Accident Conclusions

OK, enough already. We get it, you broke your leg. I know. Hard to believe, but even I am getting tired of talking about it.

Part of me hates to chalk it up to “bad luck,” but that may be the ultimate real-world explanation. Granted, I probably created, or certainly contributed to, my own bad luck. Perhaps it’s the flip side of that Thomas Jefferson line that I feel like I’ve lived for awhile now: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

Most likely two or three seemingly minor things conspired to create enough slack to un-weight my crampons from the ice bulge when I leaned back, right at that crucial “edge transition” from horizontal to vertical, and send me airborne.

1. I should have yelled “take” or “up rope” first, rather than skipping to my call of “lowering,” to ensure Steve had me as snug as possible. Especially important with stretchy ropes, and when transitioning from horizontal to vertical.

2. Directly related to #1, and adding to my fall, when Steve heard me call “lowering,” he naturally let out a little slack (two feet, at most). He then, cautiously, locked me off to ensure a controlled lower, which makes sense when you can’t see the person. My not doing #1, to suck up the slack & stretch, resulted in the additional slack of #2, likely creating enough to do me in. Most of the time – countless times in the past, I’m sure – I’d have been all right. But that ledge, right there, with the sharp drop over the edge and the swing into the ledge/corner, and it’s a rare but perfect storm.

3. Perhaps the rope was caught behind a bulge or an icicle, making it feel falsely snug, but then, under full weight, the rope popped free. This would let out some slack abruptly, as we’ve all likely experienced sometime when lowering. It couldn’t have been much, but maybe just enough.


A handful of seemingly random factors came together. Some minor pilot error by me – a little slack normally doesn’t cost you this much – with the simple bad luck of hitting the exact wrong spot, with my cramponed foot in the exact wrong angle, and we’ve got a horrible and rare scenario that transmitted hellish force into my leg, shattering it.

Perhaps I’m in denial, but this doesn’t bum me out as much as I might have thought it would. I mean, really, what can I do? It’ll hurt when I’m supposed to be in Alaska and Pakistan — the sorts of things that I live for — but I can’t turn back time. I’ll learn from it, though.

Randomness fills our world. Ever stop to think about all the forks in the road of life, and how one seemingly innocuous event – a dinner conversation with some person, or the time you decided to cross the street on this block instead of the next one down and then you ran into someone (or you got hit by a bus) – ended up influencing your life in untold ways? When I close my eyes and drift to the incomparable joys and treasures I’ve known in my climbing life, I’m grateful for the randomness of life. Though I’ve lived in shacks, sacrificed plenty and busted my ass, I didn’t make all of it happen myself. Some of it just came together. I don’t know how. Sure, we take opportunities and we work with them, as Jefferson said, but still, sometimes randomness works for or against us, and we have to accept the good with the bad. Such is life, there is beauty in randomness.

Great Andean Condors, circling above Jim Donini & I for an hour or more, at times swooping so close that we could hear the wind ruffling their wings. Northern Patagonian Icefield, Chile, Jan 2009.

9 thoughts on “Accident Conclusions

  1. Hey Kelly! I think we all try to find answers in a random world, a universe ruled by chaos. We are always trying to find a pattern, a series of events we could have anticipated and prevented. You will likely obsess over it the rest of your life; particularly till you are climbing again. It is good to know what happened, and I guarantee you won’t make the same mistake twice…if it was indeed a mistake. But remember, a month has gone by, and you are on the mend. The future looks great! Cheers, Ralph

  2. “If in doubt then there is no doubt”- my contribution. Thanks for posting your AAR, hotwash, etc. I know I’ve learned something. The first submission of the year for “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”?

    You said it- you must tired of thinking about it too! Your last three postings have been heavy, especially on the Ps: philosophy, psychology and painkillers.

    Do you have another marg recipe for us?

    Stay on the mend!

  3. I know you’ve heard this before and will always hear it after but sometimes, “shit happens” and nothing we can do changes that. In 1982 Nick Badyrka and I had a great, BIg Alaskan trip planned to do what became the Czech Direct on Denali and the East Face on Kahiltna Spire. Everything covered. Fully sponsored in a first-class, Christian Bonnington kinda-way. Nick, 28 years old and fit as can be. Me, lean and mean. Totally Psyched. I was bouldering for a final workout session two weeks before lift-off and fell flat on my palms from 6 feet up at Stoney Point. Broke both wrists. One compound. One simple. Complicated everything. We never climbed those routes nor did we climb together again. I quit alpine climbing and began chasing women and margueritas for several years. Eventually I got better but was never the same again……..Random events happen and I still try to make sense of it. There are lessons in everything. This incident will lead you to greater heights in your life. Open up opportunities in climbing and elsewhere that you could not have predicted.
    Meanwhile, heal completely and well. Let’s get together. I’ll drive!!!


    • yup, for sure, jack. man, didn’t know that story, shit. crazy how these things can happen. agreed, lessons in everything, and this will indeed open me to new things.
      thanks, and looking forward to hanging with ya one of these days (though i enjoyed our -8 windchill, or whatever it was, day out ice climbing in the park back in october better!).

  4. The twists and turns and randomness of life often leaves me wondering about the what ifs too, Kelly. In ’92 Tom Walter invited me to go to Alaska – blew out my knee (again) and couldn’t make it. Only one of three came back from Foraker on that trip. What if?? Good to read your posts and that you’re working through it. Take care. (I relocated to Jackson Hole, so if you’re in the Tetons sometime in the future, let me know.)

    • wow. damn, tobin, yeah, i know the story, am friends with colby. didn’t know tom, but the missoula connection, yeah, makes sense that you two were friends. had heard the story before — just unreal, terrible, and then the unfathomable survival and recovery by colby. such a tragedy, though. donini has said that he doesn’t know what his closest call was. might’ve been the time he decided to go around the corner to the left instead of to the right, where he might’ve triggered an avalanche. indeed points to the twists, turns and randomness. am glad you’re ok, but so sorry about that tragedy. sends shivers up my spine thinking about it. hope JH is treating you well, and look forward to crossing paths again. take care, kelly

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