There is no denying that rock climbing is a fantastic sport. Great for fitness, strength and agility, the amazing reward for all your effort is being able to stand on top of the world and marvel at unrivalled views. However, this incredible activity is not without danger. Whether you’re roping up to tackle a summit in solitary bliss or getting involved in a bouldering session with some mates, being aware and prepared for the risks of rock climbing could mean the difference between life and death.
Climbing safety often depends on good judgement, and though weather conditions are out of your control, understanding the reality of the situation and making the right decision is crucial. Exposure is one of the biggest reasons for rock climbing fatalities so being properly dressed, preparing for your climb in advance, and knowing how to handle unexpected bad weather will ensure your safe return. Here is our advice about how to ensure maximum climbing safety whatever the weather:
1. Gear Up
Having the right kit can save you from the threat of exposure and hypothermia, and is the second most important thing after safety gear when rock climbing. Don’t be fooled by the warm lull of summer either; it might be lovely on the hike there but a cloudless sky can turn in an instant, and the higher you go the more erratic the weather conditions will be. A layering system works best, allowing you to shed or add layers according to temperature flux. Nylon and polyester materials are perfect for this as they insulate even when wet. As a base layer, merino wool is ideal because it keeps you warm, wicks away moisture, and doesn’t smell. Gore-Tex provides a fantastic outer shell, protecting you from wind and rain – good brands include Arc’teryx, Mammut and Mountain Hardwear. You may find our packing list helpful!
2. Location Location Location
When choosing your spot to take refuge, you might regret choosing it for its prettiness rather than its practicality, so always evaluate the site’s architecture in terms of how it can actually shelter you. Walls can offer decent protection but watch out for changing wind directions as this can whip up the rain, still leaving you exposed. Also beware of seemingly perfect ledges and slabs as these can often become waterslides – look for the water streaks to warn you.
3. Stay or Go?
There are generally three options for when the weather conditions change suddenly or take you by surprise: retreat back down to where the weather might be better, head for the top where you can set up a proper camp, or stay put and bide your time until it blows over. There is no right or wrong answer but the decision you make depends on who you’re climbing with, how well equipped you are, and how experienced a climber you and your companions are. Staying put could usually be considered the safest option, as a quick descent could lead to fatal mistakes and rushing towards the summit might leave you dangerously exposed. Whatever the situation, it’s vital to have a mobile phone with you in case of emergency.
4. When not to climb in the first place
Rather than getting hallway up a cliff face and then watching a storm roll over, sometimes it’s best to give up before you’ve begun. If the weather looks particularly changeable or there is bad weather forecast for later on and your fair weather climbing window is limited, be advised that you could be putting yourself in unnecessary danger by starting the climb.
Making the decision to turn back is really a case of using your common sense; some experienced climbers like to climb in the rain or can persevere through all weathers, but if you don’t have the skill then don’t take the risk. Make use of modern technology and check the weather forecast before you go – there are several websites with useful information about weather hazards in the UK and abroad so you can plan ahead wherever you are in the world. Try http://www.rockclimbing.org.uk/content/mountain-weather-forecasts for UK and European forecasts, and http://www.climbingweather.com/ for the US.
5. Other risks
Your climbing safety depends on your experience, so realistically understanding your climbing ability and knowing your limits is essential. This doesn’t just include your physical fitness, but also your confidence, judgement, and technical skill. If you don’t feel confident or strong enough to battle the elements, you probably won’t be, so heed your gut instinct and don’t take unnecessary risks.
As exposure is such a danger, being able to recognise the symptoms of hypothermia could mean the difference between life and death. The first signs of hypothermia include shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, and slurred speech. If this does happen to you or a friend, you should remove any wet clothes, put on warm/dry clothing, shelter from wind and draughts and eat or drink something, preferably warm.
Falling rocks or avalanches are a major cause of rock climbing injuries as they can’t be forecast. They can, however, be avoided by recognizing hazardous terrain. The angle of the slope is the best indicator of avalanche danger and following ridge lines is the safest way to evacuate unstable areas.
It is also important with a sport which carries risk to have appropriate rock climbing insurance that will protect you should injury occur. To get a quick, comprehensive quote click here.