Yep: Weird Things Can Happen On Safe Climbs

Was it a freak almost-accident? A parable about life and fate? Both?

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I’m injured at the moment, so instead of joining my friends at the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I slouch on a stationary bike in my garage and do productive things like scroll through my long-abandoned account, reliving the measly glories of my youth…. Or at least that’s what I was doing a few nights ago, when, for the first time in years, I remembered a strange and scary thing that happened to me on a squat little sport climb called Muscle Beach, way back in April 2008, when I was 20 years old—something that, even though I didn’t see it at the time, arguably presented me with one of the greatest life lessons I’ve ever received. 

If I’m remembering it correctly, Muscle Beach, a 5.13a in Rumney, New Hampshire, may not have a single down-pulling hold. But it begins easily enough. After some forgettable 5.9 climbing, you do a few powerful moves out a short roof, then pull into a tight and slightly overhanging dihedral. Here you clip a draw, surge upward into some make-believe gastons, sink a fragile kneebar, clip a long draw, then get into the route’s technical crux, which involves more terrible gastons, compression moves on the face to the right of the dihedral, and a freaky sideways knee scum where you clip the next draw. After a few more outro moves, it’s a panic-inducing 5.10 layback to the top.

On my fourth attempt on the route, I did all of this. I pulled the roof, I clipped the long draw, I climbed through the crux, feeling good, sending, while a small group of friends said calming things below: “Breathe”—“Nice, dude”—“Frickin relax.” But when I was about to sink that last sketchy knee scum near the end of the route’s crux sequence, I found myself unable to move my left foot.

I didn’t realize what had happened at first. I just yanked my foot a few times, unable to understand that I’d lost control of it. 

But then my cheerleaders fell silent below. 

And my belayer said, “Oh shit.”

And then I realized that somehow, mid-crux, I had managed to clip the pull-tab of my La Sportiva Solution into the long draw’s wire gate—and then climbed some several feet past that bolt. 

It was immediately apparent that a fall would flip me over, rip my pull tab off, and probably whip my head into the edge of the small roof below the dihedral. Yet in my body position—compressing between two sidepulls—It didn’t feel possible to reach down and unclip the draw from my shoe. And it felt likewise impossible for me to lunge for the next draw and clip it since my left foot was too low and unable to move upwards.

So I began to downclimb, reversing three or four pretty hard moves until I was just a foot or two above the offending long draw. Then I let go, dynoed for the draw’s webbing, and—thankfully—caught it. I still flipped partially over but grabbing the draw allowed me to smash my butt and hamstring instead of my head. I didn’t even tear the pull tab off my shoe.

Now, this was almost definitely not a life threatening situation. Sure, in moments of self-pity, I sometimes sit on my stationary bike and try to imagine the sad and lonely alternate universe in which—having panicked, or having gotten a bit less lucky—I flipped over backwards, dashed my unhelmeted head into that sharp ledge, and perished in a freak accident just two weeks before finally reaching the legal drinking age. 

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I shrugged it off and sent on my next go.

Which begs the question: Why am I writing this? Do I actually have a point or a moral or a lesson or was I just bluffing in that first paragraph?

Well, I’ve never actually seen or heard of anyone else clipping their shoe to a long draw and then failing to notice, so for me the event serves as a good reminder that chaos exists—that you can be as careful as you want, but sometimes shit happens. Of course, most climbing accidents are preventable. We tie our knots incorrectly or forget to tie them at all. We rappel off the ends of our ropes or choose to trust our lives to ancient sun-weathered tat. Yet the act of climbing—of living—also involves rolling the dice even when we don’t know (or won’t acknowledge) that there are dice involved. 

Which, I believe, is what John Bachar meant when, standing outside the Yosemite gas station, he famously told a climber who’d been critical of his free soloing that, “Man, you’re free soloing right now.”

Steven Potter is a digital editor at Climbing. He’s been flailing on rocks since 2004, has successfully injured (and unsuccessfully rehabbed) nearly every one of his fingers, and holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University.