Rock climbing safe… if you want to be

By Michael Leung

We turned in the direction of the girl’s frantic scream, as her body pitched directly earthward. Five feet passed, then 10 and 15 and finally her body came to a sobering stop at the end of her rope. Propelled by the force of her fall, her upper body swung around leaving her hanging upside-down. She took a gasping breath and then yelled to everybody she was OK.

My friend and I had only finished a route before the girl’s scream reminded us that the sport we both enjoyed had sombre implications should you disrespect its dangers at any time. Yes, she could have fallen in just such a way that had things lined up properly, the back of her skull could have been crushed by the momentum of her fall. We probably would have heard a sickening smack, followed by the sight of a withering trail of blood running down the wall. However, she made it out with some nasty scrapes.

It’s funny and awful when you later use humour to diffuse the fact someone could have died.

This happened last summer at Barrier Mountain, near a climbing area not too far up Highway 40 in Kananaskis. It’s a picturesque climbing area with a great view of Barrier Lake, facing the sun as it passes over the ridges to the east. The climbing is difficult friction climbing, with holds that don’t exactly jump out at you, even as you fumble around for them 30 feet off the ground.

When I go sport climbing at places like Barrier, it’s rare to see anybody take a fall as they lead routes. I can only posit that as climbers get more experienced, they in fact become increasingly lazy about taking the necessary precautions when climbing. So, yes, this is another one of those wear-your-helmet reminders. But if you’re anything like me, you probably need a bit of a shock to remind you that you’re fortunate and everything your mother told you was correct. My mother still doesn’t like it when I tell her about the passion I possess for rock climbing.

However, I was heading down the road that very same day that girl pitched 20 feet into space. My helmet, tucked away inside my climbing bag, had earlier been designated unnecessary for today’s climb. Hell, I had done my hair that morning. Was I going to mess it up now? Yeah, yeah, yeah, and ounce of prevention blah, blah, blah.

I tell people now climbing is completely safe, if you do it correctly and with caution. However, I still see people climbing without helmets in areas with rockfall warnings even as the smaller pebbles bounce off their shoulders. Do yourself a favour and be safe, as cheesy as this sounds–before I write the story about your 20-foot fall that didn’t end so luckily.