rock climber leading a climb pauses to smile down at the camera

Rock Climbing Safety Checklist

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In general, rock climbing can be quite safe if you approach it with the right tools and respect. Conversely, it can be really dangerous if you approach it with carelessness. We all like to have fun, and staying injury-free is part of keeping things fun. I like to approach rock climbing as if we are all humans and may make mistakes – because we are and we do. Here is a rock climbing safety checklist of questions to ask before a climb.

1. Are we all alert enough to handle this potentially dangerous activity?

Rock climbing involves a combination of complex safety measures, sharp rock surfaces, a lot of height and gravity, and mortal beings – it’s really best to be fully alert in order to handle everything safely. So get enough sleep, and save the ritual of enjoying an ice cold beer with your climbing buddies for a nice end to the day, after you’re done climbing.

2. Are we all wearing helmets?

Of course we’re all going to try our best to avoid back-clipping and other such dangerous situations, but hey, we’re human. Sometimes a mistake can go unnoticed until it causes a fall to get ugly – at which time you’ll appreciate a helmet softening a blow between your head and the rock. Beyond this, loose rocks falling from above are another danger that climbers and belayers both face. During early climbing season and in seldom climbed areas especially, you may be pulling pieces of the wall off. And in many areas, there are mountain goats and other wildlife that, whether accidentally or out of spite, may kick rocks off the top of the rock face you are climbing.

3. Is this rope long enough?

Find out how high the climb is – before you start. Between guide books, the Internet, your buddy who recommended this place, and the guys who were just leaving as you got there, you should be able to get this information. Then make sure you have a rope that is at least a bit more than double that length. And even if you’re pretty sure your rope is long enough, it doesn’t hurt to tie a safety knot at the end to stop it from running right out of the belay device, leaving the climber unprotected.

4. What is the safety anchor situation?

Whether you have the top rope all set up already; or you’re leading a sport climb; or you’re dealing with trad gear; or it’s a runout sport route that you can supplement with some trad gear – know the anchor situation. And then bring the appropriate type and amount of equipment (carabiners, wedges, cams, slings, etc.) up the rock with you. When in doubt, and even when not really in doubt, bring extras, just in case.

5. Are our harnesses doubled back?

This seems elementary, and you might be tempted to skip it, but just check every time, for both the climber and the belayer. Your harness won’t be quite as effective if it’s not staying securely on your body. It takes two seconds to check.

6. Is this a good double figure eight knot with a good safety knot?

Again, check it every time, even if you’re an old hand at this. Make sure the figure eight is close to the harness, and that the end of the rope follows the figure eight along the same side the whole way through. Then make sure the tail of the rope is tied close above the double figure eight to keep it from flopping around and potentially catching on rock or swatting you in the face.

7. Is the belay carabiner locked?

Get in the habit of pushing on the belay carabiner gate to double check that it is locked and won’t be able to slip open during some kind of mishap. Auto locking carabiners are great for this.

8. What communication terms do we agree to use?

As I’ve discussed in a previous blog in more detail, the climber and belayer need to clearly communicate. It’s risky to get all casual and assume you’re both on the same page, because you easily may not be. Agree on how you will officially communicate that the belayer is ready to belay, that the climber is ready to climb, that the climber wants more or less slack, and that the climber is ready to lower. Sometimes, due to noise interference from wind, water, traffic, or distance, it may be hard to hear each other. In these cases, agree on a system of rope tugs or other signs to keep in clear communication.

9. What is our plan at the top of the route?

Again, don’t make assumptions. In this case, to assume can result in a potential injury. For example, if the climber had planned to be belayed down when their belayer had thought they were going to rappel instead. Decide before you start the climb whether the climber will be setting up a top rope, taking down a top rope set up, rappelling down, being belayed down, and so on.

Be cautious. Learn with the experts.

Taking your time, communicating clearly, avoiding assumptions, double checking, and just generally being cautious are all great ways to help keep everyone happy and healthy to be able to enjoy another climb. Even if you’re following every piece of climbing safety advice, I recommend against just getting out there to give rock climbing a try on your own. Go with friends who are experienced and responsible, and can show you the ropes, pun intended. Or better yet, find a professional rock climbing guide service, such as White Pine Touring in Park City, to help you learn safety basics, as well as climbing techniques, that can help you minimize your risks and have more fun as you get into rock climbing.

Kendall Fischer, Content Writer