How Safe Are Safety Breaks?
A “safety break” is climber slang for smoking marijuana. As in, “This next pitch looks pretty hard – let’s take a quick safety break first.” How this came to be called a “safety break” is a mystery. At some point, someone must have made an ironical joke – the activity we’re about to partake in is anything but safe – and it stuck.
Marijuana is a mainstay of climbing culture. (Chris Sharma, one of the world’s best climbers, was stripped of his World Cup championship when he tested positive for marijuana in 2001.) Why? I suppose it can be attributed to the renegade, lifestyle cultivated by many climbers. It attracts many free-flowing spirits of the hippy-dippy variety who just want to let nature flow through them, man. Either the effects of marijuana create these kinds of people, or these kinds of people flock to marijuana.
The best climbing I’ve ever done was while stoned. Rock climbing requires self possession and calm – it’s not enough to be strong and perform the moves. Incapacitating anxiety can infect a climber like a cancer, and marijuana is an easy way to achieve equanimity. After toking up, I’m completely relaxed and confident in my abilities: thoughts of falling are distant, and actual climbing comes to the foreground. While stoned, I glide up rock as smooth as a sting ray cutting through the water.
But the climbing benefits of safety breaks are never worth the risks. I’ve only climbed stoned a handful of times, and even though it allowed me to climb harder than ever, the next day I ask myself: What the fuck was I thinking? Trying to belay someone under the hazy effects of marijuana is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Climbing requires you to perform complex mental acrobatics and to sustain intense concentration – double and triple checking your safety systems, calculating risks – and trying to think while you’re stoned is like wading through waste-deep mud.
I’ve seen many close calls precipitated by the intoxicating effects of marijuana: people taking their hands off the belay to scratch themselves, improperly tying in to the rope and only catching it right before beginning the climb. Any of these mistakes could have led to death.
So to answer the question posed by the title of this article: Not very much. The American Alpine Club every year publishes Accidents in North American Mountaineering, a list of every climbing death on the continent, along with its cause. While no death has been caused directly by safety breaks, marijuana must have played a role in some of them. All the instances when a climber failed to tie into the rope correctly, or forgot to secure themselves to an anchor — you can bet that marijuana didn’t help.
In spite of their risks, intoxicating substances continue to be consumed by climbers while they climb. Go to any climbing crag, and you’re sure to see climbers lighting up and beer bottles on the ground next to their climbing rack. Part of the appeal of climbing is the danger, of pushing your limits and staring death in the face, so it makes sense that many climbers disregard safety for the comfort of some good bud. But much of the sport is about minimizing risk and playing it safe.
Save your safety breaks for the end of your climbing session.