Climbing Safety

We’ve all seen the opening sequence to Cliffhanger. Thousands of feet in the air, gear fails, a mistake is made and sometimes even Sylvester Stallone isn’t enough to save you. Climbing is about managing risk. There’s a reason that beginning climbers feel a rush of adrenaline from being 10 feet up a 5.2. Our sport tries to defy one of the basic laws of nature—gravity. Balancing safety with fun is an important skill to learn when hitting the crag. A few weeks ago, I got a vivid reminder of the risk I take whenever I leave the ground.

Big Chief, Tahoe, Northern California: Heading out on a quick weekend trip I had driven from the Bay Area to Tahoe turning off on National Forest Road 6 to make the 5 mile crawl to the parking lot for Big Chief, one of Tahoe’s best sport crags. For the 30 minute approach my friends and I watched as the clouds came in and it started to sprinkle. By the time we crested the ridge to the rock it was a good rain and we took cover under a huge overhang to wait out the storm.

Minutes later a climber came up to ask if anyone had medical experience and tell us that a climber had fallen and hurt his ankle. We unfortunately had nothing more than a fist aid kit, but with fresh eyes and arms we rushed to help the guy. We found him pale-faced at the base of his climb, still tied in with a nasty compound fracture on his left ankle. A tiny bit of bone protruded from just above his climbing shoe.

He had been leading a climb and was a few feet above his last bolt. He placed his left foot into a great foothold—a solid little pocket. When he went to pull on the next handhold it broke off in his hand and as he fell his foot stuck in the pocket, his weight falling on the ankle before his rope caught him.

What was interesting about the whole experience was a first hand view of fellow climbers rallying together to help this guy. He was immediately brought out of the rain and every jacket around was given to him to keep him warm. Minds buzzed aloud about whether we should try to get him to the parking lot – the paramedics had been contacted and were on their way – and eventually we decided it would be best to sit and wait. Being sure to keep his ankle above his heart we all sat and talked and tried to keep him in a good mood.

When the pros arrived they arrived en masse. No fewer than three separate agencies were represented, Cal Fire, Truckee Fire and NPS, with 12 EMTs in tow. From the time they were called until the time they arrived almost an hour had passed. Luckily in this case while time was important it wasn’t as crucial as it could have been with a more serious injury. Big Chief is a popular and accessible crag, this made me think about other areas I have been to with longer approaches. Not to mention the fact that we had had cell phone service to call for help in the first place.


By the time the fallen climber was taken to the hospital the rain had cleared and the rock had dried and it was time to climb. The twenty or so climbers who had gathered to help now dispersed, unfurling ropes and returning to their projects. With safety brought to the forefront of everyone’s mind we all climbed more carefully and deliberately, extremely aware of the risks we take on a daily basis.

One Response to “Climbing Safety”

  1. Ben said:

    Ouch – I remember that day. I was very surprised (and pleased) by how fast everyone rallied around him and by the sheer number of emergency service personnel who showed up. Good to know our community supports and takes care of each other!

    December 28th, 2009 at 11:14 am

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