Since my accident, I’ve posted the story version of what happened, some gnarly photos (here and here), a personal ad (why not) and various other drivel. Now comes the accident-tech-geek stuff. Details, details, a dry report – but it has a nice splash at the end.
• After I topped out the route, walked out of sight to the anchor tree and clipped the ropes through, and then walked back to the edge, Steve heard me call “lowering.” I hadn’t yelled anything else. The rope felt snug, so I did not first yell for him to up-rope or pull me tight before I leaned back. Upon hearing my “lowering” call, he thinks let out a little slack (it’s hard to remember every detail) – less than a cycle through his ATC-Guide (two feet of slack, max) – and finished the payout by instinctively locking off. Makes sense, as he couldn’t yet see me, and I often do the same – let out a little bit, but don’t start fully lowering just yet. He recalls having me locked-off because he was starting to yell up about how we should manage the top-rope for him to follow (since, as I mentioned in the Accident Story, I’d forgotten that the route was more than a half-rope length). Then he heard me yelling “Too fast, too fast!” and saw me falling, giving him a horribly confused feeling since he had me locked off and had not yet started to actively lower me.
• As I fell, I got pulled slightly rightward into the true fall-line, and extended my leg to anticipate the impact. My foot was in a dorsiflexed position, which is like letting your foot off the gas (lifting the top of your foot toward your knee). Apparently this position created the perfect storm for a nasty Pilon Fracture, sending the full force through my talus bone (in the foot) and into my tibia (my lower leg bone that got destroyed) where the tibia has the smallest cross-section and where the greatest stress occurs. To get a feel for how vulnerable your tibia is in this position, dorsiflex a foot and then tap that heel against the floor. Then imagine striking not the heel first, but just in front of it, between the heel and the arch, and you can almost feel your talus bumping up against the tibia. I just did it with my good leg, and though it might be just me, just now, that alone felt spooky.
Falling sideways also increased the actual distance I fell – think the hypotenuse of a triangle being its longest side. Steve and Pete went back the next day to recover the gear and study the scene, and it’s maybe two meters from the edge (where I stopped and yelled “lowering”) to the small ledge/corner I collided with. Add a couple of feet from the edge up to my tie-in point and some stretch (I ended up a little below the corner), and I fell probably 10 feet.
• Steve feels confident that he didn’t get jerked forward – makes sense, given the amount of rope out, friction in the system, and his being 20+ pounds heavier than me.
• We were climbing on two 7.8 mm ropes (Metolius Monster, dry treated). They’re rated as doubles and also as twins. I used them as doubles (clipping pieces alternately), as I mostly do, due to the reduced impact force on my pieces in the case of a fall. I clipped both through the anchor. The ropes were dry, stacked neatly in tramped-out snow, which I mention because we’d considered things that could have caused the rope to slip through Steve’s hands.
• Steve belayed with a Black Diamond ATC-Guide device, which is rated for use with ropes from 7.7 to 11 mm. Not likely that the ropes, which were dry, slipped through the belay device. He wore mid-weight liners with good dexterity and feeling, and had me locked-off. I’ve used this device with these ropes countless times without incident.
• None of the gear or systems was novel to us.
• No traverses; the route was straight up.
• No gear pulled. While lowering, after the fall, two equalized nuts (my first gear) popped due to the outward pull on the one rope. This didn’t drop me at all, since nothing popped on the other rope.
• When Steve was cutting my back pad for part of the splint (he did a brilliant job – my Cobras, the pad, several slings that he cut and used to cinch into hitches, plus a half roll of athletic tape and a jacket), he first sized it against my leg and mumbled “too big.” Through gritted teeth I replied, “That’s what she said.”
• Steve, an M.D. who works in the Emergency Department and is involved with wilderness medicine and SAR courses, did an amazing job of thinking clearly, staying calm, and being resourceful. While sitting there, I wondered – with all respect to my other climbing partners – if many other people I know – myself included for sure (note to self: time to take a WFR course, as mine is 15 years old) – would have any idea of what to do. Sure, he had to stop and think from time to time, but that’s great. It’s one thing to learn those things in a course, it’s another for him to have a good friend with a flopping leg and be on the spot to figure out how to best splint it, and how to get me down. He’d pause, breathe, remaining calm always, think, and then act. He could not have done any better.
• We created a pretty cool little butt-seat sled out of my pack (“My CILO GEAR pack, which literally saved my ass, I never leave home without CILO and neither should you!” – er, oh, wait, wrong channel…but thanks for the tequila, Graham!). We rigged it like a diaper-seat, connected to my harness, and ran slings up along my inner thigh and under my arms toward my upper back, so that Steve could drag me backwards downhill. That, and ample parts of pushing, pulling, me doing dips to get up and over fallen logs, and the full Jane Fonda Workout ab-routine of keeping my injured leg lifted the whole time, got us out in about four hours. No painkillers in either of our packs, though – I’m saving some from my surgery, to add to a half-roll of tape and a belay knife, for my future first-aid kit. The tape and knife proved super useful in rigging the splint. Taking a full-bore first-aid kit is typically absurd, I don’t do it and don’t know anyone who does (unless they’re guiding) – but being McGuyver-like with a knife and some tape sure helps. And drugs (if you have ‘em).
• Steve and some of his SAR and doctor-professor geek friends are doing some modeling about the accident, forces, etc. Eager to hear more if/when they come up with some numbers and scenarios. For now, it seems apparent that with 140 feet or so of rope out, it’s easy to drop at least five feet just with initial stretch. Add to that my failure to call for tension – thus another foot or two of slack likely in the system– and my calling first for “lower” – another foot or two – and we have my fall.
• Crampons make things worse, for sure – the spikes catch and bite into things, concentrating the force. There can be no doubt that ice/winter climbing is generally more dangerous than rock climbing. It’s also fun, and being intimate with the winter landscape unlocks untold beauty. Plus, I can’t quite bear to sit around like a whiny bitch complaining about the weather. I love every season and I never get bored as a result. Once again, however, even 16 years into a climbing life that includes a fair bit of “spiky climbing” around the world, I’m reminded that ice climbing requires serious attention to detail.
Possible Preventive Measures:
• Suck-up the slack hard before lowering. If in doubt, try to pre-stretch the rope, both belayer and climber, by having the belayer lock off and sit back hard, then suck forward while taking out more slack, locking off, and repeating a couple of times. Especially helpful with ice climbing, as it seems unlikely that I’d have broken my leg, at least to this degree, without crampons on. How many times have we dropped a few feet while lowering on a rock climb – the rope pops around a bulge, for example – and your feet just dance around the rock? Happens often.
• Be clear in communication/commands. I’ve done a lot of climbs where my partner and I could not hear each other, and so we think, we feel what’s going on with the rope, and then we act. But in this case, I should have been more clear. I should have called for Steve to “up rope!” or “tension!” or “take!” first, and then called “lowering.” Generally, what I did, and with an experienced partner like Steve, doesn’t seem disastrously remiss or out of the ordinary. But it cost me. Such a simple mistake. Neither of us feels good about it, given how badly everything turned out. Steve wrote to me:
“I could just as easily have asked if you were at the lip. My mistake was placing you in the snow above it. I’d had a fleeting feeling of uncomfortableness with this – a nudge to check in – which I should have listened to. I realize that’s why I’d given only a short cycle through my ATC and started to call up, finally acting on it. I think this is at the heart of why I feel so responsible. I think communication goes both ways, which is what ultimately this is about: listening to ourselves, each other and acting on the responsibility to speak up if you don’t like something. You’re questioning your thoroughness in calling down, but I could just have easily – and had reason to do so – called up or clarified the plan before you even started up the route. Good belayers do that.”
• Not a preventive measure, but one that helps with reality: acceptance. Shit happens, and part of the beauty of climbing lies in its unknown elements. Of course we want to embrace these in a good way, and we want to remain vigilant to prevent accidents like this. It is always easy to second-guess afterward (just check any injury/accident forum on the Internet), and being extra careful never hurts. Nor does it guarantee anything (I have some interesting thoughts on risk, surviving, and learning; maybe I’ll write about it sometime). Our climbing world obituaries are filled with the phrase “He was the safest climber I know…” So, I’d say be cautious when it matters – but not too cautious, not too timid, don’t live in fear – and remember to think and to learn, and to accept that things can happen. Either that, or stay on the couch, reliving that dyno you did that one time, drinking margaritas.
Speaking of which, this post is too damned dry. Tomorrow I’ll finish by posting my Conclusions. But for now let’s loosen-up – Uri Fridman just sent me this marg recipe. Sounds really fucking good, and I’m ready for it. Need some lemons, though, but I can crutch to the little grocery up the street in about five minutes…
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
Mix well until sugar dissolves, then mix in:
1 1/2 cups of fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup of fresh lime juice
Add a dash of salt.
1 1/4 oz Hornitos or Herradura tequila
1/2 oz Cointreau
3 oz mix
Splash of orange juice (very little)
Mix all items in a shaker, add crushed ice to a glass, pour.
(Optional: dip rim of the glass in lime juice and add either salt or sugar to the rim)