Rock Climbing Rescues, Injuries, and Deaths in Boulder County, by the Numbers

Sep 7, 2012
Outside Magazine

Shutterstock_89077345Climber hanging. Photo: Rudall30/Shutterstock

Scientist Daniel Lack used experience as a motivator for his study on climbing rescues, deaths, and accidents in Boulder County, Colorado. Lack started climbing at 24 at the Kangaroo Point Cliffs in Brisbane, Australia. He moved to South Africa and wedged, jammed, and scaled his way up rock at Waterval Boven, Magaliesburg, and Rocklands. In 2004, he arrived in Boulder and began tackling multi-pitch routes and climbing Eldorado Canyon, Utah’s desert towers, Rocky Mountain National Park, and in the Wind River Range. At that time, he also started training with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, the primary response unit for Boulder County. He’s now a mission leader and takes sharing what he’s learned seriously, which is good, because he’s learned an awful lot. “The idea for the paper came from the fact that by being part of RMR I get to incorporate the mistakes of other climbers into my climbing and outdoor behavior immediately,” he says. “RMR is one of the busiest teams for rock climbing rescues in the U.S.—and probably the world. So I get a lot of education on how to keep myself safe.”

Lack and his colleagues analyzed 14 years of search and rescue incidents in Boulder County to find out how many were related to climbing, and what caused the calls. Lack suspects the percentages of incidents and injuries are similar to other climbing communities. The mountains and canyons surrounding Boulder are packed with routes, including popular spots near the city, from Eldorado Canyon State Park to Boulder Canyon to the Flatirons. The city's population is active and gets after it outdoors, and the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group receives about 140 calls a year. They respond to everything from fallen climbers to avalanches to downed aircrafts. Here’s a breakdown of the climbing-related incidents they responded to between 1998 and 2011, by the numbers:

2,198: Victims reported by the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.

19.5: Percentage of victims who were climbing, a total of 428 people.

19: Percentage of search and rescue incidents at Yosemite National Park that were related to climbing, according to a 10-year study.

3: Percentage of incidents involving technical roped climbers in all U.S. national parks.

48: Percentage of hikers involved in search and rescue incidents in all U.S. national parks. Grand Canyon National Park and Gateway National Recreation Area reported the most incidents.

78: Percentage of climbers rescued in Boulder County, Colorado, that were male.

20-29: Age group of climbers who required the most rescues. They accounted for almost half of all victims.

53: Percentage of incidents that occurred on the weekend.

58: Percentage of victims performing technical roped climbing.

34: Percentage of victims climbing unroped. The remaining incidents involved bouldering (six percent), mountaineering (1.5 percent), and bystanders hit or affected by rock fall (one percent).

242: Climbers who were injured, or 56.5 percent of all victims.

29.5: Percentage of those total injuries that occurred to lower extremities (17 percent of injuries involved the head and 12.5 percent occurred to the spine).

23: People died, or roughly 5 percent of all of the victims.

9: People who died in unroped accidents, the biggest cause of fatalities. These people may have ranged from skilled climbers on difficult routes to novices scrambling up rock.

5: People who died after a lead fall, the second major cause of fatalities and the leading cause of injuries among roped climbers.

2: People who died after being hit by falling rocks. “The other interesting result is that sometimes accidents happen regardless of how well prepared you are,” says Lack. “For example, rock fall does not depend on how experienced you are. Stacking the odds in your favor by wearing a helmet, not standing underneath the fall line of other climbers, etc., reduces the risks.” The remaining deaths occurred during lower off (3), anchor failure (2), and from mountaineering events (2).

51: Victims who were injured because of belay accidents (8 victims had issues because someone lost control of the rope, and 22 victims had issues because of insufficient rope length). “The most preventable form of injuries are definitely from belaying/rappelling accidents,” says Lack. “If a knot is tied in the end of the rope, most of these accidents could have been prevented. Unfortunately, these type of accidents most often lead to serious injuries.”

1 in 320,000: Chance of death per climb, according to the British Health and Safety Executive.

43.5: Percentage of climbers who were uninjured. In other words, 186 people were rescued after being lost or stranded. “The lost or stranded percentage tells us that that a lot of climbers that required our services were just not prepared to the extent they could have been,” says Lack. “Many of the 'lost' climbers just needed directions to the rappels, the walk off, or needed a headlamp. The 'stranded' people were often inexperienced climbers who were climbing without sufficient equipment to get themselves back to the ground."

The takeaway, according to Lack, is to prep a little bit more before you leave. “The biggest surprise in the numbers were how many of them were easily preventable,” he says. “If climbers take a headlamp, a small wind jacket, a copy of the route, and walk off descriptions, a lot of SAR calls can be prevented. If climbers tied a knot in the end of their ropes and wore gloves a lot of belay/rappel accidents would be prevented. Simple education on building anchors would also reduce some very serious accidents.”

—Joe Spring

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