Avoid Complacency, Stay Alive

A few basic checks are the difference between life and death – put safety first, always.

To the outsider, rock climbing may seem like a wildly dangerous sport that attracts those eager to enjoy some near-death experiences. However, climbing has a pretty low risk of injury and death compared to other sports. Plus, once you’ve learned all the essential safety skills and grown to trust your gear, body and belayer/spotter, it feels no more dangerous than taking a jog (and way more fun, obviously). This is what we tell beginners – “Don’t worry, there’s no reason to be scared – I’ve got you, I’ve been doing this for years and the gear is solid.” With all of this put together, it’s easy to see why even the most experienced climbers can fall into complacency.

At the beginning of the climbing journey, we put a lot of time and energy into getting comfortable with dangerous activities. As we progress, we not only get accustomed to the risks, but we move on to learning new skills and tackling new environments – the basics become second-nature, and it’s tempting to skip elementary safety procedures like checking that your knot is tied correctly, squeeze-testing carabiners and performing a buddy check before climbing. However, these little things make a huge difference, as many – if not the majority – of climbing accidents are caused by simple, very avoidable mistakes.

For example, Lynn Hill’s only major climbing accident occurred when she forgot to finish tying her knot at the top of a climb in France in 1989, and she fell almost 25m – she’s lucky to be alive. Others have been less fortunate, with other fatal mistakes including going off the end of a rope during a rappel (which could have been avoided with safety knots) or sloppy belaying.

It’s a tough problem to tackle, with mistakes being an unavoidable part of human nature. As Paula Sagar writes in this article from UKClimbing, “If you think that could never happen to me”, or “I would never make such a mistake”, well the truth is you’re either deluded or a liar. Nobody can give 100% concentration, 100% of the time. And somewhat ironically, the more experienced you are, the more likely you are to get complacent, act on autopilot, letting your gaze and mind wander.”

No-one likes a sloppy, unattentive belayer. Always keep an eye on your climber (or at least their rope when your climber disappears over a ledge).

The best shot we have is consistently reminding ourselves and others to complete essential checks – even if they’re boring or redundant or you feel uncool putting safety first instead of third. Here are a few things to bear in mind to ensure you don’t fall victim to complacency:


While disciplines like alpine and ice climbing pose more danger than your local gym, climbing is climbing and it is always dangerous. In a colourful building with pumping music, fun buddies and watchful staff, the risk of injury and death seems far removed… but people have died in climbing gyms, and the cause is almost always complacency. For example, a woman tragically died in 2021 because she incorrectly clipped in to the autobelay, let go at the top of the wall and fell to the ground. Similar auto-belay accidents have occurred when climbers forget to clip in altogether. This can so easily be avoided by performing basics checks before beginning climbing, like checking that you’re double-backed and the carabiner is locked. Another common cause of injury is inattentive or incorrect belaying; in fact, according to this article from 2018, belaying mistakes accounted for the majority of indoor climbing accidents. Simple things like keeping your hand on the dead end of the rope (even with an assisted-braking device like the GriGri), keeping your eye on your climber the whole time, and avoiding chats with surrounding climbers can be the difference between life and death.

Whether you’re out in the Alps or down the road in a gym, climbing is climbing and you need to go through every boring check EVERY SINGLE TIME – it’s your life on the line here.

The giant signs and triangle are there for a reason. Read them and make sure you clip in safely before using an autobelay


We’ve kind of covered this point, but the key to defeating complacency is redundancy and repetition! So, once again, never ever skip your checks. Before you climb, always inspect your own harness and knots, check your buddies, and get them to double check you. You also need to ensure that you have clear communication from start to finish – figure out what commands mean what, and go over procedures like cleaning routes (e.g. remind your belayer to only take you off belay once you’ve weight-tested the system). This may seem silly in a gym, but when you’re out on a multi-pitch in a howling gale, you’ll be grateful that you and your parter have nailed down basic communication. Additionally, give your gear an inspection every now and then, or take it in to your local gear shop and ask the staff to give their expert opinion.

ALWAYS do your pre-climb checks before climbing, even if you’ve been climbing for +20 years!


While it’s a bit of an awkward topic, we have to address the role of the ego in climbing accidents. Climbing is pretty damn cool, and it can be hard not to get wrapped up in the badassery of it all – especially if you’re surrounded with adventure buddies of the safety-third persuasion. You might feel dumb wearing a helmet on a grade 15 sport climb, or asking your friend to check your harness and knots before every route, and people may give you a hard time about it. But you know what’s cooler than being cool? Not caring what people think, and making sure you can live a long, happy and healthy life. PLUS, the safer you are, the more crazy your adventures can be, because you know how to handle yourself when the going gets tough.

Taking yet another butt-shot of your friend could end in disaster (especially if you let go of the dead end or unlock the auto-locking belay device)

Death and complacency aren’t the jolliest of conversation topics, but these are important discussions we need to have if we’re going to frolic about in the mountains. Life is precious and it needs to be actively protected. So, do the boring checks, make sure your friends do the same, call out dangerous behaviour, forget looking cool, and climb safe.

DISCLAIMER: The pictures in this article were staged for the sake of education – please PLEASE do not emulate them.

Learn more about the dangers of complacency and how to stay safe with the below resources:





https://www.rockandice.com/climbing-accidents/complacency-and-consequences (Climbing.com Member Exclusive)

https://www.climbing.com/skills/john-long-this-is-the-worst-enemy-to-safety/ (Climbing.com Member Exclusive)

https://www.rockandice.com/climbing-accidents/complacency-safetys-worst-enemy/ (Climbing.com Member Exclusive)