Climbing Risk vs. Skiing Risk

"I'm Ok!"

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the aid room watching a climbing video on the comptuter (this is what I do when there are no patients and I’m bored).  Another patroller glanced over my shoulder, then said “Man, I couldn’t do that.  It’s just so dangerous!”  I replied, “I would say that climbing is way safer than what you’re doing out there on the slopes on your snowboard!”

It was a passing conversation, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past several days.  To be sure, rock climbing is inherently dangerous, and there are hundreds of accidents a year.  Just check out Accidents in North American Mountaineering, published annually by the American Alpine Club, if you don’t believe me.  AiNAM (as its affectionatly shortened) covers most reported climbing accidents for the  year across the whole contry.  But I still stand by my conviction that snowboarding and skiing are actually more dangerous than rock climbing.

I don’t actually have any hard data to support this.  But I do have some personal experience.  I’ve been rock climbing since I was 6, and I have never suffered an injury that imparied physical function.  Lots of cuts and scrapes, but nothing serious.  When I fall, I’m caught by a rope that breaks at a strain of around 6,000 pounds, and I do a pretty good job (I think) of managing the things I can.  I also know that of my climbing friends, I know one who has suffered serious injury while climbing.

It all goes downhill from here...

When you fall on the slopes, however, there is nothing to stop you and the distance you go is dependant on your speed (which you can control) and the surface (which you can’t).  You’re at the mercy of whomever is out on the slopes with you; if they go out of control and you’re in the way, you can’t always control that.  Skiing and snowboarding are sports where you can be doing everything right, and still get picked off by someone else (this can happen in rock climbing too; rock fall comes to mind.  But it’s incredibly rare).    

Furthermore, of the skiers I know who are on the ski patrol (some of the better skiers on the mountain on any given day), more than half of them have injury stories they suffered while skiing–including me!  Two days ago I was coming down a relativly steep intermediate ski run, and I torqued my knee.  All the things I say to injuried skiers when I’m working came to mind.  I determined that the injury wasn’t serious enough to request a ride down from my friends in the patrol, and I clipped back in for the rest of the ride.  Other patrollers are pretty confident I’ve strained my MCL.  I’m still walking, skiing, and living life pretty much exactly the way I would otherwise, but it hurts!  

No no no no no!!!

Based on what comes through my aid room in one week, my guess is that if we polled ski areas across the country for one week, we would exceed all the accidents reported in AiNAM in both number and severity.  Granted, there are more skiers/boarders than climbers and so some correction has to be done based on numbers.  Still, the daily casualty count from my aid room can be pretty impressive.

I’m not really trying to make a point; I’m just musing a little bit.  I also can’t really say that skiing has caused me that much harm.  I’ve had worse injuries from mountain biking (two broken fingers), soccer (broken collarbone), and cross country/track (various muscleoskeletal strains/sprains/pulls, etc.).  To be fair, there are styles of rock climbing (free soloing, predominantly) that are far and away more dangerous than skiing.  I’ll keep skiing; but I’ll also wear my helmet, control my speed, keep an eye on my surroundings so I don’t get creamed by some out-of-control crazy, and maintain awareness of the snow/mountain conditions. 

Now the way Mr. Honnold climbs is ABSOLUTLY in a league of its own when it comes to danger. A league way beyond snowsports.

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About Ethan Zook

I'm 27, and happily married to a pretty girl named Melissa with a little boy named Elijah. From the Shenandoah Valley, currently hanging out in Richmond, VA. I love exploring the wild places around the area. I write two blogs; Mountain Ramblings is about my personal explorations in the mountains and valleys that I live around. In Mountain Rescue Blog, I write about issues faced by rescuers in mountain environments both locally and around the world.
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8 Responses to Climbing Risk vs. Skiing Risk

  1. akaEmma@gmail.com says:

    Ski/snowboard accidents in the 2009/2010 season (59.8 million skier/snowboarder days):
    o 38 fatalities
    o 39 serious injuries (paralysis, serious head, and other serious injuries).

    This is comparing apples to oranges, though, because the hundreds of accidents you mentioned for climbers could have been worldwide. The unit for skiers is skier/snowboarder days. So to compare, you would want to find out how many accidents with fatalities and serious injuries in the US per climbing days during either 2009 or 2010.

    This would make an interesting study, easy to do from a statistical point of view. It might even be fun to add more outdoor sports. Somebody has probably already done it, though.

    • Ethan Zook says:

      Thanks for your info! For this post, I was specifically refering to North America as AiNAM only covers accidents reported in the United States, Canada, and (maybe?) Mexico. That’s the only data I have access to at this point. I’d suggest that focusing only on serious injuries (fatalities, etc.) for the ski industry dosen’t give the full story, as I treat many many people who do not fall into those catagories. On the climbing side, AiNAM reports injuries that result in minor injuries or no injury as well. However, you’re right, the comparison (as you point out) is far from perfect, and comparing it to other outdoor adventure sports (mountain biking, trail running, kayaking/rafting, etc.) would be very interesting. It would be a bit difficult to calculate rock climbing days, as guide services do not report client days to an overhead organization like the NSAA or NSP, and recreational climbers don’t answer to anyone but themselves.

      • Ethan Zook says:

        Something I forgot to mention (and should have thought about as well): The comparison further breaks down considering that AiNAM covers injuries sustained in rock climbing, ice climbing, AND mountaineering. I should have clarified that my friend and I were specifically talking about rock climbing…

  2. Is there a master’s thesis somewhere in your future? I’ll help 😉

  3. Pingback: Climbing Risk vs. Skiing Risk | Mountain Ramblings

  4. rohvenpat says:

    Nice read!

    PS:Alex Honnold is an admirable person!

    • Ethan Zook says:

      I agree, he’s a gutsy climber. I’d say his climbing method isn’t for me, however… He’s a single guy, and I’m a married man with a child on the way!

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