunately I know far more climbing friends killed than those killed in RTA's.

Post edited at 21:23
 Kemics 09 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article, i couldn't help but reflect on a few of my own near misses. I shudder thinking of my early lack of judgement. 

I only have climbed with one person who died. We climbed for a day and he suggested some future trips but i politely declined as he seemed keen but dangerously so. He died in the following fortnight. It still gnaws at me that i never said anything to him. At the time there was no one thing he did which was obviously wrong, im not sure what i would have said, but i wish i had said something. 

 profitofdoom 09 Jun 2021
In reply to Kemics:

> Great article, i couldn't help but reflect on a few of my own near misses. I shudder thinking of my early lack of judgement 

I almost died twice - so close, both times. Both times because of my carelessness and lack of judgement

By the way - great article, Mick, thanks

 BALD EAGLE 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Yet another superb article Mick so many thanks! Cheers Dave 

In reply to UKC Articles:

Spot on Mick, this ought to be compulsory reading; unfortunately I have a feeling that some of the people that most need to read this are the ones that would skip past it to the latest E10/F9a story.

 Alex Hallam 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Michael Gordon:

I believe the context is given that there was no discussion as, whether or not to complete a multi pitch route. So you assume the leader would just tie in and be getting ready to belay the belayer up, not setting up to lower off. So in that case you would take them off belay and go and eat some sandwiches.

 mbrookes 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Alex Hallam:

> So you assume the leader would just tie in and be getting ready to belay the belayer up, not setting up to lower off.

> So in that case you would take them off belay and go and eat some sandwiches.

No. No you would not. The belayer should assume that they are belaying until the climber says otherwise.

May I respectfully suggest that you get yourself on a refresher course with a trained guide before you kill yourself or someone else.

 brianjcooper 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Michael Gordon:

> Interesting article. But the example of complacency is surely just complete stupidity. If it's been established that someone is going to do a sport route and then lower off, why on earth would you take them off belay?

A climbing partner did exactly that to me once when we were ice-climbing. I'm still here, but only because as I leant back I noticed the rope was flashing past me at an alarming rate. I managed to grab it and hold on.  Lesson learnt!

Post edited at 11:35
 C Witter 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thanks Mick. It was like being in a pub, listening to a good yarn shot through with wisdom.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article Mick - lots of life lessons there, not all related to climbing. 

Thanks for writing it. 

Peter

In reply to Kemics:

Exactly the same thing happened to me.

Having had a quick look at your log book, looks like it may have been the same person.

Post edited at 12:44
 Al Randall 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Sean Kelly:

I agree.  Over a period of 55 years climbing the number of people I knew who were killed whilst participating is in the 20's.  A few were friends although I would class most as acquaintances.  Does anyone know where the "more chance of being killed in an RTA" came from?  I don't know a single person who has even been seriously injured in one so I'm not sure what that does to the analysis.  Perhaps I simply know more climbers than none climbers which seems a little odd bearing in mind that climbers are subject to both risks.

Grades, bolting and risk.  Always sure to stimulate debate.

Great article as usual Mick.  I trust you are keeping well?

Al

Post edited at 13:16
 profitofdoom 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Al Randall:

> ....... Does anyone know where the "more chance of being killed in an RTA" came from?  I don't know a single person who has even been seriously injured in one so I'm not sure what that does to the analysis......

A Google search shows that the chance of being killed rock climbing in the UK is 1 in 320,000 climbs: and that the chance of dying in a road traffic accident (UK) approaches 1 in 20,000 PER ANNUM, with the lifetime risk being 1 in 240

(On the other hand I only knew two people killed on the road - a neighbour going much too fast in a car, and a pillion passenger in a bad crash - but knew a much bigger number killed climbing)

Post edited at 13:24
 tlouth7 10 Jun 2021
In reply to profitofdoom:

> A Google search shows that the chance of being killed rock climbing in the UK is 1 in 320,000 climbs: and that the chance of dying in a road traffic accident (UK) approaches 1 in 20,000 PER ANNUM

If so you only have to climb 16 times a year for that to overtake driving. And further, a day's cragging* is not only more dangerous than the drive there and back, but could be nearly as dangerous as a whole year's driving.

*Ignoring the fact that climbing risk statistics are potentially skewed by discipline.

 Mark Goodwin 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Wow! What a superb piece! 

In reply to UKC Articles:

As ever Mick an excellent and well written article, poignant, thoughtful and full of good advice.

Have you ever considered writing/producing a book of your essays?

Chris

In reply to UKC Articles:

An excellent and thought provoking article. Makes me consider my own and others' mistakes that have either very nearly, or very actually, taken a life.

 Michael Gordon 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Alex Hallam:

> I believe the context is given that there was no discussion as, whether or not to complete a multi pitch route. 

From the article: "It was clearly established that I'd go to the anchors and lower-off." Excluding a breakdown in communication in that initial discussion, it's hard to see why he was taken off belay.

 Michael Gordon 10 Jun 2021
In reply to Al Randall:

>Does anyone know where the "more chance of being killed in an RTA" came from?  >

Probably a misreading of the statistics, based on the fact that there are far more accidents on the road than at the crag / in the mountains. But somehow missing the crucial part about the number of participants

 Hooo 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article Mick. So much truth in there, and for me it's sharply restored memories that had started to fade.
I was starting out on trad when I met a guy at the wall who was in the same situation and looking for a partner. Chris was always keen to progress and push his limits, and after a few months of his influence we were both leading E1. He was great for taking over on the scary pitch, always managing to pull off that move when it mattered. I worried though. Watching him do a sketchy move over a groundfall with an appalling landing and a nightmare to rescue from, I went through what would happen if he decked. Probably terrible injuries and dieing before he could be rescued, and I'd have to watch him die and face his wife and children carrying the guilt that maybe I could have done something. As always he got the move though, and on the way home I tried to broach the subject and say that we were pushing things a bit too far for our experience level. He wouldn't accept it. After that we still climbed together, but he also started climbing with a younger, keener guy. We all went to the alps, but separately. I hired a guide for a sensible introduction, they went as a pair with their sights set on the Cassin route. The last thing he said to me was "Stay safe". I bumped into the new partner back in the UK. He looked a lot older than I remembered him. He told me that they'd had a week of crap weather (as had I), but on the last day it looked OK and they'd gone for it. They were almost at the top when the storm hit. They were inexperienced, ill equipped and already exhausted but somehow they survived the night hanging from a peg in a waterfall. In the morning they started climbing again and made it to easy ground, but Chris was finished. He collapsed and died at the top of the route.
It's easy to see all their mistakes now and think that I would never have got myself into that situation. But I did, I just got lucky.

 DalesClimber 10 Jun 2021
In reply to tlouth7:

Given that the average keen climber will do significantly more than 16 climbs a year, this would indicate that climbing is a lot more dangerous than driving. It would be interesting to see statistics (if they exist) on the breakdown between climbing disciplines though.

I'm not sure where the 'more chance of being killed driving home from the crag' saying comes from, but it has always struck me as nonsense. As Michael says - there are more RTA fatalities than climbing fatalities, but the number of people who regularly travel by car/van/motorbike/bus is significantly higher than the number of people who regularly climb.

The article was really good, well worth the read.

 Babika 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent article! Thanks so much for sharing this Mick

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article Mick. 

Last time I was at Stanage we helped stretcher someone off, then got back to the crag a bit spooked.  The instructor leading a group next to us tried to settle them down by telling them how unusual this was and then trotted out the old "You're more likely to be injured in a crash on the way to the crag than at the crag" line.  I stopped myself from asking him how I knew four folks who had died climbing and no folks who'd died driving when those who climb are a fairly small group and pretty much all adults drive.

 robate 10 Jun 2021
In reply to maxsmith:

Agree totally, a great piece.

On the subject of people taking leaders off belay without warning, I've seen this done resulting in a near fatal ground fall from the top of Stoney..

 RussB 10 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thanks Mick, a really authoritative and thoughtful article - one of the best I've read. It chimes with a lot of my own thoughts and reminds me how lucky I am, after 24 years of climbing, to still not know anyone who's died doing it. 

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article. My mates and I used to travel from South Wales for a snatched week in Glencoe. We were cops so had to book our week long in advance and couldn’t change. We would climb in terrible conditions and called it the “600 mile syndrome” as in we’re travelling 600 miles so we’re gonna do something. All good until that day in 1991 when we got caught in terrible weather and I got blown off the ridge. Live and learn. 

In reply to UKC Articles:

What a well written and considered revue of the risks of Climbing. With two broken backs and numerous recovered injuries after 50 years of climbing I can relate to every point especially the needless deaths. Manage and consider the risk every minute you step out into the Mountains especially when you have little experience and are young and gung-ho

 Steve Long 11 Jun 2021
In reply to Bobling:

Complacency is a danger common to both climbing and driving. The public perceive driving as a necessary risk, and climbing as a more hedonistic pursuit. But if you should never forget that the car coming towards you may not be in control... I've climbed pretty extensively now for 40 years but I still regard a long car journey as a bigger risk than the average climb, mainly because of the long period of concentration required, and the constantly changing external situations. Of course, that balance is shifted on Alpine climbs, where climbing risk becomes much greater than the equivalent length of time driving a car. 

 Steve Long 11 Jun 2021
In reply to Michael Gordon:

I remember a comparable situation climbing with a famously crazy climber, Cliff Phillips. We were sport climbing on a crag near Argentiere. I was about to commit to the crux but happened to look down at my belayer instead of just shouting "Watch me, Cliff!" which was just as well, (and not entirely chance) because Cliff has unclipped from the belay device and wandered over to talk to somebody belaying nearby. I called it a day at that point. However, it does show that communication is vital. I don't know what Cliff was thinking, but it certainly wasnt about his belay responsibilities! Even when sport climbing at my limit I always try to warn my belayer if I suspect a fall is possible, and ideally get a visual check as well. 

In reply to UKC Articles:

Excellent reading! Having taken a few nasty tumbles over the years I find that every move I make is accompanied by a visualisation of the worst case consequences: what would be going through my mind as I plummeted, which part of my body would hit the ledge or projection below, how long it would be before I could climb again. It slows me up, but my guiding principle is to keep climbing  right to the end which is "Not today..."

In reply to Hooo:

> In the morning they started climbing again and made it to easy ground, but Chris was finished. He collapsed and died at the top of the route.

I used to be puzzled as to how people die after doing the hard bits of the Cassin but, having had it nearly happen to us, I now understand all too clearly.

 BrendanO 11 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Wow Mick, you’ve done it again. Thanks.

In reply to UKC Articles:

A good read. 👍

 Mick Ward 13 Jun 2021
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thank you to everyone for their kind comments. For me, one of the great things about writing for the internet rather than books and magazines is the chance to have conversation, as it were, with your readers. Writers are people who are prepared to sit in rooms on their own for years, mulling over stuff, never really knowing whether they're on the right track or not. So for me, 'conversation with your readers' is great. My apologies for my absence this time though, it must have appeared rude. I simply got overloaded, this week. Life got in the way.

Also many thanks to people for the photos. I've always found that one of the Troll Wall utterly haunting.

When you get right down to it, managing risk is a lot of what makes climbing so special. Sometimes it's obvious that people aren't managing risk well and sometimes (as people have rightly said above) it's more of a feeling. Clearly the consequences can be fatal. The story of the poor guy dying at the top of the Cassin is so sad. Didn't two young guys die of exhaustion on the first ascent? Terrible to think of history repeating itself but, of course, whether in the Alps or on Tryfan, so often it does.

Unlike the technicalities of ropework etc, risk can be a slippery subject. Obviously there are multiple approaches. Maybe a really simple one is to think of two components - situational awareness and self-awareness. Situational awareness would be everything outside us - the route, the environment, other people, etc. Self-awareness would be internal stuff like, 'Have I got the requisite experience and skills? What state's my head in?' And (the most important of all) 'Why exactly am I doing this?'

Unless we're continually balancing situational awareness and self-awareness, surely we're flying blind? And, if so, how long will we get away with flying blind?

For me, there's an invisible line of acceptable risk. I want to stay on the right side of that line. For instance, on Wednesday I spent seven hours cleaning and bolting. Normally I only do about four hours because of tiredness and the risk of making a (perhaps fatal) mistake. But Wednesday was a total pig. And it was really complicated. Changing from abseil to jumar and back again, so many times. Moving directional belays to and fro. The constant fear of dropping a piece of kit into the sea. I think I stayed just the right side of the line. But it was close - too close for my liking. Right now, I don't think, 'Well that worked. More of the same, next week.'  Instead, I think, 'You need to back off and recover. If you want to bolt next week, find something really easy.'

At least the whole time I was intensely situationally aware and self-aware. And I knew where the line was. And I've reviewed what happened and mentally agreed to step back.

Experience is the name we give to our mistakes. (I just got some more experience!) We need to be prepared to be constantly analysing things, always learning - always learning.

Stay safe out there...

Mick

 UKB Shark 13 Jun 2021
In reply to Mick Ward:

> Unlike the technicalities of ropework etc, risk can be a slippery subject. Obviously there are multiple approaches. Maybe a really simple one is to think of two components - situational awareness and self-awareness. Situational awareness would be everything outside us - the route, the environment, other people, etc. Self-awareness would be internal stuff like, 'Have I got the requisite experience and skills? What state's my head in?' And (the most important of all) 'Why exactly am I doing this?'

> Unless we're continually balancing situational awareness and self-awareness, surely we're flying blind? And, if so, how long will we get away with flying blind?

Hi Mick

Talking about flying the aviation industry, (which has led the way in examining safety/risk) divides human factors and mechanical failure which I think is a good distinction. 80% of accidents are down to human factors ie tiredness, complacency, distraction etc.

Great article. Always good to be reminded and think about risk.

Simon

 Mick Ward 13 Jun 2021
In reply to UKB Shark:

Hi Simon,

Many thanks. That makes sense. I did a job in an airline once and they collated information and analysed it to the nth degree. I suppose safety is paramount for them.

Would be interesting to compare climbing with other disciplines - my guess is that we'd come up with much the same human factors. But would be good to know for sure. A really useful academic project for someone?

Was talking with a lovely guy who came over to do some carpentry work for us this week. He'd led a 5 for his first/only route with some mates he admitted were complete loons. Good effort - but shudder! To be fair, he accepted this totally.

Re boating, he said there are a lot of folk around now with recently bought boats and little evidence of ability to use 'em. Says you can see it even in the harbour. When they get out to sea, sometimes they get away with it and sadly sometimes they don't. Re bad conditions at sea, he simply said, "Just go home." And really it doesn't get any wiser or simpler than this. "Just go home."

Anyway, keep well mate. We're all quietly rooting for you. In your own good time, when it all finally comes together. Neil's equilibrium.

All best wishes,

Mick


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