The Scary Climbing Story

I've debated about posting this story for a while. It shows a naïveness and lack of foresight in my decision-making process, and given the dramatic nature of the event, the story could have caused unnecessary attention for those involved. In retrospect though, I think it's a good idea that people read about it, and adjust their adventures accordingly. That way maybe someone else can avoid the situation that I was in.

I wrote this several days after it happened. That was a few weeks ago. It is a bit of a lengthy post, but I think the details are important.

Steffi and I went up Hunter creek for an Easter Ice climb on Saturday. We had been up Eklutna Canyon on Friday, and took I took the time to teach her about anchor building, screw placements, prussiks, rescue systems, different types of belays, lead climbing in general, and let her do a mock-lead on some easy stuff (top roped placing screws). She's a natural climber. We've been climbing a few times, but usually I essentially guide for the sake of expediency.

On Saturday in continuation of teaching, we spent the whole drive out to the Knik talking about saftey, decision-making, basic first aid, and the like. At the parking lot I showed her my "oh-s*** kit" with first aid and repair stuff. Obviously this is no replacement for experience, training, practice, and the like but I figured it couldn't hurt, and she was happy to learn.

After a 2 mile hike in to Hollowhead, I did a nice fun lead up the first pitch. This time we were working more as a team than as a guide and a client, so it was really great. Hollowhead consists of two pitches of WI 3-4. We were making really good time, and being super safe. The conditions were excellent and the ice was solid; hero-ice. The first pitch is a 20-30 meter wall of pretty much vertical that leads to a hockey-rink belay station. The second pitch was 30 meters of 20 degree stair walking that led to a nice easy WI3 section to the top.

Off to our left on the second pitch was a rock gully. By the time I was finishing the last pitch some small rocks started melting out in the afternoon warmth. We started to get maybe one little shower every 15-20 minutes. It was mostly pebbles with a few ping-pong ball to tennis ball sized ones. We were well out of their way; Steffi was belaying from behind a steep wall of ice, and I was to their side on the last steep wall. On rappel, I made sure to make the second rap station as far right as we could get in order to avoid what few rocks there were. They had been bouncing from their gully straight down on the left side. I got to the bottom of the second rap, behind the ice wall, and clipped to the anchor that Steffi had belayed me from. Almost as soon as I was off, I heard Steffi scream.

A Really Scary Scream.

My first intuition was that she must have clipped to the rappel incorrectly, and that she was falling, sliding down the 20 degree slope towards me. I couldn't see her from where I was. I got ready to try to catch her as she would soon come sliding over top of me. Then I heard more screaming, from the same place. At the same time, a soccer-ball sized boulder came whizzing over the top of my little wall. YIKES. I knew then that Steffi had been hit by the rock. I put myself back on rappel, and ran back up the shallow stuff while reverse rappelling. I was doing everything I could to stay calm, to communicate with her, calm her down and figure out what happened as I got back up to her. She was just crying, and screaming from the pain. With the size of the rock, and the pain she was in, I was bracing myself for a grizzly scene. The time it took me to get to her was probably the scariest 2 minutes of my life.

When I got to her, she said it was her knee. No blood, whew. No shock. whew. No scary compound fractures. whew.
K: Can you bend it?
S: Yes, but it hurts a little.
K: Have you tried to stand on it?
S: no
(while we're both on rappel together, tied off to a prussik.)
K: Hold on to me and try to put a little bit of weight on it in this flat part.
S: Ok, I can stand on it
K: Any bleeding, wetness?
S: No, just pain.
K: But you can bend it and stand on it?
S: yeah
K: Can you rappel?
S: yeah
K: Ok. Let's get the *** out of here. I'll go first, if you scream or yell or anything, I'll yank on the ropes to stop you.
S: Ok, I'm fine, it just hurts.

I made sure she didn't have any bleeding, or shock symptoms, and made sure that nothing else hurt after the initial adrenaline wore off before I let her rappell . She rapped just fine, hopping or sliding on her one good leg. My oh-s***-kit was in the pack at the bottom of the next rappel with kickass pain killers; left-overs from wisdom-teeth extraction.

As we got to the bottom, three guys that had been climbing further up the creek came walking by and offered to help. We still had a 2 mile hike out. At the bottom, before heading out, I did a more thorough check. No hematoma, very little swelling, she could bend the knee almost the entire range without too much additional pain. It really hurt when I touched it in a very specific location. She could stand on it without too much pain. It was just super tender to the touch. My best guess was a bone bruise. I gave her two vicodin because she still had tears from the pain, despite her standard stoicism. One of the other guys gave her a pair of ski poles, we divied up her pack and we all started marching out.

With the ski poles as crutches, she was moving at an ok, but somewhat slow walking pace. Carrying her would have been much slower, more painful for her, and she wouldn't let us anyway. When the pain killers kicked in she definitely slowed down a bit. She was grateful to have the pain taken away, "wow! these drugs are GREAT!" but she was a bit tipsy from it too, and wasn't concentrating as well on moving.

For the sake of making a speedy exit to the truck, I decided to ditch my pack and run out to the car to get some skis. The plan was to make a sled to pull her out. After running the Koflach 3k (which I think would make for an interesting race), I got to the truck, and realized I still had my Ramer skis in the back that she could clip into her climbing boots. I ran back out with those, she clipped in and was able to double pole the last mile faster than the rest of us could walk.

Her leg never swelled very badly, never bruised, she could walk on it just fine the next day and bend the knee just fine. When I touched the one spot on her knee though, she would wince pretty hard, so I made her go to the student health center to get it checked out. They did an x-ray to find out if there was a bone chip. The results were inconclusive, and she dicided to opt-out of getting an MRI. Now a few weeks later, she's all healed up with no pain or tenderness. Could have been a lot worse...

Even though we did what we could have to avoid it, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time is all it really took. We were all the way to the other side of the gully, but that big rock took a weird bounce, and that was it. That was the only big rock at the base of the climb, so there wasn't a lot of warning before we got on the ice either. In 20-20 retrospect, we should have bailed as soon as the first pebbles trickled down the gully. After spending an entire winter climbing in below freezing conditions, I wasn't thinking about the risks involved with melting-out Chugach rocks that are only held together with a thin layer of frost. I'll definitely be more paranoid next time, and so should you.

Steffi told me after the fact that she was really impressed at how well I handled it, and that she would always be happy to climb with me because now she nows I can take care of things just in case it all goes bad. I guess I hid my terror pretty well.

climb safe.


Stealth Racer

Though regionals in Truckee were my last college races, the spring race season wasn't over for me until a month later at the end of March. Distance Nationals were in my hometown this year, and I was stoked to race the best skiers around on my own trails. The weather at birch hill was perfect, and we dodged some ash fall from Redoubt volcano by being out of Anchorage.

Unfortunately, since the Tour of Anchorage, my focus on ski racing had waned. We train full-time starting May 1st, and race from mid November through March. By the time spring rolls around, I'm ready to be doing something else for fun. I did a lot of climbing and a little back country skiing this year to get my kicks, so I'll admit that I wasn't in perfect racing shape when I showed up in Fairbanks.

Though I didn't have spectacular races, I did have a lot of fun. It's cool for me to return to my home trails a couple times each year. I feel like a different skier than I was when I skied them in high school. I had fun racing hard in good weather with all of my Alaskan racing friends. We've all been racing each other since I was cruising around at Weller Elementary ski club.

Because it is out of season according to NCAA, we weren't allowed to wear our UAA ski team suits. So I wore the Stealth Suit. I acquired this legendary garment from Brett Broda when I was racing at Lathrop High School. I've been told that it is a 1990 Swiss team suit. I have no idea if that is the case. All I know is that it's rad.

The idea behind the Stealth Suit is pretty simple. When you show up at a race start wearing this ridiculous outfit, people that don't know you immediately dismiss you as a loser. Because you look like one. You then blow past them after cruising in their draft for a few k, and fly into the finish in first place to the awe and amazement of all. Thus you are stealthy. Thus it is the Stealth Suit.

I found a new application for the stealth suit at nationals. I was a little worried about racing all of the fastest guys in the nation (and very few of the mediocre or second-tier types like myself), and getting my butt kicked in my home town. Though I initially wore the stealth suit because I think its style is awesome, I ended up being grateful that few of the Fairbanks spectators that knew me, recognized me. I did get my butt kicked after a several week hiatus from race training.

In the 30k pursuit race, we did 4 laps of one course and 4 of another. It took 6 laps before all of my highschool buddies standing at the top of the hill recognized who this goofy-looking straggler was. Stealthy indeed...

Nothing like checkered spandex!

Update: Here is a shot of the legendary Gunde Svan being very stealthy. I guess it was Swedish...

Swing Kick Pull.

Whaaapshhh, whaapish, whaaaTHACK. If you've ever climbed ice, you'll know that there are few sensations more satisfying than the solid thud of a well-placed ice tool. I got my fair share of climbing this spring. That's why I've been away from the computer. Now that the ice is melting, I should probably fill in the internet world with my escapades.

Wedding Cake, Mad Dog, Annie Greensprings, Starbright, Hollowhead, Boones Farm, O'Malley Falls, Ripple, and Jack River Falls filled my spring. We esentially get one month off between ski seasons, and I spent mine calttering up frozen water. In the spring sunshine, it's been super easy to get out and swing tools on the weekends or after school.

There's something about leading a nice solid WI3-4 climb. It's something very intense and gripping, but it's sublime and fulfilling too. I never feel threatened, but my subconscious understands the severity of the situation and diverts all energy and attention into the action at hand. I realize how focused I've been throughout the climb when I top out and clip into the anchor. I suddenly notice how wet I am from the dripping ice, that my hands are severely cold, that I'm thirsty, that my calves are burning, and my knuckles are throbbing from punching ice bulges. Somehow on lead I never notice any of those things. I only ever feel the absolute satisfaction of sinking a tool into a solid placement and pulling down.

Ice climbing is one of those things that really gives me a powerful feeling of accomplishment. There are definitely huge risks involved with taking the sharp end of the rope, especially on ice. Protection is sometimes questionable, ice can be unpredictable, and with all of the sharp pointies, falls are rarely clean. In reality leading ice is a lot like soloing with a rope. The only reliable and safe belay is from making good placements.

But this suits me fine. Making good placements, calculating the risks, setting bomber protection, and picking the route are all decisions that I make. These are things that I can control. The risk involved is directly based on my ability and my decision-making process. There are some outside, uncontrollable factors. Ice and rock fall or avalanches from an unseen gully above can be difficult to predict. Realistically though, if I get hurt it would almost always be caused by my own screw-up.

Compare this to driving home from work. Obviously there is a lot of risk. Doing 75 on the highway feels pretty safe from the cockpit of a climate-controlled, suspension dampened car with anti-lock brakes, seatbelts and airbags. You have control of your vehicle, you're doing the speed limit, paying attention, not talking on the phone or with your passengers or even picking songs on the ipod. You suddenly get broadsided by a drunk in an F-350. Toast. That's it. That's all you get. Someone dies in a car-wreck every 13 minutes in the US.

The difference is that when you drive, the risk isn't really in your hands. Even if you're doing everything right, you have little control over your safety. You're depending on the abilities of everyone on the road with you. And lots of those people are clearly less than trustworthy.

When I go climbing, the risk is mostly in my hands. Deciding whether to go, where to go, when to go, where and how to place protection, whether to swing again and get a really solid stick, are all up to me. So when I successfully lead a ropelength of vertical ice, I feel self-reliant, fulfilled, confident, cautious and safe. More so than on the drive home...

Here's to being safe and having outrageous fun!