A climb, a fall, a lucky man

If you are a climber, imagine the following scenario. If not, bear with me and just note that this initial story is why we do this sport. It’s Saturday, April 13 2019 and I am breathing quite hard and sweating. Yeah, sweating…moments before starting the route I was freezing as a snow storm swept through the valley. Now it’s sunny, I’m sweaty, and thankfully clipping into the two anchors at the top of jasonbecker.com at Shelf Road. I also tell myself to take a few minutes to enjoy the scene at the top of a climb after I set up my anchors. So I did this. I put in two anchors, yelled to the floor below “I’m on anchor!”, and sat back…and breathed…and smiled. I look towards the southeast and notice that the snow is still hammering people to my right. But, damn, what a beautiful place to be sitting in a harness after a satisfying 50 ft climb when it’s sunny. This, this magnificent scene, is why why we climb. You don’t get this view on the floor below. OK, snap back into the present. Even though it’s sunny now, this is Colorado in the spring and snow could be coming again soon. It’s still windy, getting a little chilly, and I need to head down.

Now, if you are not a climber, the following bit is not why we climb. I start to prepare for a rappel descent. I’m on anchor and tie a hitch into the rope in order to clip it to my biner. I untie the rope, thread it through the anchors, tie another hitch, clip it, untie the previous hitch, and start pulling rope through the anchors. After about 50-60 feet of rope through the anchors, I untie the second hitch, yell “Rope”, toss it, and get on rappel. I put the rope through the ATC and cinch up the rope so that I can remove the anchors. I will be completely dependent on the rappelling system as soon as I remove my anchors. As I’m getting ready to undue my anchors, I remember thinking “Why is my harness so twisted?” This should’ve told me that something wasn’t right (see below).

“Rapelling!” I’m down about 10 feet or so and hear a loud “POP!” and immediately see my biner and ATC right at eye level, i.e. not connected to my harness. I yelled something like “F***, I’m in trouble Caleb!" I’m still about 35-40 feet above the floor and my mind starts racing. Actually, my mind is racing now as I’m typing this and I’m a little sweaty just thinking about it. In any case, my first thoughts are to the book Moutaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Why? Because I’ve read about non-mechanical rappelling systems a million times in that book. I start to think about how I can get myself into a Dulfersitz or arm rappel. And I’m yelling to those below, “I’m f*****!” I’m starting to panic more and more. My arms were pretty pumped from the climbs and all I can do is get about half-way through setting up the arm rappel. There was no chance of a Dulfersitz. And then “Falling!”

I’m on the ground. Wait, I’m sort of in some dude’s arms. Caleb, my climbing partner is five inches from from my face saying “Are you alright?” He asks the guy who sort of broke my fall “Are you alright?” I don’t remember any of this. Everything is a little hazy in my mind for about five minutes, but I’m standing. Sore, but no bones are sticking out anywhere and I’m standing. And I start thinking about my wife and son and almost lose it when some guy notices that one of my harness loops is broken. And that’s when I realize my big mistake.

I mentioned earlier that my harness did not feel right prior to taking off my anchors. I did not move my biner and ATC to the rated loop on the front of my harness. Yeah, I left it on an unrated, plastic loop (which is why it was twisting), and started rappelling on something that isn’t designed to hold much weight. Holy shit. What a stupid mistake. I’ve done this countless times and (obviously) never made that mistake.

So what are my big takeaways from this experience? Here you go.

  1. First, complacency can kill you in the mountains, or at the very least leave you in a very bad state. Fortunately, I was lucky and a super-strong guy happened to be climbing next to Caleb and me that day. I kind of bounced down the wall a bit on my fall, but he definitely stopped me from hitting the rocks on the ground with full falling force. I owe him.

  2. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Slow down and retrace your steps. Double and triple check everything. You are only safe if you are using your equipment correctly!

  3. Know your non-mechanical rescue techniques. Seriously, check out the book mentioned above. I bought a copy when I first moved to Colorado years ago and have spent many hours pouring over its material. My half-arm rappel definitely helped out in this case as I didn’t fall nearly as fast I would’ve otherwise. Unfortunately, that came with some serious rope burn and chewed up clothes. Who cares.

  4. Don’t panic. I did to some extent and it nearly cost me dearly. If I had kept a cooler head, I would’ve notice that I could’ve clipped a bolt right in front of me with one of my anchors. I had decent foot holds immediately after the ATC popped off, but I started on the alternative rappelling systems right away rather than quickly assessing all of my options. This is easier said than done.

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Ryan Elmore
Assistant Professor