The Fall No One Wants to Take

I still remember the dull thunk of my body hitting the ground.

“What the f*k just happened?”

Weirdly, falling itself wasn’t scary. I remember sitting back on the anchor and then watching the ground come toward me. I registered that I was falling, but I did nothing except close my eyes. No scream of terror, no putting my arms out to save my face or helmetless head. I’m pretty sure I went limp, rag-dolling to the ground. It was as if I was preparing to take a bouldering fall inside onto pads, except this time I was falling 35+ feet onto hard-packed dirt. A pretty ideal landing all things considered.

“What the f*k just happened?”

2 seconds before I’d been re-weighting the anchor as my partner started up pitch 2 of Athletes Feat, and now I was in the dirt at the base of the climb, tangled in rope and still connected to the cordelette anchor that was no longer attached to the bolted anchors.

“What the f*k just happened?”

I felt numb.

“What the f*k just happened?”

I sat up and ‘saw stars’, which look far more like exploding fireworks.

“What the f*k just happened,” my partner and I must have repeated back and forth half a dozen times each.

“Can you drive us to the hospital,” my partner asked.

I was 50% sure I would pass out if I stood up. Driving down a winding canyon without cell service after having decked from 35 feet up seemed like a good way to actually kill us both.

“Can you give me 2 minutes?” I asked.

We were f*king lucky. Lucky the accident happened on pitch one, not two or three or five. Lucky that pitch one was short. Lucky we’d been those kids who parked right under the route and were now lying 8 feet from my climbing partner’s truck. Lucky a friend happened to be showing another friend the area and drove up less than 10 minutes post fall. Lucky that friend of a friend was able to drive us to the ER.

While my friends helped my partner into the back seat, I took my harness off and left it clipped to the anchor cordelette and the rope, throwing the whole mess into the back of the truck, so we could figure out what went wrong.

It wasn’t until I got into the passenger side seat and tried to take of my new TC Pros that I realized my foot was tender.

At the ER, no one realized I’d fallen too. I was limping around, but my partner (who, for the record, is also okay) was in worse shape, so the focus was on him.

I checked myself in 30 minutes to an hour later: no concussion despite not wearing a helmet, no broken bones, one sprained ankle, several scrapes and bruises, one destroyed pair of spandex—one hell of a lot of luck. The ER nurse’s napkin note read: ‘Fell 40 feet, pain 4 out of 10.’ She told me to go out and buy a lottery ticket. I didn’t bother. I figured my luck was up.

Now you’re probably wondering, WTF happened to the anchor set-up? Who messed up? How can I not make this same mistake?

Here’s what I know:

  1. My partner, who will remain anonymous, lead the first pitch and built a cordelette anchor on two bolts with fixed carabiners before I seconded the pitch.
  2. After seconding, I reached the anchor, and clipped into the cordelette above the ATC that was used to belay me up and weighted the anchor, no problem.
  3. We then discussed who would lead the next pitch and decided my partner would take the lead again. I put them on belay and unweighted the anchor when they asked to clean the ATC that was on the anchor, so they could belay me from above at the next anchor.
  4. I then re-weighted the anchor and it fell off the bolted anchor quickdraws. The cordelette remained clipped to the locking carabiner I’d used to clove hitch my side of the rope to the anchor.  
  5. Since my partner was about to start up the climb and was only “on belay” via the grigri attached to my harness, I pulled them off of the climb partway through my fall, slowing my descent and likely saving me some broken bones.

Here is my best guess at what happened after consulting other experienced climbers and my climbing partner:

My partner remembers building a sliding X at the anchor, but instead of building it with a sling or short piece of cordelette like I’d seen previously, they had used a large amount of cordelette doubled over several times. The locking carabiner attaching the ATC to the cordelette was the same biner that had been used to make the bottom of the sliding X (see video below), and instead of clipping either side of the cordelette through the carabiners on the anchor, we think my partner had threaded the cordelette through them in their attempt to reduce the length of cordelette. So, the ring of cordellete was not actually clipped into anything; it was just held together and on the anchor by the bottom locking carabiner attached to the ATC, which my partner cleaned before heading up the next pitch. My partner had also not tied limiting knots in either side of the sliding X. Since my partner was a far more experienced multi-pitch climber than me, I didn’t think to ask about an anchor variation I hadn’t seen before. Had I asked about the anchor, they likely would have remembered that they needed to replace that carabiner with another locking carabiner before cleaning their ATC and/or I would have understood that only the carabiner on their ATC was holding the anchor together.

A few more ways a ground fall could have been avoided:

  1. Using a quad instead of a sliding X (or another standard anchor with a master point).
  2. Had (I suggested that) my partner clip(ped) a draw to one of the bolts on the anchor as their first piece on the route to avoid a factor 2 fall on the anchor system, we would have had a scary day but would not hit the ground. Also had my partner already placed a piece on the route we would have likely been okay (depending on how well said piece was placed).
  3. Had my partner clipped the cordelette into the carabiners on the anchor instead of threading the cordelette through the anchor, we would likely have been fine, as I was clipped to the cordelette; since, it remained attached to locker I’d clove-hitched my side of the rope into when we fell.
  4. Had I gone in direct to one, ideally both, of the bolts instead the cordelette, we would have been fine.

Lessons:

  1. Ask about anchors you haven’t seen before. You can and should do it in a nice, learning-focused way.
  2. Back everything up.
  3. Don’t blindly follow others. Do your research and see number 1.
  4. Double-check your anchors AND your partner’s anchors (see numbers 1 and 3).
  5. If you have a ton of cordellete and are going to be building an anchor on 2 bolts, build a quad instead of a sliding X (see second video below). It’s safer AND faster; since, you can pre-build it before heading up the climb.
  6. If you are going to build a sliding X, which is great in some situations, make sure to tie limiting knots in both sides (see video below).
  7. WEAR A HELMET HOMIES!

Back to being lucky: Today is my one year anniversary of falling. In the past year I’ve sent my hardest boulder problem and redpointed my hardest sport climb and trad climbs to date. My partner has sent up to V8 again. That ‘shouldn’t’ have happened. We could easily both be veggies with permanent brain damage from falling that far without helmets. We were lucky, and for that I’m grateful, but I never expect to get that lucky again, and I don’t plan to test that theory. I hope you learn from our mistakes.

Stay safe out there y’all.

I have no photos from that day, so I put a happier sport climbing photo taken by my friend Johann Zaroli as the featured image. If you’re wondering what Athlete’s Feat looks like, here’s a link.

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