Climbing accidents are often caused by complacency

Climbing accidents are often caused by complacency

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In 1989, at a small rock in France, Styx Wall In Buoux, Lynn Hill forgot to finish tying the knot attaching her climbing rope to her harness. At the top of the 70-foot warm-up, I started to descend. The unsecured end of the rope was pulled and Lynn went into the air, rotating her arms to stay upright. It hit the branches of a tree and piled up on the ground between two rocks.

When Lin first told me about the accident, perhaps a year after it happened, I wondered how the multiple world champion in sport climbing, the visionary who was the first to free-climb, had climbed nose, And my long-time partner on and off the cliff, made such a rookie mistake. However, twenty-five years later, at a climbing gym three miles from my home, I also failed to untie the knot on my safety harness. The last thing I remember after reaching the chains at the top of the trail was landing feet first on the ground, twisting into a heap and then rolling over to see my shin bone sticking out of a hole in my leg. Fifty days and five surgeries later, I was discharged from UCLA Medical Center and spent most of the next year on crutches.

In the long months following my accident, I felt bewildered and humiliated by Lynn, arguably the world’s best free climber in the early 1990s, and me, who had climbed steadily for 40 years around the world and written dozens of books on technical climbing. They were both asleep at work. I felt particularly guilty because I was in the “safe” environment of a climbing gym.

A little research has shown that while serious accidents at the gym are rare (they happen less frequently than falls while walking down hills, for example), they do happen, and most are basic pilot error. The question is: How do we, with decades of experience between us, manage to simply sleep? The answer became clear when I read an article about industrial safety protocols, with the slogan “Complacency is the worst enemy of safety.”

The importance of industrial safety issues for climbing gyms is highlighted by the oft-repeated point that no matter the specific task – from building cars to painting submarines – preventing accidents is always a matter of vigilance. The key when it comes to climbing in the gym is understanding what mindfulness is, how to practice mindfulness, when it disappears, and why. Reviewing the following safety checklist probably saved me from an open fracture, and the great Lynn Hill, a fractured ankle and dislocated elbow.

Vigilance is a matter of maintaining focused attention on a task. When our attention slackens, often through distractions, knowledge and experience cease to exist. Climbing Incidents in North America (published annually by the American Alpine Club) shows the number of expert climbers injured on “easy” terrain. Climbing is a competition with gravity, and gravity never sleeps. When we do that, regardless of the terrain, bad things can happen.

We often lose alertness at the end of a session, when we feel tired, hungry and thirsty, or when our focus shifts from climbing, for example, to socializing with those around us. Whatever the reasons, when our guard is down, complacency (a false sense of security) creeps in. Be clear: Complacency is the leading cause of indoor climbing accidents. Easy roads require the same vigilance as difficult roads in terms of following basic safety procedures. I fell out of the way of warming up. Any gym employee will tell you that most accidents happen on routes well below the climber’s limit.


The desired state of mind is relaxed alertness, but what does that mean? This does not mean hypervigilance, nervously scanning the environment, and waiting for an accident to happen. A tense mind and body causes tunnel vision. We work best when we are calm, alert, and fully present to what is right in front of us, looking ahead toward where we are going.

In brief, mindfulness assumes three basic forms that have stood the test of time: a) assessment of difficulties b) regular reminders and c) monitoring.

Assessing difficulties

Experienced climbers in the gym constantly assess potential risks and discuss solutions as a matter of course. You’ll see a version of this ritual in most adventure sports. The hero studies his opponent.

We cannot appreciate difficulties unless we see them, and we cannot see them unless we pay attention to them.

Regular reminders

The safety checklist, which is part of every sporting and artistic activity, is not a one-time exercise. We repeat this over and over again, reminding ourselves what to avoid, and checking our systems at regular intervals. This is why cars have gauges that tell us the current conditions. We know that these conditions will change over time, creating a new set of potential risks.

Double-checking our systems, and taking a quick look at our “metrics” before and after each burn, should be part of our standard practice. Anything less is driving with your eyes closed.


Oversight means examining not only our systems, but those of our partners, and identifying and mitigating risks. In almost every gym, there is a rotating group of employees, keeping an eye out for problems (again, oversight). But gyms get crowded, especially at peak hours, so our main oversight comes from our partners, and we return the favor in return.

Most injuries occur through botched basic actions we’ve done a thousand times, like tying off a lead rope. We have had an accident that could have been avoided because we became complacent. As Lynn’s accident and mine proved, accidents are not just rookie mistakes. The best of us are complacent. Combating complacency is a team effort. Without constant vigilance, gravity has the advantage.

Standard safety procedures vary slightly from one gym to another, depending on the stabilization devices chosen and other factors. Each gym holds mandatory tests and pilot tests, conducted by trained staff, when details are clarified and your proficiency is tested and reviewed. Safety regulations are also posted in bold at most facilities. But ultimately your safety lies in the hands of your partner(s) and yourself. Again, the good news is that gym accidents are relatively rare, and almost all of them can be avoided. Once you master basic safety procedures, it all comes down to vigilance.

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