Is climbing in a gym inherently a high risk sport? The common narrative is one of high risk and concern about the safety. I have noticed this particularly when dealing with those charged with administering school sports and parents of children thinking about starting to climb. (I dare say that Alex Honnold and the amazing movies on El Cap haven’t done much to change this perception.)
Safety in INDOOR climbing is mostly taken pretty seriously and the Gyms are exceptionally good at maintaining a safe environment, hence the three cardinal rules of climbing;
- Look Cool!
- Be Cool!
- Safety First!
OK, ignoring my proclivity for winding people up, that may be too light hearted for such a serious matter. The consequences of an accident can be disastrous, but let’s not allow glib scare tactics to dominate either. In this last year a lot of crazy stuff was said about the risks, particularly in terms of possible head injuries during lead climbing in our youth competitions so I’d like to highlight the difference between what is possible (scary injuries that might happen) and what is high risk (injuries that are statistically likely to occur) and show that indoor climbing is actually very safe!
Risk is the product of probability and consequence. The fact that the consequence of a climbing accident can obviously be extreme is not an indication of risk until one examines the probability.
A number of serious studies dealing with the risk and nature of injuries while climbing indoors (and outside) have been conducted in Germany, the UK and the USA. We will publish a further paper with more complete details of these studies and the results of a local study SA study that we are currently conducting.
Whether you have had any injuries or not, if you’d like to contribute to the local knowledge and stats of accidental or climbing training injuries, please take a few minutes to complete the short survey. <click here for the survey>
A summary of the risk of injury while climbing indoors.
The injuries sustained in indoor climbing vary considerably by discipline as well as the severity, nature and cause of injury and this is by no means a full analysis. It is however relevant to state some findings on the matter.
- Bouldering produces many more injuries than lead climbing. Most of these are overuse or strain injuries and accident injuries to ankles or shoulders.
- The vast majority (93%) of all climbing injuries are strain or overuse injuries.
- The majority of injuries are to the lower limbs.
- In lead climbing most accidental injuries are due to belay mistakes or incorrect rope work.
When thinking about risk it may be instructive to examine the injury rates relative to other sports. A standard method of reporting is the number of injuries per 1000 hours participation.
A study involving over half a million visits to indoor climbing walls in Germany [Schöffl] shows injury rates in sport climbing to be 0.02 injuries per 1,000 hours of participation. 93% of these injuries being due to overuse with the majority of the remainder being due to belay error or incorrect rope work. This is many times lower than the figures for almost all indoor sports.
This year the American Alpine Assoc. (AAC) published figures from a study by the Climbing Wall Assoc conducted at climbing gyms and placed the accident rate at .007 per 1000 hours.
A study at the 2005 Climbing World Championships calculated the injury rate as high as 3.1 / 1000h, however one must recognise that the limits are being pushed extremely hard in a very short space of time and strain injuries at that high level are common. The authors of that particular study concluded that “Indoor rock climbing competition has a low injury risk and a very good safety profile.”
An article in ROCKandICE ranks the most common causes of injury while top rope or lead as
- Improperly tied knots or incorrect ATC threading (rope work)
- Belaying issues such as too much slack low down or large weight differences and climber colliding with belayer.
Another study showed the following comparison of injury rates across various sports. Note that some sports are duplicated showing the various disciplines within that sport.
So in conclusion, indoor climbing appears to be a pretty safe sport with a low risk of serious injury. As far as helmets worn indoors, training or in competitions, my view is that I would not actively discourage it as there is no reason NOT to wear one but it should be left to the individual as to whether they look cool enough. Review rule #1. If they don’t wish to wear one; the risk of injury is negligible!
Don’t forget the survey at http://www.bit.ly\climbing-injury-survey