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Now and then I still get flashbacks, usually in the quiet moments before bed when for whatever self-hating reason I’m mentally replaying every mistake I’ve made in my life—I’m sure I’m the only person on Earth who does this. In the Top 10 is the time I took my friend Michael Gilbert off belay at the Blackwalk Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, and simply walked away without telling him I’d done so. For a second there, I was the world’s worst belayer; I made the one mistake you must never make.
It was sheer, dumb luck that saved Michael’s life that autumn day 20 years ago: He checked to make sure he was on before he leaned back at the anchor. Had he not, Michael would have dropped 80 feet from the top of the 5.10 Backtalk, the unsecured rope whipping and looping in the air above, him bouncing off a slab-apron below the wall then impacting the hardpacked soil below the cliff. Severely injured, or most likely killed, ragdolled there in a corridor that forms a wide balcony between Redgarden Wall and the Whale’s Tail, overlooking the Wind Tower, scene of so many climbing accidents I’m not sure anyone counts them anymore.
Michael could have died in front of us: me; his then-wife, Annie Whitehouse, with whom I’ve been friends since my high-school days down in New Mexico; and John Sherman, the bouldering legend. All of our lives would be so different now—so much darker, so very twisted—and I would have been responsible.
It’s been 16 years since I’ve climbed with Michael—he drifted into golf, with the same obsessive energy he’d always applied to his climbing—but for many years we were regular partners, for scary Eldo trad climbs and then, after Michael and Annie moved to Ouray, Colorado, sport climbs on the town’s sandstone and limestone. These days, we stay in touch on social media the fleeting way that people do, and he’s moved back to the Front Range of Colorado, where I live.
The last time I saw Michael was at The Spot gym in Louisville, Colorado, a few winters ago, pre-pandemic. He was there with his son, who is the age of my middle child, teaching the boy to boulder amid the romper-room chaos of a busy Saturday.
“Sixty-four years old and I have a four-year-old,” Michael joked, sotto voce, as his son swung around on giant plastic jugs on a freestanding boulder. “What the fuck am I doing?!” We both had a laugh. I mean, what the fuck is any climber doing having children—at any age? It goes against our basic self-interest.
And yet, seeing Michael and his son brought me back to Eldorado. If Michael had died, we would not have been having this conversation; there would have been no little boy playing on the gym’s boulders. There would be only absence—and me, a haunted soul, a pariah, serving a life sentence of guilt and self-recrimination.
Here’s how it happened, or at least, here’s how I think it happened.
Michael and I had been climbing together frequently in Eldorado. The canyon teems with climbers hollering belay commands at each other, and the winds off the Continental Divide and manifold creases, arêtes, roofs, and corners in the rock bounce those voices around, making communication difficult. So Michael and I defaulted to a simpler system: One whoop when the lead climber is anchored in at the top of a pitch. Then the rope gets pulled up. Then another whoop to let the second know he can climb. We were exclusively doing multi-pitch climbs, so atop every lead, once I heard Michael whoop, I was conditioned to taking him off belay.
However, Michael and I hadn’t cragged together, so didn’t have a protocol for that. On Backtalk, I led the route first, hanging draws and placing cams, then leaving two quickdraws at the anchor and lowering. Michael went next, me belaying him while Annie and John climbed on Blackwalk, an old-school 5.10 on the same panel of black-varnished rock. We were all chatting, as friends at the crag do, and the atmosphere was casual—maybe too casual. Eldorado is not the gym; no crag is, really.
After Michael completed his lead, he clipped into the anchor. I know he did not whoop and I know he did not say, “Off belay”; instead, he probably said, “In direct.” As with our multi-pitch excursions, I assumed that meant that he was off and that I need no longer belay—that he was going to rappel. Michael, however, had assumed that he would thread and that I’d lower him, which makes way more sense given that we were cragging. Michael was in the right, and I was in the wrong. Plus, you never take your climber off belay until they tell you to—and even then, you ask twice.
In 2002, at Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park, my buddy Craig DeMartino decked from 100 feet after a similar miscommunication at an anchor. He lived—barely. Freefalling backward, DeMartino plunged into a tree that reoriented him upright, such that he impacted feet-first. He compound-fractured both legs and ankles, and broke bones in his neck, ribs, back, and one shoulder. He was in a hospital for three months, then later, plagued by pain and dysfunction in his left leg, chose to amputate it. DeMartino has rallied, becoming a champion paraclimber and the first amputee to climb El Cap in less than 24 hours; out at the cliffs, you’ll see him putting down 5.12/5.13s, edging confidently with his prosthetic foot. But he’s one of the lucky ones. Climbers have died because of mix-ups like this. It happens all the time.
I was in a bad period when I took Michael off belay—addicted to prescription tranquilizers, strung out on antidepressants, and often in a marijuana-induced fog. I was also one year out from the end of my first real relationship, and had become cavalier about the value of life, in particular my own. I drove too fast with no seat belt, and when I climbed pursued a steady diet of death routes, highballs, and free solos. My whole approach to everything was “Act now, think later, and to hell with the consequences, because life sucks anyway.”
This, of course, is no way to live and is certainly no way to be a climber—or at least to be a good climbing partner. I’m sober now and have been for years, and part of that awakening has been trying to be the best, most attentive climbing partner/belayer possible. I now take my job as a belayer with deadly seriousness, and am that annoying guy who does a belayer/climber double- or even triple-check before every pitch, and is more than happy to discuss anchor logistics even if it’s patently obvious my climber will be lowering, not rapping. I must be trying to atone for something that, while it never actually happened, feels like it did because I’ve replayed the worst-case scenario in my head so many times. That day in Eldorado Canyon has stuck with me, the way our biggest mistakes always do.
“You got me?” I remember Michael hollering down from the anchor while I was 30 feet from the climb, rooting around in my pack for snacks, probably stoned, probably beset by the munchies.
“Got you?! Shit, no I don’t!!!” I yelled back, my stomach dropping in horror as I stood up, fumbled for the belay device on my gear loop, and rushed back toward the rope, hoping I’d get there before Michael unclipped. “HANG ON!”
“Whoa, dude, what?” he said. “You mean I’m not on?”
“No, not yet!”
“It’s a good thing I checked,” Michael said. “I’m still clipped in”—and by then I had the rope slapped through the belay device and clipped to my belay loop. Relief surged through my body. Crisis averted. God, that had been close!
Last month at a crag north of Boulder I ran into two climbers I know. They climbed next to my friend Brandon and I on a seven-bolt route, maybe 70 feet tall, giving each other casual, Rifle-style slack sloops as they warmed up. (A side note: The “Rifle belay” reached its nadir with the lawn-chair catch, in which—you guessed it—the belayer simply sits in a lawn chair with a Grigri, sloth-like, expending the minimum energy possible between redpoint burns and glancing up occasionally at their climber. I would argue that this practice is neither safe nor supportive.) Measured purely against my buddies’ abilities, it was not a route either climber was going to fall on—but holds break, and fingers and rock shoes slip. Close to the ground, there seemed to be moments where either of them might deck if he fell, but nobody seemed concerned, so I tried not to be either and just let them do their thing.
Later, as Brandon and I walked back to the car, he turned to me and said, “Man, those guys sure had a lot of slack out—I almost felt like saying something.”
“Shit, you noticed that too?” I asked. “I thought I was just being paranoid.”
“No, it was nuts, but I guess that’s how they like it.”
I thought about it some more—I could have said something, and likely just made a joke out of it so that the message landed more softly. Yet I hadn’t. But why? As I thought about it, I realized it was because, given how much experience I knew both climbers had, I simply assumed they knew what they were doing. But 20 years ago in Eldo, I’d been an experienced climber too, 15 years deep in the game and having caught hundreds of falls and lowered climbers thousands of times. I assumed I knew what I was doing too, until I made a rookie mistake and nearly killed my friend; I assumed everything was under control, until it nearly wasn’t. Assumptions kill, and so does gravity. We all can—and should—do better. Our literal lives are at stake.
Matt Samet is a climber of 35 years, and a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.