When Ken Murphy soloed up an overhanging route to help a climber in
a dire situation, he said, climbing “never felt so easy.”
“It was like I was floating. That life-or-death, mother-saving-the-baby-thing.”
As described in an Accident Report in the current issue of Rock and Ice, on September 3 of this year Murphy, age 30, of New Paltz, New York, had
just finished a 5.12c in the Near Trapps of the Gunks when he heard shouts for help. Running 100 yards along the cliff base in his rock shoes,
he spied a man hanging 60 feet in the air near the jutting roofs of Fat City (5.10), about to rap off the ends of his rope, barely able to
When Murphy called up that he would run back for his gear to lead up to help, the climber (who did not wish to be named) said, “I don’t have time.”
Says Murphy, “I realized he didn’t have time. I made the decision unconsciously. That and the next minute were instinctual. He didn’t have time
and I had to get up to him and try to help him.
“I just started climbing instantly. Brain off. And I was climbing fast. I probably made it to him in 30 seconds or less.”
He felt perfect soloing the 5.10a moves over the first roof on Fat City. He knew the area rock, had just climbed the route a few days before,
and had entered a heightened state of consciousness.
Reaching a 5.6-5.7 stance with good holds, he saw no spot to place the one cam hanging on his harness, yet remained “really comfortable.”
He grabbed a jug, reached out and latched the person’s foot, and pulled him into the wall. The climber grabbed two holds, Murphy grabbed his harness, and
at the same time the rope zinged away out of the man’s ATC.
Here’s a crazy background fact not in the Accident Report. Murphy weighs about 140 pounds and the victim, he estimates, close to 200. “It didn’t matter,”
Murphy says. “I wasn’t letting go.”
Talking to Murphy on the phone, I ask if it wasn’t possible that the victim, heavier and in terror, could have pulled him off.
Murphy says calmly, “Nothing could have pulled me off that jug.”
* * *
Murphy was apparently in the mode described as hysterical or superhuman strength, occurring in situations perceived as do-or-die. While little medical
information exists about the cases, we periodically hear stories of people performing acts they could not normally do or, later, repeat, though they
may sometimes tear muscles or cut themselves in the process. Anecdotal examples are usually of mothers lifting cars to save children. I have also read
of two slim teenage girls in Oregon lifting a tractor off their father, and a 5’2” woman in Massachusetts hoisting an approximately 4,000-pound Dodge
five inches off the suspension after it fell on her husband.
Says Murphy, “I was adrenalized, with a great sense of purpose. I never once thought about it and got scared or was shaking: not during it, not after.
I did what I had to do. I would do it again.”
Wise writes in Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, that fear “releases reserves of energy that normally remain inaccessible.
We become, in effect, superhuman.
“Under acute stress, the body's sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sustained, vigorous action. The adrenal gland dumps cortisol and adrenaline
into the blood stream. Blood pressure surges and the heart races, delivering oxygen and energy to the muscles.”
The book observes that even people under such pressure have their limits, and an athlete has a greater capacity than the next person. Wise discusses the
case of Tom Boyle, Jr., who lifted a Camaro that had run over a teenager: “The heaviest barbell that Boyle ever dead-lifted weighed 700 pounds. The
world record is 1,008 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3,000 pounds. Even factoring leverage, something extraordinary was going on that night.”
Still, Wise points out, it helped that Boyle was an experienced weight-lifter. NBCNews.com reported that a doctor who ripped a door off a car to help an
accident victim was a “former world-class weightlifter.” The victim in the Gunks was doubly lucky: that Murphy was filled with resolution, and that
he knew the area rock and its style well and was a top climber.
* * *
Apart from manifestation, the snap instinctiveness of Murphy’s actions reminded me of the long-ago tale of Jerry Schemmel, 29, a Denver Nuggets radio broadcaster
who survived the 1989 cartwheeling crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.
In chaos and smoke, he climbed out from the upside-down cabin into a cornfield.
“I took a couple steps away and I heard a baby crying inside the plane,” he said in a filmed interview later. “The next thing I know I’m back inside the
wreckage. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t weigh any risk. I didn’t think if I go back in the thing I might not find my way back out or it might explode.
It just happened. I heard the crying and I just jumped back in.”
He crawled around, found the 11-month-old where she had landed in an overhead bin, and carried her out. Her parents and two brothers also survived.
* * *
Murphy, when he had a chance to reflect, questioned the wisdom of his actions (his mother, he says, was “not thrilled”), but eventually returned to a sense
The victim gratefully thanked Murphy, and later told him on the phone, “I would have left a daughter behind.”
Reflects Murphy, “One mistake and all of a sudden you’re not in this world anymore.
“I’m very happy I was there that day. All the stars lined up.”
Please share other tales of instinct and survival.