A Climbing Accident

When he hit the ledge, I was sure he was dead. He was a young college guy, and we had exchanged maybe five sentences as he climbed past, and then from 20 feet above us, I heard his cam pop out of the crack, the taut rope make a sickening twang like a plucked guitar string, and suddenly he was flying down towards us on the belay ledge at the top of the first pitch.

He hit sideways, face-first, a slapping thud, a sound you’re not supposed to hear. Unconscious, one eye open, his body slowly recoiled from the impact, curling against the sandstone. I don’t know what anyone said. I just grabbed his harness because it felt like the right thing to do. I grabbed our anchor with my other hand. Blood started to run out of his mouth onto the ledge. Chris grabbed a runner and a locking carabiner to clip him into our anchor.

Then he had a seizure, involuntarily groaning and sucking in air for 30 seconds. Is this the last thing people do before they die from head injuries? Is He Breathing, his partner yells, from the other end of the rope. Yes, he’s breathing he’s breathing I say. Jesus, I’m going to be the last person this kid ever talked to and I don’t even know his name.

“What’s his name?” I yell down to his partner. “Peter.” Peter, don’t move, I say, putting my hand on his back. Peter tries to get up, and I hold him down as gently as possible. Don’t move, chill out, we’re going to get you some help.

Help. Is anyone a medic, Chris has an expired WFR, how high are we off the ground, 140 feet, could I carry someone down from the base of the tower, do they have helicopters in Moab yes they do because they sent one for Aron Ralston when he cut his arm off, how long does that take. How do you fix someone this broken, I don’t know what I can do for him.

Castleton Tower is spooky, steep on all sides, a finger of red sandstone rising 400 feet out of a 1500-foot talus cone in the desert east of Moab. The “easiest” route, the Kor-Ingalls, is a historic sandbagged 5.9 put up in 1961, freed in 1962. Blocky, with an offwidth crux pitch, lined with slick calcite in spots. I had led the first pitch, then watched two people climb the second pitch and it didn’t look straightforward.

Then began the most bizarre 15 minutes of my climbing life so far. As Chris started up the second pitch, a body fell out of the sky — a BASE jumper who pulled his chute with a loud crack about 100 feet above our heads, then floated down to the road below. Then Chris plugged in a few more cams, passing a loose block the size of a VCR precariously wedged in a crack 30 feet above the belay. He didn’t touch it. It fell anyway. I hopped to my right as it exploded into a million red pieces somewhere above me. Two blocks sat on our rope where they had cut through the sheath. I carefully lowered Chris and told the party below us they could go ahead and pass us, since our rope was cut and we needed to figure out what we were going to do next.

Peter climbed up, passing us, placing two cams above the ledge. The rope was tight when he stopped to hang on the third piece of gear he placed, 20 feet above the ledge. The piece pulled out of the crack, who knows why, and he was high enough above his last cam that when he fell, the rope had no chance of catching him before he hit the ledge. His foot must have caught something and spun him sideways in the air, and his body was parallel to the ground when he hit.

You think you’re desensitized to violence because you’ve seen a million violent movies and TV shows, and then a young kid with his whole life ahead of him and all that smashes himself on a ledge three feet from you and you realize how scared you can really get. If what I had seen had been on a movie screen, I would have hidden behind my hand. Humans’ faces aren’t supposed to do that. I don’t ever want to see that again, I don’t ever want anybody to do that again, even if I’m not there to see it.

The party above us rappelled down. Micah was a Wilderness EMT and Hilary had a WFR. They worked to stabilize Peter. We rolled him over, got him comfortable, and he asked what happened 10 times in the next hour. Minimum broken jaw, cheekbone and who knows what else, I thought. I couldn’t believe none of his teeth were broken or missing. I called 911. People and ambulances started to show up at the trailhead, and a rescue began to materialize as the sun sank. A helicopter circled the tower several times. We hauled up a litter, a c-collar, a vacuum splint. The sun disappeared. Five hours after he fell, we watched Skyler from Grand County Search and Rescue rap down with Peter in a litter in front of him. Then a helicopter hauled him off to Grand Junction. We walked down the approach trail in the dark.

Chris and I drove around Moab the next day, up to Dead Horse Point, worn out. We talked about it every couple hours, searching for the piece of evidence, the thing you want to hear that means That Won’t Ever Happen To Me because who knows why. I kept trying to fix it in my head, the thing you can’t take a photo of, a busted human being lying at your feet after he fell doing what you do all the time. I wanted to remember it more than any sunset, summit, hand crack, whatever, and I didn’t know why. I drank coffee and stared out the windshield and tried to remember every fall I’d ever taken on gear, maybe less than 10 falls total, cams, stoppers, big ones, small ones.

I called hospitals on Monday. Asked for Peter, first name, last name, no one by that name ever checked in. I rubbed my forehead. That night, I got an e-mail from Zac: Peter’s OK, needs extensive facial reconstruction surgery, broken wrist, eating through a straw right now. Doesn’t remember anything from the day except the BASE jumper. Then I got an e-mail from Peter, and a photo. And I started laughing in a coffee shop staring at my laptop screen at this kid and his bruised face that didn’t look nearly as bad as I would have imagined.

I’m going to go and see Peter and Zac in a few days, and I don’t know exactly what I will say. Peter doesn’t remember anything, and Zac was 30 feet away from him for most of it. I just need to find the words to describe how I saw it, and that I had enough fear and dread and helplessness in one day to last all of us the rest of our climbing lives. And I hope that makes an impact on them as much as it did me.

Climbing is an amazing thing partly because of the possibility of falling, but I try not to. I try really hard not to, all the time, and now it’s scary, more than before.

When I dropped Chris off at his car at City Market in Moab the next day, we sorted gear, minus the cams we left up on the route during the rescue, and then the last thing he said was “Don’t not climb.” And I said I won’t.

-Brendan

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48 Comments

  1. John
    November 8, 2012

    Wow. Great read. I’m glad it turned out OK.
    And yes, “Don’t not climb.”

    Reply
  2. Aaron F
    November 8, 2012

    Wow B, that’s pretty heavy shit…….

    Reply
  3. November 8, 2012

    Excellent perspective. Thanks for sharing despite how difficult it can be.

    Reply
  4. Mike Keown
    November 8, 2012

    Good write up Brendan. When you see someone deck its so sketchy. I couldn’t imagine being on Castleton and dealing with that. It’s spooky enough already. Way to help out I am sure he appreciates it.

    Reply
  5. Abi
    November 8, 2012

    Wow, Brendan, what an experience, and way to keep cool. Makes all the difference in the world during a rescue! Glad to see Peter smiling in the end. Great that you could follow up with him.

    Reply
  6. November 8, 2012

    Scary! I seen the post on MP about gear left behind and was wondering what happened. I was in Moab that same wknd camping at the base of Castleton, but didn’t climb the tower. At the beginning of summer, my partner took a ledge fall up in The City and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I think I still struggle with it more than my partner who actually fell. Sounds like Peter was in good hands with everyone that stopped climbing to help him though. And great advice from your friend, definitely follow it and don’t not climb :)

    Reply
  7. z
    November 8, 2012

    So much love and gratitude, Brendan. So much love.

    Reply
  8. November 8, 2012

    I haven’t trad lead since October of 2010 when a climber down at the other end of the crag took a groundfall after going off route on a trad route (the sounds of the accident are also burned into my head, like it happened yesterday). He was not nearly as severely injured as Peter, but we did have a good sized wait for SAR and a helicopter to evac him, and luckily we also had a WFR with us and another few folks with good judgment, so were able to help him and his partner (his brother, if I remember) stay as calm as possible, and as comfortable as possible. I trust that his ultimate outcome was just fine, and that the pair learned something that day about trad climbing.

    Even though I could look at their remaining gear on the route, and armchair quarterback it, and differentiate my own judgment from theirs, there has been little comfort in that for me and I’ve stuck to bolts (infrequently, at that) ever since. I second Chris — don’t not climb. But if you do not climb for awhile, at whatever point, for whatever reason, it’s not the end of the world.

    That day out at that crag, I couldn’t help but put myself in that guy’s place and think, what if something happened to me, and I couldn’t climb? After the initial panic about the loss of identity, the loss of fitness, the loss of that time with friends outside in beautiful places wore off, I realized — I’m more than climbing. There’s more to me, and to life, than climbing, and that’s okay.

    It’s been a long road since to work to balance the two — climbing and life — and so far, life is winning but I’m still climbing a little, and I can live with where I’ve gotten to in terms of balance. My hands still sweat when I talk routes with friends; I can still picture the fine points of certain climbs in my memory; I still pine over the project I never finished (but still may, if I can get my head back on straight to lead on gear again).

    Don’t not climb, Brendan. And if you ever DO not climb, that’s okay too.

    hugs,
    Sara

    Reply
  9. November 8, 2012

    And PS – high fives, Peter and Zac! Here’s to a speedy recovery!

    Reply
  10. November 8, 2012

    WOW! He doesn’t look too bad for taking such a fall.

    Great write up Brendan. It’s not happened to me climbing but I remember a friend breaking his back snowboarding and being a bit anxious when I was on skis for a few days afterwards.

    Reply
  11. Terry Mohn
    November 8, 2012

    Horrific accident with a good outcome. Well written Brendan.

    Reply
  12. Amy
    November 8, 2012

    damn. climb safe vera. xoxo

    Reply
  13. Lacey
    November 8, 2012

    The grossest thing I’ve ever heard was the sound of my own skull being cracked like an egg. 19 years later and I still get queasy reading stuff like this. Glad Peter pulled through.

    Reply
  14. Nate margolis
    November 8, 2012

    Thank you for writing this, for being there. I live with that little bugger and he gave us quite a scare. He’s doing great now though got a brand new face and a thumb that is constantly up. Literally, the cast holds it that way
    Thanks again

    Reply
  15. Skyler
    November 8, 2012

    Great write up! That is the most complete version I have gotten to hear. Glad to hear Peter is doing well. It is refreshing to see the above photo. When I got to the ledge he was not looking that well and only knew his name.

    I just wanted to send a shout out to all of the climbers there that day. Grand County showed up and provided gear, but if not for the other SAR personnel from out of town and the climbers there willing to help the rescue would not have happened so smoothly.

    Reply
  16. Dadoo
    November 8, 2012

    Holy shit, grew up next to this kid

    Reply
  17. November 8, 2012

    Excellent write up of a very lucky climber (or not so lucky depending on your POV.) Climbing is dangerous folks. Keep that in mind. In my opinion it is not safer than driving. Last weekend someone I know was dropped from 20 feet up when the rope passed through his belayer’s gri gri. Tie a knot on the end of your rope! He got away relatively lucky.

    It’s not just trad either that’s dangerous. A few years ago I broke two bolts and nearly hit the deck from 45ft up.

    http://cascadeclimbers.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/902523/TR_Index_Broken_Bolt_Hangers_S

    Be careful out there people! You could be the next accident report.

    Reply
  18. Peter's Dad
    November 8, 2012

    Brendan, Chris, Micah, Hilary, Skylar and all that helped Peter – THANK YOU!!!! He is truly lucky to have had your support and aid. We, his family, are so grateful. I was finally able to make it out to Colorado Springs from CT once the airports re-opened last Thursday (post Sandy). I got there right after he went in for his facial reconstruction surgery and was able to see him for the first time in the recovery room. It took all my strength not to lose it right there. Again, we are so grateful to all of you as well as all of his friends at CC for your support. It was very difficult reading this article, which was so well written, but it was so helfpul to better understand what transpired that day. THANK YOU ALL!!!!

    Reply
  19. November 8, 2012

    thank you so much for posting this story. it was very hard for me to read as i have suffered a life changing climbing accident myself. i have passed this along to climbing friends, wilderness first aid students and mountain/helicopter rescue colleagues in hopes that people will not just acquire wilderness medicine skills but put in the effort to maintain such a perishable skill set.

    climb on,

    miles

    Reply
  20. Bryan Dalpes
    November 8, 2012

    Beautifully written. Thank you for this and so glad it worked out as well as it did.

    Cheers to all involved!

    Reply
  21. Peter's Sister Courtney
    November 8, 2012

    This is such a strong piece of writing, and I cannot stop myself from reading it over and over. Thank you all so much for saving my brother’s life. There are no words to explain how much it means to me and my family. You did not just save my brother, you saved my best friend. What you all did was incredible and deserve so much credit, bravery is one of the greatest things, and you all were so brave. Thank you so much, I look forward to seeing him in a few weeks <3

    Reply
  22. November 8, 2012

    Hey was lucky to have you guys there, Brendan. Great advice about the future of climbing, but no one will fault anyone out there for the decisions they make from here out.

    Reply
  23. Kathy Leonard
    November 8, 2012

    Great job BB. So thankful Peter is going to be ok. Our bodies can be so strong and yet so fragile. Life is Good.

    Reply
  24. November 8, 2012

    that was really, really good. enjoy meeting the guy who changed your life forever.

    Reply
  25. November 9, 2012

    I can sort of relate as i had a couple of friends loose thier breaks coming down lions back. I know how helpless a person can feel during something like this. All we could do is wait for them to hit and then try to help after the dust settled. i am so glad Peter is ok. Our friends ended up busted up a little but they were ok also.

    Reply
  26. Sarah
    November 9, 2012

    Brendan, great write up. I had a friend have 4 grand mal seizures at the crag, thankfully at the base. He’s doing fine now and still climbing. It’s hard to understand how helpless one can feel when watching a person in pain and have no idea what to do. Your story really hit home. Thanks.

    Reply
  27. Jonah
    November 9, 2012

    I am a Mtn Rescue volunteer in WA State. Having to deal with climbing accidents on a regular basis–seeing tragedy over and over–makes the acceptance of risk in climbing hard to justify. Climb. Or don’t climb. But don’t ignore the risk that this story so vividly portrays. Peter is all of us. And this story is not as rare as I once would have thought.
    I choose to still climb–but my threshold for risk is much less than it once was. But my eyes are wide open, which is the most important thing.

    Reply
  28. Ryan
    November 9, 2012

    My number one goal in life is to never be rescued. The very close second is to never be involved in a rescue. This is why. Maintaining a solid lead head is a tough task for me; witnessing something like this might cause irreversible damage. Don’t stop climbing…

    Reply
  29. November 9, 2012

    Excellent description of the emotions and events.
    Having been involved in 4 different rescues/body recovery I know there is nothing as intense as being closely involved in the rescue of a fellow climber. It takes hours for the adrenalin to leave your body, and the event is replayed over and over in your mind on a continuous loop and discussed with those involved numerous times. And you keep climbing with a deeper understanding of the risk.

    Reply
  30. Juniper
    November 10, 2012

    Man, sorry you were up there to witness that. It is hard to get over seeing something like that happen. But congratulations on keeping your cool and being helpful. They were lucky to have you there to help I would think.

    I once was involved in a rescue. And once heard a guy hit his head, hard, to the wall after a lead fall; I was at the other end of the crag, and we all heard it, it was so loud, so organic – I have a description for it, but I am not gonna write it down here, lets just say it was too terrible a sound to hear. I told myself then that I never ever wanna hear that sound again. So I can imagine the terror of seeing someone decking from 20 feet up. I hope you can continue to climb…

    The older I get the more I seem to get aware of the fragility of our bodies and the more careful I become about the risks I am taking. Is that a good thing, I dont know. But it is the combination of reading and witnessing accidents like this and suffering through injuries, which remind me how necessary in my daily life those hands and elbows and ankles and shoulders that I seem to mistreat are. So thanks for writing this, unfortunately, it is a good reminder of the risks that we are all taking.

    Reply
  31. David
    November 10, 2012

    What a story. So glad this one had a happy ending and Peter is doing well. The fact that everyone kept their composure and knew what to do in an emergency situation certainly helped save his life.

    Reply
  32. November 11, 2012

    Wow. Great write up. Totally gripping. Castleton is NOT LIGHT folks. This is not your 5.9 from the gym. A better grade for it would be 5.10a/bR, and there are parts that are not 5.9 that aren’t so easy or well protected either. Of course, it’s a classic route and we’re all willing to roll with a certain amount of risk…or are we? Be careful out there! Thanks for an awesome report.

    Reply
  33. November 12, 2012

    Our school often speaks about risk. We are whitewater centric, but being outdoors always offers “near hits”. We often work to minimize our complacency despite our unconsiencely competent skill level. We have been educating our students to recognize the devil is in the details, and considering the entire environment of recreation is important, though easier said than practiced. Our 10th and 11th graders are also WFR and SRT trained and we practice the skills often. Thanks for the account, and all your other articles. Sam

    Reply
  34. November 12, 2012

    I’m glad Peter is okay. When I heard about this accident, I knew right away it was a fall on pitch 2 of Kor Ingalls. That pitch is hard and there is a huge ledge under it, and I’ve thought about the consequences of that fall every time I climb it. Unless you have 4 3.5 camalots on you, you have a chance of falling and hitting it for most of the pitch. In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest, most dangerous pitches on all of the standard routes on Castleton, which is weird when it’s rated 5.8. Please be careful on that route, and great job taking care of Peter up there.

    Reply
  35. November 12, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this story. As an EMT and ski patroller, I’ve been on scene of some grizzly accidents. They stay with you. You are supposed to “go numb” during the rescue, in order to better perform your duties. But later, when you close your eyes to pretend to sleep, it comes back. If anything I’ve learned judgment this way, even if it is borrowed from the victim.

    Reply
  36. Gringo
    November 12, 2012

    I’m extremely relieved to find out that Peter is alive and recovering. I learned about what happened through the local Moab newspaper. Earlier that day, I climbed Castleton for the first time. My partner led the second pitch. Before casting off, he commented on the stain on the ledge. “Looks like someone spilled paint up here.” or something like that. When I followed the pitch, I knew it wasn’t paint. It forced me to think about the risk involved in my passion. It made me think real hard. I’m getting trained to deal with this stuff ASAP. I can’t just not climb/kayak/ride.

    Reply
    • November 13, 2012

      Gringo,
      I’ve been kayaking for 20 years, and skiing for 31 years, and finally took a WFR, AVY 1 and SRT class last year, and I am now empowered to be in the river and backcountry. I’m not a doctor, but can work to handle a situation and await ALS.

      Reply
  37. November 13, 2012

    Fuck. Seems like the Universe thinks Peter has some important living yet to do. Holy lucky. Right on for helping make his rescue happen and may you not nightmare on the sights and sounds for too long.

    Reply
  38. Grayce V
    January 10, 2013

    I can’t believe I was there on the same day that you were and didn’t see you! Green Mountain College’s Adventure Education program was doing the last section of our “Block” course right by the parking area for Castleton Tower– we had been climbing in Indian Creek, Biking the White Rim, backpacking in Bullet Canyon, and we climbed down into the canyons around where you guys were climbing to complete our solos! When we were driving out, we saw the helicopter and everyone got quiet for a moment, wondering if everyone was ok or if it was hovering the area for another reason.

    Hopefully our adventure paths will cross again some point soon, and this point I won’t miss you!

    Reply
  39. Hugo
    September 26, 2013

    What I found most interesting about this blog is that it explored, to a point, what I have seen many times at accidents.

    People almost involuntarily look for the detail that they would have done differently, and thus have been immune to the accident. At least this writer realizes the futility of that, and backs off it.

    How many others have found themselves going there?

    Reply
  40. Rebecca
    September 27, 2013

    Tears in my eyes after reading this. 7 years ago I was Peter, flipped on my side, landed on that ledge. I had a pretty rough recovery, but it was also a hard recovery for my husband (married for 4 months at the time) and I’m sure for my climbing partner that day (who later became a regular partner of my husband).

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I just wanted to thanks you for the insightful response to a climbing accident such as this.

    BTW – all three of us are still climbing and it is still a major part of me and my husband’s together.

    Reply
  41. Jeff Hayas
    January 5, 2014

    Does anyone know how Peter is doing today (Jan 2014)?

    Reply
    • brendan
      January 5, 2014

      Hi Jeff! From what I know (on Facebook), Peter’s doing great, and is actually traveling the world right now.

      Reply

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