Let’s say somebody invites you to go climbing with them, or maybe invites your kid to go climbing. You probably think to yourself “rock climbing? That’s crazy! I should go play football or go sky diving instead, they’re much safer.” Your friend then clarifies that it’s indoor climbing in a gym. Is that really any safer? Here’s everything you need to know about gym climbing.
Results from a study done by Dr. Volker Schoffl, involving more than 500,000 visits to a climbing gym in Germany indicated that the risk of a severe or fatal injury when climbing indoors are extremely low. Gym climbing is very safe, and almost all risk can be managed and mitigated through proper technique.
Rock Climbing Safety
Most accidents that happen are a result of negligence on the part of the participant because they get complacent and fail to double check the system and keep an eye on others near them.
“Safe” is a relative term. Is driving a car safe? Is flying on an airplane safe? In the study in Germany it was determined that indoor climbers average .02 injuries per 1000 hours logged in a gym. To put that in perspective, skiing, surfing, and badminton actually have higher rates of injury! Of these injuries, the majority were minor to moderately severe, with no deaths registered in the study.
There actually have been at least 4 deaths on indoor climbing walls that I’m aware of since 2000, though that is an extremely low number compared to the overall number of climbers in gyms all day long all over the world. See the links at the bottom of the article for the list of climbing gym fatalities.
Despite the significant evidence demonstrating that indoor rock climbing is safe, people still maintain the perception that rock climbing in general is dangerous.
I wrote about the number of fatalities in rock climbing overall in this article: How Many People Die Rock Climbing?
Why do People Think Indoor Rock Climbing is Dangerous?
Climbing has pretty much always been viewed as an activity or sport (is climbing a sport?) for risky, adventurous people. Many non-climbers even consider us daredevils. This is largely due to the public misunderstanding of the intricacies involved. Most of the risks inherent to rock climbing are central to climbing outdoors rather than indoors, as I’ll explain further ahead.
Misconceptions of Climbing Styles
Many people think that all rock climbing is akin to Alex Honnold’s exploits in the Oscar-winning film Free Solo, with little regard for life or limb. I remember when that movie came out and made the rounds, I had multiple coworkers come up to me and ask how I could risk my life in that way!
It has been important to explain that climbing with a rope is a completely different activity, with a relatively boring level of risk. I’d compare it to swimming across an ocean versus swimming in a kiddie pool. Both are fun, but the risk levels are black and white.
Anyone who has actually spent time in a climbing gym realizes that it is more of a lifestyle and fitness hobby than an activity sought out by dirtbags and adrenaline-junkies. When you go to a climbing gym now, you are likely to see lots of men, women, and children of all ages.
There are usually only a couple of vanlifers living in the parking lot, and most patrons even hold down regular jobs! While some climbers complain about the crowds of people at climbing gyms, I think it has been a great way to bring the sport of climbing to the masses.
Fear of Heights
What if you fall? If I had a dollar for every time I heard that question! A fear of heights is one of the most common fears people have, according to a university study. This phobia makes it hard for people to even imagine being at the top of a cliff, let alone hanging off of the face of it.
This goes along with the answer above regarding people not understanding the different styles of climbing. Unless you are a part of the less than 1% of climbers who free solo, there’s a very low risk of falling, thanks to the rope.
I had a pretty healthy fear of heights up until I was around twelve years old. My dad set up a 200ft (60m) overhang rappel on a scout campout. I had no intention of doing it until my best friend announced he was. Peer pressure sent me over the edge, and I haven’t looked back! I’m still careful near edges, but I really have no fear of heights anymore.
Overestimation of Gear Failure
Another common misconception is that ropes and gear fail often and without warning. Gear failure is largely a myth. It simply does not fail when used correctly. As long as you’re using equipment that is specifically designed for rock climbing, it will more than protect you from injury.
Climbing gear usually has “CE” and/or “UIAA” stamped somewhere on it, as these are globally recognized certifications. Carabiners, for example should be rated at at least 20kn (kilonewtons). 1kn is about 225lbs (102kg). Climbing falls usually generate only around 5kn, per the UIAA.
Ropes are designed to handle a certain number of lead falls (usually about 5) before they need to be retired. Check out our climbing rope guide for more information on rope specifications. Rock climbing gear companies have staked their reputations on the gear that they make.
Any gear failures would result in significant lawsuits and consumer backlash. Due to the complete reliance on the gear, manufacturers do not cut corners for safety. For more information on gear safety, check out the UIAA’s website.
All climbing gyms make guests sign some sort of a waiver, absolving them of liability in the case of a serious accident. Waivers only go so far though- they do not protect against gross negligence like failing gear. Gyms generally check equipment on a weekly basis; nevertheless the saying “pack your own chute” rings true.
If you’ve been climbing for some time, you’ve probably seen how gyms have slowly tightened up their safety procedures to ensure everyone knows what they’re doing. This also presents more opportunities for gyms to sell courses and certifications.
I think it’s smart to take a course at your local gym, whether you’re new or experienced. A lot of the techniques that my dad taught me were abandoned decades ago. The sport has evolved to be more safe, and you can learn these safety skills with certification courses.
Outdoor Climbing and Indoor Climbing
A lot of the main dangers associated with rock climbing stem from the remote locations where outdoor climbing is practiced. If a fall or serious abrasion happens in a gym, medical care is close by. When it happens at a crag after a long ascent, the danger compounds quickly.
Other things like weather conditions and loose rock also increase the risk of climbing outside, which are obviously negated when gym climbing. You can probably feel safe trusting the equipment used at a climbing gym, but some climbers don’t inspect their own personal gear as often as they should. We’ll look more into the differences in safety up ahead.
See Also: Rock Climbing vs Mountaineering
What are Common Indoor Climbing Gym Accidents?
The most common accidents are scrapes and bruises, though more severe things like broken bones do occur occasionally as well. Here are 5 of the most common indoor climbing gym accidents and how to avoid them:
People do dumb things. One of the very few deaths in a climbing gym was from a climber who simply forgot or neglected to clip into the autobelay. Falls from up high are most likely to occur when a belayer doesn’t catch a falling lead climber, or doesn’t keep up with a top-rope climber.
In a climbing gym setting, as well as at the crag, belayers are often talking with friends nearby. An inattentive belayer may let the rope slip through his or her hands, or may let go entirely.
To mitigate this risk, a lot of gyms have switched over to requiring belayers to use a Grigri or other assisted-braking device instead of a regular tubular belay device. Assisted-braking devices use a camming mechanism to stop the rope if it is jerked. Even if the belayer lets go of the rope, a Grigri should stop the falling climbing. Though not completely perfect, they are a lot safer than other common belay devices.
How to be safe: The nice thing about these accidents is that they are 100% avoidable. Always double check your own tie in, and double check your partner! Climbing gyms all make this a requirement, though it is impossible to enforce.
This is a crucial habit to develop for outdoor climbing as well. Learn to tie your knots correctly, and remember to check yourself and you can avoid most of the risks involved in climbing.
Bouldering, as opposed to climbing, has a higher risk of strains, sprains, and even broken bones. Bouldering routes are unroped, and usually max out at about 30ft (10m). Gyms set up big thick pads on the floor so that you can fall without injuring yourself- as long as you fall correctly. If you fall from the top and land on your wrist, it will break!
Bouldering gyms teach proper falling technique, and encourage you to downclimb rather than jumping from the top. Rolling when you land, rather than sticking the landing, will disperse the kinetic energy from the fall instead of forcing it into your legs.
One of the main rules in a bouldering area is not to walk underneath people. Someone could fall at any time, and they always try to land on their feet. I have a friend who fell while bouldering and landed on someone walking underneath. The awkward fall onto the pad left her with a broken leg.
How to be safe: Whenever possible, downclimb a section or two before dropping onto the pad. Make sure no one is beneath you, and roll when you fall. Practice good spotting techniques, and use a spotter whenever possible. Clear the area of anything you could could land on and roll your ankle, including water bottles, shoes, or backpacks.
Head and Neck Injuries
It’s really important to learn how to fall. You should never fall onto your head or neck. Whenever you fall lead climbing, try to push yourself out away from the wall, and keep your feet below you.
This gets easier over time, but basically once you know that you are going to fall you have to let go with your hands and feet at the same time to push off the wall so that you don’t fall head first.
Occasionally a falling lead climbing will careen off the wall head first, especially on a big overhang. If the belayer catches him, then he will swing back into the wall and smack into it. The feet need to be the first thing to impact the wall.
If the belayer does not arrest the fall for some reason, then the climber would hit the ground head first, causing serious spinal and brain injuries. It’s important to thread the rope through both the top and bottom loops of your harness for redundancy and so that you don’t flip over if you fall.
How to be safe: When climbing outdoors, about half of climbers wear special helmets for climbing. I do 90% of the time. There’s a lot more risk of rock fall and things like that. Indoors though, I’ve never seen anyone wearing a helmet, and it’s not something that is pushed at all. Learn how to fall correctly, and you shouldn’t run into any problems.
I’m amazed at how long finger injuries can sideline climbers. Most manufactured climbing holds are designed so that you can’t get your fingers caught in them, but novice climbers still try to put their fingers through eye bolts and other things like that. A fall with your finger wedged into something it shouldn’t be in can often lead to a broken or dislocated finger.
A good day at the climbing gym will almost always lead to some ‘flappers‘ (torn calluses) on your hands and fingers. Your hands do toughen up over time, but it’s helpful to use some climbing salve like this to help your hands heal quickly. You can also use athletic tape like this one from Metolius to protect raw spots on your hand from getting worse.
Another fairly common climbing injury is tendinitis. Rock climbing puts a lot of extra force onto the tendons in your fingers and forearms. This is more than just sore muscles, and requires a good amount of rest in order to fully recover.
How to be safe: Stretch before you go, and strengthen your hands with exercises for climbing and grip strength. I keep some finger stretching resistance bands on my desk at work to keep me awake during boring conference calls.
Scrapes and Bruises
Climbing walls are abrasive, though not as abrasive as real rock. Small scrapes and bruises are pretty common for climbers. Slipping off of a toe hold will cause you to collide with the wall and can leave a bruise the next day. My wife can’t seem to spend a day climbing without coming home with bruises on her knees!
I lived in Illinois a few years ago, and went to a climbing gym that was built in some old cement grain silos. Cement is very abrasive, and I always ended up with scrapes on my hands, elbows, and knees. These injuries are more nuisance than anything, but it’s good to clean them out and sterilize them just the same. There’s a lot of bacteria from people’s hands and feet, and you don’t want that getting into open cuts.
How to be safe: Consider wearing long pants or leggings when climbing, as it will protect your legs from scrapes and lessen the impact of bruises. Your hands toughen over time, and won’t be as susceptible to scrapes.
Is Indoor Climbing Safer than Outdoor Climbing?
Indoor climbing manages a lot of the uncontrollable risks in rock climbing. The main goal of indoor climbing is to allow people to enjoy climbing and train in environments that are more easily accessible at any time. If it’s raining, you can still go to the gym! A lot of the societal fear of indoor rock climbing stems from the stigmas directed at outdoor climbing.
Again, the main added risks are caused by people doing dumb things. In a climbing gym there are lots of other people nearby, and wandering staff who will point it out to you if you do something unsafe. You can ask questions if you have any, and get correct answers. In the outdoors, you don’t have the same luxury.
In climbing gyms, you climb to the top of the route and then simply lower off easily whenever you want. In outdoor climbing, you have to tie into anchors, disconnect, and reconnect to the rope. This increases the number of touches on the rope, and therefore the number of chances for mistakes. Check, and double check what you’re doing, and then have a partner triple check!
Outdoor climbing routes vary in length. A lot of time time you don’t really know which route you’re on, so you need to be very careful to make sure your rope is long enough to reach the top of the climb and go back down to the ground.
One fairly common problem from injury reports is when the belayer forgets to tie a stopper knot in the end of the rope. The belayer lowers the climber after he or she ties into the chains. If the rope isn’t long enough, it’ll go right through the belayer’s device and drop the climber the rest of the way. A stopper knot will protect against that.
Another issue that tends to be popular among rock climbers, especially in the past, is alcohol and drug use. People don’t think clearly when they’re drunk or on drugs, and there’s very little regulation for this in the outdoors. I shouldn’t have to say it, but don’t try climbing when you aren’t thinking clearly.
If you look around the base of a cliff, it is usually littered with rocks from the size of a piece of gravel to large boulders. They make nice places to sit on, but did you ever think about how they got there?
Over the years, the elements chip away at the cliffs we climb. Water seeps into rocks, freezes and expands, and causes deep cracks to form. Eventually a climber will reach for a handhold that has been used for years and years, and it’ll come right off!
Not only does falling rock present a serious hazard for the belayer, but it also can easily cause the lead climber to fall. In addition to holds potentially breaking off, many less popular climbing areas have a lot of rocks near edges. As the climber ascends, he or she may knock rocks off on those below. Wear a helmet!
These risks are non-existent in indoor climbing. The worst thing that could happen would be for the climber to accidentally drop a carabiner or other piece of gear down on the belayer below, but due to how most lead areas are set up with permanent quickdraws, this shouldn’t ever happen either. Climbing outdoors is more dangerous than indoors for this reason.
While injuries do happen occasionally in climbing gyms, help is never very far away. An ambulance and paramedics will arrive in a matter of minutes. When you are climbing outdoors, things are different. The nearest town could be hours away, and cell phone service too.
Many climbing areas are well off the beaten path, and a long way from any roads. The best chance of a rescue would be a helicopter- which you can’t call because you don’t have cell phone service.
Some climbing areas are extremely popular, and some are completely isolated and unknown. It’s important to let others know where you’re going and when they should hear from you next. I recommend carrying a Spot Messenger, or other satellite communication device so you can call in help if a disaster strikes in the backcountry.
In some areas, storms can arrive unannounced in a short period of time. Keep an eye on the skies while you’re climbing, and check the forecast ahead of time. Excessively hot days may lead to dehydration and heat exhaustion, and cold days to hypothermia. Rain causes other problems.
Rain makes climbing holds more slippery, and a lot of rain can make ropes lose their strength if they don’t have a dry treatment. Thunderstorms introduce lightening into the situation, which can easily kill or paralyze you. If you see any lightning or hear thunder, get off of the cliff and the wet rope as fast as you can. Bad weather, weather changes, and the inability to escape the weather in the outdoors cause problems you simply don’t have to worry about in an indoor gym.
Different Climbing Styles:
The more dangerous forms of climbing, free soloing, trad climbing, and ice climbing, can’t really be done in regular climbing gyms. Some gyms are able to set up ice falls, or a series of cracks, but they’re very few and far-between. No gym would ever let you free solo due to the liabilities involved! The overall more dangerous climbing styles are generally practiced outdoors.
Indoor Rock Climbing Gym Deaths
2003 Death– Improper maintenance of a carnival climbing wall
2013 Death– Forgot to clip into auto-belay
2014 Death– Reason unknown; fall
2018 Death– Reason unknown; head injury
Rock Climbing is inherently dangerous, but many of the risks are mitigated in indoor climbing. When climbing in a gym, help is never far away, you don’t have to worry about the weather, and the wall probably won’t fall down on top of you.
While there have been a handful of deaths in climbing gyms over the years (and even one is too many), climbing indoors is far safer than climbing outdoors. In fact, you can even climb pretty far into a pregnancy. The overall perception of climbing as a risky fringe sport has contributed to the idea that it is extremely dangerous, but the studies I’ve seen say differently.