Photograph courtesy Ashima Shiraishi
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Ashima Shiraishi, 15, is arguably the world's best female rock climber.

Photograph courtesy Ashima Shiraishi

Rock Climbing Prodigy Injured in Climbing Accident

Fifteen-year-old rock climber Ashima Shiraishi, arguably the world's best female rock climber, took a 45-foot fall in a climbing gym.

Ashima Shiraishi, the 15-year-old rock climbing prodigy from New York City who has ascended some of the most difficult rock climbs in the world and is arguably the best female rock climber today, fell 45 feet to the floor of the Stone Summit climbing gym in Kennesaw, Georgia, on July 7. Her father, Hisatoshi “Poppo” Shiraishi, was belaying her when the rope accidentally slipped through his hands—an error that, while not common, is also not unprecedented.

Miraculously, Shiraishi survived the four-story fall relatively unscathed, with only some back bruises.

Shiraishi had just arrived in Atlanta in advance of the USA Youth National Championships, the country’s biggest sport-climbing competition, scheduled to begin on July 14. Earlier this year, Shiraishi became the 2016 USA Youth National Bouldering Champion, and she was hoping to clinch the title of National Sport-Climbing Champion as well.

Shiraishi has been climbing stronger than ever this year. During her spring break from ninth grade, she traveled to Japan, where her family is from, and climbed a V15 boulder problem—setting a significant record for female climbers.

On Thursday, she arrived at the Stone Summit gym, where the USA Youth Nationals will be held, to practice on the walls. Poppo, who is also Shiraishi's coach, was belaying her when the accident occurred. According to a source who was present at the gym, Poppo made a mistake with his belay device, preventing it from locking down on the rope as it slipped through his hand.

Shiraishi dropped from the top of the indoor climbing wall, about 45 feet above a padded gym floor, and struck the ground.

Two climbers on site happened to be paramedics, and they immobilized Shiraishi while an ambulance arrived. She was taken to a hospital and examined in the emergency room. She was released several hours later, and returned to her hotel room that night.

Accidents of this nature are, unfortunately, not unprecedented in the climbing world. In sport climbing, a type of climbing that relies on ropes, a belayer operates a belay device, which is a piece of equipment that uses friction to control a rope, while his or her partner climbs up the wall. Should the climber fall, the belayer “catches” the fall by correctly operating the belay device. No belay device is entirely foolproof, however, and user error has accounted for many serious accidents over the years as belayers drop their partners when the rope slips through their hands.

All climbing gyms require that patrons pass a belay test before using their facilities. An employee at Stone Summit declined to comment on this story.

In general, indoor climbing is an extremely safe endeavor. One recent study that analyzed half a million visits over five years to climbing gyms in Germany reported a rate of .02 injuries per 1,000 hours of climbing time.

According to another study, most injuries (71 percent) sustained in climbing gyms are from bouldering, where every fall is to a padded floor as no ropes are used in bouldering, which involves climbing shorter walls less than 20 feet tall. Most bouldering injuries involved sprained ankles, and are not life threatening. Roped-climbing injuries are far less common, but they are almost always more serious, requiring hospitalization. Typically, the belayer is responsible for most roped-climbing accidents.

Jonathan Retseck, Shiraishi’s agent, said that Shiraishi will see some more doctors to make sure she is indeed OK, and that will determine whether she competes in Nationals next week. “Knowing Ashima, she’ll definitely want to get out there,” he said.