Summer rock climbing expeditions require careful planning, training

| April 16, 2010 | 0 Comments

Mollie Miller
U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center 

Since the early 1960s when rock climbing began gaining popularity among America’s baby boomers, millions have challenged gravity as they pulled, pushed and jumped their way up, down and across the nation’s cliffs, crevasses and ice flows.

In Hawaii, too, climbing enthusiasts are eager to accept the challenge of scaling the surrounding majestic, and seemingly gentle, mountains.

While climbing does offer its own unique highs for those who accept the challenge, the activity’s rewards don’t come without a price.

“Rock climbing … is not a ‘sport’ to be taken lightly,” said David Lane, technical director for the Professional Climbing Guides Institute. “There are lots of seemingly small mistakes that can have fatal consequences.”

Even in Hawaii, an 8th Theater Sustainment Command Soldier, died in a hiking accident in Makaha Valley in January, the result of a 400-foot fall. 

Later that same month, another hiker fell 200 feet to his death in the same area. 

And, in February, a Waianae school teacher died as the result of a fall in Makaha. 

That’s three hiking deaths in Hawaii in the first two months of 2010.

This summer, before climbers set even one anchor, they should think seriously about the danger level of the activity and prepare adequately for all hazards associated with trying to defy gravity, said Tracey Russell, a safety specialist at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center Safety.

“You always have to consider if you are experienced enough for the challenge and if your health and fitness levels are good enough for the terrain,” she said.

Lane, who has been rock climbing for 18 years and currently guides for the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Joshua Tree Guides in California, said common mistakes like poor communication, improper use of equipment, improper belay techniques, dangerous terrain and climber over-confidence can all lead to rock climbing disaster.

“Often, a person’s ego and what they ‘think’ they know can be their biggest enemy,” he said. “They choose terrain that is too difficult for their ability, climb with un-trustworthy or less experienced partners and misuse equipment.”

Although rock climbing hazards are many, there are ways to mitigate risks and have an enjoyable day clinging to the side of a mountain.

“What (rock climbers) have on our side is the ability to decide how we will manage the hazards, where we will climb, what we will climb, who we will climb with and how we will climb,” Lane said.

One important decision that all climbers must make is who they climb with. 

Climbing alone or “solo-ing” is a practice that should be reserved for only the most experienced and accomplished climbers, according to Lane.

For those less experienced climbers, Russell recommends climbing with at least one buddy. 

Before setting out, Russell advises every climber to develop a plan to get the climber thinking seriously about what he or she is getting into, which will also be a physical document that can be left with someone who will be able to check on the climber or notify authorities if the climber doesn’t return as expected.

“Climbing is not something you just decide to do at the end of a 16-hour workday,” she said.

Russell said every climber should carry an emergency kit containing food, water, a first aid kit, bug spray, a map of the area, sunscreen, a cell phone, a flashlight, pocket knife, matches and extra clothes. 

Above all else, Lane reminds climbers to never overestimate their abilities to the point that something terrible happens and they must be rescued.

“The decision to (climb) is one that needs to be considered seriously because there are lots of people who will be affected should an accident occur,” he said. “It will be an ugly situation that could have been avoided by practicing proper safety techniques.” 

For more information about rock climbing safety, visit www.nps.gov. For more information about the Army’s Safe Summer Campaign, visit https://safety.army.mil.

(Editor’s Note: Nancy Rasmussen, U.S. Army-Pacific Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)

Category: Community, Safety

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