Saturday, March 17, 2007


I love rock climbing and I used to take every spare moment to head out and look for something to climb. This typically involved a lot of driving on the weekend considering Georgia is not exactly known for it’s plethora of tall cliffs. Just 3 days after Aaron, my older child, born I accepted a promotion with REI and transferred my family to Salt Lake City. My motivations for this were multiple. I had family back in Utah and I looked forward to getting to know them better. It was a promotion in and industry that I enjoyed and hoped to be able to sustain a family while working in. And finally it was closer to the rocks. Knowing that I now had a kid and would not be able to get out as much as I did before he was born, I looked forward to having the rocks much closer.
Working in the industry allowed me to buy gear at reduced rates and also gave me access to a large network of other climbers. With all of these things going in my favor I was able to greatly improve my rock climbing skill. I was getting stronger and my technique was getting better than it ever could have just climbing the stuff in Georgia. I set my goals high and had a great time in the process. With my new connections I was able to climb successfully not just in the Salt Lake area but in Moab, Zion NP, Joshua Tree NP in California and even in Yosemite NP. I was really enjoying the life I had created for myself.
My trip to Yosemite was enjoyable for a few days but partner problems and having to get rescued off of Middle Cathedral Spire due to a rope jammed in a crack left me feeling like I had to go back to the valley and redeem myself. Having pledged myself to return and improve on my performance I resolved to train as often as I could.
Shortly after I’d turned 30 I went out rock climbing with a friend. I had planned on doing a few short warm up climbs and then attempting a rather long hand crack called Mexican crack. The warm up route that I’d picked was called “Lunge or Plunge”. Although it was rated a 5.11+ it was relatively short so it made sense to use it as a warm up for the technically easier 5.10 “Mexican Crack”.
I’d climbed the route successfully less than a month earlier when there was still snow on the ground underneath me. I felt confident that I could do it again. I’d even considered doing the route “free-solo”, meaning without a rope. Having not climbed too much with Davis before, I didn’t want him to think that I was unsafe so I decided to rope-up for the warm up. I started up the climb and just like before I place the appropriate cams and nuts in the rock to protect me in case of a fall. About 15 feet up the small crack that I’d been using to petered out and at that point you find out why the climb is called “Lunge or Plunge”. Up to this point the crack has provided not only the safety protection but also all of the hand holds. The next handhold was at eleven-o-clock but about 6 feet away from the current hand hold. The only way to reach the hold was to get my feet as high as possible and crunch up my body while still holding this last handhold in the crack. Then I would simply straighten my legs as fast as possible and kind of jump, or lunge, for the big hold with my left hand.
Well that was the plan anyway. And that’s exactly how things went the month before so I didn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t go that way that time. I walked my feet up and got into my little crunch preparing for the lunge. As I did so I noticed that the cam that I’d placed was not as secure as I’d have liked it. I had two options. Move on and hope for the best or climb back down a few feet and try to set it correctly. Thinking at the time that discretion was the better part of valor I opted for the latter.
All I can assume is that as I was stepping down I lost my grip with the shoes and began to fall. I was looking straight forward and it was as if I became hyper-aware of every single detail in my surroundings. I saw the rope slide through the top piece of gear and then I saw that piece of gear pop out of the rock and back toward me. Then my eyes dropped down about four feet to the next piece of gear and I focused on it hoping that it would hold. Still focusing on that piece I was twisted back and my gaze was pulled straight up. This wasn’t right. The piece should have pulled me into the rock and I shouldn’t be looking this way. I paused for a second and looked around. I was sitting on the ground at the base of the climb. With the top piece gone there was too much slack for the second piece to do me any good and I’d crashed to the ground in a heap a few feet before the rope would have caught me. Ironically, had this been a taller climb I would have been saved by the rope. Although it would have been a longer fall, there would not have been that sudden stop at the end.
When I’m in a crisis I turn into Spock. I became strictly logical. There just doesn’t seem to be any place for emotion in those times. I looked down at my leg and I was looking directly at the bottom of my left foot. It took me just a second to say, “Okay then. My leg is broken. You go call for help.” I then picked up my leg which was bent at a 90 degree angle above my knee and straightened it out. Davis ran down the approach trail to get help.
He didn’t leave me alone though. My two-year old son Aaron was with me to keep me company. As I lay there I could only think of how foolish I had been. My family, Aaron, Victoria and Rachel on the way were not even in my thoughts at all so far that day. And they should have been.
The search and rescue folks arrived about an hour later. Ironically, I had been on an ice climb with many of them just a few weeks earlier in the same canyon. They did their best to stabilize my broken leg and lashed me into the litter for evacuation. Every few minutes my thigh would start to contract and push the broken chunks together. When this happened I let one of the EMTs know and he pulled on my leg and I did my best to relax and stop the leg from contracting. The trail to the climb gains about 600’ in about a quarter of a mile. Going up I had to use my hands and feet to climb it. Now these guys had to haul my butt down this same trail. If they’d have dropped me I’d have had a nice sled ride to the base of the trail. They had to rope up the litter and belay it down every section of the trail.
A short ambulance ride to the hospital and I was waiting in the emergency room. This was the first time I’d had access to a phone. Victoria was at work and I had to let her know what had happened. I don’t remember how I started the conversation went but I will always remember her saying, “You broke your leg.” before I’d even told her about the fall. Up until this moment I had had no pain killers whatsoever. I didn’t know what paperwork I’d have to sign and I wanted to stay completely lucid just in case.
Victoria showed up Just as they were bringing back the x-rays. My hip had been shattered. I counted at least 10 pieces of varying sizes, all of which used to be my left femur. I was in for a long hospital stay, surgery and a bunch of recovery.
The hospital stay was absolutely miserable and the doctor’s son broke his neck in a climbing fall. So, he was not the least bit sympathetic of my situation. Surgery went well and I managed to recover much faster than the doctor expected. I was even back on the rocks three months after the fall.
It took the fall, the surgery and the recovery for me to realize that Utah was not where I was supposed to raise my family. My job was only a vehicle for me to continue climbing and it was time I grew up and figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do but I knew that my dead end job at REI would not get me there. I packed up my family and we moved back to Georgia.
I’m sharing this because my fall was 10 years ago today. Since then I’ve found a great job at AT&T, had two more kids and I’m really enjoying the changes in my life. As I said on yesterday’s post I think the real challenges in life come when we have to sacrifice one good thing for something else good. In retrospect, it is obvious to me now that I was failing the test. My priorities were out of whack and I was allowing more important details to fall by the wayside. It was drastic and I have an 18 inch long scar and a slight limp to remind me that I need to focus on what’s really important.
Now days I don’t get out climbing as much as I used to. I still enjoy it even though I only get out two or three times a year rather than two or three times a week. I’m not nearly as good as I was in 1997 but I’m much better in every other area of my life. I still reach down with my left hand and feel the scar on occasion when I feel like I might be letting my personal wants and desires get in the way of what I know is really important.


  1. We've all grown a lot since then. I for one am grateful that you spent a few years in SLC. My life is better for it.

    Like you I don't get out on the rock near as much. Somehow a long bike ride with my family is much more meaningful.

    Probably the best day I've had climbing in the past three years was our day on Steort's Ridge. I hope we can share a few more pitches in the future, if not a long chat beside a fire.

    Keep on living, learning and loving.


  2. The friends that I've made during that phase of my life will never be forgotten. Steort's Ridge was the best day that I've had climbing since my fall.
    Thank you.