FALL ON ROCK, PROTECTION PULLED OUT, NO HARD HAT
Colorado, Boulder Canyon, Dome Rock
On September 25, I was climbing with a friend in Boulder Canyon on Gorilla’s Delight (5.9+) on Dome Rock. We originally intended to climb in Eldorado Canyon, but it was raining there and was clear to the north, and the granite of Boulder Canyon beckoned. Doug had led the climb a few weeks before, and he bestowed on me the honor of the sharp end. I had been climbing well all summer, and had redpointed a number of 5.10 and 5.11 routes, both traditional and sport. I felt completely comfortable on 9+, and looked forward to a pleasant day in the sun. I was so relaxed about the climb that I left my helmet in my pack at the base. “A nice casual day on some classic pitches, and a beer at the car,” I thought to myself as we racked up.
I had forgotten that years ago I had read Henry Barber’s description of his experience on Gorillas Delight in Bob Godfrey’s book, Climb (Alpine Press Publishing, Boulder, Colorado, 1977, currently out of print). Barber was visiting Colorado in 1973 and a friend told him that nobody had soloed the climb. Since it was “only 5.9,” Barber decided to free solo it. Godfrey described Barber’s solo this way: “I was feeling good at the time. The first crack went real smoothly. I was feeling flowing and really hyped up, kind of in a music mood.” At the top of the first crack, he traversed right and laybacked up a flake, which, as the guidebook had stated, was 5.7. From good holds at the top of the flake, he was able to reach around a corner and could see a smooth, steep slab of granite leading upwards. The guidebook had called the slab 5.7 or 5.8. “There should be some nice fat holds up here,” thought Henry to himself. At this point he was some 150 feet above the ground. Holding on to the layback crack with his left hand, his right hand explored the surface of the slab for holds, but there were none to be found.
Henry began to sweat. Reversing the layback crack, he moved back down to a resting place and took stock of the situation. “5.7 or 5.8 slabs? I must be missing something.” Henry found himself poised on minute ripples in the smooth granite, contemplating a 150 foot fall to the ground. “It’s the nearest I’ve ever come to buying it,” he recalls. Henry made it, by the skin of his teeth. It must have been quite a rush. I faced the same moves, but I was clipped to five pieces by the time I reached the friction slab section above the layback crack. I wasn’t panicked about falling off the thin slab move, because I had a quadcam at my feet, and a medium nut four feet below that. I moved up, saw how thin the right foot smear was going to be, and backed down to rest and think about the sequence. Feeling confident, I moved up again, forgot the sequence I had planned, and fell prey to the temptation of leaning in and reaching for a secure-looking finger crack with my left hand. The result was predictable: my right foot unweighted and smeared off the thin slab. I was airborne.
I heard the quadcam and the stopper rip out as I fell past, and my next memory is of my right shoulder, upper back, and the back of my head smashing into the sloping ledge 15 feet below. There was a kind of an electric flashing sensation when I hit my head that hard, and after the electric flash, I have vague memories of a pleasant, dreamlike state. No pain, completely relaxed, very restful, a kind of light sleep. While I was dreaming, I fell another 15 feet or so.
As I came to I remember briefly thinking that I was in bed at home. I was very disappointed to find that instead of being next to my warm wife, I was hanging upside down over a hundred feet of air, ten feet below my belayer. Blood dripped from my forehead and nose. I felt more drowsy than afraid. Mohammed Ali wrote a perfect description (in his book The Greatest) of the quasi-unconscious state that follows a severe punch to the head. In his fights with Joe Frazier he spent some time nearly unconscious. He says it’s like being in a little dark room with bats flying around, birds singing, and ghostlike figures fading in and out of view. While I was in that little room I noticed that I could not breathe. The fall had slammed every molecule of air out of my lungs, and the muscles that control the intake of breath were traumatized and not inclined to contract. Shit, oh dear, I thought, and made horrible groaning sounds as I fought to get some air.
My partner Doug was not enjoying this scene. The rope had jammed behind the piece that had held in the top part of the lower crack, a point 15 to 20 feet above his belay. He had felt very little when I hit the end of the rope. He had no control of the rope, as it was stuck above him. Try as he might, he could not get the rope to pull free. “Bummer,” I thought, “I’m belayed by a stuck rope, and if it pulls there will be 25 feet of slack, and I’ll fall to the ledges at the bottom of the first pitch and die.” Terrific. I sat on a spike of rock and groaned and tried to clear my head. Doug gave me a few minutes to recover, and suggested that I climb up a few feet, giving him the slack to put me on a belay. Once on belay, I made it back to him after a few moves of 5.6. Those few moves jangled my three broken ribs, and from that point on every breath hurt more.
Rocky Mountain Rescue personnel were standing at the base of the climb by the time I struggled back to the belay. That’s a pretty amazing response time. It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes from the time I fell to the time they showed up at the base of the route. I was embarrassed that I had caused all the ruckus, and that there would be another story in the paper about a climber falling. I have to admit that I was also embarrassed about falling off a “moderate” climb. Dumb ego, internal blather.
There was enough free rope to fix to the ground. The fall welded my tie-in knot, and we had to cut it free with a knife sent up by the Rocky Mountain Rescue people. (I may climb with a knife from now on.) Doug checked me out (he’s a neurologist, I always take him along when I plan to get knocked out), lowered me off, and he and the RMR, took great care of me.
I appreciate Rocky Mountain Rescue and my partner Doug for their competence and quick thinking. After I was carried off, RMR people cleaned the gear off the climb and brought it to the hospital, including my Cebe sunglasses that fell 150 feet onto a granite slab and survived without a scratch. I’m healing nicely and can almost take a full breath now. I plan to be back to work next week and on the rock (or in the gym) in a month or so. I’m going to wear a helmet religiously now, and take more care in placing gear. The failure of the two upper pieces was my error, as the flake I had them in takes protection very well. I’ve been traditional climbing for ten years, and seldom have had a piece of protection fail me in a fall. Complacence, overconfidence, and carelessness may have played a role in this accident. Fortunately, you learn—if you happen to live through your errors. (Source: Robert Kooken)