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Fall on Rock, Inadequate Protection, Utah, Indian Creek


Utah, Indian Creek

During the first week of April, Paul Sullivan, Ian Herring, Matt Pinkley, Bill Saul, and I (40) hit the ground running on our first day. Really, Matt and I had never been in an environment like “Wall Street” near Moab, Utah, and we hit the first crack we came to like kids in a candy shop. At Wall Street the cliff comes right down to the road so the approach is, basically, opening the car door. We all climbed until the light started to fail and camped at twilight.

Next day we ran down to Indian Creek and got on some classics including Super Crack and Generic Crack. The climbing was so good that we decided to stay where we were for another day. On the third day we got on a number of hard routes (thanks to Bill Saul) including The Incredible Hand Crack. Towards the end of the afternoon I loaned some of my bigger pieces to a team climbing Keyhole Flake so they could get safely by the three-inch crack at the mid-section of the climb. As soon as they were down, I got on the climb with Matt belaying. The first quarter is a flake, and from about 30 feet up it consists of two parallel splitter cracks. I had placed my third piece, climbed over it, and set two cams behind the flake above me. I pulled up slack to clip, and that is the last I remember of the climb.

No flaming, no, “Watch me!” I flat out peeled without a warning and with an armload of slack. When the weight (“m”) of my body had accelerated (“a”) through the slack and the distance, I was above my last piece, and the force (“F”) was too much for the placements behind the flake and they popped. F=m x a! As far as I can figure, the top piece dragged out through the sandstone after giving Matt a good tug and the second blew out completely, as it was very small. I hit a ledge a couple of feet off of the ground, shattering my right fibula into a few pieces and breaking my ankle. I basically broke my foot off of the bottom of the tibia at the ankle. The last few feet of the fall was taken on my back and head. The impact of my head on the ground actually smashed in the back on my helmet and gave me a nasty cut as well as a concussion. (When I looked in the mirror later, I had a black and blue imprint of a #4 Camalot on my lower back.)

When I regained consciousness, my foot was pointing about 90 degrees from normal, someone was holding my bloody head, and the pain was excruciating. I really cannot describe how much it hurt. While my partners said I was unconscious for less than two minutes, I remember about an hour total of the first six or eight hours after the fall. Either the blow to the head or my body trying to deal with the pain shut my memory down. Two people headed off in opposite directions looking for cell phone coverage to call 911 while someone put a bandage to my head.

I remember the sheriff’s deputy being on site followed by the EMT people and some of the procedures such as the neck collar, backboard, and inflatable cast. They took me to Monticello, where the doctors said, “Can’t help you,” and put me back in the ambulance for Cortez, Colorado, where there was an orthopedist who straightened my foot but did not do surgery on my leg.

The next day my dear friends took me all the way to Alpine, Utah, to bivy with some local friends until I could get a flight out. Two weeks later I had surgery and now I have a stainless steel plate and seven screws in my leg. The break in the leg and the associated hardware is not nearly as bad—read “painful”—as the broken ankle and associated ligament and tendon damage, which will require several months of therapy. I also have some nerve damage that causes non-stop, red-hot-poker type pain that will continue for a couple months. My head, elbow, and left hand still hurt. I’m on crutches for 12 weeks, but I plan to be climbing by October.


I have made some observations along the course of this episode.

WEAR A HELMET ALL OF THE TIME. I would be DEAD right now if I had not been wearing a helmet. There was no loose rock or anyone above me when I was leading or any of the other “normal” reasons that cause us to decide to don a helmet, yet I owe my life to that piece of plastic.

Don’t be afraid to “sew it up” in the desert. While all of the slack I had out and the fact that the flake was flexible may have done me in anyway, more gear is better.

I am impressed to emotion with the kind attention and care given to me by my climbing buddies. They helped me with the climbing and stuck with me like glue as I went from hospital to hospital and then to Alpine, giving up precious climbing hours. I feel guilty about keeping them off the rock and am very grateful for their support.

Buy good health insurance. The ambulance travel in Utah cost over $2,600 alone.

Lastly. If someone had come up to me, say, three or four years ago and said, “Over the next few years you can climb in great places such as the New River Gorge, Moore’s Wall, Seneca Rocks, and Moab; you can meet some great people, stand on fabulous summits, and enjoy the heck out of your free time, but, along the way you are going to shatter your right leg in a painful fall,” I would say in return, “Sign me up!”

I am planning to get back at it in September. Aconcagua in February, Moab in May. Nothing about this little injury has dampened my enthusiasm for the vertical world. Rock climbing is worth it. What can I say? I am an addict. (Source: Mark McConnel)