Climbing accident caused by a series of unfortunate events

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I’m from upstate New York. In August I met a pair of climbers at Shelving Rock, a local rock, and we planned to check out a new wall called Starbuck Cliff. It used to be an area for ice climbing, but lately there has been an increase in rock development. One of them canceled at the last minute, so it was just me and this new guy. I had just started running the trad in the spring, but was excited to try one of Starbuck’s routes. It’s a crack climb. It seemed to be around 5.8, although we had no guide or information on Mountain Project.

I started. I was mostly concerned about the upper part, which looked a bit empty. The bottom was casual. By the time I was at 60 feet, I had five solid pieces below me. My left hand was on a bomber pitcher, and I was trying to decide what to place in the crack in front of me. Then the bomber pitcher unexpectedly came out of the wall. Without thinking, I threw it in the direction of my belayer, shouting “rock!” I don’t remember anything after this point.

My belayer took a step back and threw his hands up. (He was wearing a helmet.) The backward step tugged the rope against my harness. His instincts took over, and he let go of the rope to allow himself to take another step back. I was trying to regain my balance, but the tug didn’t help. I fell. I probably prepared to press my feet against the wall. I was so high that I expected to be taken. I was not. I fell about 60 feet and hit the ground. My insurer, in his surprise, never recovered the rope. I landed flat on my back, on a small strip of soft dirt between two rocks.

The fall knocked me out, erasing all memory of the event. When I woke up, for a few seconds, I felt like I had been buried alive. I couldn’t see or breathe. I felt like there was a huge weight on my chest. Slowly everything came back, then I was very confused. I was on the ground, my gear was firmly anchored to the wall, and the rope attached to my harness was still in my belayer’s ATC. He stood in front of me, worried. My first “sacred cow!” moment was to realize that my insurer had not caught up with me. My second was reaching and touching rocks that could have killed me if I had fallen a little sideways. Then it was time to find out if I was okay. My adrenaline was rising, so that helped me. I moved and stood up. My brain hadn’t yet grasped the size of the fall. I could barely look at my belayer or the rock. I was in incredible pain, but nothing seemed to be broken, so I packed up, walked to my car, and went to the ER. (I know I shouldn’t have.) To my amazement, that of my friends and the doctors, I was fine. All I suffered were slightly cracked ribs and mild traumatic brain injury, not even a concussion. My helmet may have saved my life.

After two weeks I was climbing indoors again. A month later, I was doing real (sports) rock in Rumney, NH. Recently a friend and I ran Moby Grape, a 5.8 trad climb that climbs the tallest cliff in New England. I have only heard of one other person who was incredibly lucky to survive such a fall and Escalation actually presented it. It taught me valuable lessons and had a huge impact on my life. I was so afraid of getting back on the wall that I considered giving up climbing altogether. Instead, it fueled my motivation to keep climbing even harder.
–Annie Nelson, via email

LESSON: Holy crisps. There are some things we can all do to avoid such incidents on our own:

  1. Evaluate catches. Some seemingly solid rocks come off by surprise, but in most cases you can gauge the catches. Knock on the rock, does it sound hollow? Does it move at all when you grab it? These are warning signs. Learn more about catch assessment and the danger of falling rocks at Rock! Prevent rockfalls and calmly handle emergencies.
  2. Evaluate new partners. It is important to know the experience level of your climbing partner and plan accordingly. Even if a novice climber knows Mountaineering: freedom of the hills back and forth and his belay evasion skills came from practice in the garage, he still may not react appropriately to a surprise situation like a falling rock because he hasn’t faces a lot of falling rocks. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t climb with new climbers, but you should be proactive in making sure new climbers understand their responsibilities. Talk about these scenarios before climbing.
  3. Assess the belay zone. Each route has its own unique topography. Some slab or dihedral routes can channel rockfall into a specific area. Some lanes with roofs may have protected areas near the wall. Before you climb, you can assess these features with your belayer and identify the safest places to belay (or flee) in the event of a rock fall. This can be particularly useful when climbing with a less experienced partner (see point two).
  4. Use a belay device with assisted braking. Even if you respect all the previous points, something could happen to your insurer. The exterior is unpredictable. Things can go wrong. Assisted braking belay devices, such as the Grigri, add an extra measure of safety in these scenarios. If your belayer is knocked out by a rockfall while using a tube type belay device, you are not insured. If they use an assisted braking device, although they are not designed for hands-free use, it can still jam and hold the rope. Insist on your partner using an assisted braking device to stack the deck in your favor.

Her father died at her feet. 50 years later, the accident still haunts him.

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