Save Yourself

SYS (Save Yo Self)

Over the weekend at least two boulderers were rescued (one by helicopter) after falling off highball boulder problems in the Grampians. These accidents, plus a few others, have inspired us to remind you dear readers of something profound: bouldering is dangerous. In fact, in many ways bouldering is more dangerous than climbing on a rope, something we are not sure that most noobs understand.

When you’re bouldering you’re always falling off and (unlike roped climbing) you’re always hitting the ground and the ground is hard even when it is covered by a bouldering mat. When it comes to non-life threatening injuries, particularly lower limb injuries, bouldering is far more dangerous than rope climbing – something that’s easy to forget when you’re used to climbing in the safe, padded, cotton-wool environment of a gym.

Which brings us to the idea of self rescue. Self rescue is sometimes not possible or appropriate, particularly if you suspect spinal or head injuries or the person is in a lot of pain. But if you’ve broken an ankle or an arm it’s often possible to self rescue, particularly if you’re with a few other people. I’ve done it myself, a mate and I piggybacked someone out from high up in Central Gully at Arapiles, while another friend was carried out of Castle Hill after a bad sprain. Before cell phones self rescue used to be the norm and if you’re involved in an accident whilst bouldering it should be your first option.

Bouldering safety 1

One winter in Castle Hill; Simon ‘Arnie’ Weill carrying out Simon Atkins after a tragic bouldering mishap on the first day of a quick trip across the Tasman. Image Ross Taylor

Take a first aid kit with you. You have chalk, tape, brushes, beanie, camera, tripod and three pairs of shoes – add a basic first aid kit so that you can treat injuries immediately. Be prepared.

The more knowledgeable you are the better off you will be in an emergency. The greater your first aid skills and the clearer your thinking, the more you will be able to accurately assess your situation and the patient’s condition to make the right call on getting out or getting help.  Knowledge is power, considering skilling up and you will be more able to make a reasoned assessment of whether you can get yourselves out.

Self rescue saves calling a helicopter and getting SES volunteers out. According to Kieran Loughran from Arapiles Rescue Group writing on, Stawell SES were called out four times last weekend (28/29 April), once for an accident at the Pinnacle (presumably for a tourist), then that afternoon for a bouldering accident at Legoland, on Sunday morning at 3am they were called out for a car accident, followed by another bouldering accident at Venus Baths later that day. That’s a big workload for a small bunch of volunteers.

We want to note that our call should not be taken as an implicit criticism of the response to the accidents over the weekend. We don’t know the details of the accidents and calling in rescue could have been entirely appropriate. Afterall, you are not always going to be able to get yourself out of a pickle. If you hit your head, neck or spine, or you don’t have enough personal on hand or you are somewhere remote you will likely need the help of emergency services. It’s also worth noting, that if that does come to pass you may be surprised to find out that the air ambulance that comes to get you is not a charity. If you get picked up by a helicopter it’s easily a $10,000 flight – that’s at least one big bouldering trip overseas – and though being airlifted is costly, even a ride in a regular ambulance will set you back several thousand dollars. If you’re a climber, we would also highly recommend getting ambulance insurance .

The other obvious benefit is that the more self-sufficient we can be as a user group, the less likely we are to gain the attention of the authorities and face potential regulation.

The best way to self-rescue is not to get into trouble in the first place so we thought it prudent to put together a bit of a primer on the key things to keep you safe bouldering outdoors.


The boulderers who have hurt themselves recently may have been experienced climbers who just got unlucky, but we suspect that some of the accidents occuring of late are a result of inexperienced climbers coming out of the ever-expanding number of bouldering gyms, and this means (understandably) that they have little understanding of how dangerous bouldering can be. Today’s climbers are coming from a very controlled environment into the bush, with its boulders, trees, uneven ground, variable weather, dodgy spotters, high boulders, sloping top-outs and sometimes breaking holds. On top of that, many of these noobs can boulder hard indoors, and they expect to translate indoor grades to the outdoors, and while they may have the strength and many of the technical skills to climb hard, when it comes to safety their spotting skills, pad management and risk assessment skills are often lacking or non-existent.

For those who are new to climbing, we thought we’d put together some tips for safe bouldering.


A spotter’s primary job is to guide their climber safely onto the mat (paying particular attention to protecting the head). It’s not about catching people (although it can be if you are a big spotter). If you watch a good spotter, they will keep their eyes on the climber’s centre of gravity, they will be close enough to touch the climber (many spotters too far away to do anything), and they will move as they anticipate potential fall zones (too many spotters stay rooted to the one spot only moving their arms). If there’s a need and an opportunity, spotters can also shift pads mid-climb as the climber moves up the problem. This needs to be done carefully and is best done when there are multiple spotters, one of whom can look after moving pads.

Showing the spotting love; Damo spots Arnie, while Clarky spots Damo. No one is spotting Clarky because he's expendable. Ross Taylor

Showing the spotting love; Damo spots Arnie, while Clarky spots Damo. No one is spotting Clarky because he’s expendable. Ross Taylor

A good spotter needs to stay alert and engaged. One of my most painful memories is of a friend bouldering at the Campground Boulders while at least five of us watched her climbing through what we thought of was the easy part of a roof problem – something she’d climbed several times before – only for her to slip off (only 30cm or so) and nail her coccyx on a rocky spike. Communication is also important; check with your climber to make sure they’re okay before you stop spotting, communicate with other spotters if you need to.

Another thing to consider is the weight differential between climber and spotter. The best spotters are generally the biggest and strongest – weight counts for a lot – so if you’re a big person being spotted by a little person, it’s worth taking this into account when assessing the repercussions of a fall.

It’s also worth thinking about the spotter’s safety. Sometimes they can be placed in precarious positions themselves; think about a spotter for your spotter, or tying in your spotter with a rope and harness if it is particularly sketchy.

The BMC has put out a basic spotting guide that’s worth watching.

Pad Placement

Pad placement is also critically important. Think about where the crux of a boulder is and what kind of movement you’ll be making on the problem, this will help you anticipate where you will land. For instance, if you’re dynoing and you miss the hold you will likely drop quite vertically, but if you get the hold only to subsequently fall off at the apex of your swing then you can fall much further out from the boulder (where you might need a spotter to push you back onto the pad). These are the kinds of variations you need to be aware of when you place pads.

A lot of people throw pads down haphazardly, but it’s important that pads are organised to maximise your safety – watch out for gaps you can fall through, try to pad out rocks or holes, don’t put the edges of mats in fall zones as innumerable people have sprained or broken ankles landing on the edges of mats. Watch out for loose harnesses that can catch toes. Creative pad placement can make a fall zone much safer, poor placement can make it much more dangerous.

Finally, if you don’t have enough mats, don’t climb. Pick something lower or with a better landing.

Risk Assessment & Knowing Your Limits

Equally as important as a good spotter and careful pad placement is a simple risk assessment of a problem. Part of this is about knowing your limits. If you climb V4 then it’s probably not a good idea to try a V4 highball with a bad landing. A V4 with a bad landing is best left until you’re cruising V4s

If you or someone in your party does get seriously injured it is good to know that help can often be called in.

If you or someone in your party does get seriously injured it is good to know that help can often be called in. Image Simon Madden

Any risk assessment should take in the all the elements: height, weather conditions, the quality of your spotters, how many mats you have, the rock quality, the landing, your ability and how you’re performing that day to name a few. For most low boulders with a flat landing there’s not too much to think about, but as the height of a boulder increases or the quality of the landing decreases, it pays to think about the consequences more and more.

Highballs are also increasingly popular these days – and they are exhilarating. But what a lot of beginners and even intermediate climbers don’t realise is that they’re often not climbed ground-up, particularly the hard ones. Highballs are often climbed with pre-inspection off a rope. The holds are cleaned and chalked up, the moves practised. An experienced boulderer is rarely just setting off hoping for the best without any pre-knowledge of what to expect.

If you’re trying a highball problem and it’s at your limit, don’t just go for it blind, check it out carefully, maybe practise the fall from higher and higher points before you go for it like a hero. If it’s proper hard, bring a rope so you can clean and feel the holds, get a feel for the top out or practise the moves. A bit of wise preparation can save a perfectly good pair of ankles from destruction.

Finally, as guidebook authors, we would say don’t take guidebook grades and descriptions as gospel, use your common sense in combination with the information in the guide, as grades and information are often imperfect.

Climb safe xo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Please type the text above:

To download your free edition of Vertical Life Mag, please login to your account or create a new account by submitting your details below.

Sign Up






Lost your password?