Climbing and Falling
November 12, 2009
Over the last month I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this post. Thinking about how to share this story, this experience, this accident and what it all means to me. After a month I still don’t quite know how to convey all of those things and sorting out how events impact me is always an ongoing process that I hope writing about will further.
Just so you know the gist of this story: I climbed, I fell, I broke my back… literally. But I’m okay.
I live a pretty adventurous lifestyle. Outside of this latest accident and a torn ACL 9 years ago, I’ve managed to get through a dozen years of activities like mountain and road biking, wilderness hiking, downhill skiing, backcountry snowshoeing, rock climbing and simply being a male in his 20′s without much health drama. While the average American might look at my lifestyle as dangerous or crazy, to me it’s a lifestyle of being alive and one that I’m perfectly comfortable with.
What you are comfortable with is an important thing to always keep in mind. Knowing when you can push that comfort zone and when you should stay in it. Comfort and confidence are strongly tied together and we mostly limit our lives to what we’re confident doing because well, it’s comfortable. But to continue growing as a person we need to expand what we’re comfortable with and increase our confidence in new dimensions. We all do this by learning new things, meeting new people, starting new relationships and many other ways. It just happens that one of my dimensions is exploring myself in nature and over the years I’ve become very confident in this area.
I mention this because I don’t want the lessons I’ve learned to be lost via dismissive thoughts like “he’s crazy” or “he was asking for it”. The reality is that we’re all crazy, we’re all asking for it and every now and then it catches up with us. So here’s the latest story of how I was asking for it and how it caught up with me.
“We did it because it’s fun and mainly it was fun… every now and then it went wildly wrong” — Joe Simpson, Touching the Void
If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know all about the events leading up to my fall so this section will be a bit repetitive. For those that haven’t, I was in Yosemite Valley for a 6 day climbing trip and on a route called Selaginella (5.8). The entire trip was going fantastically and the climbing couldn’t have been better. We were making great time, the weather was awesome, both Ben and I had done some great leads and the views were beyond spectacular. Everything was so fantastic that even the fall that I’m about to describe can’t tarnish those experiences.
I had just finished leading a 200′ rope stretching pitch to one of the coolest rock formations and belay stations I’d ever seen. From this location it was about 800′ straight down to the valley floor and about 170′ to the top of our climb. So with Ben taking the next lead I was assuming that once he reached the top I’d just have to follow up behind him and clean the gear along the way, piece of cake.
I couldn’t see Ben’s progress on most of the route so I was judging how things were going by monitoring the amount of rope I was letting out. Knowing that it was 170′ to the top I was surprised when Ben went off of belay with 60′ of rope left. I couldn’t hear him at this point so I wondered if I was mistaken about how much climbing we had left or if the beta in the topo was just wrong. Either way I started climbing up to him.
About 50′ from him he informed me that he hadn’t reached the top and that I’d understand why when I got there. I was curious what was going on but Ben didn’t sound remotely worried so I wasn’t either. He had stopped on this 20′ long ledge that was about 18″ wide and about 30′ from the top. He didn’t finish it off because the climbing below was pretty strenuous and he wasn’t sure if we were still on route or not. That was cool with me.
So we looked at our options, we had two of them. Over to the left was a large flake that was totally separated from the wall and looked like you could just push it over. In front of us was a face section with some very thin and detached flake and what appeared to be a small crack. The face looked quite featured and I thought I’d be able to get a piece of protection in 10′ off of the belay.
So I used these very thin flakes as foot holds while walking my hands up this seam in the rock that I thought turned into more of a crack. These flakes were about 1/8th of an inch thick and I could feel them moving a bit when I stepped on them. Needless to say I wasn’t looking to hang out on them for too long. When I got up to where I thought I’d be able to get a small nut in I realized that it wasn’t going to work out as I expected. This didn’t concern me too much because while the rock was sketchy, the climbing was easy and I wasn’t worried about falling.
Looking up at what I had left to climb I spied a nice pocket in the rock about 4 inches tall and 3/4 of an inch wide making it big enough to fit a solid cam into. I became a bit fixated on this pocket and when I reached it I discovered that I had run out of solid footholds on my right side. So instead of resting on the rock my foot was mostly holding on with friction. My left foot was on the sloping section of this seam in the rocks so it didn’t have a great amount of purchase either. I had a solid right hand in the pocket that I noticed below and a good left hand on the seam.
In order to place the cam into the pocket I had to remove my right hand from it, select an appropriate sized cam from the rack of gear, place it into the rock and clip my rope into it. The first cam I selected turned out to be a bit too small and the lobes on the cam were tipped out. What this means is that the cam was fully extended in the rock and it’s holding power would be drastically reduced. So I removed the cam to replace it with a larger one.
At this point I found myself starting to get nervous. My right foot started to Elvis (shake uncontrollably) which isn’t a good thing when it’s gripping the rock with friction. I managed to get myself to calm down and my foot stopped shaking. So I went back to looking for the right size cam and was having real trouble finding one that I liked. The nerves kicked up again and this time the shaking in my foot caused it to slip. Because my left foot was on an even worse hold and I only had one hand gripping the rock, I couldn’t hold on and fell.
At the time that I fell I was about 20′ above the belay and about 5′ from the top of this climb without a single piece of protection between me and Ben. This is called a factor 2 fall and it is the worst type of fall that a climber can take. When you fall on lead you fall twice as far as you are above your last piece of protection plus a bit for rope stretch. When your last piece of protection is the belay itself, that means you’re going to fall twice as far as you have climbed plus some rope stretch. For me this translated into what we are estimating as a 50′ fall.
At 190 lbs, I’m not the lightest climber and after 50′ of gravity doing it’s thing it takes a good amount of force to stop such a moving mass. When the rope started to come tight Ben initially couldn’t stop the fall and the rope started running through his right hand. Being an extremely good belayer he quickly found where the rope was leaving the ledge and stepped on it. Outside of being a fantastic person, this is reason I climb with Ben. Without his quick thinking my fall could have been 220′, I can’t thank and praise him enough.
The rock I was climbing wasn’t quite vertical, it was sloping just a little bit. So when I fell I slid down the first 20′ which wouldn’t have been bad except for that 18″ ledge. When I hit that Ben said that I just crumbled onto it and then off of it, this is what caused most of my injuries. This sent me tumbling down the remaining 30′ of my fall. When the rope came tight I found myself upside down and a bit disoriented, kind of like the scrambler amusement park ride if it were to end with you inverted and hanging by your waist.
Ben shouted down, “are you okay?!” I replied very quickly with “yeah, I’m fine”. He didn’t believe me and proclaimed that he saw my fall and that there is no way I could be fine after something like that. I felt pretty beat up but I didn’t feel broken and quickly swung over to the route we had climbed up and told Ben that I was going to start climbing up to him. He shouted down for me to hold on because he was “dealing with some pretty bad rope burn”. My heart sunk and I felt incredibly guilty about the injuries I caused him.
But in no time he told me that I could start climbing up to him and while doing so I noticed that my left heel was hurting a bit as well as my right knee and my lower back. But I honestly didn’t think too much about it at the time. I made my way back to Ben pretty quickly and got myself secure into the anchor that was now proven to be very bomber.
We hung out there for at least a half an hour. In that time my injuries were starting to become quite noticeable and I was growing anxious for a plan of what we were going to do. Our options were to rappel down the route leaving behind an enormous amount of gear and probably taking a least a couple hours to do so, have one of us try once again to finish the climb or wait for a party far below us to catch up and have them help us out.
With how slow the party below us was moving it would be at least a couple hours until we got to the top if we waited for them. Rappelling the route was not only unappealing for the massive amount of gear we would leave behind, it was also pretty dangerous. So we decided to get the guide book out and see what it suggested for our route.
Turns out we were suppose to go up the large flake over to our left. After thinking and talking it through, Ben said that he’d be willing to lead it and I could follow up behind him. Even with very severe burns he managed to climb up the flake and finish the route without any troubles. The adrenaline was starting to leave my body by the time I started climbing so it proved to be pretty painful. But even in my state I managed to finish it off without weighting the rope.
At the top Ben asked if I wanted to take a moment to at least enjoy the view, I said “nope”. The pain in my knee was excruciating and while I was happy to be at the top and next to a very popular hiking trail, I was pretty worried about the mile of hiking and the 1000′ of descending that was now in front of me. I couldn’t put any weight on the heel of my left foot and the pain in my right knee kept me from stepping down with that leg so the many sand covered steps of the trail were bound to make things interesting.
So I set myself little goals. I’d focus on getting to a landmark that I knew of or to a specified elevation. Along the way we ran into a couple of hikers that warned us that there was a bear just off of the trail in front of us. I thought about how ironic it would be to survive the fall but be eaten by a bear. So we approached the area slowly and made a bunch of racket. We noticed the bear above us and it seemed pretty content to mind its own business so we continued on our way chatting with the couple that warned us of the situation.
They, like almost everyone else that a climber runs into, was very curious about how we climb such things. I left the explanations and demonstrations of how the gear worked to Ben. While I was very worried that I had torn a ligament in my knee, I was very pleased with my ability to keep up with two hikers who were injury free. Plus the conversation helped keep my mind off of things and we were back at camp in no time.
At camp we got out the first aid kit. Ben cleaned up his burns and threw on some tape while I put an ace bandage on my knee with some ice. After hanging out a bit and sharing what happened with Dustin and Katie we walked back to the trailhead to pick up my car and went to the grocery store for some food. When we got back to camp I was still very sore but feeling surprisingly well. Well enough to make us some breakfast burritos for dinner and then hang out by the fire for a couple hours before heading to bed.
I was tempted to visit the medical staff in Yosemite but figured if the swelling in my knee and heel didn’t get any worse I could wait until I got back to the Bay Area. The next morning I woke up very stiff but was mobile. We packed up the car and started the drive home. Along the way we chatted about what had happened and bigger picture stuff around our climbing futures.
When I got home I didn’t want the doctors to be repulsed by my smell so I took a shower and headed to Stanford Hospital. I tried to get an appointment with a sports medicine doctor but none were available so I headed over to the ER. They admitted me and by 3pm I was in a room getting checked out and having some X-rays taken of my heel, knee and back. Around 5pm they decided that they wanted more info about my heel so they ordered a CT scan of it, fine by me. Around 7:30 they said that they couldn’t see anything wrong with my heel and started to discharge me.
Just before signing my discharge papers the doctor came in and put an end to the fun. He said that a more senior radiologist looked at the X-ray of my back and spotted a compression fracture in my L2 vertebrae. My response: “you’re shitting me”. Just like that I went from being a beat up guy to the most interesting person in the hospital and while everyone loves some attention, you don’t want it from doctors.
So I asked what this meant. They said that they needed to get a CT scan of my spine to determine if it was a stable or an unstable fracture. If it was unstable I’d have to go in for surgery and get my vertebrae fused and if it was stable they’d put me in a back brace for a month and I’d be on my way. What a contrast that is, I could be fine in a month or my entire outdoor life could be over. I started freaking out a bit.
So I called Ben and told him what was going on and asked if he could keep me company, he said that he’d be on his way. After getting of the phone I went in for my CT scan and was very nervous about it. I was so nervous that my entire body was shaking and all of the techniques I knew to calm myself weren’t doing the trick. This continued for another 20 minutes until Ben showed up.
Not only was it nice to have Ben around to keep me laughing and distracted, he was a better witness to what happened to me than I was and could tell a side of the story that I couldn’t. It also gave me a chance to hear about his struggle to find an burn specialist for his hand that his insurance company approved of. After a series of “recommended” doctors that no longer existed, he thankfully managed to find one that was truly interested in taking care of him and he needed it. With bandages covering the severe third degree burns on his palm and finger tips, it was pretty obvious to the staff that he was there to see me.
It was about 9pm the parade of doctors was just about to begin. Seems like everyone that was on staff that night came to check me out and hear my story. Each one of them performing their favorite barrage of neurological tests on my body, one of them even wanted to check the “tone” of my rectum, fun for everyone. I kept hoping that one of them would be as attractive as Elliot Reid from Scrubs, but alas that was not the case. As a reward for going through all of this they ordered me a dinner but the kitchen was closed so instead I was treated to a few packages of graham crackers.
The hours past and I got no conclusive information from the doctors. They seemed to be debating about how bad my fracture was and nobody wanted to make a call so they kept bringing in people with more experience hoping to clarify the situation. It seemed like some doctors just stopped by because they wanted to hear the story in person, one guy was even a rock climber. But at 4am they seemed to acknowledge the fact that a decision was not going to be made and they’d have to wait for their senior spinal guy to show up in the morning.
Not wanting to admit me into the hospital and not being able to send me home they decided to stick me over in a corner of the hospital where I could spend the night. I affectionately referred to this area as purgatory. I don’t care what the religious folks say, purgatory was really pretty nice, they had food, comfortable beds and some pain meds which allowed me to get to sleep. They even offered to let Ben stay in a room next door if he wanted! While a gracious offer, home has a pretty strong pull over a hospital, especially after 8 hours and there was really no point in sticking around. I was out shortly after Ben left.
In the morning the spinal guy checked me out and kind of laughed at me still being there, that made me feel good. It was clear to him that my fracture was stable and they threw me in a brace and shoved me out the door. I was to wear this brace for the next month or so and even though it was pretty annoying I was just thrilled to not need any surgery.
Like almost every other accident, there isn’t just one thing that went wrong in this one. Nothing in life is black or white, safe or unsafe and this is why textbook rules are impossible to apply to all situations.
Some climbers my criticize me for not following the best practices and getting some protection in sooner but anyone who has done a good amount of living knows that things don’t always work out that nicely and trad climbing is no different. I could have possibly clipped the rope to one of the pieces of the anchor but even that practice seems to be subjective and would not have changed my personal outcome in this case.
I could have and should have taken a look at the topo before setting off on this lead. It would have been obvious that the face was not the way to go and would have likely avoided the whole accident. I think about this one a lot and it frustrates me that I had this information and did not use it.
I could list off a number of other things that would have made a difference and kept us safer. But I feel like doing so would be like telling someone that 2×2 is 4 instead of telling them why 2×2 is 4. You could spend your life learning lessons about specific climbing situations and never know how to climb safely. So instead I did a little 5 whys exercise to see if I could find a deeper lesson.
What I came up with is the feeling like this accident was brewing for a while. So even if I had avoided the accident in this specific case, the risk of a similar accident would not have been removed. I’m not saying that I got injured because it was fate and I’m not saying that I deserved this because of the activity I was doing. What I’m saying is that the way I was escalating my climbing made a preventable accident inevitable.
In less than one year I’ve gone from no climbing experience to leading routes that 60 years ago were considered to be almost at the limits of human ability. I spent a lot of time measuring my success and gauging when to move up in difficulty based off of being able to complete a climb at some level. That’s a totally reasonable and safe approach to take in a climbing gym where things are predictable and you don’t need much margin for error. Trad climbing has a different set of requirements.
So instead of some blanket rules that every climber has heard, what I have come up with is the more abstract realization that I should have been paying more attention to what was fueling my confidence. I was comfortable leading a section that I shouldn’t have been because I had confidence in my abilities to do it. But that confidence was founded more on ego than reality and when things didn’t go just right it caught up with me.
If you’ve done something long enough that it becomes second nature, that’s a solid thing to be confident about, that’s what I’m calling reality driven confidence. Talking yourself up and increasing your ego driven confidence is fine, that’s a good way to push the envelope, but you should recognize when you’re doing that and avoid doing it when you’re betting the farm.
I continue to find that rock climbing closely parallels life and I think that’s why I love it so much. You have confidence you climb, you loose confidence or find that the confidence was misplaced and you fall. I don’t care if it’s rock climbing, building a relationship, running a company, the stock market, the housing market or anything else that involves humans, the same rule seems to apply. The more reality based confidence in the system, the safer the climbing.