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Fall From Artificial Wall, Inadequate Protection, Washington, REI Headquarters


Washington, REI Headquarters

Sublime pleasures, smashing embarrassments, and extraordinary good fortune punctuate my life. Today, sublime pleasure comes from sitting in front of my computer, typing with my fingers, wiggling my toes, listening to my clock tick.

Smashing embarrassment came a few weeks ago on July 29 when I jumped off the REI headquarters climbing wall, stripped three Camalots and a TCU from its cracks, and landed on my back seven meters below.

Through extraordinary good fortune, I was only bruised. So what happened? Let me explain.

My friend Flyura Zhirnova and I were giving a demonstration to our friends at the AHQ, on how climbing walls are used. Before discussing training with artificial holds, and showing the normal use of a top rope, we decided to illustrate lead climbing.

Using the pre-formed cracks for protection you saw of the cover of this spring’s climbing catalog, I climbed. The climbing was easy. The placements were perfect. But the cracks were perfect as well, smooth, parallel-sided and painted. With an anchored belay, I jumped. The forces involved jerked everything out.

What a way to learn the first physics lesson of camming devices!

As Cal Magnusson and I study the lessons of this, one thing is clear: in perfect cracks, camming devices depend solely on the friction between the cam and the rock (or in this case, paint). In my case, friction wasn’t enough. When we have sorted out the physics, we’ll let you know more. But it is clear that there was no problem with the devices themselves, just with the placements in painted, smooth cracks.

What about climbing walls themselves? No problem, they’re fine.

Used as we have always intended, top-roped and belayed, climbing walls are safe. We will review our procedures on use and analyze our anchor and pad standards to make sure we have missed nothing, but we are proceeding according to plan.

Nevertheless, my black-and-blue back prods me to remind you that gravity is unforgiving. A simple lapse, a single lapse, can dump you on the ground. No set of rules and procedures is ever complete. You must think. You must always think.

Yes, sublime pleasures, smashing embarrassments, and extraordinary good fortune continue to punctuate the life I love. (Source: Bill Sumner)

(Editor’s Note: Bill Sumner recently “retired” as product tester for Recreational Equipment, Inc.)