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I. Why confess to something you’re ashamed about?
Last autumn I wrote a short news piece about an accident in Colorado. On its face, the accident was pretty straightforward: Donald (the guy who was dropped) was climbing with Aaron (the guy who dropped him) and two others, one of whom was a beginner. Both Donald and Aaron were veteran climbers, with about a decade-and-a-half of experience between them. They were climbing a route that involved a short section of face climbing to a traditionally protected dihedral. Having done the route several times previously, Aaron was aware of the fact that the route was far too long to lower a climber from the anchor with a 70-meter rope.
Their plan, however, was a little unorthodox. Donald would climb the pitch—an area classic—and then Aaron would lower him to a ledge roughly 20 feet above the start. Standing on the ledge, conveniently situated to give beta for the climb’s crux dihedral, Donald would belay the beginner up the route on toprope. .
Aaron had done this before—and it had worked.
So Donald climbed the pitch, and Aaron began lowering him. But when Donald was still a few feet above the ledge, the end of the rope went through Aaron’s Grigri. (Aaron later realized that he’d failed to pay attention to where he was standing: The ground below the climb slopes, and he was standing slightly downhill from where he’d been when previously lowering climbers to the ledge.) Donald fell backwards, hit the ledge, bounced down the slab to the base of the climb, and suffered multiple serious injuries.
The day after the accident, I talked with Aaron on the phone. He was organizing a GoFundMe for Donald, and as we discussed what had happened and why, I admired his bravery. Here was a guy who had just dropped his friend, who wished he could just wave his hand, set back the clock, and become again the innocent man he’d been just 24 hours earlier. And yet, knowing that the best way to help Donald financially was to tell his story, Aaron ignored his shame and reached out to me so I could publicize one of the most awful moments of his life.
So it was with some sense of protectiveness that I wrote my piece and published it. And it was with a good deal of dismay that I read the responses to the article, which, at least on social media, were predictably callous and judgmental—the typical groundswell of support and well-wishes only barely more audible than the casual cruelty of people who think they’re anonymous on Facebook.
One dismissive comment—“It’s easy! Tie a knot in the end of your rope”—stayed with me.
“Is it really that easy?” I asked myself.
Well, yes, it absolutely is. If Donald and Aaron had tied a knot in the end of the rope, their specific accident could not have happened. But behind that heavy door of truth lies a much more complicated fact: Donald and Aaron knew the rope wasn’t long enough for the climb; and having climbed for years, they also knew that they should always tie a knot in the end of the rope; yet they did not do so.
Nor are they alone in that particular failing. Mistakes, after all, are by definition avoidable—and the phrase “forgot the basics” could serve as an epitaph for many a famous climber. Lynn Hill survived a 70-foot groundfall when she forgot to complete her knot on a warmup. Brad Gobright died after rappelling off the end of his rope. Marty Hoey died after neglecting to double back her harness properly on Everest. Todd Skinner died using a worn-out harness. And 25 years after Lynn Hill failed to tie her knot, the legendary Stonemaster John Long did the exact same thing.
Clearly, it’s also pretty easy to make a mistake.
II. A disclaimer about me
I’m not a famous climber. Nor have I ever been particularly brave. I can’t spin any epic yarns about shiver-bivies in Patagonia or whipping on shoelaces in Eldo. I’ve been climbing since 2004, but for most of my first decade I was just clipping bolts, and for the last 10 years I’ve mainly bouldered. My big scares nowadays are highball related, and since I’m more than willing to rehearse taller problems on a rope, they’re rare. In short, I’m the whining opposite of a brave climber. Every year climbing scares me more than it did the year before.
But the longer you climb, the more weird shit you’re exposed to. I’ve seen fridge-sized rocks fall from otherwise solid sport cliffs. I’ve seen ankles break on grassy landings. I once watched a rope get sliced almost in half on the crux of a Rumney sport climb that thousands of people—myself included—have whipped off. That same year, I saw a carabiner—the first draw on Flower Power in the Red’s Madness Cave—break in half when a climber fell far higher on the route.
I have also made—and not paid for—several elemental mistakes that less lucky climbers only get to make once. Belaying a friend in 2010, I looked down and realized that I’d locked the carabiner on my Grigri open—not closed. Standing helmetless under the Chief in Squamish in 2019, I watched a fist-sized rock tumble down the slabs right at me. For a fateful second I froze; then I covered my head and tried to run. The rock hit the slab, bounced, and exploded into dusty shards just in front of me—more or less where I’d have run to if I hadn’t initially frozen.
Yet despite these mistakes and others, my worst climbing injury somehow occurred on a lowball V6 at the Happy Boulders in Bishop: I wet-fired out of a seeping crimp just five feet above the ground, missed the pads, and landed on my ass so hard that I ended up with internal organ damage. Go figure.
Oh and one last thing: I rappelled off the end of my rope.
III. “It’s easy!”
Yep, I did this too. And it wasn’t in my knee-jittering gumby days; it was two years ago, in June 2020, by which time I’d been climbing for 17 years.
I’d just emerged from a nearly two-month bout of COVID—the OG variant, contracted immediately before the nationwide lockdown. The virus burrowed deep into my lungs and for six weeks, as Southern New England’s glorious late-winter season turned first to spring, then to summer, wreaked havoc on my sleep (I’d wake up gasping) and my fitness (I literally did nothing but wheeze around my parents’ neighborhood trying to keep up with my very depressed dog). By the time I’d recovered enough to see people and climb, it was 85 degrees and the boulders and cliffs were crawling with millipedes and camel crickets. So, with the gyms still closed, my friend Andy and I decided to sand the rust off with some pitches at a rarely visited crag in Kent, Connecticut, called St. John’s Ledges—basically a series of slide scars on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Housatonic River.
The day started out well enough. Feeling uncoordinated and weak, brushing spiders from the cracks, we did two short moderates on a sub cliff, then hiked up to the main face, which is about 180 feet tall on the right side and 90 feet tall on the left, with the steeply slanted ground at the base accounting for the difference. I’d never climbed there, and Andy hadn’t climbed there in years (indeed, he was too busy with his carpentry business to climb much at all anymore). According to him, most of the climbing at St. John’s is done on toprope—there are no bolts and few features—by students and staff from the nearby boarding school, Kent, so I anticipated hiking around the cliff and setting something up. But when we arrived, I was surprised to see a few leadable cracks, one of which looked pretty good.
“How hard is this?” I asked.
“Fuck if I know,” said Andy.
It didn’t look hard. Twenty feet of slab, then a weird overlap with a crack running through it, then more slabby crack with intermittent ledges to the anchor—115 feet away.
Now, I should admit here that I’ve never been especially good at climbing on gear. But there have been times in my life, at the Gunks and in Squamish, where I have been pretty consistent on 5.11s. So visiting this bohunk slab in Kent, Connecticut, I didn’t worry much about the grade. The route looked 5.6—5.8 max—but even if it was 5.9 or 5.10, it wasn’t going to be a problem. Plus I was climbing with a friend who erroneously considered me a “very good” climber—and the confidence he had in me gave me yet more confidence in myself.
I climbed up about six steep feet of mossy roots before stepping on the wall. There was no gear in the first 20 feet, and though it was no harder than 5.5, it was coated with pine needles and damp moss. The fact that this was enough to unsettle me should have been a warning sign. Still, I made it to the short overlap—only to find that the crack bisecting the overlap wasn’t really a crack: aside from a few flared pods that wouldn’t take any of my gear, it was a one-sided seam, basically a long vertically oriented crimp, with a season’s worth of pine needles and moss complicating its utility. I downclimbed, found a place for a single sketchy cam a few feet below the roof, and then saw a snake.
A huge snake. A snake that was—I kid you not—six feet long and ankle-thick and black as a porterhouse beer. It was slowly traversing the rocky moss about 20 feet to the right of me, some 10 feet above the ground, bound directly toward Andy.
I hollered and pointed and said things like, “Holy God,” and, “Are there more?” until Andy, who’s got a beard and plays the banjo, finally saw what I was pointing at and was like, “Oh yeah. That’s a pretty big rat snake. Cool.” After which I mumbled things like “Pretty big” and “Cool” and “What’s it looking for on the cliff?” Then I rechalked my hands, asked my cam to be good to me, and—as Andy said, “Probably birds’ eggs”—climbed back up to the little overlap.
The roof was hard—or, more accurately, rattled from the snake and uncoordinated from two months off rock and plastic, I made it hard. I brushed some pine needles out of the seam, crimped the shit out of it, high stepped on a dirty smear, matched hands, and with that lonely cam now eight feet below me, crimped up what was, to my horror, a continually thinning seam. It’s a classic situation: gripped dude mutters, sweats, adjusts his hands, bobbles with his feet, cries “watch me!” throws a few times, and finally reaches safety—in this case a huge horizontal jug. The first thing I did at the jug was check inside for snakes.
After that, the climb was a breeze. Brilliant 5.7 (by Connecticut standards) for 60 licheny feet. Angry and ashamed by my poor climbing, I compensated by running it out to show the route who was boss, until, near the top, I began finding long translucent snake skins inside the holds I was grabbing. After that I sewed the thing up.
At the top of the cliff there was a solid rap anchor strung around a white pine. I sat and belayed as Andy climbed to the overlap, calmly looked around for other holds, found a nice edge that opposed the seam, and romped right through the section that until then I might have genuinely sworn was 5.12.
(I’ve since learned it’s a 5.8+ R on Mountain Project.)
We sat above the cliff, looking out at the moist green hills, the town of Kent invisible except for the white church steeples rising above the trees. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about climbing and why it was fun and how it was hard and why Andy didn’t bother to do it much anymore. We talked about the solitude and loneliness that Andy had struggled with during lockdown. We talked about the beers and burgers that awaited us back at Andy’s place. Then I threaded the anchor and threw the rope down. After confirming that both ends were touching the ground, I rigged my ATC and looked at Andy.
“Where was the snake when you started up?” I asked.
“Right next to your shoes,” he said.
I descended peacefully enough. The east-facing cliff was drenched in ambient late-afternoon light, and butterflies were moving between the flowers that grew on the ledges. But once I descended below the canopy line it grew quite dark, and my eyes took a moment to adjust. I stopped at the overlap and touched the holds Andy had used, astonished that I hadn’t seen them and cursing myself as an incompetent has-been. I looped the rope around my leg a few times, let go of it, and reclimbed the crux with Andy’s hold. “It’s easy,” I muttered to myself. “You suck, Potter.”
Then, weighting the rope once more, I squinted down into the dusky forest, looking for the snake.
I wish I could say that I saw it. That it was curled up right there next to my flip flops. And indeed, when I first started telling this story, I told people I did see it. That it was in the crack between my feet. Or that it was licking its tongue at my running shoes on the ground. But I didn’t see the snake. That’s the truth. And yet even so, when I resumed my rappel, I kicked to the right, away from where Andy said the snake had been, changing my line of descent by about six feet. When my feet touched the steep roots at the base of the cliff, I kicked off again so that I’d land on a flatter section of the slope. Then I felt a ping and rocketed backward.
There was no reacting to it. Not even any fear. Just a loud snap and the sensation of speed and then I hit the ground, slamming my bare heels down, smashing my right wrist into the dirt, and then sliding down the steep slope. I did not bash my head. I did not break my tailbone. I did not strike any of the many rocks or erosion-exposed roots that were waiting there to be struck. Instead, supremely lucky, I slid to rest about 10 feet away from the wall and immediately, throbbing with embarrassed adrenaline, leapt to my feet.
Andy, far above, called down to say, “What was that?”
“Jeez,” I replied, already hedging.
“Did you just rap off the end of the rope?”
“Sort of,” I said, laughing. “But I was already on the ground. I just didn’t expect it.”
Then I knotted both ends of the rope and told him to stick to the left on his way down.
Why am I writing this? Is it so that I can pause mid-action (yes, mid-action: because the truth is that few accidents actually end when they’re over) and point back at the scene so I can sternly enumerate my learnings? Am I just here to say things like “Tie a knot in the end of your rope,” or, “Don’t let snakes get in the way of safety protocols,” or, “Pay attention to the slope of the ground,” or, “Don’t trust yourself when feelings of incompetence make you imitate the competence and fluency and ease that you wish you felt”?
Well, yes. I want to say all of these things. But the fact is, you’ve already heard them, just as I’d already heard them. So I’m going to proceed in a different direction.
It was 10 or 15 minutes before the numbness in my heels and palm turned to pain—and by then I’d walked most of the way back to Andy’s truck, only letting myself limp when he was ahead of me. He had a few warm Busch Lights in his toolbox, so we opened them, and—terrified, reeling under the knowledge that the stupid mistakes we so often read about could happen to me—I tried to convince Andy that nothing weird had happened, that I’d been on the ground already, but also—if he didn’t mind—could he please not tell anyone what happened?
“Sure thing, man,” he said. “Your feet OK?”
By the time I returned home that evening, my heels were so swollen I could only walk on my toes, which meant (among other things) that I couldn’t hide the accident. So I dismissed it. Hobbling angrily into the kitchen, I told my girlfriend—now wife—that I’d taken a weird fall. Bouldering, I said. Missed the pads, I said. Stupid, I said. Terrible conditions anyway, I said. We should have rope climbed like I said we were going to, I said.
And then for the next year and a half—until the day I wrote about Donald and Aaron, whereupon I started to come clean to myself—I kept what had happened absolutely secret from even my closest friends. Sometimes, when I was doing dishes or driving alone or having trouble sleeping, I’d remember my mistake and groan or curse or break into some sort of thought-drowning song. But other times I’d try to confront my shame and contemplate what I now know from experience: It’s very easy to knot the end of your rope or remember to tie in before climbing; but it’s also pretty easy to–at some point during your climbing life–fuck up even these most fundamental things.
And then I’d think about Lynn Hill. And I’d think about Brad Gobright. And I’d think about all those climbers I’d never met but whose obituaries I would someday read or (the worst part of this job) write. And I’d contemplate the nature of a universe in which the consequences of a fuck-up are so randomly various. Because for me, a fuck-up meant two briefly bruised heels and a burning kernel of distress that even these words don’t seem to be extinguishing. Yet for Donald and for Lynn Hill and for John Long it meant hospital stays and medical bills and public reckonings. And for Brad Gobright and Marty Hoey it meant their lives. It meant their futures. It meant they didn’t have the chance to look back, two years later, and think: “It’s so easy.”