17

In Switzerland, where I live, the communities of rock climbers and ski tourers are quite overlapping. I often rock climb in sport setups (single or multi-pitch and bouldering) but almost never go ski touring because I feel it's too dangerous in a way I cannot control. I know that ski touring on gentler slopes with good conditions is rather safe, but then it's not so interesting. I'm a good amateur skier but I'd rather go to resorts, that I mildly like, because I don't want to take this risk.

I don't know whether my feeling is backed by statistics. Most websites I found on the topic are not so solid, and they mix rock climbing with high-altitude mountaineering (e.g., Climbing is the most dangerous sport there is: Look at how many people die climbing Annapurna). In the same way, they also mix ski touring with resort skiing, which is clearly much safer (avalanche risk is minimal, you may hit or be hit by someone but help comes quite fast).

My question: is there any reference that compares in a statistically sound way the dangers of rock climbing (i.e., bouldering + single pitch + multi pitch sport climbing) with those of ski touring?

3
  • What you also need is a data of how many people are injured/killed traveling to and from the places where they perform these activities. Often that's where the biggest danger lies. Dec 11, 2023 at 4:35
  • @EndAnti-SemiticHate not if you take the train!
    – G. Gare
    Dec 11, 2023 at 7:24
  • also, from zora.uzh.ch/id/eprint/126510/1/… "The annual mortality risk of backcountry tourers due to avalanches (4.4 x 10-5 in the 2010 time period) was equal to the annual mortality risk in traffic accidents (4.2 x 10-5 as mean of the years 2007 and 2013; ASTRA, 2015). As during a year likely more time was spent in traffic than in the backcountry, one hour of touring was more dangerous than one hour of driving on a street or walking on a sidewalk."
    – G. Gare
    Dec 11, 2023 at 7:36

3 Answers 3

16

The German Alpin Club (DAV) publishes an accident report every year: DAV Bergunfallstatistik, Report for 2022
For Austria, there is the Kuratorium für Alpine Sicherheit which publishes a similar report: Alpine Unfallstatistik, 2022
For Switzerland, the Swiss Alpine Club publishes a report on emergencies: Bergnotfallstatistik, 2022
(all texts in German)

While we can assume that these reports track all deadly incidents, the big problem with all of those is finding the proper denominator. The DAV relates this to the number of members, while the other reports do not try to find such a denominator at all. The most suited denominators would be the number of members performing said activity or the number of days the activity was performed or the number of hours the activity was performed. While the first can be reasonably estimated through questionnaires, the latter are much more difficult. It can sometimes also be difficult to draw a line between activities. If I summit Finsteraarhorn in May, using skis, is this to be classified as a ski tour or as mountaineering?

As a result, the "most dangerous" activity in the DAV report is hiking, likely because it is done by most people. In general, avalanches - despite their prominence - are a small contributor in the context of deadly incidents and they are not limited to ski touring.

Also, for your personal risk, that overall statistic has only a mild influence. Avalanche risk can and needs to be managed by the individual, for example using the probabilistic methods based on Munter. It is also important to consider the difference between objective danger (avalanche, rockfall, etc.) versus the human error element that is most deadly in sport climbing.

8
  • Thanks for the pointers. It's clear that the denominator is important, there's a huge factor between hikers and more "extreme" sport practitioners. In my mind (I'll have a closer look at statistics), the risk of an avalanche can, as you write, be mitigated, but it's almost never null. Conversely, the risk of a deadly rockfall is practically zero on popular climbing routes. The other face of the medal is that a human error can be really risky when you climb. Misreading a slope for avalanche is also a human error, and also is risky... Food for thought.
    – G. Gare
    Dec 8, 2023 at 8:30
  • Indeed, in the Swiss stats incidents due to rockfalls in rock climbing were 7 in 2022 vs 56 in ski touring due to avalanches in the same year. I guess the denominator is similar in these two sports (for sure not a factor 8).
    – G. Gare
    Dec 8, 2023 at 8:36
  • In the same document, there are documented 2 climbing fatalities in 2022 vs 21 ski touring fatalities in 2022
    – G. Gare
    Dec 8, 2023 at 9:02
  • 1
    The most important step in risk reduction is proper and appropriate planning. For Switzerland there is high quality maps available with a snowsport layer that displays the slope classes s.geo.admin.ch/9840bf496c and there is also special avalanche layers in the White Risk app. Of course, there will never be zero risk, but there also is no zero risk when driving, especially mountain roads in winter
    – Manziel
    Dec 8, 2023 at 9:24
  • 1
    That may be true, but it is up to you, to make backup plans. There is no shame in doing something different. Also, choice of location can help a lot. For example, instead of booking something in Zermatt or Saas-Fee, high up in the valley, it can be an advantage to book something down in Brig. This gives you easy access to multiple regions with different conditions
    – Manziel
    Dec 11, 2023 at 9:55
9

In addition to Manziels good answer, I would like to point to another statistic, that is less fortunate. The following diagram shows the number of yearly avalanche victims since 1936 in Switzerland.

Diagram showing avalanche fatalities

The green bars show victims that died in buildings, the blue bars victims on streets and the red bars victims on the open field. As you can see, the green and blue bars are almost at zero since 1980, so roads are well protected, and likely new maps and safety requirements disallow new buildings in areas with increased avalanche risks. But the average number of casualities (gray line) has not changed significantly over the last decades, despite improved avareness and equipment (e.g. new, more powerfull avalanche transceivers).

Since we can assume that the number of people ski touring has increased significantly over the last century, the percentage of persons becoming a victim of an avalanache has dropped, so the sport has become more safe. But this doesn't help if you end up becoming a number in this statistic...

Data source

2
  • In the same source, it's interesting to notice that most victims die in a "danger 3" situation. I think there are two reasons for that: Risk 3 is the most typical danger level during a season, and people tend to accept a risk 3 but do not accept a risk 4.
    – G. Gare
    Dec 8, 2023 at 10:48
  • 5
    Level 3 is tricky. There is a huge risk difference between a low and a high 3 that is not really reflected by just looking at the number. Moreover, it is rather frequent (30% of the winter) while 4 and 5 are only forecasted for a few days each winter. See also slf.ch/de/lawinenbulletin-und-schneesituation/…
    – Manziel
    Dec 8, 2023 at 13:15
6

One source of data on injury rates in can be found at NOLS. Here they show reported injuries (1998-2007) from the Association for Experiential Education. These are programs such as run by Outward Bound and schools at various levels, under the care of trained leaders. Data are split out by "Backcountry" and "Facility" activities. Also they do not report fatalities which is what you want. Further, I believe the programs are primarily in the USA, although the AEE claims to have members in 25 different countries.

For the backcountry, they list injury rate per 1000 program days as:

  • Climbing (rock/rappelling), 40,862 program days - 0.49
  • Mountaineering rock/alpine, 17,195 program days - 0.35
  • Climbing (snow/ice), 687 program days - 2.91
  • Ski touring, 21,254 program days - 1.08

Except for the snow/ice climbing stats, the number of program days report is large enough to be statistically significant.

Bottom line: ski touring has roughly double the chance for injury compared with rock climbing or mountaineering.

As an aside, the injury rates for snowboarding and downhill skiing at ski areas, that is 'Facility' activities, are higher than for any Backcountry activities:

  • Downhill skiing at ski area - 5.15
  • Snowboarding at ski area - 16.77

If you want a good knee surgeon, find a hospital near a ski area. Many orthopedic surgeons like skiing, and there are lots of patients available.

0

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.