Climbing Gym Safety for Parents and Kids
Climbing accidents can be deadly. Ok, with that out of the way, I also want to say, climbing is very safe… when you do it right. My goal here is to help you and your kids climb safely by making you aware of what the dangers are.
If your kids are not old enough or mature enough to respect the safety rules, don’t take them climbing. It’s not worth serious injury or dying. Some kids just aren’t ready. And that’s ok. Wait till they’re ready.
Danger #1: Walking Under Climbers
In bouldering gyms, you really have to be very aware of climbers above you. It’s easy to walk around and not notice the 190 lb dude barely holding on above you. And then he slips off and you get pancaked. I’ve seen this happen to adults and it was not pretty. For whatever reason, people aren’t adept at looking up for threats. Perhaps that’s why ninjas always attack from above. Having an average size adult fall from 12 feet off the deck onto your kid could result in very serious injury.
In bouldering gyms you have to develop a situational awareness and a habit of frequently glancing up to make sure there’s no one above you. Teach your kids to do that. Make sure they’ve developed that habit before letting them go alone. Even if it’s a coached program. There’s usually a 1:4 or 1:more coach to kid ratio. That coach isn’t going to be able to keep a constant eye on your kid so they have to be mature enough to manage their own safety.
While bouldering gyms have padded landings, landing wrong on your arms, legs, or head, could still result in devastating injuries. Progress slowly and get used to falling with grace. It takes some practice to be able to fall cleanly to your feet and roll onto your bottom.
Danger #2: Not getting proper belaying instruction.
What is belaying? It’s being on the other end of the ground side of the rope and catching climbers who fall. Sure, your buddy who’s been climbing for years can teach you how to belay and you can try and pass the test to save some money. But amazing climbers are often not amazing belayers. Climbing gyms have to teach you well. They have liability insurance that requires them to. Often classes are affordable or even free if you know a member. Take the darn class. Get cheap shoes, scrape chalk off the mats, and watch lots of youtube videos on climbing technique. But don’t skimp on safety.
Danger #3: Do your safety checks. Every part of it.
I once witnessed the aftermath of a climber who fell 40 feet to the ground. That sound was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard. Upon review of the gym’s video system and investigation of the rope, it was determined that the climber never tied himself into the rope. He threaded it through his harness, and then forgot, and started climbing.
Two people failed there. A climber must always double check his own knots and his belayer must always check them as well. There’s a reason for the pre-flight checklist that gyms teach you and your partner before you climb. If you don’t do it, you are at substantially greater risk of injury or death.
I know that sounds so morbid and scary. What’s up with this sport? Why would you let your kids do it? Again, if you’re doing your safety checks, it’s really safe. If you’re not, well, it’s really dangerous. Be that safety nazi. Sure beats a wheelchair for the rest of your life.
Danger #4: Misplaced trust. Belaytionships matter.
Your belayer is the person with whom you entrust your life when you rope climb on tall walls. Their job is to catch you when you fall by applying braking force to the rope and leveraging the mechanical advantage that belay devices give you. Your belayer should have the habit of NEVER letting go of the brake side of the rope. Ever. No excuses. It doesn’t matter if they’re using an assisted device like a Grigri. Never. If they have a tendency to do that, find a new belaytionship. Or suggest bouldering.
Danger #5: Complacency and overconfidence gets people hurt
It seems like all climbers get complacent and overconfident about their safety checks. The more experience you have, the more likely you are to be lax on these things. Don’t. Maybe it feels lame to have to do all those basic checks before you leave the ground. But they take ten seconds and could save your life. Would you want a 20 year veteran airline pilot to say, “Nah, we got this,” and wave off her preflight checklist? No way. That person has your life and the lives of everyone on board in their hands. Your belayer has your life in her hands. Do the safety check.
Teach your kids to take responsibility for their own safety by doing all of the above. Tell them it’s ok to walk away from a dangerous situation if they don’t trust the person belaying them. This could happen at practice when they’re paired with other kids. Or it could happen at a competition where a volunteer is belaying. Correct them, ask a coach to work with them some more, or take them out of the situation. Do your part to keep everyone to be safe.
What other safety tips would you recommend? Share your wisdom in the comments below.