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

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Climber 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
@joespring
facebook.com/joespring.1

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