Several weeks ago, a climber in Yosemite rapped off the ends of his rope and died, hitting the ground from several hundred feet up the wall. He was descending Royal Arches with his partner—a 5.7 Valley classic that follows the onion-like layers of granite that arc beautifully on the wall underneath North Dome—when he failed to look down at his rope ends.
A tragic and simplistic error with dire consequences.
The risks of climbing are, as every disclaimer on gear and books and the chidings from your grandmother will inform you, are inherent. I’ve always known this, but hearing such a story so close to home sends a cold shiver through my body nonetheless. Such an easy mistake to make, and by the time you realize it, it’s all over.
Three months ago I had a similar experience. Eager to get on my first trad lead, I scurried up a familiar route with unfamiliar gear weighing down my harness. Placing seemed intuitive enough; squeeze the trigger on a cam, shove it in the crack, slot a nut in a deep pocket, yank it till it’s bomber. Twenty feet up, I fiddle with a nut. It seems ok, so I pull down on it, hard. It pops out abruptly, taking me by surprise, and I lose my balance and reel backwards—hitting the ground a split second later. I’m dazed and in shock.
Lying on the ground with my friends swarming around me, I know that the only thing wrong with me is my wrist. It lies limply on my chest. There’s no pain, but it sits there like a dead fish, unable to be moved, and I know it’s broken. My friends ask me if I’m okay, ask me how I’m feeling, and all I can say is:
I’m fine. I’m just angry. So stupid, so stupid.
All I was feeling in that moment was the shock of such an enormous consequence from such a small but monumental mistake. By not securing myself enough on the wall, not making sure I was at a good stance and on good holds before grabbing and jerking the nut, and by not placing the nut properly, I had made a near fatal error. Twenty feet is a long way to the ground.
A month later I heard the tragic news that a young, experienced climber, Heidi Duartes Wahl, fell 20 feet from a two-pitch trad route (5.11c) in the Shawagunks and died. And she was wearing a helmet. Then you hear the stories like Lynn Hill’s—of people hitting the deck from eighty plus feet on the wall, and walking away battered and bruised, but alive. No matter how experienced you are, you can forget to tie your knot, you can forget to watch for the ends of your rope.
The truth about a sport like climbing is that it takes your full commitment: all of your skill, and all of your trust.
Climbing elevates the climber to a state of hyperawareness driven by taking intentional, calculated risks accompanied by rational fear. Because we all have a fear of falling, it’s ingrained deeply in our DNA, and through climbing, we must transcend this fear by mastering the art of safely defying gravity. It’s a skill you have to learn until it’s settled deep into your muscle memory, but also lies awake and alert on the surface of your consciousness.
Tying a figure eight is laughably automatic to most seasoned climbers, but it becomes just as important to make the conscious effort to look down and make sure you’ve done it and you’ve done it right. The risks of climbing are inherent, but it’s this dangerous dance with the devil that also makes it unique. Learning to deftly avoid these risks is where we experience the thrill of mastery, and gain confidence not only in the sport, but in the deepest parts of ourselves.
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