AdventureClimbing

Your Local Crag Is More Dangerous than You Think

How witnessing a bad fall changed my perspective on climbing

Good communication, safety checks, and careful protection can keep climbers of all skill levels out of trouble. (Photo: Nina Riggio)
Rock climbing on local crag

On perhaps my 100th day climbing at Turkey Rocks, a popular crag outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, I was gazing absentmindedly toward Pikes Peak when the moment was sliced in half by a scream. My friend Noah was top-roping a 5.7 hand crack when something went wrong: when he got to the anchor, he leaned back and fell 60 feet, bouncing once on a ledge on his way to the ground. This was the first pitch he had ever climbed outside. An older climber cradled Noah’s bloodied face in his hands as my friend clung to consciousness. In that moment, I was not confident he would survive. 

Another climber and I scrambled to the top of the formation to get cell service and were able to call in the Teller County Search and Rescue. With too many people crowded around Noah already, we went to find the cause of the accident. It turns out, a new climber had built a gear anchor by putting a circular sling around the top of a small, sloping boulder. Six people had climbed the route on top rope before the fall. As each one lowered, the sling slipped upward, eventually passing over the top of the rock. When Noah leaned back, there was nothing to catch him. On the ground, we found the anchor sling still attached to the rope, a single small cam dangling from it.

Climbing has a reputation as a dangerous sport—and rightfully so. Last year 204 accidents resulting in 210 injuries and 22 deaths were reported to the American Alpine Journal, a long-running annual publication that documents mountaineering and climbing. By comparison, avalanche death among skiers averages around 15 per year in the United States. The journal’s numbers are a conservative estimate, as not all accidents are reported. And as more people embrace the sport, introduced by the rapid growth of climbing gyms, many climbers are worried that accidents will increase. 

While your local crag may seem safe compared with alpine peaks or 3,000-foot faces at Yosemite, accidents like the one I witnessed at Turkey Rocks—which involved inexperienced climbers and a relatively easy route—are just as common. The American Alpine Journal has been keeping track of climbing incidents since 1984, and its data shows that accidents happen to beginner and advanced climbers at roughly the same rate. According to Dougald MacDonald, who has been editing the accident section of the journal since 2013, you’re as likely to get hurt climbing a 5.7 in the Shawangunks as an alpine route in the Tetons. 

Noah’s fall was not the first accident I’d witnessed at that crag. Just a year prior, a miscommunication between a climber (also on top rope) and a belayer lead to a near death. The climber was planning on lowering, but the belayer thought he was going to rappel, so she took him off belay, and when he weighted the rope to descend, he free-fell instead. The belayer grabbed the rope with her bare hands and stopped him from hitting the ground, maybe 40 feet to the left of where Noah fell a year later. 

Part of the problem is a matter of perceived risk: hundreds of feet up a cliff in the Tetons, it’s easy to be aware of the danger. But risk can be less obvious closer to home. MacDonald explains that a familiar setting can lead to a lack of vigilance. “It’s easy to get casual and complacent about this stuff,” he says. You’re likely going to be more afraid halfway up an alpine face than a local sport climb, but a miscommunication on the latter could still result in broken bones—or worse. Falling from 70 feet and 1,000 often have the same result. 

Routine roped falls, where a climber is still secured but hits the rock a bit too fast or at the wrong angle, are the most common cause of injury in climbing; MacDonald says next on the list are probably lowering and rappelling errors, when a climber descends off the end of their rope into empty space or miscommunication leads to a fatal fall. Noah’s accident was the result of anchor failure, which MacDonald describes as extremely rare. There was also little he could have done to prevent it, other than climb with more experienced partners. As a new climber, he trusted others to set up secure systems. He just happened to be the person on the rope when those systems failed.

The woman who built the anchor was fairly new to climbing but had taken classes on building gear anchors. She built her anchor in the same place as the party before her, placing a sling around a sloping boulder and running a top rope through locking carabiners. The rule of thumb is three pieces of gear per anchor, which would mean backing the sling up twice so that the three pieces of gear could simultaneously bear a climber’s weight, but her anchor had only one backup: a small cam placed under the same boulder. It was not designed to withstand the abrupt force of the failing anchor. When the sling failed, Noah fell hard on the cam, which popped out under the force of the fall.

While we waited for help, we tried to keep him comfortable: we braced his neck, layered our spare jackets over him, and reassured him that he would make it out all right. The crag is just a 20-minute hike from a dirt road, but it took four hours to evacuate him. After search and rescue arrived, we rolled Noah onto a backboard and spent more than an hour carrying him across the disjointed talus. After a ride in a truck and a helicopter, he arrived at the hospital with a broken pelvis and a badly broken nose. He was lucky. 

Most climbing deaths and injuries are preventable. Good communication, safety checks, and careful protection—everything from placing gear in easy terrain to making a plan with your climbing partner—can keep climbers of all skill levels out of trouble. Accidents like Noah’s can happen to anyone, anywhere. Even climbers with decades of experience can hurt themselves in the places they feel most comfortable. The more experience I gain climbing, the more rigorously I check my knot—and my anchor—whether just a few miles from home or somewhere new.

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