On a lovely spring day in April, I met several friends at the Oceanic Wall in Dream Canyon, a deep tributary of Boulder Canyon. After several warm-ups, I got on a 5.11d I had climbed several times in the past. The crux lies between the third and fifth bolts, where the route steepens in a small bulge and the holds are small and far apart. After clipping the third bolt—approximately 30 feet off the ground—I climbed a technical slab adjacent to a small (approximately two to three feet wide), right-facing dihedral with a seam in the corner. Getting to the fourth bolt entails moving over this dihedral to the left, but at this point I couldn’t reach the bolt. The third bolt was now about 10 feet below me and slightly to the right, below the dihedral. I started downclimbing to reposition and realized I couldn’t reverse the move over the corner. I decided to jump out to clear the dihedral and shouted to my belayer that I was coming off.
I expected to drop well below the dihedral, but instead, as the rope came tight, I swung hard into the wall below the corner and just below the third bolt. I was still in a push-off position so my right knee slammed into the wall, shattering my patella (kneecap). I was lowered to the ground, a distance of about 20 feet.
One of our party had a set of hiking poles, which we used to splint my leg, and with considerable support I was able to walk up the short, steep trail to the parking area. Coming down took about 10 minutes; the return trip probably took an hour. The patella is not a weight-bearing bone, so as long as I kept my leg fully extended the pain was bearable. I used a long sling under my foot to lift it when I had to climb over obstacles. From the parking area we drove to the local ER, where an X-ray revealed multiple fractures in the patella, entailing a later surgical repair.
I believe several factors contributed to this accident. First, and most important, there was not clear communication between me and my belayer. Normally I ask everyone I climb with to jump up if I fall, in order to give a dynamic belay. I weigh 115 pounds with my clothes on, so most people outweigh me—some significantly. So it’s not difficult to give a dynamic belay, but the belayer has to be aware of the need for this. My belayer and I had climbed together for years, so I didn’t think to stress that fact again.
Second, the belayer was using a Grigri. These are fantastic devices, but like anything else can be misapplied. I think that when I shouted I was coming off, the belayer sucked in the slack, which resulted in me arcing into the wall from a short distance above the bolt. When I asked the belayer why she didn’t jump, she told me she thought I would hit the ground. I stopped at least 20 feet above the ground, so this was not a realistic concern. I have fallen on a number of the high-angle slabs at this area with no problem in the past. The only ledge on this climb was near the first bolt, well below me. The one obstacle I was concerned about was the dihedral, which is why I jumped out (i.e. backward) to avoid hitting the lip when I fell. In my experience, a useful metric for leading goes like this:
Good climbers and belayers always check each other: harness, knot, and belay device. I suggest an additional step: Before starting up, the leader should address his or her preferred belay techniques for the route. For example: “There is a ledge below the fourth bolt, so watch me close there.” In my case, when the belayer’s using a Grigri, I want a soft catch so I should request a short loop of slack or a jump. It’s never good to assume your belayer is a mind reader. By spelling out the kind of catch you want, you’re more likely to get it. (Source: Beth Bennett.)
[Editor’s note: In misguided efforts to give a “soft catch,” some belayers leave a huge loop of slack in front of them as they belay sport climbs—or even pay out slack as the leader falls. These methods may only increase the impact of a fall, as well as the risk of hitting a ledge or other obstacle. In an article about this incident in Rock & Ice magazine, Alison Osius recommended belayers maintain a “gentle smile” of slack in the belay rope in front of them. A small arc of slack and a slight hop toward the first bolt are almost always sufficient to avoid short-roping the leader.]