How dangerous are climbing and hill walking? The short answer is: not as dangerous as you probably think. Despite the death of two experienced climbers in North Wales in recent weeks, if you look at the statistics over the longer term, rock climbing and hill walking accident rates are actually decreasing.
There’s no doubt that mountains and cliffs are inherently dangerous places; the BMC acknowledges this in its participation statement:
“The BMC recognises that climbing, hill walking and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions and involvement.”
But if we know that climbing and hill walking can be dangerous, journalists and researchers often ask us how dangerous. Answering that question is difficult for several reasons.
First, climbing and hill walking, as terms, cover a range of activities. Climbing can be sub-divided into bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, ice climbing, high-altitude climbing and so forth. Some of these activities are more dangerous than others. Climbing at high altitude in the Himalaya carries greater risks than bouldering in the Peak District, although many more people are doing the latter.
Second, measuring participation rates isn’t an exact science. Sport England’s Active People Survey has measured participation in mountaineering since 2005. APS1 in 2006 gave a figure of 67,000; the figure for April 2014 was 79,500. What was included under the heading of mountaineering changed in 2010 to exclude ice climbing but include bouldering. Sport England’s assumption from this is that participation rates over the last ten years have been stable.
Set against this stable participation, accident rates in different aspects of climbing and hill walking are quite revealing. For example, data from Mountain Rescue England & Wales (MREW) for roped and unroped rock climbing show no fatalities in 2013 and 2012. There was only one in 2011. This is set against three fatalities among mountain bikers that MREW dealt with in 2013. Overall, incidents among rock climbers and scramblers have fallen 26 percent in the last five years.
Note that the MREW figures only relate to incidents that Mountain Rescue Teams are called to – they do not include sea-cliff incidents (coastguard) or where ambulance or other agencies deal directly with incidents.
Rock climbing and walking are much safer than their portrayal in the mainstream media would suggest.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA), you are far more likely to be injured playing sports like football and cricket than hill walking or rock climbing. ROSPA reports 1,000 accidents per 100m hours for walking and 4,000 for rock climbing. Cycling scores 7,000 and horse riding 10,000.
Most fatalities occur among hill-walkers in the Lake District and North Wales. This is a reflection of higher participation levels. Hill-walking accident rates are also falling in England and Wales, but by a lower figure than rock climbing – just seven per cent. In 2013 there were 15 hill-walking fatalities in both summer and winter.
Total deaths in the last ten years also show a downward pattern. In 2003, MREW reported 37 fatalities from 595 incidents. In 2013, there were 21 fatalities from 1022 incidents. There are several reasons for this: better training, more training, more information and better equipment.
Some years are anomalous. In 2010, for example, there were 53 fatalities, three of them from lightning strikes, a rare but significant risk in the mountains. Seasonal fluctuations in temperature, wind strength and precipitation patterns can also affect the number of fatalities as they impact on issues like avalanche risk or the likelihood of making a navigation error.
Simply put, not only are some forms of climbing more dangerous than others, they can be more or less dangerous depending on conditions.
As you might expect, according to a landmark study of Scottish Mountaineering Incidents by Dr Bob Sharp in 2007, there is a gender difference in accident rates, with men at significantly greater risk, especially younger men. Men are also at much higher risk of suffering fatal injuries, by a factor of eight to one. Participation rates are roughly two to one among hill walkers, while the difference is greater for rock and ice climbing.
Bob Sharp’s study also reveals that the most common causes of incidents are poor navigation (23 per cent), bad planning (18 per cent) and inadequate equipment (11 per cent). Common shortcomings with equipment include the lack of compass, head torch or crampons on icy ground.
As Ged Feeney, statistics officer fro MREW, puts it: “the prime causes of incidents in British hills are a failure to develop skill and experience in controlled conditions, failure to temper plans to suit the ability of the least able in a party and failure to have and know how to employ the proper equipment, particularly relating to map and compass.”
There does appear to have been a sharp increase in calls to MR teams of minor incidents (usually involving casual hill-walkers) that are ‘avoidable’ if people had planned better. For instance there are examples of people not having basic navigation and map reading skills, overestimating their abilities and getting 'cragfast', not taking account of changes in the weather and getting caught out by darkness.
Alps and Greater Ranges
Climbing in the Alps and the Greater Ranges is more dangerous, as statistics prove, although the data are once again limited. Problems of glaciation and high altitude, neither of which exist in the UK, present additional risks.
Mont Blanc is the most popular glaciated mountain in Europe, prompting concern from the local authorities about inexperienced and ill-prepared climbers and environmental degradation. In the mainstream media, it’s not uncommon to see Mont Blanc’s death toll as around a hundred each season and claims that it is the most dangerous mountain in the world.
In fact, the death toll is substantially lower than that. The Petzl Foundation sponsored research that showed 17,000 climbers in the summer season of 2011 left the Tête Rousse hut for the Gôuter Ridge, the most popular route up the mountain. According to the gendarmerie, 74 climbers died on this route between 1990 and 2011. The authorities are concerned that some climbers on this route are under-prepared and over-ambitious.
Mortality rates are far higher on the world’s highest mountains, although even these statistics have been improving in the last few years. On Everest, the most popular 8,000-metre peak, a rough average of 420 people have been reaching the summit each year since the turn of the century while 94 people died trying, a mortality-success ratio of around 1.6 per cent. That has come down from around 3.2 percent in the 1990s.
According to the Himalayan Database, death rates rise as the altitude increases. Peaks in Nepal between 6,500m and 6,999 have a death rate of 0.65 per cent. On peaks over 8,000 it’s 2.11 per cent. The most deadly peak in Nepal is not Everest but Annapurna, whose death rate is over four per cent.
It is important to state that most climbers and mountaineers will never face the risks of extreme high altitude and most will have a long and accident free lifetime in the hills. Climbing and hill walking are not only life-enhancing, they also protect against ill health associated with physical inactivity and stress.
The statistical analysis of these benefits is sadly lacking.
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