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Sport Climbing Safety Checklist

6 Safety Tips Before Sport Climbing


Scott Brown gets some Shear Strength (5.11c) at Penitente Canyon.

Run through the sport climbing safety checklist and you'll have more climbing fun.

Photograph © Stewart Green
Eric McCallister pulls the roof on Let Them Eat Pancake (5.10b) at Bubba City at New River Gorge.

Tie-in knot? Check! Harness buckle? Check! Bolt count? Check! Rope length? Check! Let's climb!

Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green
Carol Garfinkel dancing up The Whale at Red Rock Canyon, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Follow the sport climbing checklist to stay safe every time you're on the rocks.

Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Sport climbing is lots of fun and easy to do since the protection, usually fixed bolts, and the anchors at the top of the route are safe. Because sport climbing is so easy and safe, you can forget that it is just as dangerous as traditional climbing. The best approach when you go sport climbing is to not only consider it dangerous but also to think about the times when you’re climbing that you are most susceptible to injury. For more information read Sport Climbing Safety.

Your Pre-Climb Checklist

Before you lead any sport route, go through a routine pre-climb checklist every time to make sure that all systems are “Go.” Most sport climbing accidents are avoidable if you don’t make mistakes before leaving the ground and heading upwards. Here are the six vital elements of your pre-climb safety checklist:

  1. Double check both your harness and your belayer’s harness. Make sure that the harness is put on correctly and that your legs are in the right loops. Sometimes your harness gets twisted in your pack and you might put it on wrong. Also make sure that the harness buckles are properly doubled back so there is no chance that it can inadvertently come undone if it’s shock-loaded during a fall.

  2. Properly tie into the rope. Tie into the end of the climbing rope with a figure-8 follow-through knot (some sport climbers use a double bowline). Finish the knot with a back-up knot on the loose end. Both the leader and belayer should check the knot and make sure it is properly tied. Again, the figure-8 follow-through knot is easy to check. Also check to make sure the rope is correctly threaded through both the leg loops and the tie-in loop on the waist belt of the harness. Accidents have happened when the leader has not finished their tie-in knot after being distracted during conversation or looking for something in their pack.

  3. Check and verify the number of bolts on the route. Don’t blindly trust the bolt count in your guidebook, but instead look up and count the number of bolts. Carry that many quickdraws along with a couple draws for the anchor bolts. It’s usually a good idea to add a couple extra quickdraws onto the total just in case there is a hidden bolt that you can’t see from the ground. Also look to see how many long quickdraws you might need to alleviate rope drag. Some routes might need a two-foot sling with two carabiners under a roof or a cam or two for a crack between bolts. Decide what you might need before you start climbing so you’re prepared.

  4. Check the length of the route and the length of your rope. Make sure that your climbing rope is long enough for you to lead the route and to safely lower back to the base. Your rope should be at least twice as long as the route. Sport routes vary in length from 30 feet to over 100 feet. If you have any doubt about the length of the route, use the longest rope possible to ensure that you don’t get dropped by your belayer and make sure you tie a stopper knot in the end of the rope or have the belayer tie the tail of the rope onto her harness. Don’t trust the pitch lengths in your guidebook, they might be wrong. Don’t be cavalier about rope and route lengths since climbers get dropped to the ground every year when the tail of their rope slips through their belayer’s device.

  5. Strategize before leaving the ground. Eyeball your route from the ground from different angles. Look for difficult sections and locate key holds, which are often chalked by previous climbers. Look for shelves, big footholds, or buckets where you can grab a rest while climbing. Look for good handholds from which you can clip the next bolt. Look for sections that might be run-out and unprotected and see if there is a gear placement between bolts to protect you if you fall.

  6. Bring a couple retreat carabiners. Before climbing, ask yourself if there is the possibility that you might not make it to the anchors. If the climbing is hard and you can’t aid from bolt to bolt then carry a “bail biner,” an old carabiner that you can lower off and leave behind on a bolt. Old locking carabiners are best, although some climbers carry a 3/8-inch screw link that can be attached to the lower-off bolt. If you do have to lower off a single bolt on the route, then make sure it’s a good one. It is not advisable to thread the rope through a bolt hanger and lower off since your rope can easily sustain damage to the outer sheath. If you do have to retreat from a bolt, it is best to thread the bolt and rappel.

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