Thoughts on a Life Well Lived


I Took a 70-ft Whipper

I want to begin by making clear that I don't aim to glorify what happened. I am embarrassed by both my peeling off at the crux and the decisions that made such giant whip possible. It has now been several days and my hands don't shake quite as much at the re-telling. All good climbing stories are those of mishap. No one cares to read the tale of: I racked up, climbed it clean, got a few high-fives, and went home. I can now revel in the recounting and the assurance that I'll never again create another situation where such a fall is possible.

The severity of my injuries pales to how I received them. I have a sprained ankle and shaky (though increasingly less so) hands. I have no memory of twisting my ankle or even coming off the wall. The only real memories are of finding the crux sequence more difficult than I expected and of flying past a particular cam placed far below my fall. 

The route is called Sheila in Pine Creek, just north of Bishop, CA. The first ascent came in 1971 and marked the first 5.10 in the Eastern Sierra. I first saw photos of this classic route a few months ago in Rock and Ice. The Pine Creek feature shows side-by-side photos of Sheila; first of a climber on the nearly-vertical and drywall smooth dihedral featuring two parallel hand cracks, the second of her moments later flying face-first toward the ground. The caption's intrigue worked on me, but it proved more prophetic than I expected: "This 60-meter pitch has a notorious crux lieback protected by an optional six-inch cam. Cam or no cam, you can expect a lengthy fall due to rope stretch."

I don't six-inch piece. Despite the lack of suggested equipment, I felt secure to give Sheila a run. I've been climbing with more strength and confidence than ever before. While this would be a challenge, I didn't feel (and still don't) that this classic area test-piece was over my head. 

I got off to a shaky start. The line begins up a micro crack for 2 or 3 placements before the crack bends to the left, forcing a traverse that brings to you the main handcrack/dihedral system. I climbed too high and right before attempting the traverse. The 4 to 5 moves of heel-hook downclimbing to get back on the route coupled with the following thin, technical traverse male up the physical crux of the climb. Clearing the traverse, placing another piece, and pulling past a small bulge, I was finally established in the main corner.

I quickly fell into rhythm and next 80 feet brought some of my favorite climbing I've ever done. Amazing and secure hand and foot jams line up perfectly with small face edges exactly where you want them when the crack thins too much for feet. This section flowed, eating all of my hand-sized pieces, before bringing me to a small alcove beneath the "notorious crux lieback:" an 8 to 10-foot-long block roughly the cross-section of a refrigerator. It protrudes for the lefthand wall about 6-inches parallel with the right face. I rested briefly beneath it, plugging the only available protection I could find: a 0.3 Camalot in a zig-zagging finger crack on the right wall.

I moved past the small piece to the bottom of the block. The cam already below my feet as I could touch the block at the limits of my overhead reach. While not as strenuous as the moves to come, this wasn't a restful stance. I shook out, took a few deep breaths, and cast off. Committing to that lieback is pure friction for the feet. I found no edges, dimples, or anything that even pretends to improve the smears. While intimidating, the movements actually feel quite secure. A few sidesteps on underclings clears the bottom of the block and you can begin the upward march. This too feels secure and leads to slightly more featured rock on the face; still nothing to stand on, but the smears feel a bit more positive. 

My optimism from turning this corner quickly ran out. The top of the block re-connects to the righthand wall, creating a nearly featureless dihedral. I leaned in to peak behind block, then arched back to search around to the left. I had touched a few small edges first but decided that there must be a better option. The last thing I remember is the realization that I needed to commit to one of them. I never had the chance.

I was airborne without notice. I hadn't even thought about falling, only that the moves to come were going to be quite difficult. I remember almost nothing of the fall. I felt the inevitable weightlessness but cannot recall any other physical sensation. It was over in an instant, yet pieces of it seemed to move in slow motion. I have two distinct and perfect visuals from my ride. I remember seeing them with a completely detached curiosity. For those fractional movements, I was simply an observer and not the real-time actor about to feel the painful consequences of these events. 

Blowing off of the lieback must have sent me outward from the wall (later confirmed by actual observers). My first odd memory is of passing the alcove below the crux block, only it was somehow different. In that moment, I remember thinking how odd it looked from the vantage of looking in on it, rather than standing inside. Familiar yet eerily different, like standing in a room just after re-arranging the furniture.

I remember only one other snapshot. I can see the green sling and matching carabiner of a size 0.75 Camalot as clearly as the moment I placed it. Though I've never had the experience, it is not uncommon for a long fall to pass several pieces of protection. I remember every piece that I place on a given route. The memories don't stick, but during the focused moments of climbing, I could describe every piece below me. In this case, that meant knowing exactly how far I was falling. Seeing that green sling and carabiner fly past meant that I had already passed 5 pieces of gear including the one that had not yet arrested my plunge. Time slowed down for that moment and remember a morbidly curious realization that, "Wow, I must be falling really far!" 

I feel thankful for this less-than-complete comprehension. I was deciding which move to commit to and then I was dangling nearly halfway to the ground. I never entered those brief moments of pre-fall panic, nor did I have time to dread the bottom as it approached. I was acutely aware of everything, but from either shock or simply a lack of time I never crossed the line from detached curiosity to terror.

Without surprise, most ask about the physical experience. I have unfortunately little to report. I cannot describe the sensation in my harness, or of hitting the wall, or how I sprained my ankle. I have no memories for these. In fact, for the first 20-30 seconds after the fall, I planned to finish the route. I was thankful to be alive but I failed to grasp the scope of my fall and was still very deep in a climbing mindset. It wasn't until I saw how close Marika and (other) Justin stood on the ground that I realized how far I had fallen. They had long drifted from awareness as I climbed far out of ear-shot. Now their inquiries of my condition lifted my daze and served to further confirm how far below the crux block I was. My adrenaline faded with the shock and the pain in my ankle grew to match the swelling that was already cupcaking out of my (thankfully) high-top climbing shoes. I couldn't feel if my ankle was sprained or badly bruised from impact. First weighting my ankle confirmed that it was both. I hopped and reeled in my rope back up to top. I replaced my savior cam with a single, extremely thoughtfully-placed nut and cleaned the cam. Lowering off of this nut to clean the rest of the gear is objectively far more dangerous than my fall, but felt inconsequential compared to the shock still shaking my nerves.

We later figured the fall to be between 65 and 70 feet based on 15 to 20 feet or run-out and the stretch in 170 feet of rope (I was 25 to 30 feet from the top of what the guidebook calls a full 60m/200ft pitch). While it makes for a harrowing story that I've enjoyed telling, the numbers don't matter. Whatever the facts are, I fell way too far. After the initial trauma faded, I began to consider the stakes that I had created. It is difficult to justify the risk. My injuries are so minor that I could have simply tripped on the approach to the climb. I could just as easily have multiple fractures and severe head trauma. I am lucky to have fallen down a nearly smooth elevator shaft rather than over numerous features than could inflict far worse than my scrapes and sprain.

It occurs to me that many of us climb (though I can only attest personally), not in spite of the risks, but precisely because of them. Climbing brings many forms of satisfaction, but this deepest joys derive from succeeding in the face of risk. Physical and emotional challenge under threat of real or perceived consequence are simply what draws us to climb. We always seek to minimize if not mitigate it, but no form of climbing is without risk. I have always considered myself a very safe, smart, logical, and even conservative climber. Because of this, I actually relish the lessons from this fall. I crossed a threshold that allowed for such a lengthy fall. I elected to attempt a difficult sequence far off the ground without the recommended protection.

I don't regret this decision. I'm actually excited to return with a healthy ankle and 6-inch cam. I am grateful for the fall because it means vital experience. Safety stands on principles, but theoretical knowledge cannot alone ensure safe climbing. I have attempted difficult moves at the top of a long pitch. I have run-out protection far further than I did in this case, although over much easier climbing. I have taken plenty of lead falls. But, I have never fallen in the combination of these scenarios. Until now, rope stretch was only a theoretical aspect that can make a big fall into a huge fall. Until now, huge run-outs have only theoretical consequences. Until now, I had never paid acute attention to exactly how far a fall on difficult section can be. Until now.

I feel grateful for a check in ego. We have been on the road and have climbed nearly every day for the last two months. I have never climbed as frequently or as strong as the weeks leading up to this fall. I always remained realistic but I've never felt such confidence in my climbing. I wasn't attempting any routes beyond my limit nor was I pushing into an unsafe place. This elevated confidence allowed me to sport climb a new hardest grade and enter into trad climbs that I might have previously shied away from. Just days before the accident, I led a team of three up 1,500 feet of climbing for a linked up in the Whitney Portal. It is my proudest and most cherished day of climbing. Even months before, I would have never considered attempting this enchainment. Time on the couch allows for brutal honesty and I can say that I had begun to feel a bit of infallibility. Confidence is a virtue that allows us to perform to the peak of our abilities. But, long stretches of success unchecked by defeat can lead to dangerous decisions. I was more nervous at the base of Sheila than I have ever felt before a climb, yet I was able to push it aside to start up. This type of boldness is required to push to new limits but my confidence bucket was just reaching capacity and I'm grateful to have it kicked over before it overflowed.

I don't enjoy the thought of large falls onto small cams. I don't enjoy knowing that I will have both strong physical and emotional memories the next time I begin up Sheila and every time I run out a thin section. I would never ask or plan for such a fall, but living out the consequences of what were previously only the theoretical risks of climbing can only make me a safer, more astute climber and a better human.

What I meant to be a quick update about my current condition has morphed into a long-form epic, finally complete two weeks after my fall. I began writing this with my ankle on ice, still shaken up about what it would feel like to climb again. Now, I'm walking normal and returning to climbing brings excitement rather than tears.

Writing this in pieces over the last two weeks grew to much more than storytelling. This has become therapy; a way for me to make sense of my choices and shed the fear left over from the trauma of falling so far without warning. I think this would have been less traumatic if I had a moment of panic realizing that I was going to fall. I would at least be able to point to some aspect that I missed to cause the fall. Knowing that I had missed a critical sequence would be a relief. Even coming away with the realization that I am simply not strong enough to do this route would bring some solace. I assume that my indecision and shuffling around at the crux simply wiggled my feet off. I am worried that when I return I won't be able to trust my feet or my shoes in thin sections. I know my physical strength won't deteriorate significantly during my time off, but I fear that I'll be back in a beginners mindset of distrust and discomfort in thin situations. Only time will tell.