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Hazards of Rock Slides and How to Deal With Them

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 8 Dec 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Rock Slides Rock Falls Rock Avalanche

The risk of falling rocks is one of the most common dangers to rock climbers and mountaineers which is why it’s imperative that you wear an approved climbing helmet as a form of protection. So many people have been killed or seriously injured by falling rocks and not just by being directly hit by them but because they can cause you to lose your footing too.

What Causes a Rock Slide?

Every mountain is slowly disintegrating due to erosion and although the process is irreversible, the chances of you encountering a full-blown rock slide are probably minute but they do occur occasionally and a bad one can be just as devastating as a snow avalanche.

Over time, high winds, animal movements, flowing water and cycles of thawing and freezing all contribute to the possibility of a rock slide occurring but probably the greatest risk comes from human activity on the mountains themselves.

Can We Predict Where and When They Might Occur?

Where rock slides have occurred previously, there may be signs which have been posted warning of the dangers so it’s important that you avoid these areas if you are intending to climb. Local knowledge also helps so try to speak to other climbers who are experienced in climbing in your particular location as they may be able to offer you some useful, and potentially life saving, advice.

Look for signs of previous rock slides. Quite often, the most unsafe area is in the centre of a gully so if climbing within one, look for tell-tale scuff marks on rocks and climb up the sides of the gully or ditch as rocks will usually fall into the centre. Cold, icy nights followed by warmer days where rocks are exposed to direct sunlight can also trigger a fall. Whilst the ice may bind the rocks together at night, the sunlight during the day and the thawing process can often dislodge a group of rocks.

Can We do Anything Ourselves to Minimise the Risks of Causing a Rock Slide?

Always move over rocky areas as a group. If the area is broad enough, try to move across it side by side and in more enclosed spaces, try to stick close together as a group so that any falling rocks don’t have time to gather as much momentum. Be aware of any groups above you and any signs they might be giving you and be extra vigilant towards any groups below you.

Everyone should take their own individual responsibility for trying to ensure that you don’t move any rocks yourself by planting each foot firmly and carefully in rocky areas.

What if a Rock Slide Does Happen?

If you have time, you should try to get out of the way of the direct path of any rock slide that you can see heading your way from above. If that’s not possible, try to establish if there’s any immediate cover and if there is go to it and cover your head as best as you can with your hands and arms.

If there’s no cover, protect your head in the same way and crouch down and curl yourself up into a tight ball to make yourself as narrow a target as possible. Press your head against the cliff and if the rock slide is imminent, never look back up to locate the falling rock.

If you have time, yell “Rock, Rock. Rock!” as loudly as possible in order to alert everybody in your group to take this emergency action and also to warn others who may be below you.

A severe rock slide might be fatal no matter what safety precautions and emergency procedures you might follow and, just like with avalanches, there is no cast iron guarantee that you will be safe. However, by understanding more about the causes of rock slides and how to avoid potentially hazardous areas, alongside these emergency procedures, you are at least giving yourself a better chance of survival.

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