FALL ON ROCK, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, NO HARD HAT
North Carolina, Whitesides Mountain, New Diversions
Labor Day was the date that my climbing partner, Todd (29), and I (41) had set to finally climb Whitesides Mountain. About a month’s worth of planning had gone into our climb. We had selected the route, New Diversions (5.10), and were looking forward to our first bivvy.
I had been climbing almost weekly for about four years while Todd had been actively climbing about two years longer. I am a 5.8 leader with a couple 5.10 top rope and sport climb successes while Todd leads 5.10 with a few 5.11 climbs under his harness. (“Way- honed hardmen” is not a climbing accolade either of us will be hearing any time soon.) Neither of us had ever taken a serious lead-climbing fall.
As we made the 3½ hour drive from Charlotte to Cashiers, we wondered if the article in the (then) current issue of Climbing magazine along with the mild weather and holiday weekend would make Whitesides more like “Woodstock” with hordes of wannabe big-wall climbers (like us) crowding the mountain.
But when we reached the parking lot at the tourist trail there were only two other cars there. Each party was pretending to be asleep, thinking we might be rangers there to enforce the “no camping” policy. Our late-night preparations for the following morning “awakened” the other parties and they, too, began racking gear and checking route descriptions. Fortunately, the others had designs on routes other than the one we had in mind.
The route book said the first pitch was a runout 5.7, so I was surprised to find a good #0 Camalot placement only 20 feet up. With the possibility of hitting the deck minimized, I continued on to the first belay with no problem. Mentally confirming the moderate grade, I felt reassured that this would be no sandbag epic.
Todd led pitch two, another 5.7 section only better protected. After pulling the haul bag up, I followed. Two or three moves up I spied a nicely shaped flake to pull on. “Great hold!” I thought. As the little flake snapped off, my normally “cat-like” reflexes could do nothing as I watched the pancake-sized rock smack me squarely between the eyes. As I shook off the cobwebs, I wondered two things: What would have happened had I been leading? and Would a helmet have deflected the blow, had I been wearing one? (Neither Todd nor I owned a helmet.)
The rest of the pitch went easily and after pulling up the haul bag a second time we felt we could reach the sixth pitch bivvy well within the allotted time frame. I led pitch three (silently thankful that it would be Todd’s turn to pull the haul bag this time) placing gear liberally to protect the climb. Near the end of the pitch I came to a small roof section. After scanning the line for the best means of ascent (read, “path of least resistance”), I decided to place extra gear to back up the horn I had girth-hitched as my primary point of protection. Feeling confident in my gear (if not my alleged abilities) I committed to the small roof. Once into the sequence I found that the moves that looked so reasonable from ten feet away now seemed several grades harder. Frantically trying to remain calm, I quickly checked all the available handholds and footholds. Seconds later I was at the “moment of decision” when I knew I would have to commit to a sequence of moves or completely pump out and fall. My feet were on good rock, though I was on tiptoe. The most reasonable looking handhold was up and to the left, barely within reach. I reached for it and realized immediately it was a sloper with no edge to prevent my fingertips from sliding off.
My next conscious thought was, “Wow! My gear held!” As I pendulumed high above the ground, I tried to remain calm but the rush of adrenaline made me giddy. Todd yelled up, asking if I was all right. I was pumped and out of breath, but realizing that my gear was intact I responded, “Yeah—just give me a few minutes and I think I can do this.” As I collected my thoughts hanging off the rock face, I did a mental and physical inventory. The only apparent damage was some slight skin abrasion to both of my exposed ankles.
Ten minutes later, my heart rate still elevated (read, “scared shitless”), I began to feel pain in both my ankles. I relayed this information down to Todd and after some discussion we decided that I would rappel down the belay and he would lead the section. When I reached the belay, both ankles were swelling. Todd led the pitch back to the point of my fall and made it through with the comment, “Yeah, that section’s kinda tough.” He set up the belay and I began climbing.
Weighting my ankles with climbing moves produced serious pain in both ankles. No stranger to sports injuries, I had the sinking feeling that this was not the kind of pain that would be going away soon. When I reached the point of my fall I knew I would not be able to weight my ankles enough to do the crux moves. I pulled out my ascenders and fixed them to the rope. As I was adjusting the lower one, I dropped it. I had the presence of mind to yell, “ROCK,” as I watched my beloved gear bounce 200 feet to the base of the mountain. Insult had been added to injury.
At the belay we took stock of our situation. My ankles were looking worse by the moment. I felt responsible for screwing up our climb and voted to bivvy on the ledge we were resting on for the night. Todd voted for aborting our climb and rapping off the mountain. When the effects of the adrenaline still pumping through me wore off, I might not be able to limp out by morning, he argued.
After an hour’s rest we began to rappel the three pitches to the base. My ankles were swollen twice their normal size and I began to believe I had broken both. Forty-five excruciating minutes later we were at the base of the mountain with about a hundred pounds of gear, darkness descending, and an hour hike back to my van. (An hour hike for a healthy individual, that is.) Todd was gracious enough to carry 75 pounds of the gear and promised to come back for me after loading it in my van. I estimated that it would take me four hours to make it back. Three hours later, having crawled on my hands and knees and fashioned a crutch of sorts from a tree branch for pitiful limping, I saw Todd’s headlamp on the trail ahead. He relieved me of the rest of the gear and I promised to meet him at the van. An hour and a half later I crawled down the stairs leading to the parking area and back to my van where an equally exhausted Todd lay sleeping. It was 0030.
My wife, awakened by my noisy entrance at 0430, came downstairs fearing someone was breaking in. Quite shocked by my presence, she (a nurse) quickly confirmed my diagnosis: two severely sprained ankles. It turned out my situation was not that bad. I crawled around on my hands and knees for the remaining two days of my long weekend holiday and ate large quantities of ibuprofen to minimize the pain. By the fifth or sixth week following my accident I went climbing again, but was only able to climb sub-5.7 routes. Not only had I lost significant strength, my alleged “boldness” was decimated as well.
Now, almost five months after my accident, I am finally climbing at my former level. I am hoping to convince Todd to attempt New Diversions again next Labor Day. I think I’ll wear a helmet this time. (Source: Wayne Brown)
(Editor’s Note: All due respects, Mr. Brown, but I think wearing a helmet isn’t the only thing to consider on your next try at this climb.)