These days, most people learn how to climb at an indoor gym where they fail to acquire the correct skills to sport climb safely outdoors. Maurizio Ovilgia's latest book teaches you everything you need to know to sport climb safely, from how to recognise unsafe fixed gear to the unspoken rules and ethics of the sport.
This week I spoke to rock climbing legend Maurizio Oviglia about his latest book, Guida alla sicurezza in arrampicata sportiva (The Sport Climbing Safety Guide). Maurizio is an extremely accomplished climber, guide and developer who has opened over 2000 routes in countries all around the world. He is also the author of numerous award-winning climbing books and guidebooks, and currently works as the editor of the climbing magazine Vertical. We discuss what inspired him to write a book on climbing safety, whether sport climbing is a safe activity and its potential risks, and some of the most common mistakes he sees climbers making at the crag. With the summer climbing season fast approaching, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Maurizio’s book to help brush up on your sport climbing skills and learn more about this fascinating topic.
It could be said that each of your routes has been bolted from a moment of inspiration. But today, let’s talk about your latest book: Guida alla sicurezza in arrampicata sportiva. What inspired you to write a book on sport climbing safety, and what topics does it cover?
Thank you! I have been teaching climbing in CAI (Italian Alpine Club) schools for over 15 years and, aside from the historical and humanistic topics that I have always been passionate about, I am in charge of everything related to equipping routes. Over the past few years, I have been developing resources on the various types of bolts and anchors that can be found at the crag, because I realised that this topic was not often covered in manuals and courses. My latest book teaches you how to build an anchor, how to thread the rope and abseil, and what to do when you encounter a situation that is different from what you are used to. It is these moments when you are out of your depth that pose the greatest risks in sport climbing.
I also realised that we mountaineers—or former mountaineers—always know how to get by. Our training and experiences have accustomed us to finding adequate solutions in any situation. But many people these days learn how to climb at an indoor gym and don’t acquire the same skillset. So they take risks by improvising, or following the advice of other climbers who also don’t know the correct practices. Some people even learn from tutorials on youtube! I therefore had the idea of creating a small and inexpensive booklet to try and fill this knowledge gap…
On your website, you describe the book as ‘everything you need to know to recognize dangerous situations in sport climbing and how to deal with them safely’. What are some of the dangerous situations one might commonly encounter while sport climbing?
I often hear instructors on sport climbing courses saying: “you have to be careful to tie your knot correctly and make sure that the rope is not too short, or it can go through the end of the belay device while lowering your climber. If you do these things correctly, then everything is safe.” In reality, this is not the case at all. Sport climbing is NOT a safe sport, it is an activity conducted at a height and therefore some element of risk is unavoidable. We can reduce these risks through adequate preparation and behaviour. But while the risks can be minimised, they can never be fully eliminated.
Dangerous situations in sport climbing can be divided into two broad categories, leaving aside the dangers outside of our control such as rockfalls and rain, and other things that are assumed to be minimal in sport climbing. These are: dangers resulting from incorrectly performed manoevers, and dangers relating to the fixed gear we find—especially if we cannot tell if it is safe or not. My book tries to cover all the possible scenarios in these two categories.
You also wrote that the guide discusses the ethics of sport climbing, and its written and unwritten rules. Would you mind summarizing some of these for the newer sport climbers in our audience? Aside from the basics, such as not pulling on the draws or stepping on bolts, what is important to remember?
There are certain ‘rules’—or rather habits—which aren’t as universally known, and which a climber usually learns by talking to someone with more experience. These may at first catch you unprepared. I’ll give you some examples: who grades the routes? Who decides how far apart the bolts are? Can I change the grade or the bolting of a historic route? Can I chip holds? Can I change them? Why are there runouts and why do runouts exist if sport climbing is supposed to be safe? These are just a few examples of the topics that are obvious to the experienced climber, but not at all to the novice.
I work part time as a rock climbing instructor (mostly indoors at the moment!). One of the questions I get asked the most by clients looking to start sport climbing outdoors is how to tell if the fixed gear, such as bolts and anchors, is well maintained and safe to use. How would you reply?
I’d sell them my book right away! I’m joking, but in all seriousness, I think the real question is how to recognise a safe route from one that is unsafe? First of all, you need to learn to recognise the fixed gear. Then, you need to understand how bolts and anchors should be fixed when this is done in a ‘state of the art’ way.
I have bolted thousands of routes to date, but over the years I realised that only about 1 in 100 climbers is interested in learning to bolt or volunteering their time to maintain crags. The rest just climb assuming that everying is safe or that there are people who will ensure that the routes are safe for them—just like at an indoor climbing wall. I won’t debate whether this is right or not, but it is the current reality and it’s useless for us older climbers to blurt out “in my day it wasn’t like that” or “don’t go sport climbing if you don’t know how to be safe”. It’s not possible to oblige novice climbers to take a course before climbing outdoors, as you would do when learning to drive. So it’s necessary to find other means of teaching climbers how to keep themselves safe, and produce resources allowing them to learn on their own.
In terms of personal climbing equipment, what do you recommend sport climbers bring with them to the crag? When should we think about replacing important safety equipment such as ropes, harnesses and quickdraws?
There is a whole chapter dedicated to this in the book. Your questions tells me I was right to include it!
The chapter is authored by a mountain guide who helps companies with employees working at height to decide when to retire equipment. There are strict guidelines for this in the world of work, since an accident would necessarily trigger an inquiry into whether best practices were being followed or not. In recreational sport climbing, however, everyone has to make these decisions for themselves. But remember, your climbing partner often uses some of your equipment too, assuming that you know when to replace it!
Finally, what are some potentially dangerous incorrect practices that you see happening a lot at the crag? For example, I’ve seen a lot of people seconding overhanging routes on the wrong end of the rope, then falling off and nearly kicking their belayer over as they swing.
I would say that the most dangerous practice—and the one I see most frequently—is to second a route without having threaded the rope through the anchor. A lot of people just leave two quickdraws in the anchor, or even worse, just one! When the second arrives at the anchor, they must carry out this manoeuvre themselves. At this point, a small error can have fatal consequences as the rope will no longer be in any of the quickdraws below. There has been more than one fatal accident because of this.
In addition to this, there are many other practices which I often see that are not exactly correct, or that cause a lot of confusion. I have often argued with climbers at the crag who are convinced that their behaviour was safe without being willing to humbly reconsider or revise their habits.
That’s great to note, and I think we can all learn something from your book! Thanks so much for your time.
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A huge thank you to Maurizio for his time, insights and photos.
Guida alla sicurezza in arrampicata sportiva will be available to buy from the 11th June 2021. Find out more at the Pietra di Luna website
In the meantime, if you'd like to go on a guided sport climbing trip we have a variety of destinations to choose from. No matter whether you're a beginner or a project-seeking pro, there's a Mapo Tapo trip for you!