Ask any inveterate rock climber and they will tell you the sport is thrilling and exhilarating, but it also demands respect. Much can go wrong; therefore serious preparation and constant attention to detail are necessary to prevent careless errors, which can be deadly.
The sport also involves training, a conscientious effort best undertaken with certified guides and instructors. “Most accidents are not the result of recklessness,” said Erik Kramer-Webb, “it’s pilot error.”
Kramer-Webb leads climbing courses at both Joshua Tree and in Idyllwild on Suicide Rock. He is a certified American Mountain Guide Association rock instructor for Vertical Adventures. The recent death of a Girl Scout counselor on Suicide Rock revives the danger of rock climbing and brings attention to the steps necessary to avoid serious accidents or fatalities.
Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks are international climbing destinations, are challenging climbs and have been the site of numerous fatalities. Walt Walker, one of the founding members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit stated in 2000 that RMRU had recorded 18 deaths on Tahquitz alone since the 1980s. Since 2000, there have been at least five more. Kramer-Webb estimates that Suicide Rock has claimed additional lives but neither the Forest Service nor Riverside County Sheriff’s Department keeps those specific statistics.
“I get nervous when I see youth groups at Suicide Rock,” said Kramer-Webb. “I see a lot of substandard climbing practices on Suicide and Tahquitz. Climbing programs for children should only be run by professional guides, not by volunteers.”
Kramer-Webb said there are three basic practices that help to prevent serious injury or death: have solid climbing ability; understand the climbing routes to be used and read the rock as you go; and have good protection equipment. Kramer-Webb also advised knowing your climbing partners and avoiding, as much as possible, climbing where it appears inexperienced climbers are present.
RMRU volunteer and experienced climber Les Walker said he recommends climbing only with one’s own equipment and keeping it current and updated. He advises against using rented or borrowed equipment. “You don’t know how it’s been used,” he observed.
Walker said that no matter how experienced, climbers should follow established practices using standard verbal commands such as, “climbing,” “take rope,” and “off-belay.” He noted that getting comfortable and taking shortcuts in practice can lead to accidents. “You don’t have to fall more than 10 feet to kill yourself,” he said. Walker also advised that climbers should pick climbing partners carefully based on knowing their skill levels and climbing habits. Walker also noted that altitude can affect climbers differently, depending on existing medical conditions.
Local guide Ernesto Ale also agreed that most accidents are the result of human error and can be prevented with proper training, focus and attention. “The age of equipment can also be a factor,” said Ale. “There have been advances in climbing gear [that add to climbing safety].” He also noted that being on a rock face demands awareness of all that is around you. “I refuse to guide under other people,” he said, noting the danger climbers above you can pose.
There are many things that can go wrong that climbers can and should prepare for. Sometimes, even the best preparation cannot prevent a serious accident or fatality. A September 2008 incident on Suicide Rock illustrates the point. Two climbers began their climb on a clear and beautiful day. A storm blew in quickly and pounded the pair with marble-sized hail, One climber slipped while trying to set a wedging device. Both fell. One suffered severe head trauma and the other sustained facial injuries requiring reconstructive surgery. Because of the speedy and heroic assistance of nearby climbers, the pair survived.
All in all, rock climbing is not to be taken lightly or carelessly. The Climb Smart national campaign motto states it well: “Climbing is dangerous; stack the odds in your favor.”