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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