American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock, Climbing Unroped, Exceeding Abilities, California, Joshua Tree National Monument

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988


California, Joshua Tree National Monument

On Wednesday, March 25, 1987, my girlfriend and I (25) arrived in Joshua Tree for two days of climbing. Our first route was a rather long and tedious 5.7. After finishing that route, we proceeded to Pixie Rock (Indian Cove) and chose to climb “Rhythm of the Heart” (5.8). I inspected the route and was concerned that it might be difficult to protect. I decided that I would take a closer look by climbing a little way up. Although I was unroped, the climb felt good, so I continued.

I was really concentrating on my moves and not the fact that I was free-soloing. The climb is probably 15 meters in height. About 12 meters up, the moves became very difficult. I stopped my upward motion to contemplate my next move. At that moment I became aware of the danger I was in. I became very nervous and could not decide whether to continue up or downclimb. My feet started shaking, and while hastily attempting to downclimb, I slipped off the rock. I fell approximately ten meters to the ground. The entire impact was taken by my left foot. I shattered my left heel. Nearby climbers ran to my assistance. They drove me to High Desert Hospital. I was treated and released to see my own doctor. (Source: Brian Burns)


In retrospect it was absolute insanity for me to attempt to climb a 5.8, onsight, unroped. I had been climbing in Joshua Tree off and on for about six months. Although I had climbed several 5.10’s top-roped, I had never led anything more difficult than a 5.8.1 had free-soloed a couple other routes and led maybe 20. Until this accident, I had never fallen. It took something like this to make me realize that I was not invincible, and that falling is part of the sport. If I ever choose to free-solo again, it will be on a familiar route, well beneath my maximum ability. (Source: Brian Burns)

Editor’s Note: First, a thanks to Mr. Burns for his candid account. His final statement is the kind that generates interesting discussion. Most free-solo climbers who are doing “on-sights” have attained a level ofability akin to the trapeze artists who have the net removed. Learning one’s upper limits without incurring undue injury is the goal.

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