Reality of indoor climbing injuries and accidents!

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;

  1. Look Cool!
  2. Be Cool!
  3. 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

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15 Responses to Reality of indoor climbing injuries and accidents!

  1. Robert Breyer Nov 5, 2019 at 10:52 pm #

    Who is the author of this write-up? Doesn’t read like it was Chris, talks about ‘we’. And what is the source of information for the graph? And why does soccer appear five times? There aren’t five different types of soccer. An interesting and relevant topic, but a really poor article.

    • Willem Boshoff Nov 6, 2019 at 11:25 am #

      I would also love to get some ore info on the “another study” used for the graph. Also, injury vs serious / fatal injury rates are also important. Think the number of deaths in soccer compared to mountaineering paints a whole different picture.
      But overall good to get some confirmation of the relative safety of indoor climbing!

      • Phlip Olivier Nov 7, 2019 at 9:58 am #

        Agree. It is difficult to make good sense of the graph without more info. I’d venture to say that “Injuries per 1000 hours per x participants” will also paint a very different picture.

  2. Cuan Lohrentz Nov 6, 2019 at 8:12 am #

    If the data behind that graph are valid then someone needs to present this to insurance companies so they can stop with the bull$hit.

  3. Charles Edelstein Nov 6, 2019 at 8:23 am #

    Indoor climbing is extremely safe compared to all forms of outdoor climbing, contact sports and other high risk activities like cycling. The reasons are patently obvious and the nature of the injuries are obviously usually less serious as falls are generally on to flat and soft surfaces from lower heights than out doors. South African gyms also include a significant element of “oversight” and there is control of the environment compared to little or no oversight outdoors except in guided climbs.

    If nothing else loose falling rock is absent from gyms but human error and failure of equipment can and does occur but is very rare compared to outdoor climbing where there are frequent episodes of ropes being cut and breakage of gear and human mistakes.

    One fundamental difference of indoor climbing accidents that is not so obvious is that the consequences of a particular injury can be very different to a similar injury occurring outdoors as it affects not only the members of the gym but also the staff and parents and families of children irrespective of any indemnities signed.

    Compared to outdoors, indoor gyms have a significant number of children climbing with little understanding and insight of the risk by themselves or their parents. So the negative effects go beyond the injured climber and can be much more serious than an outdoor incident.

    It is indeed in every one’s interest to be safe at all times whether indoors or outdoors but the risks although less indoors can have more serious consequences than outdoors!

  4. Gerhard Nov 6, 2019 at 11:57 am #

    So apparently Ice climbing isn’t that hardcore… handball players are the real tough guys!

  5. Ant Nov 6, 2019 at 1:21 pm #

    As per Willem, I think it would be very helpful to differentiate between
    1) performance-strain injuries, (and possibly include minor bumps and bruises from falls) and
    2) grievous (hospital-visit-type) injuries to spine and head etc… (or death…)

    Using Volleyball vs Ice-climbing as an example above – I can indeed imagine that volleyball produces more performance-strains and bumps, but equally, I’ll venture that ice climbing results in more hospital visits, which is not reflected in the data…

  6. Neil Margetts Nov 7, 2019 at 7:18 am #

    Article on Gym Climbing

    This article raises an important topic; however, I must say from experience that I think the image portrayed is very biased towards indoor climbing. I would totally disagree that indoor climbing produces very few injuries, from what I have experienced myself and seen in many other climbers, there are far more injuries indoors than outdoors. Every NBL season I see and hear of many bad falls and many climbers out of action. Then there are the extremely common overuse injuries to finger tendons, elbows, knees and shoulders. Almost every regular indoor climber has some overuse injury on their body and has at some time had an ankle injury from falling off a boulder problem.

    Then there is this graph on the left depicting injuries to old school trad climbers, this in my opinion is bollocks. Trad climbers very seldom get trauma injuries and almost never get overuse injuries. during the golden area of trad climbing in South Africa in the 1980’s many people climbed a lot of hard trad everywhere and you never hear of anybody getting injured. Yes there is the occasional serious fall and this statistic may be influenced by the relatively low numbers of participants, but to label it as five times more serious than mountain biking is not true at all.

    Too often people look at these reports and do not use their common sense and what they observe around them to see what nonsense is being shown here. This also dodges the responsibility of the gym owners to address the problem of the many injuries occurring in their gyms. Setting of boulder problems lower for easier climbs where beginners who are not used to falling would fall. Avoiding problems with big sideways movements at the top resulting in uneven twisting falls. Ensuring and teaching proper warm up routines. Making sure beginners keep to longer power endurance type of climbing and avoid all short high impact moves which are injury producers.

    I feel much too few people are climbing outdoors, and much too many climb indoors. I think it is a criminal offense, that a climber should go climbing indoors on a weekend unless its pouring with rain. Just like the commercial drive to get everybody into shopping malls to spend money and not outside activities which are much healthier both physically and mentally, the drive to get everybody climbing indoors has deprived climbers of the magnificent experience our sport has to offer. If a climber has not been outside climbing for over 2 months, they are a wall climber not a rock climber. It is not uncommon that climbers take a long road trip of up to 6 months or more and their climbing grade increased up to 3 grades, they never touch plastic, and have an unforgettable experience. While those same climbers if they had spent the 6 months gym climbing, all what they would have collected is overuse injuries.

    • Charles Edelstein Nov 8, 2019 at 4:25 pm #

      Neil Outdoor non-bolted climbing is extremely dangerous! Period. It has killed 14 people I know well or know at least reasonably well. Only one has been killed in a car accident and none through crime that I personally know or new. (I did not personally know the recent victim of crime at Boven.) So climbing as a life style is seriously dangerous.

      Blouberg has had one death and at least 3 very serious accidents and that is a place that is not frequented much. Yellowwood has had one death and 3 serious climbing accidents of which 2 were on the 3rd pitch of Prime Time and all the climbers were competent on trad. I have just this weekend put a bolt on that pitch after all these years. Yellowwood is also not frequented much. Between just these two climbing areas there is probably less climbing in a year compared to week in gyms in South Africa pro-rated to time climbing and amount of people.

      Colin Crabtree and I carried out a climber Colin Forbes out of Tonquani some 35 years ago. I can relate many many stories of people I know or know of who have paid a heavy price climbing
      And so it goes.

      Gym climbing is super safe compared to outdoor climbing and mountaineering and the probability of serious injury or death is infinitesimally small by comparison. Don’t fool yourself.

      Climbing without ropes is even more dangerous and injurious outdoors no matter how careful and competent you are or whether you are bouldering or high soloing. Ask Gustav Van Rensburg and Squeaks Halsey and the lad that lost his leg recently.

      At CityROCK we have had one injury that can be considered serious with possible life changing injuries in 17 years with hundreds of thousands of metres and hours of climbing. And that was in an era many years ago when our floors were not padded as they are today. In fact there has probably been far more indoor climbing than outdoor climbing over the last 4 years altogether.

      I personnally have got away with murder or is that suicide with outdoor climbing. I nearly got killed once this year (ledge strike at 7m or so) , damn close 2017 at Wolfberg (15m fall to just above the deck), twice in Chamonix Rock fall and Avalanche in 2016. And there have been at least another 20 very close incidents where I could and even should have copped it.

      The most recent casualty on a very easy route was Ian Slatem on Arrow Final that has claimed the lives of 2 of my mates! The first being Beverley Opperman about 25 years ago!

  7. Nic Le Maitre Nov 7, 2019 at 12:33 pm #

    Lots of people get injured while trad climbing. Just from 1980 until 2019, there have been 54 people injured, critical or killed in falls while rock climbing in SA (that’s not sport or indoor climbing).

    Climbing injury statistics

  8. Neil Margetts Nov 7, 2019 at 3:07 pm #

    Hi Nic

    It is amazing how well the MCSA Search and Rescue keeps records, these stats date back nearly 30 years. Unfortunately we have had 54 too many incidents. When I ran my gym I was finding people were getting injured from indoor bouldering, so I asked other gym owners and they said they also experiencing the same. Other gyms said they never get injuries, but when speaking to coaches and setters at these gyms they tell me there are climbers getting injured there as well. Every gym has such incidents, just that is is never reported nor any record is kept like the report quoted above. It is just not in their financial interest to bring any attention to it. This makes it difficult to quote any statistics from gyms of value. However from being in the training, competition, gym world a period of time I would estimate we have nationally over 54 trauma injuries each year indoors. This is 30x more than the outdoor stats quoted above, thankfully the injuries are much less serious and more people indoor climb than outdoor. The overuse injuries I would bet is over 1000 climbers a year nationally, many recurring injuries.

  9. Gerhard Nov 8, 2019 at 12:04 pm #

    I do think that the stats quoted by Nic are for serious (Mountain rescue related) cases. A pulled pulley won’t warrant a call for a chopper though.
    But in that same argument we also don’t know about the many bashed elbows, scraped shins, bruised ribs we often get trad climbing either 😀 (For those there’s a prescription of 1 x cup of cement)

    All in all. I think injuries will always be part of any sport. Rugby injuries are waaay more common but many more people play rugby. And also many of these injuries are also attributed to people not knowing how to properly warm up or train. (although sometimes sh1t just happens)

  10. Neil Margetts Nov 11, 2019 at 4:22 pm #

    Charles and others, the point I am making is that plastic does cause injuries, and yes many climbers have serious injuries outdoors, but also others break and sprain ankles bouldering indoors, and additionally many many climbers pick up overuse injuries. Serious injuries outdoors do unfortunately happen as you pointed out. Looking at overuse injuries climbers who live at crags and never or almost never climb on plastic seems to have less injuries.where as those who only climb on plastic seem to be full of injuries. This is something that does not need to be swept under the carpet. Every time we have NBL I hear of numerous climbers that messed up their ankles, and this happens in every gym. If I think of my personal life, every overuse injury I have had is related to indoor climbing. Very recently one of our top climbers Ivan Van Der Tang unfortunately had a very serious shoulder injury bouldering indoors and may be out for months. Many other climbers have had the same fate indoors.

    • Charles Edelstein Nov 16, 2019 at 8:57 am #

      Indeed, I am a great protaganist for outdoor climbing and 100% agree that overuse injuries are few and far between in outdoor TRAD climbing. Not so for sport and bouldering. I warn all the rock jocks that they are going live lives of frustration with finger pulley and elbow and even shoulder problems if they climb on plastic or do any really hard sport or bouldering cranking for weeks on end. And plastic is the worst by far.

      I speak from personal experience: I can do a full route at Yellowwood with my now aged stiff and arthritic hands and still manage to sleep a little at night. After just 3 or 4 routes at CityROCK after and hour or so of cranking my hands swell up and keep me awake at night.

      The issue though is the risk vs consequence ratio. In trad climbing the overall risk of an injury is low compared to indoor climbing but the risk of serious consequences is extremely high. And that is what matters at the end of the day.

  11. Chris Naude Nov 14, 2019 at 2:07 pm #

    Thank you all for the comments and also for those of you that completed my survey. I got 200+ responses. Lots of work to do but hopefully some interesting stats emerge and another article for you all!

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