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Mtngeo's Wild Ride


by George Gipson

May 17, 2004

preamble -- what follows is my first-person account of a recent climbing fall resulting in injury. i'm posting this because i'm a firm believer in learning from others' misfortune whenever possible. i am not posting this in an attempt to gain ego-stroking sympathy or to have sunshine blown up my skirt. my bones will heal, the pain will subside, and i can't wait to get back on that horse.

if the facts herein differ somewhat from what i've recounted to some of you in phone conversations, please note that this is the first opportunity i've had to mentally reconstruct the chain of events with a clear mind and outside the influence of painkilling narcotics.

finally, i'll say it again for the benefit of those who are fairly new to the game: climbing is an inherently dangerous activity and will kill you in the skinny second it takes to let down your guard.

personal background -- i am a 43-year old male who has been climbing for 37 years. i work as a professional guide and climb almost daily. i am safe and methodical, and in all my years of climbing this is only my second major mishap.

day of the accident -- i awaken at midnight on saturday, may 8, 2004 and make preparations to hike mount elbert (14,443') with a friend. on the trail just above 12,000' he becomes altitude sick and we retreat. we arrive back at my home in leadville at around noon. i feel rested and not in the least fatigued. after my friend leaves for denver, i eat a light lunch, hydrate and take a shower. at 1245, i take off for a hike with my two boys (ages 5 & 8), returning home around 1430.

i grab my pack and head out for a quick alpine solo of twin peak (13,580'). twin peak is located approximately 20 miles from leadville, south and west of the village of twin lakes, and stays in shape most years well into june with a variety of alpine ice routes on its northeast face. it derives its name from the two peaks that make up its summit.

i park at my usual spot along colorado hwy 82 and, as is my habit, strike off running for the hill, a distance of approximately 2.5 miles. there are shorter approaches, but being a creature of habit this is what i do. twin peak is one of my favorite close-in alpine climbs; i've been known to make 8-10 ascents per season.

the climb -- everything goes well for the first several pitches. it's getting along in the day, and the meltwater from the sun warming the upper slopes is diminishing. nevertheless i'm happy to have just dry treated my rope, a 60m x 9mm dynamic.

at the start of p5, i decide on a variation up a rock rib to my right. up to this point i've been soloing moderate snow and ice with the occasional bulge or short (10-15') vertical section, but now i break out the rope and pro in anticipation of the steep and broken rock that lay above.

i hammer in two medium angle pitons and a mid-size hex; equalize the lot for upward load with a cordellete; tie off a good-sized horn with a clove hitch for downward load, and launch upward. my self-belay is a soloist, tied to my harness in the recomended manner, and held in position via a chouinard chest harness (old school, baby, yeah). i'm backed up via an overhand knot on a (long) bight, which i periodically reposition so as to keep it at about a 20' standoff from my soloist.

as i mentioned, although i've often eyed this rib from the main couloir, i've not been on this pitch previously. the rock is typical alpine choss frozen in place by snow and ice, and requiring mostly pins for protection.

i hammer in five assorted pieces of iron in frozen cracks before coming to a small ledge that's just big enough to sit on, and which presents a number of thin, vertical cracks in which to pro. at this point there's approximately 8-10' of free rope extending from my soloist.

the cracks are mostly iced-up crap, but i'm finally able to satisfactorily hammer in three medium knifeblades -- each in a different vertical crack -- with each of them ringing in rising pitch. they appear solid.

i equalize the lot with a second cordellete (and, as always, knot the power point for no extension) and fix the rope to this anchor. i remove my rack, setting it on the ledge, holster my tools and transfer my soloist to rappel mode.

i rap the pitch, cleaning as i go until i reach the lower anchor, which i dismantle.

the breakdown -- now back at the bottom of p5, i remove the ascenders (in this case a matched pair of jumars) from my harness and clip them into the rope. the jugs are rigged with the top one at arm's length via a spectra daisy, with foot loops of 5mm power cord; the lower one clipped directly to my belay loop and held in place via my chest harness. i start jugging the line, rebelaying approximately every 20' as i go.

as i weigh my top jug at some point toward the top of the fixed line -- perhaps 20' below the ledge -- i feel a pop in the rope. i don't think anything of it, figuring it has perhaps rolled off a high point of rock along the edge and reseated itself. two jug cycles later (approx. 6' higher) i feel a second pop. while the first pop was just a small wave coming down the weighted rope, this time there was a bit of "give" as well.

at this point, although i haven't yet come to a conclusion as to what is happening, a red flag begins to wave in the back of my brain. i'm on steep rock, about 14-15' below the ledge, with two vertical cracks to my left, each 4-6" wide, and full of ice. it is at this point that i make a decision that ultimately saved my life.

i place my hands through the wrist loop of my tools and unholster them. with my left tool swinging into the icy cracks, i advance the upper jug with my right, all the while looking for something to hook with my other tool on that side. however, i'm still pretty much jugging, as i have no inkling that anything catastrophic is about to happen. my use of the tools is, in my mind, just a back-up; a way to take some of the stress off the line (and my mind).

in another minute i reach the ledge and am about chest level to it, standing in my foot loops, when i happen to look up and see two of the kb's that were formerly my anchor flapping in the breeze, hanging on carabiners at the end of their individual cordelette loops pinging like wind chimes.

it is in the nanosecond after i register the gravity of my situation -- and before the message to grab the ledge makes it all the way from my brain to my hands -- that everything goes into slow motion and i watch as if watching a movie.

i watch as the final knifeblade piton comes sliding out of its crack ...

i watch the collection of pins, biners and cordelette that were my anchor fly towards me in a jumble ...

i watch the 6 or so feet of rope (i am that close) between the anchor and me release its tension and describe sine waves ...

i watch my right hand, which is holding the upper jug, come flying towards my chest ...

and i stand there, momentarily weightless, as my brain defiantly registers denial that any of this is in fact happening to me.

the fall -- the first thing that happens is that the force of my right arm flying towards me causes me to rotate to that side. i'm now looking straight down into nothing; as if standing atop a skyscraper and looking down past my feet.

my only utterance of the fall comes at this point. it is a very angry, "aww, F*CK!"

as i fall, i continue my rotation to my right, and indeed complete a full rotation before my first impact. at this point i'm falling headfirst. i hit on my back with surprising violence and continue tumbling down the rock. after this initial impact, although my brain registers the brutality of my fall, i don't really feel much.

it's funny to me that the instant of my profane outburst is also the instant i decide i'm going to survive whatever is before me. it is a conscious decision that i am going to get out of this no matter what.

it is with this thought in mind that i begin trying to maintain my orientation to the rock so as to grab at something at the first opportunity and hopefully arrest my fall. with my brain at hyper speed, i use every bit of energy i have to do just that: i'm grappling like a madman. somewhere in the back of my mind i also have the thought that the rope might just snag on something.

i fall approximately 50' down the broken rock of p5 before being spat out to climber's left into the snow and ice couloir.

on the face of it this is good; the interface between the frozen surface of the chute and the rock rib eases off like a slide. there's no impact per se; just an immediate end to the violence of tumbling down the rock.

but just as suddenly as the violent assault stops, the speed at which i'm starting to slide begins to become evident.

although i'm now high in the same main couloir up which i had climbed prior to striking up the rock rib of p5, the momentum i carry from my last bounce on the rock shoots me across to the left and into another couloir. from my familiarity of the routes on the northeast face of twin peak -- and having climbed the route down which i'm about to rocket -- i know this is not a good thing.

not only does this couloir have a multitude of rocky outcrops right down the middle ... somewhere soon is coming up a drop-off. the steepness below the drop is only 65-70 degrees, but if i launch off the lip at full speed i'll likely be airborne for 150-200 feet before i impact on the rocks.

the way i figure, that's pretty much a fatal fall no matter who you are or how determined you are to survive.

somehow, through all the pummeling of bouncing down the rock i've managed to keep a grip on the tool in my left hand. this strikes me as interesting since i was supposedly grabbing at the rock with great determination on the way down the rib, but there it is nonetheless. my right tool is hanging from my wrist leash just out of reach.

my brain at hyper speed again, i determine if i try a standard self arrest the aggressive pick of my charlet moser pulsar will cause the tool to be ripped from my hands, so i start digging the spike into the still sun-softened surface of the luge run. my left hand is low on the shaft and at the limit of its leash; my right hand is just below the head. i'm sliding in a pretty optimal position to initiate a self-arrest: face down and moving towards my left.

as the spike drags through the snow and ice and slush, my body position improves and i'm now headed down feet first. i'm wearing crampons, so my feet are up in the air, as keeping them down would invite their snapping my ankles or flipping me out of position, or both. my right hand now moves atop the head of my tool and i am able to really bear down onto the thing.

i can feel myself slowing down considerably and am thinking everything's gonna' be alright, when my right knee hits a big rock and my brain registers the first real pain of the whole fall. it is white-hot and mind numbing. it feels as if my leg has just exploded.

i do a couple of 360's to the left before coming to a stop, the impact with the rocks having scrubbed off my remaining momentum. i am on a flat section just before the big drop-off i'd earlier feared would be my end.

the show inside my head must have gone on for about an hour. the total elapsed actual time of my fall was probably around fifteen seconds.

picking up the pieces -- i can't explain why i sometimes think the way i do, but my first deliberate thought after coming to a stop -- before the pain really starts to register -- is, "well ... that could have gone a lot better!"

but i'm alive.

i'm also injured, but to what extent i'm yet uncertain.

i am lying in an area of hard snow and crushed ice, face down and perpendicular to the chute. i hear music. really good music. then i realize my diskman is still playing. i'll be damned. it's amon tobin and st. germain; the "tourist" cd. cool. and it didnít even skip.

looking up, i see a series of pretty crimson loops designed into the snow. after a minute of collecting myself i realize they were drawn with my own blood.


my medical training tells me to remain motionless, which i do as much because of that as because of the fact i can't get my arms or legs to function.

finally, after two or three minutes of playing the tape back inside my head and calming my breathing, i'm ready to assess the damage. i start by reaching inside the breast pocket of my vest and turning off the music. i need to be able to think clearly. i can recall the day and date, and who the defense secretary is. good; i'm aware. even better, as far as i know i never lost consciousness.

my physical assessment isn't bad, either. it turns out that, as bad as the fall seemed, i've somehow managed to get away with a screwed up right knee.

i eventually get myself rolled over and sitting upright to better examine it. it is a real mess, too: my kneecap is displaced to the outside by maybe 30-45 degrees; there's a jagged 3" laceration -- revealing both foreign matter and shards of bone -- in the spot where the patella normally sits; and dark blood is steadily pulsing from its depths and dripping onto the snow.

one of my strongest suits is that in times of stress or danger i become an analytical, unemotional machine. this quality has helped me on more than one occasion and that's just what i do now; switch on the auto-pilot.

i don't have anything with which to stop my bleeding, but i'm also not going to die from a little venous leakage. just the same i pull the ankle cuff of my tights up my leg, over my knee and halfway up my thigh. i don't need a tourniquet, but perhaps a ligature will help. it works. the bleeding slows to a trickle.

now ... i can't possibly retreat from here without more gear than i have on my harness. sh*t. i have to climb back up to my high point and retrieve my rack.

my leg is pretty much useless with a dislocated patella, so i suck in a couple of breaths and reduce the dislocation. it hurts like hell but it's more or less back into place.

i coil my rope, which -- despite its infernal tendency to hang following most rappels -- failed to snag on anything on the way down (damn the bad luck, huh?), and start to gingerly make my way diagonally to the right and over a short rib of rock separating me from the couloir up which i ascended.

crossing the width of the couloir, i gain the rock rib of p5 perhaps 40' higher than my bottom anchor and continue on tools and crampons up the snow and ice until i am in a position to traverse over moderate terrain to the ledge with my gear, where i pound in a few pins for an anchor and clip in with my daisy.

so far so good. my leg still hurts with a blinding pain, but it hasn't given out on me. the pain is even worse when i flex it, so i've kept it locked straight down.

sitting sideways here on the ledge with one ass cheek on and the other hanging in the wind (so as to prop my injured leg on something solid), i realize i'm still wearing my pack, a camelbak "mule", and that i've had my first-aid kit on my person the whole time. sh*t, geo, think.

as i dig inside for the little, red stuff sack it dawns in be that my lack of spinal injuries is perhaps due in part to my having had the pack with (among other things) my fleece, a 5mm tag line and approach shoes stuffed in there and its having provided cushioning from the shock of impacting the rock. thank god for small miracles.

in short order i dress and bandage my knee, immobilize it with a sam splint and duct tape, and pull my pant leg back down to my ankle so i don't have to look at the bloody mess. already i can feel the saturated dressing giving up rivulets of blood that then course down my leg. pounding in a few more pins just for the hell of it, i prepare to rap off.

the retreat -- although i'm only five pitches up the route, i make seven full-length rappels with my main (9mm) line and my 60m x 5mm static tag line, leaving all my pins behind but putting me on relatively flat ground. it certainly wasn't graceful, but here i am on the ground. for once my ropes didn't hang up; today must be my lucky day!

i coil my cords and sit down to take a breather and change into my approach shoes. as i remove my leather ice boots, i take a moment to pour out the contents of my right boot: almost half a liter of dark blood; some still liquid and some congealed. the sock on my right foot is saturated; i wiggle my toes inside its sticky, viscous confines and shake my head. talking to myself i say, "today is your lucky day, old man."

getting my boots off and my shoes on takes a bit of doing, but i finally get it done, pack my pack and get on my feet and ready to get the hell gone. i sling my rack over my shoulder, do the same with the ropes and start hobbling my sorry self the 2 1/2 miles down the trail and back to the truck.

on the road again -- the hike out wasn't too bad; mostly gently rolling off-trail hiking. the worst was already well behind me, and, except for the constant monologue of expletives, it was pretty much just a trudge.

reaching the truck, i haphazardly threw my gear in the back and creaked my way behind the wheel for the 20-mile drive back to leadville and the local emergency department. i walked in the door at 1945.

the real pisser to the whole episode was that, having self rescued, hiked out and driven myself to the hospital, i was forced to sit in a wheelchair for the final 20 feet from the main entrance to the trauma bay.

epilogue -- in addition to a shattered patella, i had also ruptured the capsule of my knee joint, meaning, in a word, surgery.

the emergency department staff in leadville gave me a local anesthetic and aggressively irrigated the laceration, pulling almost a dozen pieces of bone, tissue and foreign matter (predominantly rock) from its ugly depths. finally, i received a tetanus toxoid shot and i.v. antibiotics, and had the laceration closed lightly with three lazy sutures.

i was seen in the steadman hawkins orthopaedic clinic on monday morning at 1000, had an mri and was on the operating table by 1900.

during the procedure -- for which i was under general anesthetic -- the surgeon removed additional foreign matter, flushed the joint with 9 liters of saline and 6 liters of antibiotic solution, debrided the wound of devitalized muscle and tendon tissue, replaced my patella (oooh, titanium!) and scoped the whole joint, cleaning it up and making it look like what it's supposed to.

currently i'm on crutches, pt 3 times per day (although i'm doing it 5 times daily), antibiotics for ten days, and expect a full recovery in 4 to 6 weeks.

lessons learned -- having looked at this incident over and over with a professional eye, i can't really find fault with my actions insofar as contributing directly to my accident. i had a solid anchor that was redundant, equalized and had no possibility for extension, and was using commonly accepted, safe techniques in my climbing.

if i were to point out one aspect of my mishap as a lesson it would be this: anchors can fail; sh*t does happen; and it's good to know how to get yourself out of a mess.

to those of you who would point out the dangers of climbing alone, i would suggest everyone has a different tolerance for commitment.

as far as carrying a cell phone ... it's just not acceptable within my personal ethic. insofar as is possible, i would much rather get out under my own power (or with assistance from my partner and any other climbers nearby and willing to assist) than to be carried out by mountain rescue.

so there you go. my own personal little epic. and not really that much of an epic, if you look at the grand scheme of things. the way i figure, if you wanna' dance, sometimes ya' gotta' pay the fiddler.

feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

TR courtesy G. Gibson. Reprinted with permission.

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