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April 10. Blue sky, spring was here. Heather Ardley and I were in high spirits as we walked the mile-plus into Main Elk, a crag in western Colorado. Isn’t that the way it always happens?
We eagerly caught up—hoping the pandemic was beginning to wind down. I think we were still wearing masks in the car on the way to the crag at that point.
I knew Heather hadn’t been climbing much, had been madly busy selling one house and buying another in an insane market, but asked if she’d like to lead the first pitch, a nice 5.9 we’ve both done dozens of times.
We chatted with some friends at the base, and Heather shoed up and tied in. She moved up the layer of low-angle choss to the ledge just below the first clip.
“OK, climbing,” she said.
I said, to myself, “OK, stop talking!”
As Heather put both hands on a big sidepull, I glanced down at my belay device. As I lifted my gaze, in my periphery, something green—she was wearing an olive top—flew by. She hit the ground from some 10 feet. She had popped off unexpectedly before clipping, and it is a pretty high first clip. It was a minor move, but that’s the thing—people can fall. Anyone can.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” she said, sitting up and untying her right shoe. She’d landed on the trail primarily flat on one foot. Heather, a physical therapist, knows injuries too well.
She couldn’t weight the foot; couldn’t walk. Around us and on the ensuing journey back to the trailhead, every single person at the crag, starting with our friends, offered to help. To carry her pack, to do anything. Two young men approaching the crag on the trail offered so many times and so sincerely to help shoulder her out that she tried, but for that you have to be able to weight the foot at all.
Heather tried crawling, settled on butt-scooting, me trailing.
A climber going out offered to take her pack, and we let him. As she palmed away, she put on my belay gloves.
Crawling and scooting are super slow. I know this from the time in the late 1980s when I had to crawl out from the South Buttress of Whitehorse, North Conway, with a badly sprained ankle from falling off an overhang. I crawled along in the summer heat and humidity until someone couldn’t stand watching and gave me a piggyback. (Can’t say I offered Heather that ….)
Heather is solid, a good sport, and we actually had a lot of laughs as we inched out. I knew from a son taking a Wilderness First Responder course that backcountry rescues take an average of eight hours. I figured at our pace, we’d take two hours to cover the mile or so back to our car, telling her, “We’ll crush that eight hours.”
Halfway out and upon someone’s advice, I veered off the main trail to a yurt that people sometimes rent, and found a guy and his dog. He was happy to back his truck across the clearing and run us to the road, from whence we went to the ER.
Heather had a foot she called “a lovely shade of eggplant.” She had contusions, fractured metatarsals, a fracture of the cuboid, and a partial tear of the Lisfranc ligament. She had also just finalized plans to put a renter in her house three days later, so she could go visit her parents in Ottowa. Everything was hosed.
She delayed her trip. After much uncertainty, she ultimately needed no surgery, but was non-weight-bearing for weeks and in a boot cast until the first week of June. She drove to Canada and, cheerful as ever, is having a good trip. (She didn’t complain about quarantine either: “Oh, it was fine, it’s beautiful here.”) She again walks her rescue dog, Rosie, several miles a day.
I have never given stick clips much thought. Some friends, though, clip every start. I use stick clips in a cursory, pretty much lazy way—like if someone has brought one. Heather, too, believes in them, especially for areas where the routes are designed for them, but hasn’t necessarily been consistent. That has changed for both of us.
Have fun, check your knot, and use a stick clip. If anyone says. “Want me to clip the first two?”—hey, why not?! It’s awesome. Someone can slip, holds can break, bolts can fail. If there is hard climbing down low, you protect both leader and belayer better by clipping two bolts.
Long ago, there was some old-school resistance to stick clips. Most people got over that (duh). These days there is even a nice give-and-take at crags. I have borrowed stick clips from people (in the Red River Gorge, my friend Susan and I, not having brought one on the plane, truly appreciated how often locals offered), and am glad to lend mine any time.
Stick clips are relatively inexpensive, and they last. My husband and I have been using the same one from Trango for at least five years, and it’s still fine. I only just tried the upgraded Trango Beta Stick ($105) yesterday. It is all the better, with segment snaplocks as opposed to adjustment by twisting; and the quickdraw carabiner sits solidly in the hook for easy slotting into that first or, better yet, second bolt. You can even get a compact stick clip to take on a plane. Stick clips may seem a little awkward to use at first, but stick (haha) with it, because they are a simple and super effective tool.
Since that day in April, I have started looking at every (sport) crag wondering how bad it would be to crawl out. It would usually be awful.
Crawling takes a really long time, a lot longer than stick clipping.
Related content: See “Best New Stick Clip on a Budget”