Rock climbing is becoming more popular, and with this, is an increasing interest in trends and patterns of climbing injuries and accidents. Physician researchers from a German university decided to investigate common causes of climbing accidents and injuries in an indoor climbing gym setting. They analyzed over 500 thousand visits to a major city climbing gym during a 5 year period (2007-2011). This represented the first study to accurately track time spent indoor climbing and the types of acute injuries in a large number of climbers.

The average climbing time was almost 3 hours each session and climbers were about 2/3 male and 1/3 female. Median age was 34 years (actual logged ages ranged from 8 to 80 years old). Within the 5 year survey period, 30 climbing injuries were recorded: Acute injuries happened in 6 cases of bouldering, 16 cases of lead climbing, 7 cases of top roping, and 1 case of watching (spectating; not climbing or belaying). Injuries were rated on a severity spectrum from 0 to 6 (immediate death) — see Table 2.

In this 5 year analysis of indoor rock climbing, there were no fatalities.

Table 2 from Schöffl 2013 (sourced below)

Once Weekly Climbers Experienced Highest Injury Rates

We may assume that climbing “accidents” should occur more often in beginners, but researchers found that about 17% of the accidents occurred with beginners (experience of <20 climbing days) while 53% climbing accidents were with climbers with “intermediate experience”, climbing about once a week. The “serious” climbers, logging 2-3 climbing days each week, experienced 20% of the injuries, and climbing “professionals” who teach belay and climbing skills had 10% — see Table 3.

Lead Belaying Mistakes Account for Climbing Accidents

Most of the injuries in lead and top-rope climbing were due to belaying mistakes at 10 cases out of 23 lead/top rope climbing accidents logged. Bouldering injuries were primarily due to falls on the mat. The researchers were surprised at the incidence of injuries from top-rope climbing, as top-rope was assumed “safer” than lead climbing or bouldering. Yet top-rope climbing mistakes manifested across the experience spectrum from beginners through professional experienced climbers.

Thus partner checks in any type of rope climbing should be mandatory, where both the belayer and climber check to make sure that:

  • Harness fasteners are double backed.
  • All knots are correctly tied and through the proper hard point of the harness.
  • Carabiner is on the proper hard point of the harness, is locked, and the belay device is properly loaded.
  • The free end of the rope is secured by the brake hand of the belayer.

The most serious top-rope accident in the study occurred when a climber followed a climb on top rope that had been led by their partner. In these situations, since the leader has clipped the rope into the wall as they completed the initial climb, the follower must un-clip the rope as they go up the wall. With this particular case, the leader neglected to clip the rope into the final anchor at the top of the climb, and was instead lowered from the last clip on the wall. When the second climber cleaned the lead (un-clipped the rope while they climbed), the climber un-clipped every draw, including the final clip, meaning that when the climber weighted the rope to be lowered, he was no longer attached to the wall, resulting in a free fall to the ground. Accidents such as these are rare, but they do happen, and are completely preventable. In this particular case, there was a separate top rope affixed to the top of the same climb, therefore the partners should have checked to be sure the second climber was top roping on the properly secured rope, and should have pulled the unsecured rope before the climber started up the wall.

These checks can sometimes feel so straightforward that even climbers of all experience levels can become complacent, and neglect to double check even the most “obvious” things, which can result in dangerous situations.

“Climbing is a dangerous sport”

Climbing is a Dangerous Sport! – We climbers hear this and see this posted at climbing gyms, but this isn’t just a sound bite. The risks are real! Climbers understand that climbing is dangerous, and the most experienced climbers develop a healthy respect for all aspects of climbing safety.

As a matter of fact, we may assume that serious belaying mistakes occur with new or inexperienced climbers, when social science research shows that human error occurs not primarily due to incompetence, but actually due to experience resulting in over-confidence. In other words, experienced climbers screw up because they were so confident in what they were doing that they overlooked the need to go over basics.

My husband and I each have had this experience both as belayer and climber. For example, I have forgotten to screw tight the gri-gri locking mechanism before belaying my husband; even with the gri-gri’s safety features, not tightening that screw could have consequences if he took a big lead climbing fall. Another example is in his haste to start climbing, my husband has threaded the rope through only one rather than both hard points of his climbing harness, which could have scary consequences if he took a big fall. In addition, one of our very experienced climbing friends had climbed up an auto-belay rope course at another climbing gym, only to realize as he pushed off the top that he had forgotten to attach himself to the auto-belay. Fortunately for him, he broke only his wrist, but this scenario could have had a much worse ending. And if you think that accidental free-climbing is one of those rare, “freak” accidents, there is at least one more personal account of an experienced climber forgetting to clip his harness into the auto-belay. In this case, the climber was wondering why a child climbing next to him kept making ominous remarks (“you’re going to die” – spooky right?) until he was 45 feet up in the air and ready to make a crux move that he didn’t always clear. That was when he realized he had been free-climbing up the wall with no safety equipment. He slowly and shakily made his descent to safety and was grateful for this child’s warning.

Be Prepared

No matter where you land on the experience spectrum, every climber is at risk of accidentally harming themselves, or their partner. Those risks, however, can be navigated through improving our skills and knowledge as climbers.

Sources

Acute Injury Risk and Severity in Indoor Climbing — A Prospective Analysis of 515,337 Indoor Climbing Wall Visits in 5 Years.” Schoffl, VR et al. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, 24, 187-194 (2013). — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23877045

HIDDEN BRAIN, You 2.0: Check Yourself. August 27, 20189:00 PM ET — https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=642310810

“What’s the creepiest thing you have heard a child say?” – Dave Kaufman – https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-creepiest-thing-you-have-heard-a-child-say/answer/Dave-Kaufman

Also Syndicated at SenderOne.

“Therapeutic bouldering for depression”? Yes — bouldering therapy is a thing! A 2015 research study of 47 participants showed that 8 weeks of bouldering therapy improved depression scores. This study is the first to suggest the therapeutic effects of bouldering on depression.

Depression is a common and prevalent disease that does not discriminate. Depression therapy can include antidepressant (medication) treatment, psychotherapy, and exercise (physical activity). Studies on physical activity on depression showed that this approach is most effective when done in a group and performed regularly. Physical activities studied included aerobics or walking. Bouldering is a discipline that combines the physical and social aspects of activity and requires a high level of concentration. In fact, some hospitals in Germany already use rock climbing as a therapy.

Participants with confirmed depression diagnoses were split into “intervention” or “wait-list” groups. Patients were excluded if they were hospitalized (in-patient treatment), experiencing acute suicidality or psychosis, or are not medical cleared to rock climb. The “intervention” group began therapeutic bouldering while the “wait-list” group received their regular, non-bouldering, depression treatment for 8 weeks. Patients were tracked on depression scores every 2 weeks.

One of the key reasons why these researchers chose bouldering as a potential exercise-based intervention for depression is that bouldering focuses on many mental aspects in a climber. This — and the researchers are also avid rock climbers. There were 8 total group sessions that were conducted at a local climbing gym. Each session was 3 hours each. In addition to bouldering, each session covered specific topics ranging from “Old habits – new ways” to “Expectation versus experience” to “Self efficacy” and “Fear and trust.” At the end of 8 weeks, the bouldering group showed improvement in their depression symptoms that matched the group receiving their depression treatment (whichever non-climbing treatment they were receiving), see Figure below.

As a person who has suffered from clinical depression for many years, I personally attest to the benefits that climbing has had on my own mental health. Climbing allows me to focus on the “problem” I am working on, and as I began climbing harder problems, I have learned that failing and falling are a very common experiences. Like everything in life, “practice makes easier” (I don’t believe in perfection), and rock climbing teaches me all the ways I can fail and fall every time I get on the wall. When I am on the wall, I focus on what I am doing and my constantly-chatting mind shuts up for a few minutes. This is one of the many reasons why rock climbing has become my main method of moving meditation.

I have also learned that my “short-person beta” can be different from someone else’s (taller person) beta, and that there are often more than 1 beta or solution to each problem. And yes — I deal with fear often as a boulderer, learning to distinguish reasonable fears (threat of real physical injury due to falling or unsafe moves) versus unreasonable fears (fear of looking silly in front of other climbers). One unexpected lesson I had learned from climbing is how hard I can be on myself: I am very encouraging of other climbers when they attempt difficult boulder problems, yet I have a tendency to mentally “beat myself up” when I fail at a difficult problem. Getting practice encouraging others is teaching me to be more encouraging to myself.

A key factor to draw from this study is the “group” aspect. We tend to isolate ourselves when depressed, and bouldering as a group help neutralize some of the negative effects of self-isolation. This is the reason why I appreciate climbing gyms that offer group-based activities. Being a member of a positive and encouraging community is an aspect I value in climbing.

This article also syndicated at SenderOne.

Citation: “Indoor rock climbing (bouldering) as a new treatment for depression: study design of a waitlist-controlled randomized group pilot study and the first results.” Luttenberger et al. BMC Psychiatry (2015) 15:201. DOI 10.1186/s12888-015-0585-8. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-015-0585-8

I want to address an often-ignored aspect in kids participating in competitive sports: young athletes’ emotional and mental health. As with many sports, a major factor in climbing performance is the athlete’s mentality. Too much pressure, and the climber may crack. Too little, and the climber may lose focus and motivation.

As a parent of a young climber, I struggle between encouraging my 10-year old son to his potential versus pushing him too hard. Given that my husband and I also climb, we easily fall into the trap of fixating on grades. The sentence, “You have to start climbing V5 problems to be competitive” has actually come out of my mouth, when I could have identified specific skills in a difficult problem and encouraged him to practice those skills. I want my child to “have fun and relax” at a competition, but alternatively, I want him to “take this seriously” so he will perform his best.

Udo Neumann wrote about training children who climb in his Art of Bouldering. Udo is the coach of the German Bouldering Team and shares training videos of the national team that includes Julie Wurm, Jan Jojer, and Monika Retschy. In a section on child development, Udo discouraged “grade-oriented climbing” because this puts children under pressure that can impact their overall well-being. For those parents and coaches who encourage children into climbing as a serious sport, Udo’s approach is “a way that doesn’t leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14.” Instead of fixating on immediate results, parents and coaches can focus on what actually matters: intention and consistency. Udo states that training is a long term commitment: “Ultimately, sustained success comes from training and performing well over the long term rather than winning in the short term.”

Jordan Terry, Sender One LAX’s youth competitive team head coach, teaches young climbers that falling and “feeling like a failure” are the most important parts of progressing. Young athletes may find it difficult to see that something that feels so negative is something positive. This process of mental growth takes a lot of time to for young kids, especially young motivated athletes, to cultivate. Jordan makes sure to tell youth competitive climbers about the times that she has fallen or failed, in climbing or in life. Jordan is honest about mistakes and ask for forgiveness when she missteps, and asks her youth athletes to do the same with their team. By asking others to be accepting of their “off” days, it becomes easier for young competitors to forgive themselves. This mindset then leads to more opportunities for success. Learning to accept falling off a project, saying “I can’t”, and being supportive for teammate creates an environment of trust for young competitors while also holding each other accountable to reaching climbing goals.

Climbing competitions are a challenging aspect of USA Climbing (USAC), because the pressure is high and there is temptation to compare oneself to others. Jordan cautions parents against entering into a competition space with any discussion of how their young athletes will do compared to other young climbers. Although Sender One youth athletes train as a team, climbing is an individual sport. It may be easier for parents and coaches to talk about “focusing on your personal climbing goals” than consistently creating a fun and constructive climbing environment. Jordan believes that as long as parents and coaches stay calm and maintains a casual and high-spirited energy, youth athletes will get the sense that “comp day can be equal parts high-pressure excitement and simply a good time.”

Jordan’s advice for parents of youth competitive climbers is to praise young athletes for a job well done or trying hard AND talking about how their young athletes felt when they weren’t climbing their best. “Kids don’t want to be told that they did great when they feel like they didn’t, it doesn’t feel genuine,” says Jordan. Parents are more helpful by by working with young climbers to identify what specifically bothered their athletes about their climbing, put some thought into what could go better next time, and then move on with their day.

Injuries and accidents can lead to a plateau or recession in progress, both physically and mentally. Check out another blog post to help you overcome mental blocks on the wall. Especially in younger athletes, it is important to give them the push they need to discipline their training, but allow them the freedom and fun of the sport to truly maximize their potential.

This content is Syndicated at SenderOne.

I currently consult in the orthopedic field specializing on osteoarthritis, where I speak with sports medicine physicians and orthopedic surgeons about their management of patients with osteoarthritis (OA) pain. Historically, patients with OA pain have been elderly patients, as this degenerative disease is common with age. In recent years, the demographic has changed to include not only professional athletes, but “weekend warriors” — active adults regularly engaged in sports. What troubled me was hearing physicians talk about “treating 20 year olds with knees that look more like 50 year old knees.”

Physicians are increasingly treating younger children with sports injuries that were once common only in professional adult athletes. Children are specializing in a single sport at a younger age, which may confer a degree of competitive advantage, but exposes youth athletes to degenerative, repetitive-motion related injuries. Injuries can vary, but certain sports have a propensity for specific injuries.

Those of us who climb know how hard climbing can be on our feet (climbing shoes!) and finger joints (crimps!).

A 2007 literature review published in a sports medicine journal analyzed 50 scientific studies on common growth variables in young climbers (Morrison and Schoffl, Br J Sports Med 2007;41:852-861). Based on injury data and existing published scientific evidence, the researchers recommended that climbers younger than 16 should not undertake intensive finger strength training (campus board training, closed crimps), and should not participate in international bouldering competitions. Additionally, the researchers also found the following trends in young climbers:

  • – Ligament tears can be especially harmful to young children because their cartilage growth plates (epiphyseal plates) are 2-5 times weaker than the surrounding connective tissue. Emphasis should be climbing more (volume) with diverse routes to improve fluency and technique, instead increasing in climbing intensity (power).
  • – Growth spurts are associated with increased risk of injuries and growth plate fractures. Children who may have rapidly increased strength do not yet have the growth plates strong enough to withstand the amount of exertion.
  • – Wearing restrictive climbing shoes increases risk of foot injuries and deformities. Parents should keep regular records of street wear and climbing shoes size to monitor normal foot development in young climbers.
  • – Young climbers’ body fat should be monitored, and referred for complete health evaluation, especially if height is in the lower 5th percentile or there is a downward trend of growth indices across 2 major percentile lines. For female youth climbers, menstrual age and cycle details should be monitored. In other words, deliberately becoming “underweight” as a means to improve competitiveness can be harmful to children’s developing bodies.
Figure 2 Left hand of 15-year old male climber who undertook intensive finger strength exercises and ignored medical advice, permanently damaging epiphyseal plate of proximal interphalangeal joint in middle finger.

Figure 7 A foot in a climbing shoe.

The researchers concluded that an elite adult climber’s training regimen is not appropriate for an elite young climber, even if they compete on identical routes. This makes sense: just as children are not “mini versions of adults”, young climbers are not mini-versions of adult climbers.

Parents should also periodically check in with our youth climbers’ pediatricians. Don’t be afraid to ask our children’s doctors questions and share concerns that they need to watch out for. Our pediatrician is not yet concerned about Jaden’s growth plates because of his age, but cautioned that “If he starts getting frequent injuries, we need to pay attention.” She confirmed that as children enter puberty, the growth spurts are correlated with increased injury risks.

This content is also syndicated at SenderOne.