I have been both lead climbing and bouldering for a number of years and have had many experiences with danger and risk in both Disciplines. After some research of academic studies I have come to the conclusion…
Bouldering is Much more likely to result in an injured climber because there is much more to go wrong. Bouldering relies on soft mats to protect you from Potentially fatal falls. Rope climbing has a more severe potential if something does go wrong, but the risk potential is lower. You can be hundereds of meters of the ground, but the safety systems in place makes accidents less frequent in roped climbing.
so theres the short answer, nice and concise because I want to win the google snippet… but there is so much more to cover in this topic there is no way the conclusion I have come to is the definite answer.
Please carry on reading as I develop the answer and shed light onto the numerous aspects that can dictate your answer.
Risk Vs Danger
There are two ways people look at ‘Dangerous’. Risk and Danger.
For the short answer I have stated bouldering is more likey to result in injury, so we can say its more RISKY.
The difference between the two is; Danger is the Potential outcome, what could really happen IF something goes wrong.
I think you all agree roped climbing is much more DANGEROUS than bouldering because roped climbers are commonly looking at falls of at least 10 meters.
If something were to go wrong with the safety systems, the potential outcome is much more Severe.
‘High Balling’ is blurring the lines between ropes and bouldering fall potentials but thats a topic for another day!
We can agree then roped climbing is much more dangerous, but the risk is much higher in bouldering because your actually taking groundfalls and just falling much more frequently than in roped climbing.
Bouldering also relies on mats to break your fall and most of the outcome is dictated by how you land, if you land on the edge of the mat or land a bit sideways its pretty common to break an ankle or wrist.
I am being very broad when i say ‘roped climbing’ because some people will consider traditional climbing, a discipline where you secure your own safety as your climbing up, much more dangerous and risky but I will say trad is much less risky than bouldering!
The general ethos of trad is to be safe and controlled and MINIMIZE risk.
Of course the danger potential is still greater, and the risk involved in trad is higher than that in sport climbing.
Its just generally people stay well within there comfort zone in trad climbing.
Its how you fall on a rope that makes it much less risky.
Ground falls are pretty uncommon in climbing, you generally just fall down through the air untill the rope catches you, and then you swing back into the wall.
20% of all serious injuries in colorado valley resulted from ground falls and belay problems.
I wrote a full post on it here.
Im not saying roped climbing isnt risky, of course it is, but the falls are generally controlled and very rarely have severe outcomes.
One common example is hitting a protruding ledge and smashing your ankles.
Even just swinging back into the wall without breaking your fall properly with your legs can cause serious injury.
If you were spinning as you fell for example and went back into the wall head first, it can have serious impacts.
Its just that these examples are much less common in roped climbing, than the risks and injuries occuring in bouldering.
Generally when you have a fall lead climbing you just drop down through the air and then hopefully get a nice soft catch from your belayer, you break the rest of your fall with your legs as you approach the wall, if you even do come back into contact with the wall.
on overhangs a lead fall can be the LEAST risky, you simply fall into empty space if your climb is overhung slightly.
Thats why i always encourage people to begin practicing falls on slightly overhung terrain, you just fall into thin air.
Just recently I took a good sized fall onto my trusty boulder mat and I was predominantly ok!
My heels and knees hurt a bit but I landed on my feet and absorbed most of the fall with my legs. However it could have been so much worse.
People often miss the mat with one foot and break something, and this is why bouldering is more risky.
If you had the ability to take thirty pads to your boulder project,
Theres a good chance you will be completely okay, because most of the injuries occur when the climber misses the protection and lands on a the solid ground below.
Bouldering pads do an amazing job of absorbing impacts.
Before bouldering mats were a thing, no one really went bouldering other than the hardcore few who used pieces of carpet to clean there shoes and ‘protect’ the climb, because you were constantly just falling onto the floor or adjacent rocks!
You can see why its much more risky.
Even landing on the pad not on your feet will at least wind you, its never the softest landing.
There is another aspect of why bouldering falls are more risky, and its the intensity of bouldering.
Most bouldering is really overhung, or features jumps or swings and you can often find yourself parallel to the ground, which is why the falls are more risky.
Theres more chance when you fall bouldering you will be at a funny angle to the ground, or you will fall out of control and this is a huge factor in injury likelyhood as we previously mentioned.
Boulderers are generally looking for the next hard boulder, with bigger or more intense moves, and this is a big contribution to why exactly falls are more frequent.
These unpredictable falls on commiting moves doesnt lend well to landing precisely or in controll.
Big and or insecure moves are exactly how people miss the pads and get themselves injured, and its what boulderers are looking for! at least i am.
Compared to roped climbing where your fall is arrested by the rope, not your arms or legs on the initial impact.
Indoors vs Out
I have so far generally been evaluating the outdoor disciplines because the indoor variants have much better controls and systems in place to minimise risk to a level where they can be offered to the public.
Indoor roped climbing is much safer because there are no protruding ledges or rusty protection, The floors are generally a special ‘rubbercrumb’ to absorb some force and theres probably an Instructor supervising peoples activity and technique to minmise Human error.
Climbing indoors feels much safer, wouldnt you agree? your in a buisness, thousands of people climb there a year and no one gets hurt, thats only outside people get injured we assume.
While indoor climbing incidents is much lower than outdoors this Safe indoor feeling makes people much more complacent and relaxed to the potential dangers there facing.
Tragically, this safe environemt provides a false sense of security, a study from a 5-year prospective study in Germany found there were thirty incidents over the course of the 5 year study.
Thankfully none of them were fatal.
That study gives us the figure of 0.02 Injuries per 1000 Climbing hours indoors. Another study looking at Rock Climbing injury rates from 2008 reports 4.2 Injuries per 1000 Climbing hours Outdoors.
Digging into the two studies reveals though, a whopping 93% of the injuries from the outdoor study were overuse injuries… you know like, inflamed elbows or sore tendons.
Generally avoidable and certainly not serious injuries.
The indoor studies reports only 50% of there injuries were ‘UIAA MedCom grade 2’ eg. tendon ruptures or dislocation.
Shockingly though, 43% were grade 3 injuries; Major injury or illness and may heal with or without permanent damage.
This category includes frostbite with amputation for a general guage, and 7% of incidents reported were grade 4.
Thankfully there were no fatalities but that means 7% still had ‘acute mortal danger’ and healed with permanent damage.
Statistically Indoor climbing is more dangerous.
There are some takeaways from the study that we can all impliment to make our sport less risky for all involved.
The one most common reason for the injuries in the indoor study was improper belaying technique.
We all know letting go of our belay device or setting it up incorrectly can be fatal for the climber but its this safe atmosphere indoor climbing provides that lends itself to people not taking there responsibilities as seriously as they should have.
These injuries and the two that were caused by ‘tying an improper knot’ in the study are human errors and can mostly be avoided.
Please get into the routine of ‘buddy checking’ before you climb, it can prevent so many human error mistakes and ensure we all stay safe, along with other benefits i mention in this post.
Every Authority in climbing including our national governing body the British Mountaineering Council advocate ‘Buddy checks’ before you climb.
These checks ensure the belay and knot is correct and it forces both climbers to acknowledge the potential dangers that there about to face.
I think this is healthy because it will remind climbers there safety depends on them, there is potental for fatalities even indoors.
To minimise roped climbing risk, Buddy check!
Tell your partner you are doing one, and then asses both the knot and the Belay, look out for tangles in the rope, make sure the knot is through both pieces of the harness and so on!
your partner will also participate and have a second check of the knot and belay.
To minimise bouldering risk have as many pads as you can, join with other bouldering groups to effectively pad a whole area if your working on the same boulder, or close variations.
Next get your fellow boulderers to ‘Spot’ you when your climbing.
This means if you fall the individual closest to you can help direct your body towards the mat, and away from protruding rocks or sidewalls for example.
Well we have reached the end of this Article,
Let me know what you think, I really enjoyed writing this one!
and i hope it brought you some value.