Safety in sport climbing
What are the risks associated with sport climbing and how can you keep them to a minimum? Common sense and open eyes can make all the difference.
At the crag
No crag is truly free of stonefall hazard. It often comes from the top...
On the route
- Loose rock - No crag is truly free of stonefall hazard. It often comes from the top of the crag where the quality of the rock deteriorates and is usually kicked off by other climbers or animals. It can sometimes come from way up above the crag on a loose hillside, so take in the wider picture as you approach the venue and consider any possible hazards.
- Other climbers - It is possible for another climber to pose a risk to your team. Watch out for out of control leaders who may fall your way at any moment, or abseilers inadvertently throwing their ropes down on you just at a precarious moment. Politely remind them of appropriate crag etiquette to prevent climbers causing problems for each other, or offer them a hand to overcome their difficulty, negligence or absentmindedness.
- Checks - It is easy to be distracted whilst gearing up so have a thorough and foolproof system for ensuring that all knots are correctly tied and harness buckles are doubled back.
- Bolts - Do not assume that all bolts are sound. Check them visually. If they look suspicious, give them a pull and twist to check if they are secure. Obviously, do this if you know the bolts are old but it is especially important at sea cliffs where corrosion is more active.
- Belayer - The job of the belayer is to concentrate on the leader from the moment he or she leaves the ground. Avoid being drawn into crag bottom banter. Remember how unsettling it is when you're up there trying a hard move and you don't think the belayer is watching!
- Loose rock - Check dubious looking holds by tapping and pulling them gently before committing your weight to them. Even busy sports crags can have loose holds. If you know a hold is loose try to avoid using it. If this is impossible, alert your belayer so that they are prepared for both you and the rock to fall, then weight the hold as lightly as you can manage.
Check the lower off. Beware of poor anchors...
Check the lower off. Beware of poor anchors. Bolts may be rusty or badly placed, or the chains and slings that link them may have deteriorated. If in doubt, back-up the lower off even if that means sacrificing a bit of gear. Opt to abseil off rather than be lowered if the anchor is suspect, as less force is applied this way.
Is your rope long enough? The majority of single pitch sport routes are less than 25m long so a 50m rope is sufficient but this is not always the case. Check the guidebook, have a middle mark on your rope and tie a knot in the end of the rope to avoid a tragic, but surprisingly common, accident of lowering your partner off the end.
Don't treat sport climbing as the safe option. A complacent attitude leads to mistakes.
Have a thorough system for organising the change over at stances. Check the spacing of the abseil stations, which are often more than 25m apart. In which case, even if you climb on a single rope, you'll need to tow up a second for the descent.
Don't treat sport climbing as the safe option. A complacent attitude leads to mistakes. Think about your safety and that of others at all times.
Libby is a highly qualified mountain leader with over 25 years experience, having worked as an instructor at Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin and also having travelled the world seeking out the best climbs. She offers bespoke guiding, instruction and coaching sessions in climbing and mountaineering in her local area of North Wales - one of the best areas in the UK for outdoor sports.
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