A little grim this but I was discussing free soloing with a non-climber in work and I said

"Well once you get over a certain height you're not going to survive a fall anyway so anything over this doesn't really make much of a difference."

... which got me thinking, how high is too high?

I'd guess it's reasonably low. So does anyone have any empirical evidence of how high a fall a human being can fall and survive (though not necessarily walk away from)?

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    It doesn't matter where you fall from, it matters what you fall on. – Atsby Apr 7 '15 at 17:51
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    My suggestion to people who free solo: don't fall. – Ben Crowell Apr 8 '15 at 5:38
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    @Atsby No, what matters is a great many variables. The surface you're impacting with is certainly important, but it's not the sole determining factor. Falls from 100+ feet onto solid surfaces have a near-100% mortality rate, but there have been remarkable exceptions. – b1nary.atr0phy Sep 18 '17 at 4:39
up vote 50 down vote accepted

It's not the fall that gets you, it's the sudden stop at the end. The most detailed data on the effects of large accelerations (or equivalently, decelerations) on the human body comes from research into spaceflight and aircraft ejection systems. There is a very detailed paper from NASA here, from which figure 5 (p. 36) is most useful.

The summary is:

  • it depends a lot on where and which way up you land - feet-first onto a soft surface is best (pretty obvious)
  • For a hard surface, assuming you don't land on your head, up to about 12m/s impact velocity, you are almost certain to survive (corresponding to a fall from a height of just over 7m). Though "survive" is likely to involve life-changing injuries at the top of this range
  • Between 12 and 17m/s you may or may not survive (corresponding to about 7m - 12m)
  • Over 17m/s you are almost certain not to survive (corresponding to over 12m)
  • This seems to state the most litigate study, so you get the answer – Liam Apr 8 '15 at 12:25
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    That should be legitimate BTW... – Liam Apr 9 '15 at 7:56
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    There are various documented cases of people falling from planes and surviving though so there is no definative height, it depends how you land and if anything you land on cusions your fall. – JamesRyan Apr 9 '15 at 15:10
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    Do you have a reference for the water being best? As a non compressable material I thought it was actually quite bad (not as bad as rock and concrete obviously) and that bushes/trees (avoiding large branches) or soft earth may be better with an incline being even better (not a very rigourous link but: wikihow.com/Survive-a-Long-Fall) – Richard Tingle Apr 10 '15 at 21:28
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    Sadly a climber recently died in a 20 foot / 6 metres fall - grough.co.uk/magazine/2015/04/23/… – Paul Lydon Apr 23 '15 at 18:23

There is no specific distance from which a person can fall and have it said they will survive or not survive. There are simply too many variables that will dominate the factor of "distance."

In 1971, flight attendant Vesna Vulović fell 10,160 meters (~33,300 ft) and survived without a parachute. On the other hand 556,000 people died in 2013 from slip-and-fall accidents from essentially 0 meters.

Any studies I could find cite too many variables such as your physical condition, what you land on, the orientation of how you land, any obstacles that may have changed the way you fell, how fast; even what you are wearing can change survivability.

Anecdotally, pole workmen and tree arborists seem to cite 9 meters (~30 ft) as the "cutoff" for fatality in a fall — that is, most who fall from thirty feet or higher die. Figure that after only 27 meter (~90 feet) of free fall, you are traveling over 80 km/h (~50 mph). Survivability at those speeds is just not that high.

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    Concerning the Vesna Vulović case, note that she was not in free fall, she was inside the plane when it crashed after falling the distance. – Michael Borgwardt Apr 7 '15 at 15:23
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    @MichaelBorgwardt Ivan Chisov supposedly survived a free fall from 7000m. Of course you'd reach terminal velocity well before that. – goldilocks Apr 7 '15 at 16:24
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    Alan Magee's 22,000 ft fall would make a better example since it was a true free fall without a parachute (instead of in plane wreckage like @MichaelBorgwardt pointed out). Of course because of terminal velocity there isn't really a big difference between 22,000 ft and 500 ft. – SLuck49 Apr 7 '15 at 16:28
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    @goldilocks - Interestingly, your velocity decreases while in free fall after you reach terminal velocity, because the density of the air increases as your elevation decreases, providing more resistance. – ShemSeger Apr 7 '15 at 17:49
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    @ShawnHolzworth - Magee only survived because the glass roof of the railroad station he crashed into somehow mitigated some of the force of his fall. Had he hit solid ground he would have died instantly. The fact that he was unconscious during free fall probably saved his life too. Hitting the ground like a limp noodle actually reduces the severity of your injuries. – ShemSeger Apr 7 '15 at 18:48

16ft (5m)

When rock climbing, you're pretty much guranteed to be landing on rock if you fall. When I trained in CSPS and EMP III, the magic number was 16ft (~5m). If someone fell from upright with their feet above that height or higher onto a solid surface, then they were an instant bag and drag, aka: strapped to a spine-board and rushed to the hospital.

Unless you land on your feet, and you have the leg strength to soak up the force of the landing or you have the skills to tuck and roll, then you're either going to break bones or suffer internal injuries. You won't die instantly from this height (unless you land on your head or neck) but you will be at risk of dying from shock if you can't get help.

So, according to emergency first-aid responders (in Canada), the answer to your question would be; a fall from any height above 16ft or 5m can result in serious injury that could lead to death.

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    That seems way too low. The crux of Midnight Lighting is at 4.6m, which means your feet are above that for the mantle. It is not a fun fall, but it isn't lethal. – StrongBad Apr 8 '15 at 0:17
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    @StrongBad - Do you think you stand on top of that crux and fall over backward without a crashpad without getting seriously hurt? 5m is when we automatically assumed spinal. I didn't say it was going to happen every-time, I said it was when injuries can start getting serious enough to kill you. – ShemSeger Apr 8 '15 at 0:54
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    Random story: My uncle was a stuntman, he fell out of a helicopter at 300' (~91m) while filming a stunt and landed in a parking lot. When people rushed to help him, he got up and said, "Did you get that on camera?". He died later in the hospital from internal injuries. He literally got up and walked after his fall, his frame survived the fall because he was a stocky rugby player, but his insides couldn't take the impact. – ShemSeger Apr 8 '15 at 1:03
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    FWIW, that's a fairly standard number in the rigging world. You assume any fall over 15 feet is potentially lethal and take appropriate safety precautions. Since the question has no meaningful answer, this is as good as any. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Apr 8 '15 at 1:15
  • I guess the fact that I would not take additional precautions for a "potentially lethal" fall beyond what I'd take for a fall that will merely cripple me without being lethal, is part of the reason the question looks a bit artificial to me ;-p – Steve Jessop Apr 10 '15 at 9:39

This doctor's blog claims that:

The median height leading to death is about 49 feet (15 meters), or about 4 to 5 storeys. 100% of victims die after falling 85 feet (25 meters), or about 8 storeys.

Obviously, the 100% figure is incorrect as there have been individual people who survived higher falls.

In any case, the height alone is not decisive. It makes a huge difference what surface you fall on and in what position. You'd have a pretty good chance to survive a 20 meter fall legs-first onto half a meter of snow on top of grassy ground, while a 5 meter drop head first onto concrete or rock is almost certainly fatal.

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    It's not clear to me what the "median height leading to death" tells us; it would seem to be mostly influenced by the sorts of falls that people typically experience. More relevant (though this doctor doesn't give a number) would be the height at which 50% of victims die. See Paul Paulsen's answer. – reo katoa Apr 7 '15 at 16:54
  • People who have fallen from higher and did not die, had something to break their fall (trees, water, snow, etc...). Falling 25m onto solid ground, with nothing to slow you down or cushion the impact will certainly kill 100% of victims. – ShemSeger Apr 7 '15 at 18:31
  • @ShemSeger Your assumption is 100% false. There are recorded cases of people surviving falls of hundreds of feet onto solid surfaces. One such example outlined here describes a 28yo man who survived a 300ft vertical drop onto solid rock. – b1nary.atr0phy Sep 18 '17 at 4:30

There is no such thing as this certain height.

You can fall from a chair, hit your head badly and be right dead. On the other hand, a couple of people fell thousands of meters (without parachutes...) and survived.

Some things affecting the outcome of the fall are: Your posture (head/feet first), the surface (water, rock, snow, trees or bushes...) and protective gear. And, of course, there is always a lot of luck involved.

Some facts:
Wikipedia cites that 50% of children who fall from 4 to 5 storeys (12 to 15 meters) high die. On the other hand, after falling approximately 450 meters you have reached terminal velocity, which means you don´t get faster. So after that, your survival chances should be - more or less - unaltered.

  • This isn't about kids/people, but Radiolab has an episode where they talk about cats falling from windows/buildings. According to the article published in a vet journal out of 22 cats who fell from over 8 stories high only 1 died. One of the cats fell from 30+ stories and only had minor injuries. – Erik Oct 28 '15 at 14:58
  • Cats are much lighter than people and therefore have a much lower terminal velocity. – Peter Green Nov 27 '15 at 14:16
  • @PeterGreen I wouldn´t be too sure about that. Cats are also a lot smaller, so they have a lower air resistance. However, their body is a lot better in absorbing falls than human bodies, so this might be the point. – Paul Paulsen Feb 13 '16 at 10:01
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    @PaulPaulsen For objects of similar shape and density area goes as the square of dimention while mass goes as the cube of dimension. So smaller objects usually have a lower terminal velocity. – Peter Green Feb 13 '16 at 10:28
  • @PeterGreen: I didn´t notice that. Thanks for pointing it out to me! – Paul Paulsen Feb 16 '16 at 10:23

I knew a guy who was a medical examiner for the State Coroner. He dealt with a lot of people who had jumped from things. His rule was "Jump from seven, straight to heaven" ie 7th floor or more if you wanted to go right now rather than after a very painful interval.

The extract from a report linked below might be of assistance, and the report is well worth the read and should be quite accessible to those without a medical background.

The American College of Surgeons' Committee on Trauma (ACS-COT) defines a critical threshold for a fall height in adults as > 20 feet (6 meters), as part of the field triage decision scheme for transport to a designated trauma center [3]. A retrospective analysis of 101 patients who survived vertical deceleration injuries revealed an average fall height of 23 feet and 7 inches (7.2 meters), confirming the notion that survivable injuries occur below the critical threshold of a falling height around 20-25 feet [1]. A more recent study on 287 vertical fall victims revealed that falls from height of 8 stories (i.e. around 90-100 feet) and higher, are associated with a 100% mortality [4]. Thus, a vertical falling height of more than 100 feet is generally considered to constitute a "non-survivable" injury.

Survival following a vertical free fall from 300 feet: The crucial role of body position to impact surface

Generally a fall of 50-60 ft will kill almost anyone. However, I had a friend fall of the back of a motorcycle that was not moving, and he died because he hit his head on a rock, so go figure. A number of people have survived falls of 100-200 ft without substantial injury. There are three people who have survived falls of 10,000 feet:

  1. An airline passenger who fell into the jungle in South America after the plane tore apart. She was still strapped in her seat, not badly injured and survived in the jungle for 10 days until she found help.
  2. A pregnant sky diver whose chute did not deploy. Her emergency 'chute deployed entangled and she hit face first into asphalt. Although she had extensive injuries to her frame, she and the baby both survived.
  3. A sky diver whose chute or emergency chute deployed. He landed in a blueberry bush without substantial injuries.

As other answers have mentioned, there are too many factors to determine a fatal fall height. However, the rule of thumb for determining if there's a likely mechanism of injury for a spinal injury is whether there's a fall from more than 3x the person's height.

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    For the average person this would be right around... 16ft or 5m. – ShemSeger Apr 7 '15 at 17:57

protected by Community Nov 27 '15 at 23:28

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