This summer took an unexpected turn after I tumbled off of 25 feet of rock while trad climbing in Boulder Canyon. After the incident, I remember looking around and thinking, what bones are sticking out of your body, what did you break? There was no way I fell that far and nothing was broken. But somehow I walked away from it all. The entire scenario left me slack-jawed. It wasn’t until I got home, licked my wounds, and started to unpack the incident when I realized that rock climbing accidents aren’t something you simply bounce back from.
The incident of the fall quickly grew into a tiny trauma monster that latched itself onto other brushes with death during my life. Here’s what I’ve been able to learn after surviving a climbing accident.
What is Trad Free Climbing?
I know that the vast majority of you aren’t climbers, but who doesn’t like a hair-raising tale of survival in the outdoors? But, let’s be honest, climbing has its own language that can be tough to follow and difficult to unpack. Before I dive into climbing accidents and what happened to me, let’s take a step back and define a few things:
- Lead climbing: This is a type of climbing where the climber leads above the rope. A fall can be dangerous because you will fall the distance between the rope and your last piece of protection (the thing stopping you from hitting the ground), then fall that distance again – because the piece needs to catch you. Then fall some more because the rope is designed to stretch.
- Trad climbing: Refers to “traditional climbing.” This is when you carry these weird-looking pieces of metal called cams and nuts (or wedges) and place them into cracks (referred to as weaknesses in the rock). This type of climbing requires a lot of mental skill, a solid understanding of physics, and requires far more trust in yourself and the rock than other types of climbing.
- Free climbing: This basically is rock climbing as you know it. Free climbing means you aren’t using special gear to help hoist yourself up. your climbing with your hands and feet only, with ropes and safety systems. This is NOT free soloing, or climbing unroped.
- Carabiner: A piece of metal that is usually in an oval, D, or pear shape that is used to connect pieces of rope to pieces of nylon.
- Belaying: The climber that stands on the ground and feeds or takes up slack in the rope to make sure that the climber is safe. Without a belayer, a climber will simply fall to the ground, unless you know how to set up a system to climb roped, alone.
New to climbing. Check out these related posts to learn more:
- Climbing 101: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started with Rock Climbing
- Incredible Beginner Climbing Gear that Lasts
- How to Overcome a Fear of Heights
The Story of My Climbing Accident
“Falling!” I shouted suddenly. I sat back in my harness and quickly eased myself onto my gear. My nerves shot with adrenaline. I was about 6 feet off the ground and had just taken my first (albeit mini) trad fall. I fell maybe two feet. I looked at my gear in astonishment.
A wave of strength and pride came through me. It held. The small-ish purple cam I placed was textbook placement, everything looked perfect, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but to actually have to use it to stop a fall is a completely different story.
I looked up at the move. It looked so simple, I had practiced it before and knew I could do it, but thanks to sweaty, chalky rock, the holds were now slick. I tried again, only to fall again, but this time a little higher up.
One Last Try
“I know I can get it, I know what to do now,” I told John, who was belaying me. John, who’s face was about at my hips chirped up with a small pep talk “You’ve totally got this, the piece you set is bomber!”
I started up the route again, determined to make the move. My hand slipped and I shouted as I fell, only this time things didn’t go to plan.
As I fell I saw my cam and the alpine draw (a loop of thin Dyneema connected with two carabiners) extend outwards and suddenly pop. That’s no good! I thought. You’re going to hit the ground.
I fell, butt-first six feet off the ground and bounced. I figured I would stop, but my momentum carried me, ass over tea kettle. Panicked, I began to scream as my body continued to tumble over rocks and boulders.
If I go over the edge of this path, just knock me out. I pleaded. In an instant, I saw John shoot across the corner of my eye. At this point, we were tied together and I was dragging him too. Instinctively, I clawed at the ground. If he got going, there was no way I could stop us, since he weighed more than me. We were inches away from tumbling down a steep, treed hillside that eventually ended with a cliff band before a busy road.
Then, everything came to a halt. I rolled over as pain shot up every limb in my body. I looked down and saw drops of blood on the ground. Dazed, I stared at my limbs as climbers from nearby routes came rushing over.
I scanned my body in a panic, looking for that misplaced bone that had to be sticking out. I saw nothing. As I looked over at John, nearby climbers bombarded us with questions: “Are you okay?” “Do you need help?” “What happened?”
In a haze of adrenaline and mild pain, I looked back at the route, 20 feet away. My cam was still in the wall, with the alpine draw dangling free, without its bottom carabiner. The carabiner dangled at the knot of my rope, still attached to me.
I have no idea how, but in some freak accident, it came disconnected from my safety system and I fell.
I tended to my wounds, cleaning them out with a myriad of first aid supplies that every climber had on hand. I was covered in road rash, cuts, and scrapes all over my body.
My pants were ripped to shreds, and my earing had pulled, causing my ear to bleed badly. There was a sharp pain emanating from my ankle up to my shin and a nearby climber who also happened to be a physical therapist taped up my ankle. Another woman and her climbing partner helped John gather up the gear and helped me hobble down the steep, dirt-ridden climbers’ trail back to my car.
Two days later, bruises the size of my hand welled up all over my body. I couldn’t sleep without not only replaying the accident in my head but feeling road rash and bruised. Two days later I snagged some x-rays of my leg and the doctor’s told me everything was fine. I don’t know how it happened, but both John and I had suffered only severe bruising and large-scale cuts and burns.
Lesson’s Learned Post Rock Climbing Accident
It comes as no surprise that climbing accidents change people. In the grand scheme of things, this accident wasn’t bad. I didn’t break anything, I don’t need surgery, and I didn’t die or worse. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. That doesn’t mean there weren’t consequences.
The most important thing you can do when you are involved in a climbing accident is to learn from it. Here’s what having a quick brush with death taught me.
Trad Climbing is About Experience
Approaching trad climbing from the mindset of a sport climber or a gym climber won’t work. The more I climb and the more I learn about trad climbing, I realize the less I know.
Gym climbing and outdoor sport climbing account for about 10% of what you actually need to know, think about, and engage with when you’re trad climbing.
To be honest with you, despite reading and hearing that beginning trad climbing is all about experience, I never really understood what that meant. Sure, I would nod my head and say, ya experience, but I know I’m better than a 5.7/5.8 climber, I can handle more. Or assume that because I have been climbing for several years before I started trad, that I already had a one-up on the experience. That’s false.
The accident forced me to slow down. Instead of rushing headfirst into all of these amazing climbing objectives, I’ve decided to focus on getting as many climbs in as I can and gaining experience.
I’ve never pushed my ability on trad, and I climb at a very reasonable grade where I generally feel very comfortable. But after getting into a climbing accident, pushing my grade, or climbing harder routes, is the last thing on my mind.
It Doesn’t Matter How Prepared You Are, Climbing is Dangerous
Freak accidents happen. I’m extremely safety conscious. I understand the physics of what I’m doing and know what my limits are. But all the climbing knowledge in the world can’t help you when something just happens. Period.
Several weeks after my accident, some mansplaining d-bag who wasn’t even there tried to tell me all of these things that were done wrong (*rolls eyes*). Not only was he completely wrong about a lot of it, but he was also looking at the situation as a textbook example. In the real world, variables change in the blink of an eye and things are instantly different.
The point being, this textbook jockey tried to tell me that it was my fault for a carabiner coming loose, but here’s the thing; carabiners swing and turn, that’s part of trad climbing. Big, bomber holds pull, feet slip on routes within your limits, freaky shit can and will happen to you, even if you know your stuff. That’s the risk of climbing that you assume when you get on the rock.
Climbing Accident Awareness: Assess What Happened
The first thing you should do if your involved in climbing accidents is to assess the situation. If you’re a victim, assess your vitals. Is there a lot of blood? Are bones sticking out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Is it safe to move?
Bystanders should ask; is it safe for me to help or am I putting everyone, myself included, in more risk? Are the victims conscious? Do they need to be stabilized and do I know how to do that? How else can I help? Do we need to call emergency services?
If nothing life-threatening is happening, examine your surroundings. Did a hold break or your gear pull? Can you put the pieces of what happened together? Take a mental note because it’s important to not only learn from the experience but share that knowledge or lack-there-of with the climbing community. It helps everyone have a safer time and can even help avoid future rock climbing accidents.
Always Wear a Damn Helmet, Even When Belaying
To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t have a helmet. If you climb outdoors, always wear a helmet, even when belaying. If John didn’t have his helmet on, he would have needed a helicopter too. If this isn’t reason enough, here are several more reasons why you should wear a climbing-specific helmet when rock climbing:
- Rockfall from nearby climbers, yourself, or your climbing partner.
- Falls that cause you to swing into rocks at an angle.
- While belaying, if your climber falls on you.
- While belaying, if you leave the ground while catching a fall and smash into the rock wall.
- Any other freak scenario you can think of.
Mortality is Real
This isn’t my first brush with a near-death experience. In fact, I almost died from eating bad horsemeat in Mongolia. Even though my accident didn’t result in a trip to the hospital or broken bones, I still narrowly avoided tumbling further down a hillside that would have surely sent me for an even bigger ride.
In the climbing world there’s a saying that if you hang around long enough, you’ll know someone who dies climbing. I have yet to have this happen after 5 years with the sport, but there’s nothing scarier than seeing that person either be you or someone you’re close with.
Rip the Band-Aid Off
Just 5 days after my accident I jumped on an uber-classic Eldorado Canyon route called Rewritten. The route is exposed, with hundreds of feet of air below you.
After getting in a rock climbing accident, all I wanted to do was get back out there and knock that initial piece of fear out of my head. Was it my smartest move? Not really, I was still very sore, my bruises and cuts were a bit fresher than I thought they were. But, physical pain aside, I was really glad I got out there and did it.
Climbing after you fall, once your body allows it, really helped me from isolating the experience of the fall into other negative thoughts. Although my nerves were a little fried and I didn’t climb my best, getting back out there reminded me that I’m a strong climber capable of making safe decisions. The choice to climb after a big accident is personal, but if you feel the urge, give in, even though it’s going to be scary.
Recovery is Mental
Recovering from a climbing accident is 30% physical and 70% mental. Sure, you could get badly injured and never have the same physical abilities ever again. It could take days or years to physically recover, but the real work is in mental recovery.
You can’t push through the challenges of physical therapy, surgeries and other major physical work without a strong mental resolve. One thing I didn’t realize until recently is that although I may appear to physically be okay, mentally, my work has just begun.
Time is Your Enemy and Best Friend
I had big plans to do all of these awesome rock climbing routes this summer. Now, I’m not so sure what I feel like doing. On the one hand, I feel a pressure to get back out and perform, as I was just feeling confident enough to take the next steps towards a big climbing goal I had.
Instead of being frustrated by the fact that the days slip by and I’m not back where I used to be before my fall, I’m doing my best to focus on different aspects of getting outside and accepting that plans are allowed to change. Goals can change. There is no linear path in life, so as hard as it may be, remember to relax and take your time with recovery.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
I worked tirelessly for years to overcome my fear of heights and fear of falling. In just one simple instant, all of that work appeared to be derailed. That feeling sucks. The good news is that the hard work will be easier the second time around since I’ve already learned how to use tools to overcome my fears. But at the end of the day, I have to let myself not be okay. And that is perfectly okay.
My initial reaction to anything is to squash stuff down and say it’s fine. I’ll be fine, everything is fine. But the reality is, it isn’t. When I got hurt, I did this to protect my mind. But now that I’ve had some space from my accident, I’ve encouraged myself to let go of that need to keep my shit together and allow myself to feel.
Be Kind To Yourself
The most important thing to do to keep yourself mentally balanced after a rock climbing accident is to take care of you. Once you start climbing again, little nuances from your big fall will inevitably pop up. You may have flashbacks, un-resolved anxiety, and other issues to deal with.
Give yourself credit for the small things. If you get back into climbing and you’re only doing five-fun routes on top rope at the gym, that’s okay. Thank yourself for trying. If you freak out from exposure, turn around, bail, or cry, that’s totally cool too – at least you’re getting out there. Give yourself the credit, encouragement, and power you need to climb on.
Question the Reason You Climb
The more I climb the more I realize that climbing is an addicting sport. It’s really easy to get caught up in chasing grades, projects, and objectives. When there’s a climbing accident, everything comes to a jolting halt. You feel FOMO from watching your friends’ Insta feeds, you don’t feel adequate, and it appears as if things are starting to fall apart.
Again, ask yourself why you climb. If the answer is ego-driven, then you might want to take a step back and evaluate other aspects of your life that need work. Maybe you’ll uncover something about yourself that you never realized.
Remember These Feelings are Temporary
Just like anything in this world, recovery is temporary. Your feelings towards the sport may change, for now, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you’ll never find that euphoric feeling of soaring high in the sky again. Remember, you are exactly where you need to be at this moment.
What I Would Have Done Differently
Returning to the technical aspects of my fall, there really wasn’t much I would have changed. It was a freak accident, and unfortunately, my lotto ticket number was up that day. However, here are a few tech tips that have enacted moving forward:
- Set a piece from the ground, even if the terrain doesn’t look too consequential. This piece is designed to protect your belayer. Since John and I were attached to a rope together, he tumbled too. If there had been a piece in for him, my fall would have been half as far.
- If the move is sketchy, use a locker on your alpine draw. Yup. It turns out that wiregate carabiners open more often than you would think. A locker would have meant that I wouldn’t have fallen far at all, maybe 2 feet before my cam caught me.
Climbing accidents aren’t just about physical damage. They go far deeper than that. When you’re involved in a climbing accident, even as spectator, the results can have a profound impact on your mental strength. The important thing to remember is that although climbing is dangerous, a freak accident doesn’t mean you are a bad climber. You’ll always have bad mental days, so be kind to yourself and allow yourself the time to heal.