Hanging on: the danger and art of rock climbing

By Tim Drugan-Eppich

Staff Writer

Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport.  Hanging onto a slab of rock, clinging to the smallest of holds as though your life depended on it does not lead to thoughts of safety.  Anytime you are putting yourself into strange positions high off the ground, there is bound to be some risk involved.  Some climbers take this risk to a more extreme place than others.

Alex Honnold, a climber known for his ropeless, dangerous, free-solo climbs, recently visited the area on a tour for his book “Alone on the Wall.”  This prompted a look into the local climbing community and what risks are taken, or avoided, by participants of the sport.

“I guess my answer would be how do you define cautious?” said Austen McNulty, a member of the UNH climbing team, responding to a question about how cautious he is when he climbs.  

“When I climb some people may perceive my lack of protection when bouldering or free-soloing as reckless and un-cautious. Which drives me back to what is cautiousness?”

What McNulty means when he’s referring to bouldering without protection, is a lack of a crash pad, or a pad that would keep a fall from resulting in a hard introduction to the ground.

“Some days I won’t unfold my pads in an effort to get my head game strong for the highballs down the road,” he said.  

Highball bouldering is climbing on boulders that are so large and high that the risk for injury goes up tremendously. This means that some mental preparation is necessary.

Lack of protection in free-soloing means no rope on a climb where one would normally be used. This means a fall could be fatal. Therefore, mental preparation for free-soloing is a little more necessary.

“When I free-solo, I personally only do climbs I’ve climbed before,” McNulty said.

McNulty said he thinks people are taking less chances than they used to, that as more people are picking up climbing, the outdoor climbing environment is becoming closer to that of the indoor one:  Rife with pads, and tick marks.

“I’d say most people are steering away from the old school style of climbing bold,” he said.

But this “climbing bold” is not without risk, both real and perceived.  McNulty sprained his ankle on a UNH climbing team trip to reservoir rocks in Great Barrington so severely last year that most medical professionals thought it was broken.  

“The injury and the fall didn’t stop me from continuing to highball boulder,” he said.  

An article on Climbing.com spoke of a study that showed that as popularity rose in the past few years, a huge increase has been seen in the number of rock climbing injuries.

“Study findings revealed a 63 percent increase in the number of patients that were treated in U.S. emergency departments for rock climbing-related injuries between 1990 and 2007,” the article states.

This rising rate of climbing injuries has only continued to the present as more people pick up the sport and fail to fully realize the risks.  And the injuries being reported are eerily similar to McNulty’s.

“The most common types of rock climbing-related injuries were fractures (29 percent) and sprains and strains (29 percent). Lower extremities were the most common region of the body to be injured (46 percent) while the ankle was the most common individual body part to be injured (19 percent).”

While McNulty may have differing opinions with other climbers about how much risk is a good idea, the idea about cautiousness is a common thread among climbers in the area, and possibly climbers in general.  

“Something that’s very individualist is someone’s perception of risk,” said Nate Fitch.

Fitch, a lecturer who teaches a wide array of climbing classes in the outdoor education option of the kinesiology department like Top Rope Rock Climbing, Lead Rock Climbing and High Angle Rescue, said how people climb can be informed by their reason for being there.  

“It all comes down to [this question:] what do you want to get out of climbing?” he said. “If you want to climb as much as possible, and you’re hurt, then you can’t climb.”

Fitch said that with all of the different options for climbing in the area, the community as a whole was too diverse to put into one box.  

UNH is surrounded by world class climbing areas.  The best bouldering in the northeast is just a few minutes away at Pawtuckaway State Park, the best sport climbs in the area are offered at Rumney Rocks climbing, and traditional routes are offered in North Conway.  There are also two different climbing walls on campus.  All of these places have different factors of risk, and Fitch said that his approach to his students is to teach them risk assessment.

“The perceived risk of climbing and the actual risk don’t often line up,” he said.  “I try to prepare my students to see the actual risk and be prepared for it.”

Christian Helger, an outdoor education major and former student of Fitch’s took some of the lessons into his own practice.

“I feel that on the spectrum of climbers I am pretty cautious,” he said. “I like getting back home in one piece, and as a guide it wouldn’t be very sustainable if I didn’t.”

For Helger, the danger does not deter him; it simply makes him be aware before he begins his climbs.

“There are a lot of variables to think about before just going for it,” he said. “Rock climbing is risky, but I can’t imagine living without it.”