"This was the most scared that I have ever been. I knew I was alive, but I also knew my condition couldn’t be good after a 50+ foot fall"
If you don’t understand sarcasm, are too literal, or squeamish, skip to the bottom
On a random Friday, late in September of 2014, I had the pleasure of not only having my climbing pack carried from the crag to my vehicle, but also had old friends and new carry me like a king, got a super-fast ride back to the city, and was waited on hand and foot for hours. You too can have this, or a similar experience, if you follow these easy steps!
3: Become Complacent
4: Climb More
Fall in love with climbing, learn and practice safety skills, and climb for more than 20 years.
Once I found climbing, all other sports and recreations didn’t stand a chance at holding my attention. I devoured everything climbing for years; I was climbing as much as possible while going to school and starting a programming career.
While working in climbing gyms, guiding high angle ropes and instructing rescue courses, I learned, developed, and taught climbing safety practices, becoming adept in the ways we can minimize the danger and risk inherent in the sport of climbing.
Train hard for a notably difficult route.
When I reached my 1000th route in the Red River Gorge, I made it meaningful by choosing a relatively difficult route, at a crag that was a bit off the beaten path. With that in mind, I also wanted the 1500th route to be notable. I began working Welcome to Ole Kentuck, a rarely repeated 13a overhanging finger crack, with hopes of being strong enough this fall to send it. At route number 1496, I decided to take a break from the project to get on The Madness, a 13c at the Motherlode. This route was within possibility! With the ease of finding belayers to go to the Motherlode, I thought I may reconsider the 1500th route. And after only a few days of working on it, I felt really confident it may be the one.
Become a little complacent.
While new climbers may not fully grasp the dangers and consequences involved in climbing or be aware of safety practices, a seasoned climber is ripe with arrogance, potentially becoming lackadaisical with the intricate practices that secure a safe return to the ground. Climbing without incident for many years can cause a climber to focus more on the "send" or the failure, losing sight of the safety guidelines that have become second nature. Routine, repetition and predictability nurtures complacency.
Having a multitude of ropes to choose from, I ended up working The Madness with an older rope that had been cut a few times. I recently transferred this rope from one tarp to another, and when doing this, I overlooked tying both ends of the rope to the tarp. I even used this very rope on The Madness a couple of times already, but I never got all the way to the anchors. So when I tied into that rope on that fateful Friday, I didn’t have a second thought about the rope.
Climb, and wait for failed safety procedures to overlap.
Now the easy part, climb. Climb a lot. Get good at recognizing unsafe situations and be proficient in the ways to remedy any situation. Climb long enough, you’ll have epics. Learn from these and gain the experience to understand when to move / stay / build shelter / retreat / leave a bail biner or run like hell.
Most of our safety procedures overlap, creating back-ups and allowing any one of them to fail with little consequence. One example of this is how we clean anchors. By never being on one anchor or one piece of gear, small mishaps can occur without fatal results. But when a climbing experience has multiple overlapping missed procedures, the risk of injury exponentially increases.
My climbing partner and I have over 52 combined years of rock climbing experience. 15 more if you take into account the years of tactical rope and vertical caving experience. We know the dangers, the consequences, the risks and the rewards of the sport of climbing. But just because we are experienced does not mean we are impervious. Overlapping misjudgments can happen to anyone, regardless of experience level, and the consequences carry a very high price.
That point strikes deeply with me as I continually see newer climbers taking risks and practicing poor safety techniques every week. They aren’t properly trained, nor do they have the awareness of just how fast something can go wrong. And it is completely avoidable. We have the gear and procedures to ensure that the safety deck is stacked in our favor at every step of the way.
Last year a very accomplished climber Shingo was severely injured in a similar manner. Accidents happen. I can’t emphasize this enough. Take the time to stack the deck in your favor!
Climbing is dangerous and as willing participants in the sport, we accept the risk for the activity we love. Due to this risk, every climber should seek the knowledge and training to make good decisions every time they tie in, every time they belay. Please use my experience as a lesson and a reminder.
Even with diligence, things can go wrong. Accidents do happen. Overlapping missed procedures, lack of knowledge, weather, the list goes on.
My accident was a result of a small set of missed procedures and human error. I was lucky. I was lucky my head didn’t land on the basketball sized boulder 4 inches to my right. Lucky that I hadn’t cut my rope shorter. Lucky that I had lots of friends at the crag that not only laughed with/at me to keep my spirits up, but also wasted a few hours of their day to carry me to the ambulance. I am fortunate to have this community.
Knowing that I would not be sending the route, I chose to take my larger diameter “working” rope, as I would not need the lighter weight, newer, one. When I moved the rope from one rope-tarp to the other, I failed to close the system. I should have tied it to the loops of the tarp. This would have given my belayer clear indication that the rope was too short to lower to the ground, and the knot would have prevented the rope from sliding through the device. I would have been hanging in space, and it would have been a pain in the ass (as well as embarrassing) to get down safely, but there are techniques to do that. We would have gotten a big laugh out of it and I wouldn’t be writing this summary.
Having been on this route before with that particular rope, I didn’t have any reservations when I clipped the anchors and was lowered. I was too excited about being close to the send!
During the decent, I was talking to my belayer, discussing how optimistic I was regarding the route. At about 55’ from the ground, I reached for the top of a small tree to turn myself in the air to face the cliff. My belayer was paying attention to me, listening and watching me reach for the tree.
I felt the bottom drop out as I began to free fall. At first, I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe there was a twist in the rope or something that had added slack to the system? I waited and waited, but the rope never came tight. I heard the sound of the slack end of the rope whipping through the first several quickdraws on the route. I was able to yell a short line of expletives once I understood that I was going to hit the ground.
While your hanging on a rope in a harness, you are supported by the belt and leg loops, creating a leaned back position where the center of gravity is not over your feet. When I knew I was going to hit the ground, I was able to upright myself enough to view the ground. I remember thinking “feet shoulder width apart, knees bent, back straight, head up.” I then hit the ground. Unfortunately, I did have my right arm extended behind me out of instinct to catch my fall.
This was the most scared that I have ever been. I knew I was alive, but I also knew my condition couldn’t be good after a fall of that length. The rule of thumb is for every 10 feet you fall, your liklyhood of dieing from the impact increases 10%. So My odds were looking close to 50/50. My knees had hit my chest and knocked some of the breath out of me, but I managed to yell for help. I did land on my feet, but the compression to the spine forced me forward onto my stomach, facing downhill. My right arm was fractured, preventing me from rolling over. I couldn’t breathe in this position and I couldn’t move.
Before I knew it, friends were assisting me, calming me, and of course, getting help. My back was spasming, putting me in and out of mild shock. A climbing paramedic acquaintance of mine (now a close friend) came to my assistance and never left my side. In this situation, it is comforting to have someone by your side with advanced medical experience, even if they are not saying what you want to hear.
Lee County Rescue arrived on scene, and through a host of funny moments, marriage proposals, dark humor, and IV sticks, I was flown to UK Medical Center in Lexington, KY.
After a couple of casts and a surgery, I now have a plate in the distal radius of my right arm, a compression fracture of the L3 in my back and have started physical therapy. It is going to be a long road before I can get back on The Madness.
Special Thanks to
all the climbers at the crag that day the Lee Co Rescue and Ambulance Service the American Alpine Club UK Medical Center surgeon Dr Wright PA-C Raisley PT KHPT Willoughby
As a member of the American Alpine Club, I am ellidigable for up-to $10k of rescue coverage to help pay for this rescue. Every member has this benefit and more cash is available as an insurance from their partners at Global Rescue
This money will help pay for the 59 mile, 19 minute, $40k helicopter ride. Join the AAC Now!