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Outdoor Climbing - Risky Business?

Outdoor Climbing - Risky Business?

September 18, 2018

DISCLAIMER – This blog is intended only to increase awareness of the dangers of outdoor climbing and in no way does the author take responsibility for the actions of other climbers or any events that may occur whilst climbing outside. All climbers enter into the activity of outdoor climbing at their own risk and should always be aware of the possibility of serious injury or death.

As outdoor climbers, we accept that there is a degree of risk associated with climbing on rock, whether it be a quarried, blocky face, or a weather-battered sea cliff full of cracks, but are we really prepared for the occurrence of random rock fall or landslides? Have you ever thought about what you would do if the ground you were belaying on suddenly dropped from beneath you? Or if you were climbing a route and Smart-car-sized blocks of rock started to fall from above you with no warning? Do you even consider that this could happen? In a world where most of us climb at indoor gyms where everything is solid and safe, it’s easy to transfer that complete trust to the rock when we go outside.

I started climbing at a much older age than the majority of people (36 years old in fact), and I often wonder if this means I have come at it with a slightly different approach and awareness of risk than I may have done if I’d started climbing decades earlier. Perhaps some of us older climbers may have an unnecessarily reserved attitude to risk, but rockfalls do happen, landslides do occur and holds do break off. It’s not a matter of scaring people here, it’s a matter of being aware of the risks of climbing in Mother Nature and not being too blasé when you’re out and about on the crags.


A huge number of indoor climbers make the transition to outdoor with a complete lack of understanding of the risks associated with outdoor sport or trad climbing. Sometimes, people genuinely just don’t know or give it a thought, it’s simply a matter of being blissfully unaware of the risks thanks to a long time climbing on solid wood constructions indoors with plastic holds that don’t snap off. Other times it may be ignorance, or even ego, that causes people to think they’re invincible and that the cliffs we climb on really are as solid as a rock. If you're thinking of going outside for the first time, or even if you go regularly, it's good to have a re-cap and a bit of think about the possible dangers you might face.


The photo below shows the colossal landslide that occurred at Portland in Dorset in February 2014. The massive amounts of rock, mud and large boulders that slid from the top and base of the cliff, thanks to months of rain and cold weather, was jaw dropping. It took out complete crags along the west coast of Portland in the middle of the night, luckily a time when nobody was walking or climbing in the area. This landslide happened just when I started climbing and it opened my eyes to at least one of the risks associated with climbing on sea cliffs along that coast. I had no idea that the ground leading up from the boulder beach to the path at the base of the crags is essentially a honeycomb of boulders, mud and vegetation, looking solid from above but full of air pockets from below. I realise this is not the case for a lot of climbing areas but with the popularity of sport climbing in the South of England increasing, more and more people are visiting these crags, hence the example. I wonder how many people fully check out their surroundings or the stability of the ground they are standing on, whether it’s the south coast or anywhere else in the UK, or abroad?


Pongoose Blog - Portland landslide image



As an example, in the Portland and Swanage areas where we climb rockfalls happen reasonably often. Areas in Portland, particularly Cheyne Weares and Blacknor Central, are prone to some serious choss and rockfalls. Reports of fridge sized blocks falling from the cliffs are frequently described on the UKClimbing logbooks or on social media. Just two weeks ago, blocks fell from the cliff at Blacknor Central with no warning, rolling down the honeycomb mud and boulder slope and narrowly missing some climbers at the Diamond Slab area below on the boulder beach. Luckily, no one was hurt, just a few shaken climbers that day. This particular area is known by the locals as being loose and dodgy, but how many climbers visit the area that don’t read the UKC logs or even own a Dorset climbing guide book where there are warnings about the approaches and chossy climbs (albeit that guide is now six years old and doesn’t cover the recent changes to the land or the cliffs)? The photo below is of the area the recent rockfall took place, looking reasonably solid from a distance but the bands of rock become increasingly loose as you move along the coast northwards. 


Pongoose Blog - Blacknor Central climbing area, Portland. Climber on cliff with blue sea behind.


So, what can you do to stay safe? We should all remember that there will always be risk and the land will do what the land will do, but there are a few things you can do to help yourselves:

  1. Check out where you’re going to be climbing – look at guidebooks, read the descriptions, check the UKC logbook for the routes you might be climbing. Generally, be aware of the area you are going to and if it’s likely to be risky.
  2. Scout the area around, below, and particularly above you, when you reach the crag. Look up! Are you belaying, climbing or sitting eating your lunch directly below a massive block that looks like it’s not attached to anything?
  3. Risk assess the route as you climb – be aware of possible blocks that you may dislodge that could fall on your belayer, or just as scarily, cut your rope. Are you climbing something that looks like Lego blocks all stacked on one another? Consider where the bolts are placed, and even more importantly, the rock the lower-off is in if it’s an old route.
  4. Speak to others – do this before you go and at the crag. Locals may have knowledge that you don’t and could save your bacon. We’ve seen countless people attempt to take the Blacknor Far South approach at Portland that slid away with the landslide four years ago, even this season, and stopped them from trying to ascend an extremely dangerous, non-existent approach.
  5. Help keep information on the climbing areas up-to-date - Update UKC logbooks, UKC themselves, or the local Bolt Fund for the area. Spread the word on social media and think of others that may come to the crag after you, especially if you feel there is real danger of major rockfall. You may also want to contact local authorities if the cliff above has a well-used walking path if you witness a large rockfall that could put the integrity of a whole cliff face into question.
  6. Wear a helmet – obviously I realise that a helmet will only save you from the smaller rocks, not the major rockfalls or the blocks the size of fridges, but they are still one of the most important parts of your climbing gear. We are constantly experiencing stones, cans, bags full of dog poo, and even sofas being thrown over the top of the cliff along the west coast of Portland. Again, I know a helmet won’t help you with a sofa but it could save your head from one of the other items. And yes, I was narrowly missed by a bag of flying dog poo whilst belaying! My lucky day!
  7. Be alert whilst belaying – watch your climber, stand aside of the path of possible rockfall or loose looking blocks, and most of all, listen to them and what’s going on around you. You may hear a rockfall or landslide before you see it.
  8. Consider a safety course with a qualified instructor – why not learn some safety and escape techniques? You never know when you might need them. How about a first aid course or even carrying a first aid kit in your climbing bag? If you or your friend got injured, you could potentially help them until emergency services arrived.


Photo credits - Thanks to Sam at After the Send for the fantastic photos.

Author - Katie Rendall.

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