It can be hard to find a partner, but should you ever go rock climbing alone? Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council experts weigh in on rock climbing — alone, solo or with partner.
Surfing by yourself, mountain biking on your own, solo hiking, solitary ocean kayaking, and many more activities can be more exhilarating and dangerous — if not life-threatening — if done unaccompanied.
Rock climbing is no different.
“It’s quite dangerous, as you could imagine, especially if something goes wrong,” said Ed Viesturs, a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and the only American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks. “A simple accident resulting in an injury could be devastating if you are alone.”
Adventure sports such as rock climbing is surging. According to the Climbing Business Journal, the commercial climbing industry has grown an average of 9% each year since 2016. More people are rock climbing, and many of them are new to the sport.
If you’re considering a new climbing challenge, seek professional instruction from certified guides or guide services which can be found through the nonprofit American Mountain Guides Association.
[Related Reading: How to Choose a Climbing Guide]
“Climbing with experienced climbers will also safely challenge your abilities and enhance learning,” said Harding Bush, associate manager Global Rescue Security Operations, a member of the Mountain Advisory Council, a former Navy SEAL with extensive mountain and cold weather operations expertise.
Here are five essential tips from Mountain Advisory Council experts.
First, know and practice your skills.
“Be sure your skill level is equal to — or better than — your objective,” said Jed Williamson, a well-known outdoor adventure safety expert, a longtime mountaineering author, and a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council.
“Climb at a level or class that you are comfortable with,” Viesturs said. “Train for the climb and practice the route, belayed by a partner, prior to attempting any new climbing challenge.”
Next, understand the risks.
“A fall could result in death,” Viesturs said.
Alex Honnold, the star climber of the award-winning film “Free Solo” fell 10 feet during a climb unrelated to the movie. He suffered compression fractures in two vertebrae. He was lucky.
About half of all rock climbing falls lead to traumatic injuries, usually to the head, neck and face. There are about 30 climbing deaths per year but not all are during a rock climb, according to Williamson. “Most accidents happen during the ascent, not the descent.”
Third, be prepared with the right gear.
Proper gear and preparation are essential, including “adequate clothing and equipment for the climb and to survive in the event you encounter weather or unexpected challenges that result in not being able to return in the amount of time you had set for the project,” Williamson said.
“The technical equipment for rock climbing — the ropes, carbineers, chocks, stoppers and cams — won’t make you a better climber the way a new pair of skis may make you a better skier,” Bush said. “Rock climbing equipment is life support equipment. It’s there to enhance safety and prevent a deadly impact with the ground.”
Fourth, be able to communicate in an emergency.
It is the number one rule of travel, particularly if you’re going to a remote destination. Whether you’re a novice climber heading to Boulder Canyon, Colorado or a cragsman journeying to Kalymnos, Greece, it is essential to have reliable two-way communication ability.
“Consider some sort of communication device to check in periodically,” Viesturs said. “If you are out of cell range, a satellite device is a great way to stay in touch.”
[Related Reading: Safe Off-the-grid Travel]
Fifth, climb with someone.
Rock climbing alone invites tremendous, unnecessary risk. Climbing with others reduces avoidable dangers, especially if something goes wrong. Be certain you are familiar with and trust your climbing companion.
“Make sure you have matching skill sets for climbing, belaying, anchoring and rope management. Ideally, you and your partner have climbed together often enough that you know each other’s limits — when to push and when to call it quits,” Viesturs said.
Williamson, as editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, often received accident reports involving climbers who had just met at a campground or online. As chair of the Safety Advisory Committee of AAC and founder/member of the steering committee for the annual Wilderness Risk Managers Conference, he wrote a “Guide to Climbing with Blind Dates.”
“Once individuals decide to climb together, it would be ideal to be able to go on at least a half-outing at a lower level of commitment to become acquainted with each other’s skills and style,” Williamson said. “In all cases, there needs to be an initial discussion regarding such matters as previous experience.”
He suggests asking a series of questions before a climb with a new partner:
- What system of climbing signals (verbal and non-verbal) will you use?
- What do you need for maps/GPS and route finding?
- What is the weather forecast?
- What are the objective hazards and current conditions of the route?
- What will be the agreed upon turn-around time? (For example, afternoon lightning is a key consideration in places such as Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming.)
- How will decision regarding whether to continue or turn back be made?
- If the chosen route must be changed due to conditions, what contingency is in place for security (such as belaying and anchors)?
- What will be the emergency action/crisis plan in the event of a serious incident?
“Don’t include additional climbing partners at the last minute. Don’t change plans at the last minute,” Williamson said.
It’s also smart to climb with a travel protection membership. Global Rescue has pioneered field rescue from the point of illness or injury since 2004, and led the industry as the only organization with deployed personnel and operating capability in key locations, including the Himalaya, Karakorum and Andes regions. Add a membership to your gear before any adventure travel.
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