I reposted this story from Sam Gitchel........
It’s hard to imagine life without climbing, but now I’m weighing it. These days I’m grateful to be able to walk around the block. These days I’m aware how much human misery stems from innocent mistakes. We don’t have to do something mean-spirited or overwhelmingly stupid to cause a catastrophe. It happens in the blink of an eye.
It’s a social climbing day…. the six of us doing short climbs and topropes, all with a friendly mix of kibitzing and encouraging. We are on the south face of High Eagle Dome, a beautiful world of granite with grand views out across the broad drainage of the North Fork of the San Joaquin, all the way to Mammoth Mountain. At 7000 feet, the air in October is cool and the sun is warm.
When the others call it a day, my partner Nancy and I stay around for more top rope. I rig a fairly complicated anchor, and like clockwork, follow the routine like a thousand times before…. adjust the slings to get the biners just over the edge, clip the rope, oppose the gates, test the anchors, yell “rope,” toss it down, jam the rope through my ATC.
The rope tangles but I push it down, figuring I can clear the kinks as I go. I inch my way over the edge. We just did the climb 15 feet to the left, so I know there’s enough rope. OK, gently lower on to the biners, and take one last look at the anchor. All the friends look solid. It’s equalized. OK lean back and rap. I’m not above taking a little preview of the route as I slowly make my way down. Would that big rounded flake go as a lieback?.. OH SHIT this can’t be happening….the end of my rope slips through my ATC in a flash..
Whish. THUD. Gonnngggg. Oh my head. My leg is numb. Something’s wrong with my back. Shit it hurts. Shit it hurts. Let’s see…. I’m at Shuteye Ridge. I was toproping….I think I remember who I was with. Shit I didn’t center the rope. It was weird amnesic feeling, but with I could remember everything, except the second or two falling.
I fell about 25 feet to a fairly flat, clear ledge, butt first. I knew something was very wrong with my lower back. My right leg was electrified, stunned, immovable. My head was bleeding. Nancy, a physician, quickly checked me out then ran to get our friends before they left. She caught them just in time, and they more or less carried me out. A twenty-minute approach became a two-hour evacuation.
Five hours later I was in the ER and the nightmarish saga with the medical system began. That’s another story; I’ll just say that it included misdiagnosis, an unresponsive system, and lots of pain. I had fractures of the sacrum, a part of the pelvis, and three vertebrae. With this injury there is no cast, no brace…you just take it easy and get pain relief while healing takes its bitter sweet time. These were three months from hell for Nancy, my constant care giver and advocate against the sludged up bureaucracy of Health Net.
Now, six months later, I especially enjoy Leonard Cohn’s line, “I ache in the places I used to play.” I expect to continue healing, but the nerve damage that causes a constant burning pain in one foot may or may not heal. This spring I have been back on the rock a few times and it felt pretty good, but in the cruel twist Nancy bore the emotional brunt of the accident as empathetic, kind caregivers often do. (I was on opiates through the worst parts). So I am observing a climbing moratorium out of regard for the wounds she still feels so deeply.
There was no good excuse for my mistake. Maybe I was a little hasty…this was to be our last climb of the day. And as the sun began to sink we could feel the late afternoon chill moving in. I was in an uncomfortable position to set up the anchor and I was eager to get down and try the climb. The rope tangle was one more distraction, but really this wasn’t much different from a hundred end-of-the-day top ropes.
Can I trust myself to be a safe climber? Do I lack the requisite focus to climb safely? The most disheartening thing is that I knew that all too many climbing accidents are rappel screw ups. I knew to be compulsive about checking everything. I did double-check most parts of the system…..I just forgot one.