What Happens When a Rock Climber Falls?

What happens when a rock climber falls?

The best summer of my life was spent as a camp counselor at Navajo Trails Adventure Camp. The camp is an amazing and unorthodox place for kids. Camp headquarters are in Bicknell, UT, near Capitol Reef State Park. If you show up on a Wednesday, however, you’ll find the camp practically deserted. Each week, the youth embark on a different weeklong adventure: horseback riding, backpacking, mountain biking, waterskiing, rock climbing, kayaking, etc.

My official title was “Backpacking and Mountain Biking Counselor”, but we all wore a lot of hats. One week I was assigned to go rock climbing with the group in Maple Canyon. Maple Canyon is one of nature’s irregularities: the debris from retreating glaciers cemented itself together, leaving a conglomerate mess of medium-size round rocks sticking out of a concrete-like substance.

Being one of the counselors (and an experienced rock climber) I went up first to set a lot of the routes, which is called lead climbing. The lead climber wears a harness tied to one end of a rope, which feeds through the belay device of the climber’s partner. The belayer lets out rope as the lead climber ascends and brakes in case of a fall. Security comes from clipping into metal bolts that have been drilled into the rock wall, usually six to ten feet apart.

At any time, the lead climber can fall at least double the distance from the last protection they placed. A climber who is five feet above the last bolt will fall at least ten feet. It can be scary, especially when the bolts are spread far apart.

The “Rock Climbing and Kayaking Counselor” was an avid outdoorsman named Derek Bryan. He is the epitome of a wild man’s wild man. Derek was living out of his Subaru and in a tent with his wife and toddler son. His eyes twinkle. Really, they do. His massive beard rounds out the image.

In addition to patiently teaching and coaching all the youth, Derek gave me pointers as well. He pushed me to improve my technique. We climbed all day long for several days. By the end of the week, my body was worn out and my fingers ached.

On the last day of the trip, I led a climb with a difficulty rating of 5.10a (roughly translated – not that hard, but novice climbers might not be able to make it up). About two-thirds of the way up I felt my body and my mind giving up. I got to the next bolt, ten feet above the last, and released the rock with my right hand, fumbling for one of the quickdraws hanging from my harness. After unclipping it from my harness loop, I successfully clipped it into the bolt. Then I pulled up the rope, gathering all the slack so I could reach above my head and clip it in.

That’s when my exhausted left hand slipped off the sloped rock that had been my handhold. As I started to careen backwards I yelled “falling!” to warn my belayer. My body plummeted toward the canyon floor. After several seconds of descent, the rope violently jerked my harness and I found myself bouncing in the air, heart racing. I had fallen over 20 feet. Derek’s immediate and instinctive brake had stopped my fall.

I wanted to come down. Although I was completely unhurt, I was scared and not in any mental state to go on. But Derek wouldn’t let me stop. He knew that after a big fall, the best medicine is to finish the climb. So I did. I reached the place where I had fallen and passed it without any difficulty. My progress was slower and more cautious than before the fall, but I quickly made it to the top.

He made sure I led another easier climb that day also, just for good measure.


A few reflective thoughts:

1) I fell because I was mentally tired, not because I was physically unable. I psyched myself out. Sometimes our bodies are much stronger than our minds.

2) Derek Bryan instinctively braked to stop me. It was something he had practiced over and over again, so he didn’t even need to think about it when the skill was needed. It was automatic.

3) When the horse bucks you off, get right back on.

4) Navajo Trails is an amazing (and safe) place. If you have children ages 8-16 who want to go to summer camp, I highly recommend it. The staff is amazing and the adventures are unforgettable. I plan on sending my kids there (when I have kids).

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