Wednesday, October 05, 2011


I had a mishap while climbing last Tuesday.   "Mishap" is my way of describing a fall from 25-30 feet onto some rocks, followed by several hours waiting for the awesome folks from YOSAR  to arrive and help me understand whether I was badly hurt, and then 2 hours of painful walking downhill back to the valley.

There are several things I'm still learning from this incident, about myself, about climbing, and about good decision making in general.  There are several things that enabled me to be writing, analytically, about this mishap a few days later, with a trip to the ER resulting in me walking out with only 3 band-aids to show for my troubles.   

Since this was the worst climbing accident I've had, I've been thinking about what happened, and wanted to write a bit to describe the incident and to spend some words analyzing it to see what I could learn from it.

My partner and I, both experienced, though not super strong, climbers (~20 years of trad leading between the 2 of us), hiked to the base of East Buttress of El Cap, only to find it crowded with 4 parties ahead of us.   We aren't that fast, so we didn't think it made sense to wait for 2+ hours before starting what for us could be an all-day climb.  So we hiked down and walked over to Higher Cathedral Spire (now we are at 3 hours of hiking and 2000+ vertical feet).  This route is great fun, and I'd done it 2 weeks before.   We climbed it well and summited, calling our friends to arrange a pick up and shuttle to pizza and beer from the top.  Descent is 4 single rope raps.

On pitch 2 as we pull the rope, the tape at the end probably gets stuck in a crack just above the belay.  We believe that as we pull it out, the rope jerks, forming a knot, which we don't notice until it is above the crux bulge move on this pitch.  We look at it and decide to keep pulling in the hope that it pulls through, rather that using the tail we have to lead up and untie the knot now.   From where the knot is to the top is ~5.6/7, but to get to the knot is 5.9+ so this made sense, probably.

The knot, of course, doesn't pull through.

Now I'm tired.   I'm frustrated, and I just want my pizza and beer.   (danger!)  I don't want to relead this pitch, and now that I think of it, the normal route is rather winding, and while we have over half the rope, it isn't obvious that we have enough to lead the normal route.   So I climb the first 30 feet straight up, clipping a few pins.   Then I transition to prusiks to directly ascend the stuck rope.   I'm clipping gear so that if the knot pops through, I'll be caught by my partner who has me on lead belay.     This goes slowly, as you might expect for someone a bit tired, and not having jugged a line in a while.   Eventually, after 20 more feet of jugging and cursing, not in equal amounts, my partner suggests that we abandon the effort.  She's realized that we have enough rope to tie off, descend the first pitch and hike out.  We can get the rope tomorrow, or leave it for someone else.

I agree, and shift to rapping the line.   Cleaning my lead pieces as I go down.  She's still belaying me, but neither of us really think the rope will pop, since I've just jugged on it for 20 mins.  (danger!)

Immediately after unclipping the 2nd to last piece, about 25 feet up, ~10 feet above the last piece, the knot passes the rap rings and I'm suddenly in free fall.   I land on the jagged rocks at the base of the pitch.    My partner is stunned.  Comes to help me and thinks I must be dead, since I'm upside down bent in the wrong direction over a rock, moaning.   I don't know why I'm alive.   I don't know how, but I stop moaning, wiggle all fingers and toes, jump up and move away from the rocks and sit down elsewhere.   She calls YOSAR, describes the fall.   I'm very cogent at this point and talk to them myself.   They tell me not to move my back (which hurts like hell) and wait for rescue.

Long story short(er): YOSAR comes, I'm feeling better, they clear me to walk out, assisted by them.  I do.  I sleep.  I get a ride to my hospital in the Bay Area, and X-rays are all fine, only 3 band-aids needed.

What happened?  Why didn't I die, or get paralyzed?

1)  I was lucky:
  • I just didn't hit the critical parts of my body (spine, neck)
  • I bounced off a slab at about 15 feet, and rolled into the rocks.   That slowed me down as well. 
  • I was wearing a backpack.   Not sure how much good it did for me, but it  could have helped absorb impact in sensitive places.  However, the phone and headlamp inside were not broken.
2) But also, we weren't totally stupid, we had done a few things right that might have helped:
  • I was still on lead belay.  My partner probably had started to catch me.  I didn't get out a measuring tape, but the heights of the pieces, depending on how much slack was in the rope, would indicate that she could have been slowing my fall before I hit the ground, maybe significantly.  Neither of us can remember whether that was the case, though she recollects that the rope was "tight" as she moved around to try to assist me after the fall.
  • I was wearing a helmet.  I didn't hit my head, as far as I know, but the helmet would have helped somewhat, if I did.
  • We were prepared for some bad situations.  I had a space blanket, so I kept warm while waiting, and we had headlamps, rudimentary first aid, and cell phones*

But what happened?  Why were two reasonably experienced climbers in this situation in the first place?

1) We were unlucky:
  • The rope formed a knot spontaneously, just above the crux
  • It happened on this pitch, the hardest on the route, and a winding one
  • The knot didn't pull through under our weights, or under my jugging
  • The knot pulled just after the 2nd piece was unclipped, probably the most dangerous place, gear-wise, on the route.   Anywhere else would not have resulted in ground fall
  • The 4 parties on EBEC that sent us here to begin with
2) But we could have been smarter, for sure:
  • When the knot first formed we thought about it a bit, and decided to let it go to the top and pull it.  We might have thought a bit more about that, especially about the winding nature of the route, and what we would do when it didn't pull.   At least we stopped and discussed.
  • On the other hand when it didn't pull, I started climbing without taking the time to discuss all of our options.   If we'd stopped for 2-3 minutes and analyzed the situation, we would have accomplished several things:
    • Recognizing, as a team, that we had the option to tie off the middle and rap down, leaving the rope.   We might have taken that had we discussed it then.
    • Deciding to jug or to re-lead, thinking about the consequences of each, and the alternatives if we failed.
    • Analyzing the above two might have led me to use more protection in the pitch as I climbed, knowing I might be giving up and rapping down the stuck line.  As it was I put sparse pro because it was easy climbing there.  But rapping down on a time bomb of an anchor needs a different level of pro than climbing up on easy terrain.
  • Mostly the above can be summarized by saying that we were tired and frustrated and wanted to get out of the situation quickly.   This was pushing me (at least) to act, rather than stop, think, and communicate.   There was no urgency, other than pizza and a ride from friends, so there was no reason not to stop and discuss.   Just like the Korean Air pilots discussed in Gladwell's Outliers, we needed to have open, frank communication about our options, and I probably cut that short because I wanted to go take care of things quickly.   
So on the whole I was unlucky and I was lucky, and I tend to think that they balanced each other out pretty well.   In the end it was a good lesson to learn from, without overly serious consequences (lost out on a week trip to Greece to climb, and some good climbing time between jobs, but after a week, I'm back on my bike and moving around pretty well.)

I'm glad I had an experience like this, and very glad, of course, to walk away from it.  I think it will make me a better climber, and possibly also a better person.   Gladwell's lesson in Outliers is about communication, and its import in times of crisis and risk is easier to remember when reinforced by real pain and real experiences.   It's one thing to read about something, and quite another to earn some bruises.  

I don't think my partner and I made dumb mistakes, and I don't blame myself for the accident, and of course I certainly don't blame her, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from the mistakes we did make, and carry those lessons into the rest of my life, in addition to climbing.   I think after 12 years of climbing, I was due some accident, as the sport isn't perfectly safe (neither is anything else), and while I would have loved to choose the time and place a bit better, this doesn't turn me off to climbing at all.   I've had several (more serious) bike wrecks, and keep cycling.   We did a lot to keep ourselves safe, and we got pretty damn unlucky, so my takeaway is not that we are taking stupid risks, but rather that accidents can and do happen, and one needs some luck, and some good crisis management skills to prevent them, and failing that, to mitigate them.

Now, I just need to heal so I can tie my shoes, then back out on the rock to ensure I get out there before I rust.


* Note:  I've usually been reticent to take cell phones climbing, especially in wilderness areas, as it seems like there should be places where you go where you _know_ that you are relying on yourself and your partner alone and you cannot call for help.   In this case it was very nice to have my partner call YOSAR and have them come check me out and help me down.   Had we not had a phone my partner and I would have had to choose between me staying there alone for at least 4 hours as she went for help, or me deciding to go down even with my injury, taking a risk with a back injury.   Neither option would have been good, though, in fact both would have worked out OK in this case.   So, will I take a cell phone with me climbing next time?   I'm not sure, but I'm closer than I was last week.

1 comment:

Anami said...

I glad you shared this. I find I usually need to write about things that stun my mind or emotions. Even at the periphery of what happened to you, I couldn't quite process it--except it scared me enough that I knew I really needed to learn from it. So I'm glad you wrote such a descriptive and rational analysis ending with sound conclusions.

And yay! for climbing at the gym last night.