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The Gumby Guru: No Fall Zone

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Perhaps the worst injury I’ve ever received while climbing was in a gym. 

I was fifteen or sixteen, and my friend and I had invited a couple of girls to the Huntsville Athletic Club, a fitness center in my hometown that also had a small climbing wall in the back. No one else was there at the time (I reckon there were only like four people in that gym on a “good” day).

There was a single roof route, running along the ceiling perhaps thirty feet off the ground. It was basically an inverted jug ladder, with plenty of space to toe hook, but it looked impressive and these girls weren’t climbers, so it was the perfect line for fifteen-year-old me to “flex” a little bit. I’d lapped it many times, so I roped in and fired up the wall, whispering to my buddy beforehand to keep me super loose so I could take a large, inconsequential whip at the end and look like a badass. 

I reached the top of the 5.11 wall line and pulled into the roof, skipping the first clip. I was nearly ten feet out from the wall, looking down out of the corner of my eye to see if the girls were sufficiently impressed, when I blew off a hold and swung like a wrecking ball directly into the wooden wall. My kneecap connected dead on with the wall, and I was howling like a banshee as my buddy lowered me to the ground.

Truth be told, it was an injury of relatively little consequence (albeit not to my pride). I didn’t go to the doctor and just limped around for a month or so, though that knee still hurts me sometimes when I bend it in the morning. I could’ve been a lot worse, however.

The explosion of climbing gyms has made indoor climbing accessible to millions upon millions of people. Folks who you’d never imagine would set foot on a climbing wall are now heading to the gym, and many are returning and getting into the sport. Auto belays are becoming more and more common, traditional, tube-style belay devices are getting swapped for assisted braking devices (which are more accessible to beginners), and all-around it’s becoming easier and easier to get off the ground and go play on the wall.

[Also Read: Select Gyms Ban Standard Tube-Style Belay Devices From Lead Wall]

This is all great, but it’s also given rise to a strange dichotomy, the idea that outdoor climbing is sometimes “dangerous,” but that indoor climbing is generally safe, anyone can do it. But the belief that accidents only happen outdoors is flawed, dangerous, and far too common. The gyms do manage the ropes, the rental gear, the holds, etc., so many folks can get the idea that the “gym” is somehow looking out for them. It is, but you still have to look out for yourself, first and foremost.

A revealing statistic comes from a 2013 widely-cited German research study on gym accidents. At first thought, you’re probably like me, you’d think, “Okay, gyms have accidents because there are a ton of noobs there. Noobs are accident-prone.” Wrong, actually.

In this study, “Beginners” (those with less than 20 days of experience) accounted for only 17% of the accidents but “Intermediate” climbers, those who hit the wall about once per week, made up 53% of accidents. “Serious” climbers, meanwhile, those who climbed 2-3 days per week, consisted of 20% of the injuries, even more than the beginners.

Sure, beginners were climbing less so they had less accidents, but their low accident rates are still surprising. These stats, according to the study, point to one factor: complacency. 

[Also Read: Safety’s Worse Enemy]

Just like most car accidents happen within five minutes or less of a driver’s home, most climbing accidents indoors happen because people get comfy. They’re not complete beginners, they’re people who’ve been climbing for a while. They’re in their home gym, they’ve lapped all these routes dozens of times (like me on the roof) and they get complacent. 

It’s not just people like you and me, either. Extremely experienced, well-known climbers, both old school and new school, have experienced serious gym accidents. Even Ashima Shiraishi, one of the strongest young climbers in the game right now, took a 45-foot ground fall back in 2016, when her belayer (her father, who had belayed her hundreds of times) accidentally grabbed the brake release lever on his GriGri.

Let’s be honest, if you’re careful, there’s really no way you should have an accident in a gym. That’s why gym injuries still aren’t that common overall. A similar study on soccer, for example, found 38.6 injuries per 1000 hours of gameplay, and another on cheerleading reported 2.8 injuries per 1000 hours. 

The injury rate in the above climbing study? merely 0.02 injuries per 1000 hours of indoor climbing. 

Okay, so the rate is super low. but that rate could be far lower. Out of 30 accidents recorded in the study, 16 were due to either belayer error, climber error, or tying the wrong knot (which was its own category).

So over 50% of these injuries could have easily been prevented! The remaining 14 injuries were either marked “Accidental” “Fall Onto Mat” or “Undefined,” so a large portion of these were likely preventable too (learning how to fall properly is an important skill, folks).

Outside, there are things that are hard to control. Rockfall, weather, rock quality, attack by a mutant bear, etc.

Indoors, there really aren’t many variables that allow for accidents. Double check your systems and your partner’s systems. Learn how to fall properly onto the mat. Don’t get complacent. Don’t get hurt. That girl (or boy) you’re trying to impress will probably dump you and your aching knee in a week, anyway.

Feature image by Jan Virt/IFSC

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Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in a barn in Tennessee. He is a columnist for Rock & Ice, Gym Climber, and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Atlas Devices and BAÏST. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.