June 7, 2021
A few weeks ago I spoke with Maurizio Oviglia about his latest book, Guida alla sicurezza in arrampicata sportiva (The Sport Climbing Safety Guide). This week, I want to take this conversation further by sharing a few tips on climbing safety in remote areas.
Since working on the Climbing Travel Guide, I’ve ended up with a long list of places I’d like to visit for a climbing trip. A very long list, in fact. Most of the crags on this list are pretty remote - after all, the Climbing Travel Guide does feature ‘the world’s best off-the-beaten track climbing destinations’! And while that’s great, it’s made me realize that I’ve never really climbed anywhere that remote before.
I decided to chat with some of the mountain guides who worked with us on the Climbing Travel Guide about how to climb safely in these remote areas. Climbing in a remote area poses a different set of risks and challenges to climbing at your average local crag. These are mostly to do with the fact that rescues take much longer - or, in some cases, there may be no rescue infrastructure at all. You also can’t just walk back to your car 10 minutes away if you forget any kit, water or food, or need shelter from the elements.
The following is not an exhaustive list of climbing safety tips. Instead, I’ve put together a few things to bear in mind before planning a trip to a remote climbing area, so that you can enjoy these beautiful crags safely and responsibly. I hope that you find it useful!
But first, what counts as a remote rock climbing area?
An individual’s definition of a ‘remote area’ is incredibly subjective. A sport climber based in Western Europe might regard a climbing crag with an hour-long walk-in as ‘remote’, while this can be standard in other areas of the world. For this piece, I’ve decided to go with the definition of ‘remote area’ most often used in expedition medicine. By this definition, a remote area is any area more than an hour away from a facility where you can receive medical attention - usually a hospital.
Esteban Degregori climbing in Arroyo Chacay, Northern Patagonia © Alan Schwer
Our top 10 tips for climbing safely in remote areas
1. Do your research!
This point may sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Do some research using reliable resources (talking to local climbers and mountain guides is always best) on the following:
The local wildlife: Is there any potentially dangerous wildlife in the area you plan to climb in, and if so, how can you manage it? Think about whether you need to pack anything in your first aid kit (e.g. a venom remover or epipen) to help protect you against this. Bear spray is crucial if heading into bear territory!
2. Learn some relevant first aid.
There’s plenty of great courses for learning basic first aid, but if you’re going somewhere very remote then we recommend taking a Wilderness First Responder course.
Before heading out, make sure your first aid kit contains all the necessary items to keep you healthy and safe. Don’t forget to replace items you use.
Todd Helgeson climbing Romanian High-Step at the Gargoyle, Alaska as it neared midnight © Kelsey Gray
3. Learn some self-rescue techniques.
This is absolutely essential!
Julián, a mountain guide from Bariloche in Argentine Patagonia, notes: “When I go out on rescues, the time it takes to assemble a team and get to the bottom of a route is generally the same amount of time it takes the climbers to self-rescue off the route. If we have to climb up and rescue someone from the route, their chances of survival are much slimmer.”
Luca, a guide and outdoor instructor based in Armenia, stressed that in areas where there are no rescue services, you should always head out prepared to self-rescue - “even if you’re just going on a two hour hike”.
Make sure you practice your self-resuce techniques in a more accessible, safe climbing area. You don’t want to be trying them for the first time during an emergency!
4. Check the weather!
It may sound obvious, but always check the weather (including the wind speed and direction) before heading out to climb. Remember that the weather can change quickly, so pack for all eventualities: in colder climates a good raincoat, windbreaker and down jacket are highly recommended. If you’re not sure about the quality of your rain gear test it under the shower.
5. Tell someone about your plans before heading out.
“Make a plan A, B and C, and tell someone about them,” says Julián. “For example, if I’m climbing in Frey [a world-class climbing area near Bariloche] I’ll go to the refugio before heading out and tell them which route I plan to climb and what time they should expect me back. I’ll also tell them about all my backup plans.”
If you’re trying for a particular objective, such as climbing a peak or longer multi-pitch route, you can help keep yourself safe by setting some strict turnaround times. This way you avoid having to descend in the dark or when fatigue can increase the risk of an accident.
Climbers on Torre Principal in Frey, Argentine Patagonia © Alan Schwer
6. Keep your climbing objectives well within your limits.
Climbing safety essentially boils down to avoiding accidents. These are most likely to occur when you are pushing the limits of your grade or skills. A remote area is certainly not the place to do this!
Remember that grading can vary hugely between countries and even crags, so it’s important to keep well within your limits if you’re heading somewhere remote. Route-finding is also typically more difficult in these areas as there won’t be any chalk marks to guide you. “Be conservative about the number of pitches you can do in a day,” Julián recommends. “It’s not uncommon for professional climbers to take a whole day to do a 4 pitch 6a in Frey.”
Julián’s rule of thumb when climbing in an area you’ve never visited before is to “start close then go further away, start easy before trying something hard”. In other words, spend a few days at the start of your trip doing some easy mileage in accessible crags. This way, you can get used to the approaches, grading and climbing style and avoid any nasty surprises while in a potentially riskier environment.
7. Factor in some extra time for the approach.
Anyone who has been climbing or hiking with me knows that my navigation skills are terrible. Seriously, I’ve got lost on a ten minute approach before! I recommend factoring in some extra time for your approach in case you get lost - this way you can ensure you leave enough time to complete your climbing objectives without having to finish in the dark. Kelsey, an Alaskan climber and author of the Alaska climbing guide, notes that you should check if your approach includes a river crossing, and find out the safest location and means of doing this.
Peter Rosso climbing Pressure Pump (7a) in Dilijan, Armenia © Kim McGrenere
8. Be flexible and use your common sense.
Being flexible and knowing when to abandon your objective is crucial to climbing safely. The weather may change, routes may take more time than expected, or something totally unforeseen could occur. Having a backup plan (or two!) is important not only for your morale, but because it can stop you from becoming so fixated on achieving that goal that you put yourself in danger.
It’s well worth planning out some potential scenarios ahead of time. What will you do if the weather changes suddenly, you drop a crucial piece of kit or have a high gravity day?
9. Think carefully about what kit to bring.
It can be tempting to pack light, especially when heading out for a multi-day expedition. However, it’s important not to leave behind any pieces of kit that you need to stay healthy and safe, or that might be useful in an emergency. Luca notes: “when packing, think about what the consequences of excluding a certain piece of kit might be”.
I got a variety of replies when I asked the guides what they considered to be essential kit. Raingear and water purification tablets (or a filtration system) are particularly important. In terms of climbing safety equipment, it really depends on what you plan to do. A progress capture pulley device can be useful if you need to haul items and an A.T.C. in case you need to rappel. It’s also always worth bringing a grigri, no matter how much you hate them...
10. If in doubt, hire a local mountain guide.
If you have any doubts about your ability to rock climb safely in a remote area, then hire a local guide! Not only is it the safest option, but they’ll have tonnes of useful knowledge on the area and can show you the best routes. It’s also a great way to get to know the local climbing community.
Todd Helgeson climbing in Hatcher Pass, Alaska © Kelsey Gray
* * *
A huge thank you to Luca Keushguerian, Julián López and Kelsey Gray for their time and advice. Make sure you get in contact with them if travelling to any of the crags in Armenia, Argentina, Alaska or Thailand mentioned in the Climbing Travel Guide.
Thanks to Alan Schwer, Kelsey Gray and Kim McGrenere for the incredible photos of these remote climbing areas. More of their work can be found in the Climbing Travel Guide, available now from the Mapo Tapo Shop
Cover photo caption: José Bonacalza exploring routes in Valle Encantado, Argentine Patagonia © Alan Schwer