Cruel Summer - Climbing Magazine

Cruel Summer

Illustration by Keith Svihovec

Illustration by Keith Svihovec

Life and Death on Werk Supp

The summer of 2008 was a rough one in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. It seemed like every week, someone was getting hurt. I figure these accidents are just that — accidents — and I’m not usually drawn to them. Sometimes, though, they’re drawn to me. Maybe it’s because I survived a bad one myself: a 100-foot fall in Rocky Mountain National Park that ultimately claimed my right leg.

When you walk up to Werk Supp (5.9), far left on the Bastille’s north face, its 130-foot first pitch looks straightforward — the inviting hand/finger crack starts about 30 feet off the ground, above rampy corners and blocks. Late June that year, I came to run a lap on it, one of my favorite pitches. But I also came for another reason: curiosity. In just a three-week span, two climbers had taken 50-foot grounders from the same place on the route. Had something like rockfall changed the climb, or some strange hex befallen it? As I studied the base, my partner that day, Jack, told me he’d climbed the route the week after Mike Hankins — the second climber to deck — had fallen free soloing. Hankins survived, but the first climber — Preston Brennan, climbing roped — lost his life. The dried pool of Mike’s blood still behind the blocks had really shaken up Jack, but he did the climb regardless. I had never met either Mike or Preston.

My plan is always the same on Werk Supp: climb the blocky corner, put in big gear before I step right, and then load up the small pieces in the crack proper as I settle into a rhythm. The moves are straightforward, but they require attention. As I jammed the crack at about the 50-foot mark (where both men fell), I sunk good gear: first, my small blue Camalot, and then my favorite green-and-yellow offset Alien. As I climbed, I tried to imagine Mike’s and Preston’s thoughts as they’d slipped. The fear in my belly was all too real, and I felt myself quickly flash-pumping. The stone here is river-slick, a dark maroon with sometimes-miserly footholds. I drifted into thoughts of Ralph Warsfield and Pat Ament’s first ascent in 1964, wondering if the holds felt slick even then. My arms continued to tighten; I needed to pay attention. I shook out the pump and ended the pitch without a blunder. I realized then that Werk Supp’s fissures hid no monsters. It’s a crack, in a big red rock. Nothing more, and nothing less.

On a rainy Monday earlier that June, my friend Penn emailed me, introducing me to Randy Hankins — it was Hankins’ brother Mike who’d decked off Werk Supp and was now in the process of losing his leg. I’d lost mine five years prior after my fall, and Penn felt it might help Mike, in the hospital, to talk to someone who’d gone through the process. Randy is a web guru for Black Diamond and had introduced Mike to climbing when both were kids.

Before I went to meet Mike, I surfed Mountain Project’s forums to piece together the accident. Mike was free-soloing; somewhere around 50 feet, he came off, but for him to remember how or why it happened would be amazing. Speaking from my own accident, I remember falling from the belay ledge, seeing the anchors moving away, and even the yellow color of the sun-bleached slings. But the rest is gone until I lay below the climb —Whiteman in Rocky Mountain National Park — in the talus. Our brain somehow blanks the short-term memory after heavy trauma. I like to think of it as God’s own defense mechanism. Like me, Mike had also landed standing and then crumpled. But unlike me, he was right in front of a small group of onlookers. Two of these happened to be Preston’s mother and his longtime girlfriend, who’d come to Eldorado that day for closure. Preston had fallen from the same spot as Mike. He’d slipped from his jams, pulled several small pieces, and hit the pointed rock below the climb.

While I stood explaining my accident to Mike’s family in a sunny hallway close to Mike’s ICU room a few weeks after his fall, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Mike was still in and out of reality, so I’d come to meet with his family — to share a survivor’s perspective. Even as I told them what Mike’s recovery might be like, even as we discussed dark realities like brain injuries and amputations, the strange fact remained that Mike had lived while Preston had not. Even though the sun shown through the windows, I felt a cold sweat on my neck. I hoped that because I’d gone through something similar, Mike and I would hit it off. I was wrong. My second visit, alone with Mike, was a total failure.

On a warm July day, two weeks after meeting Mike’s family, I stood next to his bed, waiting for him to look at me. Mike was awake and a nurse was cleaning his tracheotomy tube, but he wasn’t in a position to see my prosthetic leg. I talked, explaining that I’d been hurt but had returned to climbing. And that’s when I showed him my artificial leg, expecting a warm, “Cool!” or something. But Mike simply looked at my leg and turned away. His leg had already been amputated, and I thought seeing me standing normally would help.

I like it when people like me. Most people feel this way. But here was a man with a lot of anger, seemingly pointed at me. The conversation dwindled to nothing, broken finally by the nurse saying Mike was tired. I excused myself and went to look for my family.

The day was hot, but I froze as I walked into the glaring sun of the parking lot. I felt I might puke, unable to shake the feeling that I’d overstepped my bounds. I was beginning to understand Mike’s stony reaction. Who was I to say things would work out? Really, I didn’t know the fi rst thing about Mike or how his life might go. The meeting continued to perturb me.

So with more questions than ever swirling like a spring storm, I did what any sane climber would do. I went and led that fi rst pitch.

Afterward, as Jack and I walked out of Eldo that day, I reflected on my quest for meaning. It’s not, I realized, that the rock or the mountains care, because quite simply, they don’t. But they do seem to have a life, a personality, on certain days. Sometimes when I plug my hands into a crack, I know there will be no falling that day. Other days, I know I’ll be scared dawn to dusk. The day I fell in RMNP, I had a weird feeling in my belly. Had Mike and Preston felt “off,” too? I might never know, but it makes me understand how close we all tread to the edge — that one small mistake can change or end your life. That we should listen to those gut feelings.

The thing that stuck with me is the way Mike greeted me — or didn’t. I stay in touch a bit with the family, and I have a huge amount of respect for them all, but it made me rethink things. Just because Mike and I are both climbing-accident survivors doesn’t mean he’ll look to me for help. Maybe we shouldn’t stick our noses where they don’t belong. Then again, just off the heels of the summer 2009 death of my friend Craig Luebben, I’m reminded yet again that we band together in these times because we have to. It gives us a feeling of not being alone, that others share our values and outlook.

After Craig’s funeral, someone told me, “He died doing what he loved.” I responded, saying that that was a stupid, overly simplistic way to view a horrible situation. Craig was dead, and his wife and daughter had lost the most important man in their lives. I’d known and climbed with Craig for 13 years, and I was confident that given the choice to climb or be a dad, he’d have dropped climbing in a heartbeat. It wasn’t until October of this year, a month after Craig’s death, when a friend explained what she thought that aphorism meant, that I got some closure to both Craig’s passing and the Werk Supp accidents.

In Craig’s case, it wasn’t that he was climbing, but that he died living a life he’d chosen, not taking a “safe” desk job as an engineer (as he could have), but still pursuing climbing and working in the mountains. That, I realized, is why climbers want to help each other after an accident — because in some form we’ve all made the same choice Craig did, just by being climbers. When the band comes together, I’m reminded that we are truly a small tribe and that this is but a short trip. Stay safe out there, and I’ll do the same.

Craig DeMartino is based out of Loveland, Colorado, as a photographer and climber. He listens to the inner voice always…especially when it points him to coffee.