Jim Ewing’s Terrifying Fall and Recovery

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Jim Ewing in his hospital room in Florida.

Jim Ewing in his hospital room in Florida.

1/12/15 - Longtime New England rock and ice climber Jim Ewing, a senior rope engineer at Sterling Rope, was seriously injured in a ground fall while climbing at Cayman Brac on December 26. After multiple surgeries at two hospitals, Ewing is still waiting for the opportunity to travel home to Maine for more care.

Ewing, 51, was leading a 5.11 pitch at the Dixon’s Wall on the small Caribbean island when he pumped out and fell. Reached at his hospital room in Florida late last week, he described what happened next: “I felt the rope catch me and hold for a fraction of a second. Then I dropped a little farther and stopped momentarily, and then this happened a few more times, but each time the halt was a little less, and then I accelerated to the ground.”

Ewing fell an estimated 50 feet and landed vertically, initially on his left foot. He suffered multiple injuries, including a shattered pelvis and left ankle, dislocated wrist, and serious bruising. Fortunately, he did not hit his head nor have any internal injuries other than bruising of his lungs. Nearby climbers helped stabilize him, and an ambulance quickly arrived. The same day, a police helicopter flew him to a hospital on Grand Cayman, where he had the first of his surgeries.

Two days after the accident, Ewing flew by air ambulance to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a cost of over $25,000. Today, January 12, he is scheduled for another long surgery to remove the external fixation device from his ankle, which his family hopes will allow him to return to Maine. Another air ambulance flight is prohibitively expensive, but flying commercial has been impossible because of his injuries.

“I’m hoping to get to Maine to get back into my insurance network for rehab, physical therapy, and everything else I need,” Ewing said. “Plus, my wife, Cathy, has been here in Florida to help out, and she can’t work until I’m home. I’d have been in a world of hurt without her as my advocate here.”

Friends have established a Go Fund Me account to help raise money for Ewing’s transport and excess medical expenses.

Compounding the tragic circumstances: Ewing’s 13-year-old daughter, Maxine, was belaying him when the accident happened. Ewing said his daughter “has belayed me for years with no problems, mostly using Grigris.”

Before climbing, Ewing built a ground anchor to compensate for the fact that he outweighed his daughter by nearly 70 pounds. The anchor consisted of slings wrapped under a boulder and clipped together with a quickdraw, which was then clipped to the bottom of her harness belay loop. The Grigri 2 belay device was attached normally to the belay loop with a locking carabiner. The Grigri, inspected after the accident, was set up and threaded correctly. Ewing was leading on a 9.5mm rope, well within the Grigri 2’s specs.

“She knows very well about keeping her hand on the brake side of the rope, and not to grab the rope with the left hand,” Ewing said. During the fall, Maxine suffered rope burns on her brake hand (right hand), presumably as she tried to arrest the rope while her father fell. She had no burns on her left hand.

One witness speculated that the belayer's anchor carabiner or quickdraw might somehow have interfered with the Grigri and prevented it from locking as designed.

“We’re all confused as to what happened, and when I get back on my feet I will try to run some simulations to try to figure it out,” Ewing said. “Small-diameter ropes have a tendency not to lock instantly with the Grigri 2 every time. It’s something you have to watch and make sure the brake hand is maintained at all times.”

Ewing’s other advice to climbers in the aftermath of his accident is to always carry travel insurance with a medical evacuation provision when climbing in another country. “Air ambulances are insanely expensive,” he said.

Contribute to the "Get Jim Ewing Home to Maine” fund.