Who Gets Hurt Sport Climbing? Um, A Few Of Us

Six surgeries in 13 months is a lot, and a lot of recovery and painkillers, and Kelly Cordes will tell you he was a little whacked even before that. An alpine, ice and rock climber, Kelly broke his ankle and pulverized his tib-fib ice climbing. He tore his knee. He destroyed his shoulder. But the worst insult was yet to come.“Leave it to me,” he says.

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Six surgeries in 13 months is a lot, and a lot of recovery and painkillers, and Kelly Cordes will tell you he was a little whacked even before that. An alpine, ice and rock climber, Kelly broke his ankle and pulverized his tib-fib ice climbing. He tore his knee. He destroyed his shoulder. But the worst insult was yet to come.” Leave it to me,” he says, “to take the safest form of climbing and make it as dangerous as possible.” 

Beginning to walk again after three leg surgeries, he went sport climbing: to enjoy the safety, the stonker bolts, the soft and welcoming air you fall into.

Kelly took—this was three months after the pilon fracture—a spinning, somersaulting, feet-flying whip from a heel hook on an overhanging 5.13a. The inside of his leg somehow caught on the rope, and splatted him, face-first, into the wall below.

In the ER, Kelly recalls: “The doc got sick of me cracking jokes while she put 13 staples in my skull and 14 stitches in my face. Before she closed up my head, I wanted to ask her if she could stuff some more brains in there.”

God! Who gets hurt sport climbing? Um, a few of us.

I’ve taken a beating lately. Two years ago I was at a local sport crag—had just been sitting on a boulder, eating a sandwich—when hit by an airborne rock. It was dislodged not by a climber, but someone in a youth rehab group that had walked up past us, which in itself was surprising, since there is no real trail. The boy then started climbing up the choss on the other side of the gully. I have already described this, in our Ascent 2011, but the rock bounded down and across the gully and hit me, spinning me around and knocking me 20 feet downhill. The rock stopped when it hit the side of my pack, which was 10 feet below me, though I ended up lower than it. Aside from cuts and minor injuries, I got a cartilaginous injury to the ankle that is still a problem. But my head wasn’t bashed in, so OK.

The rock that, airborne, hit the author. (Photo: Andrea Cutter)

Each time I go to that area, Lower Thompson Creek, I glare at the couch-pillow-sized rock, now embedded in the trail. I point it out to friends, who gasp and say they didn’t realize it was that big (it’s not like I didn’t tell them); like a museum guide, I dart around, pointing out the three-inch-wide tree I cowered behind, and the spot below, where I landed.

I did just such a dramatic re-creation, in fact, last summer for Will Hummel, a brand-new intern I was taking out for a few pitches. Will and I found a stranger on our intended route, but it was over the person’s head, and as he lowered, I suggested the two easier routes just uphill, then turned my attention to Will as he led up. I didn’t notice that the guy and his friends had hiked past the routes and, even after the wall ended, continued up and across the gully. I’ve never seen anyone go there except for these two times.

When I heard the shouts of “Rock!” and the crashing, all I could think was, “I can’t BELIEVE this is happening again.”

I looked around—again—for somewhere to go, locked off the belay, and dove for a niche in the wall 10 feet downhill. As if in a nightmare, I reached it but, as the thudding neared, couldn’t turn the corner because I’d sucked in my jacket along with the rope, now taut. With the jacket stuck, I pulled with all my weight, trying to stretch the rope, and shoved in, scraping my face in the process. The rock rolled to a stop on top of my flaked rope (ruining it).

Young intern Will watched the whole thing from above: “The noise was so loud I thought a whole cliff had collapsed, and I was going to be fishing three or four bodies out.”

I said, “I really can’t believe it happened twice.”

He said, “Yeah, and they’re getting bigger! Next it’ll be”—he pointed to the grand-piano lunch rock—“that one!”

Rock #2 is still there. On my next visit, my friend Amanda Ramsay and I sat comfortably on it to put on our shoes.

Then at Rifle I got a rope burn, two inches long and so deep it wouldn’t close for three weeks, streaming pink fluid; a teenage boy recoiled at the sight, saying, “That looks like something a zombie would have!”

Latest was when I took the new Trusting Young Intern (TYI), Gentrye Houghton, out to New Castle on a sunny day, and, just off the deck on a roof on a brand-new route, snapped a hold that hit me in the face and split my lip. She was yanked up, and we collided.

John Sherman, a boulderer, used to have a bumper sticker saying, “Sport Climbing is Neither.” Now I see him at Rifle, have climbed with him there. I love the relative safety of sport climbing. Sometimes I wonder how much—with more demands on my time than in yore, and less acceptance of risk—or hard I’d even climb anymore if it weren’t for sport climbing. I go trad climbing two or three times a year, on moderate routes. I’m not, ever again, going to test myself by trying to climb, say, 5.12 above little nuts tweaked in sideways.

“It amazes me that any of us are still here, really,” Kelly emails me, “when you think about how easily things can happen: even the difference of a few millimeters between lowering or catching someone (someone’s hand half an inch this way on the belay device), and dropping them (hand a little too far that way). Those things happen, of course, but sometimes I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. Kinda impressive really, given the innumerable opportunities we have to fuck up.”

One funny thing is, Kelly did return and send the route, though it took some effort.

We all keep going back. There are so many ways to make things safer. Check each others’ knots and belay devices. Belay carefully. Talk about whether someone will be lowered or rappel; double check everything at the anchor. And how many times must this magazine write: Tie knots in the end of your (belay or rappel) ropes?

Tie knots in the ends of your (belay or rappel ropes)!

This magazine once ran an image of Nathan Welton upside down, like a cartoon character, on a sport route in Penitente Canyon.

Later Nathan strolled into a climbing shop in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, and saw, next to the helmet rack, that photo on display.

He tells me, “The crusty old owner came up to me and said, ‘Would ya look at that fuckin’ muppet, mate? That right there’s a great reason to buy a helmet. That guy’s a bloody idiot!’ I didn’t tell him it was me.” Nathan crept out.

From Kelly, an irony: “After all the stupid shit I’ve done alpine climbing, none of [the injuries] came on an alpine route.”

Sport climbing is such a safe strata in our world, a mile away from the other end of the spectrum. Yet even as safe as we can make the sport, it still carries some risk. Weird things can happen. Some people embrace risk in climbing. I don’t, not at this stage. I’d remove all the risk if I could. Instead I just try to manage it, every way possible, vigilantly.

We go back because—testing ourselves, concentrating, figuring things out, being with friends among the most beautiful landscapes in the world—we get that much out of it.