A climber falls at Smith Rocks, Summer, 1995
A place of peace, the river murmurs along the trail at the bottom of the canyon. High up above the mesas and towers eagles and buzzards soar on the air currents. On the cliffs, climbers test their mettle against the unyielding rock.
know it at the time, but this was to be my families
last trip to Smith Rocks. Sue and I, with our two kids
Clint (10) and Lisa (7) hiked up to Cinnamon slab for
some easy warm up climbs. The routes are eight bolt
sport climbs, a good place for a couple has been climbers
with small children. I tottered up to the top of the
routes, amazed as always at the weirdness of the "welded
tuff" volcanic rock. It bares a strong resemblance
to vertical frozen mud, complete with embedded rocks
sticking out at bizarre angles. Sue and Clint followed
me up, complaining about the steepness of the climbing.
For the next three days we hiked around the dihedrals climbing all the beautiful easy routes like Dancer, Jute, everything on the Peanut, Bunny Face, plus the world's greatest 5.8 route: "5 gallon buckets", named after the huge hold in which one could literally stuff a large bucket...or a knee, and lean backwards for a no hands rest, which many climbers do. 5 Gallon is very much like climbing a slightly overhanging 70 foot ladder, except the holds are better.
People at Smith are almost without exception kind and quiet. Everyone seems to realize how fortunate we are to be climbing high quality, user friendly routes in such a world class setting.
Because it wasn't a holiday weekend, by Monday morning the crowds were all gone. We were at the beginning of a 9 day vacation and I was feeling pretty warmed up. We pushed our tired knees down across the river and up to "light on the path", a 5.9 just 70 feet to the right of a 5.9 route called "Tammy Bakkers Face".
My family was lazing in the sun nearby while I pondered how to use my 12 foot stick clip to clip the first bolt 30 feet overhead when I heard a scream shatter the morning. My eyes darted toward Tammy Bakkers Face, 70 feet away and slightly uphill.
I saw a climber who I recognized hurtle down through the still morning air and smack the ground with a sickening thump. The force of the fall sent her sliding down the steep dirt slope about 20 feet, raising a large dust cloud. She hit so hard and so close I could feel the impact in my feet. It sounded and felt as if a large sack of wet concrete had fallen from a building 100 feet up...except this was a fellow climber who I had observed, and admired putting on her harness and gear a half hour earlier.
Absolute bedlam broke out. My wife, wide eyed with horror and shock started crying.
"Oh God! Oh God! What can we do? She fell so far. I saw the whole thing!" Sue cried.
Clint and Lisa stood dumbfounded. I could feel the
unspoken accusation in their eyes: "dad, you told
us this was a safe sport". After a short shocked
moment of stillness, terror stricken voices rang out
all around us, calling for a doctor, calling for a stretcher.
I heard high wails of pain coming from the area of the
fall. I couldn't tell if it was from the climber, or
her sister, who had been the belayer.
Even after almost 10 years, it is painful for me to write these words down. Perhaps by writing them down in a coherent order I can finally exorcise the memory. I hollered that I had a phone and tore frantically at my pack. When I found it at last, the climbing guide with the 2 sixteen year old girls doing laps on 5 gallon bucket stood up with a bigger phone and calmly announced that he was a licensed first responder and would everyone Please calm down.
We ran up hill to the fallen climber, the first people on the scene, finding her location in the tall summer wheat grass by the moans. Her sister, the belayer, was holding her head on her lap with her arms around her chest from the back, trying to give comfort. The climber, her name turned out to be Becky, was tossing her head from side to side moaning and screaming, almost incoherent with tremendous pain.
I could not believe she had survived the fall. She had been almost at the top of the 100 foot route. Amazingly, there was an ER doctor and and ER nurse there in just a few minutes. They had been climbing nearby and bailed when they heard the commotion. I heard fancy medical terms uttered by calm voices and took a few steps back, listening as the doctor and the guide talked on the guides cell phone.
I didn't appear to be needed anymore with 7 people attending the climber so I looked up the route, which I had climbed several times in the past. The climber and her belayer were still connected with the rope which went up the rock through two quick draws, then back down to the ground in a long loop. The third and fourth bolts had quick draws on them, but weren't clipped to the rope.
When the guide had a free moment I asked if he had enough juice in his cell phone and he said yes, no problem. I looked up and around the surrounding area. Everyone was frozen in place, even the climbers up on the cliffs were still, hanging on their ropes, frozen by the wails of agony coming from Becky. As far as I could see, probably 60 people were frozen in silence, staring at the girl on the ground.
Her cry's of pain were heartrending. I can't speak for the other climbers, but for myself this was something I had long imagined happening to me every time I rappelled or lowered to the ground over the last 19 years. This was and is my worst nightmare. One little tiny moment of distraction and that could be me on the ground. And here it was, up close and personal. This was not some Hollywood Reality show. This was real. I could never have imagined anyone could be hurt this bad and still breath.
Her leg and ankle were twisted very unnaturally, and her body had an unusual shape, as if her torso was somehow distorted. She bled from, or at one eye. The faces around her were red and flushed, but she was pale, a scary shade of gray beneath her tan and the Smith rock dust. Her color was a shocking contrast to the healthy men and women trying to calm and examine her.
I walked back down to pack up my gear and talk to the wife and kids. Something, perhaps the sickness that makes people slow down and stare at car wrecks drove me back up to the scene where they were now waiting for the helicopter and the rescue team. I walked right up and watched her from 10 feet away scorching the scene into my memory.
I guess I wanted to feel her pain. I wanted to know and memorize the moment. Possibly to know in my bones the penalty of a mistake in this deadly sport.
Just 15 minutes earlier I had been admiring her shapely form in the gray, ribbed Lycra shorts. She had been in excellent shape, as are most regular climbers. Now, to see her lovely face and body thrashing in unimaginable agony...it felt like someone had ripped out my soul. The entire canyon was breathing her screams, which lasted until the helicopter lifted her out an hour later.
We were a half a mile away by then, our help not being needed. I tried to climb another route, but my heart simply wasn't in it. On the way out, I ran into the guide. He had been up the route and discovered why she fell. She had tried to lower off with one rope.
Finding that she was 30 feet off the deck and needed two ropes to get off, she climbed back up, unclipping all but the two bottom bolts and pulling her quick draws from the top 5 bolts. Up at the anchor, she made a chain of slings from her extra quick draws, apparently hoping to lower the anchor far enough that she could reach the ground.
Tragically, she had learned to climb in the controlled environment of an indoor gym. No one had ever taught her that you can't put a lowering rope through a sling. The heat of the weighted lowering rope sliding through the sling will melt it right through. She should have used a carabineer, but they don't teach that in gyms. Only mountaineers learn how to trouble shoot and self rescue.
The guide said that the fact that she was screaming an hour later was a good sign. "If they are still screaming when they get in the helicopter, they usually make it." he said. We left that day to spend the rest of our vacation out on the coast; the family playing in the surf while I painted seascapes. I called the local climbing store in a week and they said she was still in intensive care, all busted up with internal injuries. I heard a year later that she had recovered and was considering going climbing again.
-- summer, 1995
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