On September 5, 2020, I planned to climb D7 (5.11c) via the North Chimney approach on the Diamond of Longs Peak. The North Chimney is a 500-foot vertical rock climb rated at 5.4, and the most common approach for the Diamond. I took a 200-foot unroped fall down North Chimney and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. I was airlifted to St. Anthony Trauma center. The weather was clear with minimal winds, and a high around 55 degrees Fahrenheit and no storms. The Diamond is northeast facing and goes into the shade around noon.
Events Leading up to Fall in North Chimney
My climbing partner, two additional friends, and I left the Longs Peak trailhead at 7:00AM. The weather forecast had snow in a couple days. This climb was the icing on the cake of a full and successful alpine season.
The approach felt easy, and I was psyched to climb. My partner and I had soloed the North Chimney together earlier this summer, so we didn’t discuss our strategy—it was mutually assumed we would do the same thing again. With our relatively late start time, there was no one above us in the chimney, but this is something we would have taken into consideration before starting up otherwise, as it creates additional rockfall risk. Since I would lead the first few pitches of the climb, I had the rack and our small pack. I don’t like climbing with a pack, but was worried about being cold. My partner had our single 70-meter rope.
As we began ascending the North Chimney around 9:30AM, my partner was wearing shoes without sticky rubber and quickly switched into climbing shoes. I was wearing my La Sportiva TX2s, which I felt comfortable in—I frequently climb low 5th class unroped in approach shoes—an activity I refer to as “scrambling,” and had already done the North Chimney in them twice. Our friends were still at the bottom, changing shoes and roping up. As we climbed, my partner was moving faster than me and stayed about 10 to 30 feet in front. We kept a good pace and healthy banter, and I casually noticed that we were going a different way than I usually go. I didn’t worry about it, because my partner is a strong and experienced climber and I generally trust his route-finding choices. It was a beautiful sunny day. Much warmer than expected, which made me wish we had started earlier to maximize sunny belays. This thought encouraged me to push the pace a bit.
About 200 feet up, I suddenly realized I was stuck. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way (I do quite a bit of ropeless scrambling in the Flatirons and RMNP), so I stayed calm and tried to work out the best course of action. I looked and felt around with my hands, scanning the rock for something I might have missed. I looked back at the way I ascended, confused how it had felt so easy to float up to this point.
Backing off seemed tenuous at best. My climbing partner was out of sight, maybe 30 feet ahead of me. I thought about mentioning my predicament, but it felt overly dramatic—surely I could figure this out. After about a minute, I decided that I could not stay in the position I was in forever; it was stable, but not a stance you’d want to hang out at for longer than it takes to put in a piece of gear. I needed to make a decision. I realized my best chance of success was to embrace whatever I did next with 100% focus and commitment.
North Chimney Accident Summary
I do not remember if I committed to backing off or going forward. After this movement, I slipped off. I cursed, then cursed again when I was unable to grab a rock to stop my fall. My last lucid memory was the rock slipping away from my hands, and tumbling to climber’s right onto the snow. I wished I had brought my ice axe to arrest my fall, which of course makes no sense. Dillon Blanksma and Quinn Brett flashed in my mind.
“It’s all over,” I thought.
As recounted by my climbing partners, I alternated between my front and back as I slid down the snow, but stayed head up. There was a break in the snow, about 30 feet above the mouth of the chimney, that likely broke my fall. From there, I continued to fall on the snow below the chimney, and stopped in the scree field.
When I hit the ground, I was quiet for a moment, and then flipped over and started screaming. The friends who had stopped to rope at the base were first to get to me. One of them is an EMT and was my primary rescuer until the RMNP ranger team arrived. My first memory was seeing another friend, who seemed very out of place for the situation. I had not seen him in months, and I didn’t think he was an alpine climber. He said he was looking for a lost backpack. I was concerned how messed up I was at this point because the situation made no sense.
Meanwhile, my partner was able to call 911 before downclimbing to me. I do not remember much else before the rangers arrived. I am a WFR and volunteer ski patroller, and remember screaming at my EMT friend to perform a spinal assessment and check my fingers and toes. He had already done this, but I didn’t remember. I had no spine pain and was able to move all appendages, which brought me much relief. Beyond that, I repeatedly complained of difficulty breathing and asked to be flipped on my stomach.
The climbing rangers took about 90 minutes to arrive, an incredibly fast response. Immediately, they gave me fentanyl and oxygen and I started to feel significantly better. After a few minutes, I rated my pain four out of ten, and a few minutes after that just a one. At this point, I felt really hopeful that I would be OK. Eventually, I realized that one of the climbing rangers had also been my WFR instructor.
“Weird,” I thought again. “This girl is supposed to be on the east coast or something, and now she pops up here as a climbing ranger—this is the kind of thing that happens in my dreams.”
Regardless, I was comforted to know I was in good hands and excited to see her again. The rangers bandaged my head, splinted my ankle, and packaged me in the vacuum litter. I couldn’t remember if I’d been in one of these before in a WFR-course “scenario” or not, but either way, the situation felt comfortingly familiar from all the drills I’d done playing both the patient and the rescuer.
At some point during the rescue, more people I knew had also appeared to help. Just before I was picked up by the helicopter, I remember squinting up at the large crew, asking “I feel like people I know just kept popping up. Who all is here?” Three additional connections waved hello. Once again, it was a very random group of people with somewhat random stories for being there. It felt almost dreamlike, but I was so happy to see each of them.
I was in the hospital for two days. I slept a lot, and my ribs and chest hurt a lot.
My injuries included the following: two fractured front ribs (right side), small closed pneumothorax (right side), 20% compression T6 back fracture, seven stitches to repair a bone-deep laceration to my left eyebrow, sprained right ankle, bone bruised/sprained left foot, and a multitude of non-serious abrasions on my chin, arms, back and chest. Additionally, I was diagnosed with an asymptomatic mild concussion.
I’ve healed rapidly, and besides wearing a back brace for two months, am able to hike and perform my normal activities besides running and climbing.
There was another climbing accident on the same day as mine. It was fatal. A climber named Janette Heung was descending from Pingora in the Wind River Range when rockfall severed the anchor. She did nothing wrong and the incident was pure bad luck.
Accidents are inherently bad luck, but sometimes they are also the absence of good luck—as in, when you are doing something wrong or sloppy and don’t get away with it.
In my case, I think both situations apply. Alpine climbing and scrambling have inherent risk, and bad things can happen even if you do everything right. There are also a lot of lucky days where you don’t even realize you’ve done a small thing wrong because it doesn’t end up mattering. Then there are the days with near misses that serve as a reality check. I didn’t necessarily make a big, glaring mistake. But there are several small things that I could have—and must—do better if I want to continue scrambling and alpine climbing.
Because my partner and I both felt comfortable on the terrain, the choice between roping up and soloing the North Chimney felt obvious to me. The North Chimney is notorious for rockfall and ropes increase the chance of this, so soloing mitigates that risk. Soloing is also significantly faster, which means less exposure time. On the other hand, as I demonstrated, the consequences of soloing are very high.
Alpine climbing is a constant dance of trade-offs, and it is important to be comfortable with your risk tolerance and thoroughly understand the decision making. Next time, I will rope up for the North Chimney because I see my psyche after this accident as posing a greater risk than rockfall. I also don’t think that I know the route as well as I thought I did, which is a problem.
However, I will also need to consider if the risks involved with climbing a route like the North Chimney make it worth doing at all—right now I feel it is, but I need to think more. I talk to some of my adventure partners frequently about how humans can’t truly perceive risk. We think we can assess a situation and correctly identify and quantify objective hazard, but this is a fallacy—driving a car is a classic, relatable example of this.
When I scramble alone or am in the lead while scrambling with others, I am laser focused on where I am going. I know that though a route may only be 5.4—well within my ability level—15 feet away from the line could be much harder. If I get to a spot that seems sketchy, I have always been able to back off because I have been focusing on the climbing and know the movements and holds to do so.
On the day of the accident, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the route, because my climbing partner was more experienced than me, we have a good partnership, and I assumed he would pick the path of least resistance. I also felt a competitive need to keep up with his pace. For him, the route was no problem. For me, there was a really hard spot. I should not have been caught up in moving fast to prove I could keep up and maximize our time in the sunshine. Expert halo, ego and lack of attention are three serious human factors that contributed to my accident.
I was wearing approach shoes instead of climbing shoes—this is normal for me, but again worth reconsidering. I was wearing my helmet—it has a crack in the back now—and—serendipitously—a backpack full of puffy jackets, which undoubtedly saved my life and spine. I was also wearing sunglasses—we aren’t sure if these were bad—they may have caused the gash near my left eyebrow—or in fact saved me from something worse.
It is improbable to survive a fall like I took. I had an amazing, textbook rescue. But things easily could have turned out differently. If my injuries had been slightly more severe or the rescue team had taken longer to arrive; if the trauma had been on my left side where my heart is instead of my right or if the helicopter wasn’t able to reach me due to winds or my location, the outcome could have been much worse. I might not have made it even if I survived the initial fall.
A few days after the accident, my climbing partner asked me if I was embarrassed. I immediately responded, “No, accidents happen sometimes. The stuff we do is kind of dangerous. It’s not because I am a bad or stupid climber. It’s just how it is.”
As time has passed, I have felt more embarrassed about it. While I stand by what I said to my partner, I find myself focusing more on the things leading up to the accident: on what I could have done better, and feeling ashamed for not doing so. As a scrambling speed-record holder, it is in a way embarrassing to lose so badly at your own game that I wonder if it should even be played. At the same time, it is easy to criticize disproportionately and over-analyze oneself. Even if I had done everything perfectly, there is still a lot of bad luck and inherent risk here.
I never thought something like this would happen to me. I like to think of myself as an exception. In some ways, I think one has to hold this mindset in order to do these types of activities. Fear can make a situation even more dangerous than it already is.
Since the accident, I’ve been feeling really positive. I expected to die, and my recovery continues to go better than I expected. I feel incredibly lucky—almost guilty—in how easy my recovery has been. People who take much smaller falls with ropes frequently end up with significantly worse injuries. Right now, I am counting down the days until I can climb again, but I worry I will struggle mentally when I return. I was lucky to have so many friends around during the rescue. From a psychological first-aid perspective, this was invaluable.
I am thankful for the park rangers, my climbing partners, friends, and the community that has been so supportive of me through this accident. I wouldn’t be writing this today without each of them.