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Brox_Rocks

Accident Report and analysis after a 30ft trad fall involving a broken wire and two ripped pieces

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The Story: 

    On July 17th my girlfriend Hannah (29) and I (30) went out for a day of cragging in an obscure climbing area, just southeast of Lake Tahoe, called Cloudburst Canyon. On my third climb of the day, I fell at the crux, ripped three pieces of protection, and ended up falling 30 feet to the ground. I have been climbing for 6 years with most of my experience on multi-pitch trad moderates. Ready to push the grades, train harder, and be okay with taking more falls on trad I jumped right in and looked for some 5.11 trad routes. I had heard of a new climbing area, Cloudburst Canyon, from a new friend, Nate S. He said the area was not in a guidebook and the only beta was on Mountain Project. Before Hannah and I left we looked on the site and saw several classic climbs in the area including a 5.11- for me to attempt. We arrived, met Nate, and headed up into the canyon. 

The approach ended up being rather treacherous with several stream crossings, lots of stinging nettles, and what seemed to be no trail and just a bunch of loose granite, ledges, and sand. After the loose and technical approach we spent the first two routes warming up, 5.9, then a 5.10-. Both routes felt solid, so I turned my eyes towards an obscure route called “Uknown 11-”. Before getting onto the route I saw that there was a 10- directly to the right that shared the same anchors, which gave me the option of setting up a top rope for the 11. I decided against this because of my new mindset, I was ready to lead harder climbs, and was willing to take a fall. Looking up at the route, the main feature was a lightning bolt crack zig-zagging up the slightly overhanging face. The first piece of protection was a bolt that I was able to reach from the ground, after that it was going to be gear placements through the crux and then 3 bolts to the top. Before putting my hands on the rock I took a deep breath.

A few moves into the climb and I had placed a horizontal .3 BD C4 in a shallow crack. Considering this route was at my limit I didn’t have a lot of time to make sure it was perfect so I moved on and kept climbing. After about 5 more feet of climbing, I placed a small offset nut. The gear was already getting harder to place at this point, the nut passed a few tugs and looked decent, so again, I moved on and kept climbing. I reached a bit of a rest and got another small offset nut in above my head placed with the same level of scrutiny as the last two pieces. I fired off into the crux and got about 2-3 ft above my last piece when I couldn’t move up safely anymore. I did not want to come off the wall dangerously, desperately reaching for holds, so I yelled “Falling!” as I let go of the wall. I felt tension in the rope and then a felt a “SNAP” and the next thing I knew I was on the ground about 15 ft. downhill from the start of the route. The only thing keeping me from continuing down the loose talus field and into a garden of stinging nettles was Nate who arrested my fall with the last and the only piece left attached to the wall, the bolt at the start of the route.

    I landed standing up, shattering my right calcaneus bone and fully fracturing the talus bone in my left foot. After I calmed down from the pain and initial shock I was able to stabilize myself enough on the loose slope to get off belay so that Nate could start assisting. We quickly realized that our efforts to get me out of this remote canyon were not realistic; the injury was too painful and the terrain too complicated. Nate went looking for assistance from some climbers we spotted in the canyon on the way up. As he was gone, with Hannah holding my right leg up, I continued slowly sliding and crawling my way down the loose rocky slope. Nate came back with three other climbers: Matthew Wasserman, Peter Murphy, and Raines Demint. As a team of four, they slowly moved me down the talus, loose rock, ledge systems, stream crossings, and stinging nettle. We developed a system where the front two held my lower body up with a stick placed under my knees, and the back two lifted me up with my arms around their shoulders. Foot by foot we lifted and rested our way back to the car, while Hannah shuttled all our gear. The full rescue effort took 3 hours. I made it to urgent care and had surgery two weeks later. Three weeks out of surgery now I am in a wheelchair, but am poised to make a full recovery and be back to climbing in 6 months. I am so grateful for Nate, who stayed super calm and organized the evacuation. Hannah for keeping me calm and shuttling the heavy gear back to the car. And Raines, Peter, and Matt for stopping their day of climbing to make an evacuation possible. 

Analysis:

I made three placements that failed on this climb. The piece I initially fell on was a #2 or #3 DMM Peenut Offset Nut (Rated to 5kn) whose wire broke leaving the head of the nut still stuck in the rock. Next down was another offset (a #1 DMM Peenut 4kn) that ripped out of the wall which was then followed by a .3 BD C4 Camelot. The first lesson for me was to schedule a routine gear safety assessment because there might have been something wrong with the wire that I was completely unaware of.  Second, as I weigh over 200lbs with my rack, I need to start nesting the gear when it gets small in order to disperse the force. Third, not to accept gear as “good enough.” The .3 Camelot was in a very shallow horizontal position and most likely rotated out of place and pulled out. Ultimately the cause of this accident was trusting inadequately placed gear. Due to the difficulty of the route and my overly optimistic belief in my placements, I rushed.

The main lesson I learned from this accident was that I needed to approach the sport of climbing with a more focused and safety-oriented attitude. Over the last six years, I had numbed that sense of caution by climbing mostly within my onsight ability, which progressively built up to 5.10+. Because I was not taking any trad falls and nothing serious was ever happening, I slowly built up a false sense of security both in the gear I was placing and my climbing abilities. I started to take on significant risk without properly acknowledging what I was actually doing. This Laissez-faire attitude was the reason I skipped many safety checks that day, which could have made this accident much worse and possibly even fatal. Considering all the following mistakes I made, I feel extremely lucky with how the accident turned out.

I skipped the opportunity to climb a much easier route and set up a top rope on the 11- in order to get gear and movement beta for a route that was at my onsight limit.

I was in a new climbing area and did not consider examining the rock quality before climbing. I found out after the fact that the granite in this area and the climb was on specifically was known to be crumbly at the surface.

I didn’t think to simply down climb to my piece and rest on it before just taking a fall. I could have taken time to assess and possibly back down.

I chose not to wear a helmet. I had convinced myself that the situation didn’t call for it: no climbers above, not a multi-pitch climb, and overall I chose comfort over safety. If I had landed in any other orientation other than standing up I most certainly would have hit my head on the rocky uneven ledge.

I chose to skip basic safety checks with my belayer who was also a new climbing partner. While nothing bad happened because of this, it is a step no one should skip.

None of us had a first aid kit, which would have been critical had my injuries been worse.

Discuss!

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Ouch. Sorry you got badly injured.

One thought beyond the physics banter on MP: When we move up the levels as climbers, it's usually good to on only push one boundary at a time. If you are near the limit of your climbing ability, then maybe dial back down the level of risk (small pro, bad landing) as a fall is pretty likely. You want to keep the consequences low. If you are very confident you won't fall, then you might dial the risk level higher with runouts, worse pro etc. It's not always obvious, but typically when we see climbers doing high consequence routes/moves it's usually because they believe their chance of falling is very low and they have rehearsed many times. Either that or they're just freakishly stong in mind and body, like Brad Gobright and Hayden Kennedy. That's not a path most of us can afford to follow. 

Another factor is that you were at a new area. Each area has its own style of gear placements, climbing, rock type, etc. Usually, it's good to start with easier routes in these areas and work up to the local testpieces, particularly if they were put up more than a few years ago. 

Thanks for sharing. Heal well!

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