My right index finger is slipping out of its sandy lock- all I have to do to get through the crux is hike my right foot up on a good hold on the arete.
I haphazardly pop my right foot up. Miraculously, it’s on the hold! But as I attempt to rock my weight onto it, my foot slips and so does my right finger from the lock above.
I’m suddenly free-falling. Something had gone terribly wrong. In the next three seconds time slowed so much that I felt I was cast in my own movie, observing myself from the outside. I knew this would be a bad fall.
The rope should have caught me by now. I’m upside down. Oh god, one of my pieces must have ripped. Shit.
Finally I stop hurling through the air, and with a violent thud my head and upper back smack the sandstone wall twenty feet below.
My husband Chris, our friends Celin and Roy, and I were on the Green River in Utah. We’d set out in our canoes for five days of climbing, establishing first ascents of sandstone splitters along the way.
When you attempt a first ascent, it’s really hard to know what to expect just by looking at it from the ground. Sometimes the rock quality isn’t as good as you thought, or the moves can be a lot harder than predicted. You just have to use your best judgment and pick the lines that you think are worthy.
Roy had picked out the line I was climbing on, and we all thought it looked do-able from the ground. After he drilled the anchor, we toproped it to practice the moves- it was surprisingly hard, likely solid 5.12.
I practiced the climb twice before attempting to lead it, but I hadn’t dialed in the gear. I just thought I’d give it my best shot on lead.
I had made a rookie mistake for one of my gear placements. I placed a purple Metolius above the crux and I knew it was slightly tipped-out, but it looked pretty decent. I almost placed another piece, a .5 above it about a foot, but it was just out of reach and I was getting pumped. I made a split-decision to trust the piece and just go for it. If I got to the good foot I had a nice stance and could place easily at my waist.
It turns out the piece was too small- one size up (a blue Metolius) fit perfectly. It ripped out of the wall and made for a nasty fall- my worst one to date in 14 years of climbing.
Dangling, slumped and heaving, I righted myself on the wall. I was stunned like a bird hitting a window. Chris and our friends asked me if I was okay. My back hurt really bad but I didn’t think I’d broken anything. I was certainly more freaked out than anything.
It’s scary being hurt in the middle of nowhere. On the Green River, we’d rarely see another soul floating down the river in an entire day. We had a satellite phone, but we’d be many hours away from a helicopter rescue.
I’ve always been a pretty bold climber. It’s never bothered me to take big whips. I guess I tend to err on trusting my gear, and if you’re smart about it there isn’t a problem with this. But I had placed a piece I knew was suspect and risked the fall anyway.
It was a wake-up fall.
I’ve always thought of our sport as super safe, as long as you are smart about it, double check your gear, and climb with people that are equally aware of this importance.
But the longer I climb the more cautious I become. Over time I hear of more and more accidents and more of my friends get hurt or even killed doing what we love. Maybe there was some ignorance in my boldness.
This fall has taught me to be more careful and smart with my gear placements, and ultimately I feel it has made me a better climber. I’d like to maintain a sense of boldness when appropriate, but I also want to stay healthy, climb for life and never stop learning.
Despite the worst fall of my life being less than 2 weeks under my belt, here’s to hoping I’ll have the courage to fully commit on my current project. But this time with one more added gear placement- just to be safe.