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Amateur rock climbers often lack skills to save themselves

(Reuters Health) – – Most hobbyist rock climbers lack the basic rescue skills needed to save themselves in dangerous situations, a study suggests.

FILE PHOTO: A rock climber walks below a rock facing near the Indian Creek area of Bears Ears, New Mexico, U.S., October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

This is true regardless of climbers’ confidence, experience, training or climbing frequency, researchers wrote in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.

“More people are climbing and learning in non-traditional ways, so we thought there might be a gap in the safety skills that are being learned,” said Dr. Alana Hawley, an emergency medicine doctor at Penticton Regional Hospital in British Columbia, who led the study during a wilderness medicine fellowship in Utah.

“There is inherent risk in rock climbing, and climbers should be self-reliant,” she told Reuters Health by phone. “When you need to be rescued, you put others at risk as well.”

Hawley and colleagues at the University of Utah School of Medicine surveyed 25 climbers from climbing gyms in Salt Lake City about their climbing history and confidence in their rescue skills. Climbers were then evaluated on three rescue scenarios in an indoor climbing gym. One scenario involved escaping a belay, or removing themselves from the rope safety system to call for help or start a rescue. Another required them to improvise a belay using a Munter hitch, or a specialized knot that allows them to belay if the primary device is inaccessible. The third scenario required them to ascend a fixed rope, which would be needed to reach an injured climber above or if a climber had rappelled into the wrong place or with an inappropriately short rope.

On average, the climbers had nearly seven years of experience. On a 7-point scale, the average confidence level was 4 to 4.5.

But only 24 percent of climbers passed all three scenarios. About 28 percent could escape a belay, 68 percent could improvise a belay, and 52 percent could ascend the fixed rope.

“The end result was striking because we expected the climbers to have these skills,” Hawley said. “Even they were surprised. They had done this before, but when put to the test, they didn’t know how to do it.”

Climbing courses and gyms should teach basic self-rescue skills and outdoor training, Hawley’s team writes, and coordinate with groups such as the American Mountain Guides Association or the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations. At the same time, climbers who feel confident in their skills may be unaware of the training they still need, the authors add.

“With the boom in popularity in climbing, I’m not surprised to see these results,” said Dr. Aram Attarian, a retired professor from North Carolina State University’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management in Raleigh, North Carolina. Attarian, who wasn’t involved with this study, researched climbers’ self-perceptions of safety and rescue skills in 2002.

“Technology has advanced so quickly that it encourages people to get out and do more,” he told Reuters Health by phone. “People think that if they get lost or in a tough spot, they can use their phone or push a panic button on their personal locator beacon.”

Outdoor sports have become more popular among youth groups, especially with activities such as geocaching that incorporate both physical activity and mobile devices. Colleges and universities have stepped up their offerings around outdoor climbing clubs, too, he said.

“Previously, most climbers got into the sport through a mentor who guided them, but now you see less of that since instructional videos are online and you can buy any gear you want at stores like REI,” Attarian said. “Instead, we need more mentors showing people how to improvise, tie knots and become acquainted with environmental dangers.”

SOURCE: Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, online January 4, 2019.

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