Friday, July 3, 2015
A Very Close Call
I'll start with the fact that my family is safety conscious. My daughter wears a helmet when she leads. We always double check our knots and systems. We discuss our plans before the climber even leaves the ground. But despite all that, my daughter was just inches from death yesterday. I thought for a few moments that she was going to die, and there was nothing that I could do to stop it.
I was at the top of "County Ten Gunslinger" 5.12c on the Erratic at Wild Iris. Ashley had already toproped it, and wanted me to set up something harder. But I was saving my energy for a redpoint attempt. So to set up a toprope on "When I Was a Young Girl..." 5.13a, I decided not to climb it bolt to bolt. Instead, all I needed to do was mantle onto an easy slab above my climb, and make my way to the other anchors, up and to the right. I started to mantle, using an undercling to the left, but the entire undercling immediately started to slide. In a fraction of a second a slab of rock 18 inches in width and length, and six inches thick, slid off the top, bloodied my hand as I tried to stop it, and went sailing towards the ground. I screamed "Rock! Watch Out!" and then saw that it was falling straight towards my daughter, Autumn, who was sitting on a large log below. She didn't have any time to get out of the way. The block hit, exploding into pieces, eight inches from where she sat. Her chalk bag sitting at her feet was crushed by a piece, and if she had been sitting just a bit to the left, she would have been killed. My life, Ashley's life, and Sierra's life would have been tragically transformed in an instant. Unhurt, but surprised, Autumn has taken the event much better than I have.
It was a beautiful day yesterday. The wildflowers are amazing at Wild Iris right now, and in the shade it was cool. It didn't feel at all like a day that could go horribly wrong, and we were too complacent. We've always told the girls not to hang out under a climber. We always make sure that they aren't under anyone at Sinks Canyon, and we're usually careful about it at Wild Iris too. But we hadn't been paying attention this time, and we almost paid the ultimate price. I've accepted the possibility that I could get injured or even die while climbing. But I'd never considered that one of my daughters could be killed because I choose to climb. We read about the deaths of climbers doing dangerous ascents in the mountains, free soloing, or flying wing suits. We get the sense that you could die in this sport if you push things too far. We feel the fear of falling, lightning, and possible grizzly bears. But until recently I didn't think enough about rock fall. In addition to my family's close call, Chris recently pried a three hundred pound block off the problem "Piggy" at the Rock Shop. It's a block that people have used as an undercling for a few years now, and it came off the boulder quite easily. It's easy to imagine how it could have killed someone, warming up for the day, just pulling into the sit start, crushing them instantly and undramatically.
Don't forget that it's possible to be killed on a nice day at the sport cliff or at the local boulder garden. Keep yourself and your kids well away while someone is climbing above. Be especially aware of loose blocks and flakes when putting up first ascents, and don't be afraid to test any questionable ones with a crowbar. On February 21, 1992 Robert Drysdale died while bouldering at Priest Draw, Arizona. A one hundred pound block at the top of an established problem, loosened by the winter's freeze thaw, fell as he grabbed it and hit him in the back of the head on his way to the ground. It's the only death I've heard of caused by bouldering, and it happened because of a loose block.
So if you notice me keeping my distance while you're sport climbing, or yelling at my kids to take their lunch into the woods, I hope you'll understand. I've had a close call. It's made me paranoid.
And I hope you'll be careful too. Stay safe out there.