Mortality Salience: How A Rope Soloing Fall Made Me Rethink My Obsession with Goals

A dedicated climber plummets through three life-altering seconds.
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The author on the first ascent of Boo Who? (5.12c/d). Cedar City, Utah.

The author on the first ascent of Boo Who? (5.12c/d). Cedar City, Utah.

I launched into the final five moves to the anchor. Pumped out of my mind while toprope soloing on Big Monkey Right (5.12a/b), I forgot the beta and hit a dead end. Out of desperation, I jumped for the anchor. As I launched, my foot slipped. I came up 6” short and started to fall. I expected my rope soloing system to lock immediately, but I kept falling.

The device isn’t locking. I can’t believe it’s not locking. I’m going to die.

According to the Splat Calculator, a 45-foot fall takes 1.69 seconds and will accelerate a mass upward of 36 mph. I’ll never know how much longer my fall took, but grabbing the rope and shredding my hands slowed me down a little. I watched the rapidly receding anchor and felt the terror of accelerating toward the ground 80 feet below. I grabbed the rope tighter, trying to calculate the force of my fall and figuring that I might only break my legs if I kept gripping the rope. I yelled in half anger and half denial, “NOOOOO!”

* * *

I almost didn’t climb that late December day, telling my fiancé I didn’t have a partner. However, I wanted a few more climbing days before 2018 ended. Plus, the crystal clear, 15-degree weather meant English Valley, a solar collector cliff located just north of Del Norte in south central Colorado, would be perfect. The crag sits in the middle of nowhere with spotty cell service, 25 miles from the nearest small hospital, and off a dirt spur road. With a few overhanging routes from 5.11+ to 5.12, the endurance oriented crag provides a perfect space for an OG—an old guy—like me. I drove from my home in Alamosa thinking I could get in 8-10 laps, the most I’ve ever done there.

When I arrived at the basalt crag, I stick clipped to the top of the 80-foot cliff and fixed my rope. I was using a single self-belay device and some backup knots. I justified my less-than-perfect rope soloing system by climbing on routes I usually didn’t fall on, by using an auto-locking device that should work, and by tying backup knots. Due to the overhanging nature of the cliff, tying a backup knot means you have to either clip into a bolt and cheat, or tie the knot one-handed using your teeth. However, clipping in interrupts the workout and tying knots one-handed just adds to the pump.

After cruising the warmup, I stick clipped up Jane (5.12a/b) to anchor the rope. While rapping down, I rigged the other strand on Big Monkey Left (5.11d), which I climbed without incident, though I was unable to tie a backup knot until I was past the crux. Then, without taking off my shoes, I headed up Me, Tarzan (5.12a). This time, I tied a backup knot, which was good. I fell on the route and my belay device slipped a foot before catching me. The fall made me think twice, but it also made me think about one of my biggest climbing strengths and weaknesses.

The trick to answering that interview question about your weaknesses is to name things that can also be framed as a strength. I always say I’m too motivated. I get fixated on goals. It’s helped me climb a lot but it’s also led to a history of overuse injuries.

The author on Me, Tarzan (5.12a), English Valley, Colorado, the same crag where he would later have his accident.

The author on Me, Tarzan (5.12a), English Valley, Colorado, the same crag where he would later have his accident.

After a 20-minute rest, I climbed Jane, barely making it without falling. While rappelling, I rigged Big Monkey Right (5.12a). On the ground, I realized that pushing too hard today would ruin my chances to redpoint a few days later, so I decided to do just two more laps. I started up Jane planning on linking it into the Big Monkey Right finish (5.12a/b). After the 5.11 opening, I shook out on the overhanging rest, and decided this would be my last climb. I was proud of myself for exerting self-control, abandoning a short-term plan for the benefit of a bigger goal.

While at the rest, preoccupied with changing my plans, I almost forgot to tie the backup. I dropped my head toward the ground to relax and noticed its absence. I tied the knot, not knowing it would save my life.

* * *

As my scream echoed across the desert, I hit the knot, slamming to a stop. I dangled 40 feet above the ground and 8 feet from the cliff, moaning. The rock and sage stared at me, unable to help. I’d neglected to tell even my fiancé where I was. I couldn’t unweight the rope to rig a rappel, and if I did, I couldn’t get the rope down because it was tied to two anchors. I tried to prusik, but my only long sling kept sliding. Luckily, I could just reach the other strand of rope. I tied a loop in it, stood in the loop, and slid the auto-lock up a foot. My hands screamed as I pulled myself up. I repeated the process until I could touch the rock again and pull my way to the anchor. I very, very carefully rigged the rappel. An hour after the fall, I reached the ground and then fell into my truck, two minutes from the cliff.

The Alamosa Convenient Care sat a long 50-minute drive away. After a brief examination of my hands, the doctor sent me to the ER. My right index finger was misshapen. During the fall, the friction had formed a blister over the entire middle phalanx and welded the skin back down a ¼” toward my middle finger, leaving a thick ridge and a deep groove. As a result, I couldn’t straighten it, which made me fear tendon damage. The doctor considered surgery. The second-degree burns exposed four areas of raw meat where the skin had completely disappeared from portions of two fingers and both palms. After painfully scrubbing my hands with warm, soapy water, my index finger released. I didn’t need surgery. The doctor popped seven other blisters on my hands, and wrapped them with salve. Luckily, my hands received the brunt of the fall. After a few weeks, I could deadhang and after another week, I started climbing easy stuff. A little while later, I returned to climbing 5.12 again. 

I’d experienced three long seconds of mortality salience, a phrase from Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is based on our conflicting instincts between self-preservation and the knowledge that death is inevitable and often unpredictable. TMT studies have shown that people behave differently after subconscious reminders of death because they increase the salience of our mortality. For example, most climbers are fascinated by the details of accidents, seeking to conclude “it wouldn’t have happened to me.” My mortality reminder wasn’t exactly subconscious; those were the worst three seconds of my life. Some of my reactions weren’t so surprising. I celebrated with good food, alcohol, and family when I returned from the hospital. I stayed awake until 3am that morning, even after a beer, a bit of gin, and some legal combustibles, the adrenalin kept me awake. I pondered what the fall meant.

“What lessons did you learn?” my fiancé asked me. I concluded that I love climbing, but I’m done with soloing. I could buy a different system, but I climb enough days with partners. I had rationalized my risky approach, which worked, just not without injury and some terror. I should have clipped bolts so that I could tie more backups. I should have had two devices. I should have realized I cut my “I won’t fall” safety margin to zero. I should have told someone where I was going. I should have waited for a day with a partner. Most importantly, I should not have been so fixated on plans and goals. Obsession has a downside.

Jeff Elison is a professor of psychology at Adams State University, co-author of Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, and author of numerous articles on psychology.