Forums: Climbing Information: Injury Treatment and Prevention: Climber Raps Off End of Rope: Edit Log


Apr 13, 2008, 8:50 AM

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Climber Raps Off End of Rope
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After making a full recovery I thought long and hard about posting this. I wrote this while recovering in the hospital.

The moral of the story is to tie knots in the end of your rope. It doesn't matter if you're on single pitch terrain or multi-pitch. Anyone can make a mistake. So please close your systems...

I know that some of you know who I am. I'd appreciate it if you left my name off this thread. I posted this for educational purposes and would prefer to remain anonymous.


They call me Window.

This is in reference to my room and bed. I’m in room 136 and my bed is close to the window. My room is almost right on top of the nurse’s station so they don’t use the more formal “36 Window” for me quite as often.

My roommate is a stroke victim. He’s an old man who doesn’t like to ask for help. This is a real problem as he’s fallen down four or five times trying to get out of bed. The nurses made him promise that he’d call if he wanted to get up.

After he promised he’d ask for help, he tried to get up again without assistance. And then he fell down again.

The nurses are a lot like climbing guides. They want to keep control of everything so that nobody gets hurt on their watch. They want people to listen to them and to do as they ask. In the mountains we often have to resort to desperate measures to make sure a client does as we ask them to do. The nurses resorted to desperate measures as well. My roommate now has a mesh cage over his bed. The cage is impossible to exit without someone unzipping it from the outside.

Needless to say he hasn’t fallen down again.

Climbers thrive on control. We have techniques to keep our adventures under control. Our fitness and our equipment allow us to explore the mountains in a safe and effective way. We watch the weather and the snow conditions for the slightest variable that might put us in danger. And if we do all this well, if we keep the situation under control, we are successful.

Some of us have been very successful. And unfortunately success sometimes breeds arrogance.
It takes an epic to put the arrogance in check.

Mountain guides are a bit more susceptible to this arrogance than the average recreational climber -- though recreational climbers are far from immune from it. In part this is because guides have a lot of success on routes that they’ve done a lot. They know they can push it because they know the route or the mountain a little bit better than the occasional visitor. This success quietly builds an unintentional arrogance into the guide.

If a mountain guide is good, he’s had a fair bit of training. He’s gone though courses offered by the American Mountain Guides Association and if he’s not certified yet, he’s well on his way. He has first aid training, rescue training, leave no trace training and if he works in the alpine perhaps even avalanche training. In addition to all of that he has an extensive resume of personal climbs, many of which may be quite impressive.

Prospective climbers hire guides so that they might accomplish something outside the realm of what they perceive as possible. Generally what a guide is asked to do is well within his own comfort zone. This element makes a guide look like a rock star to those in his care. It however does not mean that a guide is a superhero and it definitely doesn’t mean that he wears a cloak of invincibility.

When a guide goes to the same crag day after day, year after year, something happens. He wires all the moves. He comes up with ways to give his students a fuller day. He finds shortcuts. He becomes confident.

And perhaps with the familiarity he becomes complacent…

Such was the case not too long ago. It was just a few days before a holiday and I was looking forward to getting away. My daughter was just shy of five months old and we were going to bring her to my hometown for the holiday in order to show her off to friends and extended family. I was excited to take a little time off and I was excited to see everyone back home.

A couple of days before we were going to fly out, I was working at a wall where I’d literally spent hundreds of guide days. The sun was descending toward the jagged horizon and there was little daylight left.

The crag where I was working has three easily accessed toprope anchors. I already tr’d both the route on the right as well as the route in the middle. The goal was to climb one last line – the route on the left – before the sun went down.

I scrambled around to the top of the crag and unclipped the rope from the master point. I took the slings off the bolts and quickly re-clipped them above the new route. After tying a pre-equalized eight, I clipped the rope into the anchor. The rope still hung down the wall, sloppily arrayed above the previous route. Without changing anything, I quickly pulled up the rope, tossed it down the new climb and rigged a rappel.

The preceding two lines were almost exactly the same length; as such I did not re-center the rope between them. In those first two cases, this was not a problem. It was the third route – a climb that was mildly longer – where this strategy would prove to be a massive mistake.

The rope below was bunched up in the crack. It looked like both ends would probably reach, but in all honesty it wasn’t clear whether or not they were down; but it was clear that if they weren’t on the ground, they were almost there. And so in the fading afternoon light I began to rap down, cleaning the rope from the crack as I went.

Perhaps it was the “almost there” part that made me complacent. I didn’t consciously think that if I fell I wouldn’t get hurt too badly…but I suppose that such a thought was somewhere in the back of my head. Perhaps it was the fading light and the snarled snakes of rope in the crack. There’s a ton of rope in there. It’s gotta’ be down. Doesn’t it? Or perhaps it was none of those things. Perhaps I was just going through the motions, psyched to get home to my wife and daughter that evening. And perhaps I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.

Besides I’m a guide. I’m invincible…right?

That particular rappel reminded me of the truth.

The truth is that guides are not superheroes. Guides are not invincible. Guides are as fragile as everyone else…no matter how big the ego. Egos may deflect harsh words, or criticism, but egos cannot deflect the power of gravity.

Five long feet before I touched down I rappelled off the end of my rope…

I fell though space for a mere second, catching my right foot on an edge. My body spun to the left and I landed hard on my ass. For a frightening moment I wasn’t really sure what had just taken place. But then something new happened, something that clarified everything. A shock wave of pain ripped through my body and I was struck with a moment of insight.

I was fucked up.

White-hot pain pulsed though my tailbone and groin and my right foot throbbed. Bones were certainly broken.

I climbed to my knees as my clients rushed up to help me. “Don’t try to stand!”

Dazed, I stopped moving.

My clients – James and John – were at my side immediately doing what they could to help. As they attempted to assess my injuries a new wave of pain washed over me. Though this pain was something completely different. This pain was emotional. And this pain felt a lot like shame. I’d failed at my job. I’d failed my clients. I’d done the worst possible thing a guide could do.

I got hurt.

Initially I thought that it might be possible to walk out. After attempting to stand, it became clear that I would require a helicopter. The car was only twenty minutes away, but it was twenty minutes of second and third class terrain. It wasn’t going to happen. I laid down on my stomach and we began the rescue process. Thank God for cell phones.

We called Search and Rescue. I called my office and told them what happened. And then I made the most difficult call of all. I called my wife.

“You what?” She asked, emotion brimming in her voice.

“I got hurt,” I responded. I made sure to tell her where I was and that the helicopter was coming and that I would be fine.

“Do you want us to come out?”

I imagined my wife and young daughter driving out and hiking in to save me. It was too much. “No, once I know what hospital I’m headed to I’ll call.”

I should have expected it. She didn’t listen to me. She and my five-month old daughter drove out. She arrived at the parking area just in time to see me transferred from the helicopter to an idling ambulance.

I love her for the fact that she came out to rescue me.

Epics clarify everything. And that night was truly epic. I thought that by eight o’clock that evening I’d be snuggled into our little house. Instead I was snuggled into one uncomfortable x-ray or CAT scan machine after another. I thought that maybe I’d watch a Netflix movie, but instead I watched nurses and doctors rush around the largest trauma hospital in the area. I thought that I’d have a quiet night with my family. The night was anything but quiet. Instead it was punctuated by confusion and pain and noise. It was not a good night.

Eventually the verdict came in. Fractured right foot. Multiple fractures in the left side of my pelvis. Yep, I was fucked up.

A young doctor prepared my foot for a splint. As he did so he mused on climbers he’d worked on in the past. That particular emergency room is where all of the climbing accidents in the greater region are treated. The doctor had seen a lot of climbers with a lot of problems over the years, but there was one thing about my case that amazed him. “This,” he said. “Is the cleanest foot I’ve ever seen on one of you guys!”


“It’s like mosta’ you are wearin’ the same socks for a month. I usually have ta’ scrub my hands for twenty minutes or so after fixin’ up one of you guys.”

It was a small kernel of humor, but it provided some much needed nourishment. It would be my only psychological sustenance for a while.

The good news was that I wouldn’t need surgery. The bad news was that I would have to spend a number of weeks in the rehabilitation hospital. I was assigned to six weeks of bed rest. I was completely incapable of bearing weight on either foot. I wasn’t allowed to bend my legs very far because it could cause further damage. When they finally sent me home, I would be confined to a wheelchair until I was healed.

I’m a guide. I’m invincible right…? Right…?

Guess not…

Climbers tend to see themselves as action heroes, living their lives to the fullest. But unlike the movies, climbing is real and the consequences for a mistake are serious.

In the movies the action heroes are invincible. They fall hundreds of feet and nothing happens to them. They certainly don’t break their pelvises. Hell, they get punched, shot, blown-up, stabbed, run over, crushed, chain-sawed, electrocuted, axed, and a million other things and they still don’t break their pelvises. Can you truly imagine Bruce Willis as helpless as such an injury makes one? How about Steven Segal or the Rock? What if tears sprung to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes when he tried to sit up straight?

Can you imagine Rambo using a bedpan? Can you see him lying there, barely able to roll over, trying hard to move his bowels while the nurses watch and wait to clean him up?

No? Me neither.

It doesn’t matter how confident or experienced you are; you can still get hurt or killed in the mountains. The only thing that can protect you is a constant state of alert. Ego has no place at the crags. Arrogance has no place in the mountains. Anything that is a distraction is dangerous. We are not action heroes and we are not invincible.

Many of us define our lives through climbing. We find something within ourselves and within our environment that make us feel more complete and more alive. Though it’s a dangerous lifestyle few of us can walk away from it.

I am still a guide and I am still a climber. I don’t think either of those things will ever change. But here at this hospital where my roommate is locked in a mesh cage so that he won’t hurt himself, they don’t call me a climber. And they don’t call me a guide.

Instead, they call me Window….

(This post was edited by BrokenClimber on Apr 13, 2008, 9:27 AM)

Edit Log:
Post edited by BrokenClimber () on Apr 13, 2008, 8:51 AM
Post edited by BrokenClimber () on Apr 13, 2008, 9:08 AM
Post edited by BrokenClimber () on Apr 13, 2008, 9:19 AM
Post edited by BrokenClimber () on Apr 13, 2008, 9:27 AM

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