I’m from upstate New York. This August I met a pair of climbers at Shelving Rock, a local crag, and we made plans to check out a new wall called Starbuck Cliff. It used to be an ice climbing area, but has been seeing more rock development lately. One of them cancelled last minute, so it was just me and this new guy. I’d just started leading trad in the spring, but was excited to try one of Starbuck’s routes. It’s a crack climb. It looked to be about 5.8, though we had no guidebook or Mountain Project info.
I started up. I was mostly concerned about the upper section, which looked kind of blank. The bottom was casual. By the time I was 60-feet up, I had five solid pieces below me. My left hand was on a bomber jug, and I was trying to decide what to place in the crack in front of me. Then the bomber jug unexpectedly came out of the wall. Without thinking, I chucked it down in the direction of my belayer, yelling “rock!” I don’t remember anything after this point.
My belayer took a step backwards and raised his hands in the air. (He was wearing a helmet.) The step back tugged at the rope against my harness. His instinct took over, and he let go of the rope to allow himself to take another step back. I was trying to recover my balance, but the tug didn’t help. I fell. I probably prepared to brace my feet against the wall. I was so high up that I expected to be caught. I was not. I fell about 60 feet and hit the ground. My belayer, in his surprise, never recovered the rope. I landed flat on my back, on a small strip of soft dirt between two boulders.
The fall knocked me out, erasing all memory of the event. When I woke, for a few seconds, I felt like I had been buried alive. I couldn’t see or breathe. It felt like there was an enormous weight on my chest. Slowly everything returned, and then I was very confused. I was on the ground, my gear was solidly in the wall, and the rope attached to my harness was still in my belayer’s ATC. He was standing over me, concerned. My first “Holy cow!” moment was realizing that my belayer didn’t catch me. My second was reaching out and touching boulders that may have killed me had I fallen just a little bit off to the side. Then it was time to figure out if I was OK. My adrenaline was pumping, so that helped. I moved around and stood up. My brain hadn’t grasped the size of the fall yet. I could barely even look at my belayer or the rock. I was incredibly sore, but nothing felt broken so I packed up my stuff, walked to my car, and drove to the ER. (I know I shouldn’t have.) To the amazement of myself, my friends, and the doctors, I was fine. All I suffered was some minorly cracked ribs and a mild traumatic brain injury—not even a concussion. My helmet may have saved my life.
After two weeks I was climbing indoors again. A month later I got on real rock (sport) at Rumney, NH. Recently a friend and I led Moby Grape, a 5.8 trad climb that works its way up the tallest cliff in New England. I have only heard of one other person being so incredibly lucky to survive such a fall and Climbing actually featured her. This has taught me some valuable lessons and left a huge impact on my life. I was so frightened getting back on the wall that I considered giving up climbing all together. Instead it’s fueled my motivation to pursue climbing even harder.
–Annie Nelson, via email
LESSON: Holy cripes. There are a few things we can all do to prevent such incidents for ourselves:
- Assess the holds. Some seemingly solid rock does come off by surprise, but in most cases you can evaluate holds. Knock on the rock, does it sound hollow? Does it shift at all when you grab it? These are warning signs. Learn more about assessing holds and rock fall danger at Rock! Prevent Rockfall and Calmly Handle Emergencies.
- Assess new partners. It’s important to know the experience level of your climbing partner and plan accordingly. Even if a newer climber knows Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills front to back and has his belay escape skills dialed from practicing in the garage, he still may not react appropriately to a surprise situation like rock fall because he hasn’t dealt with much rock fall. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t climb with new climbers, but you should be proactive about making sure new climbers understand their responsibilities. Talk through these scenarios before climbing.
- Assess the belay area. Every route has its own unique topography. Some slab or dihedral routes may funnel rock fall into one specific area. Some routes with roofs may have protected zones close to the wall. Before climbing, you can evaluate these features with your belayer and identify which spots will be the safest to belay from (or flee to) should rock fall occur. This can be particularly useful when climbing with a less experienced partner (see point two).
- Use an assisted braking belay device. Even if you follow all the previous points, something could happen to your belayer. The outdoors are unpredictable. Things can go wrong. Assisted braking belay devices, such as the Grigri, add an extra measure of security in those scenarios. If your belayer is knocked out by rock fall while using a tube-style belay device, you are off belay. If they’re using an assisted-braking device, though they are not designed to be used hands-free, it may still lock up and hold the rope. Insist that your partner use an assisted-braking device to stack the deck in your favor.
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