On June 11, Mike Marmar and his wife, Roxanne, both of Salt Lake, headed out to climb in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the go-to granite of the area. Marmar had been climbing for seven years, and was an accomplished trad climber, onsighting up to 5.11.
First, they checked out Sasquatch (5.9+), a single-pitch gear route, but parties were already on it, so they went to Stiffler’s Mom, a 1,300-foot 5.11 granite romp that meanders up cracks, some roofs and blocky features. No one was on the route, so they suited up.
After dispatching the crux roof of the sixth pitch, Marmar pulled into a thin dihedral. He noticed that a fixed pin was missing, so he placed a cam, and continued on. Just as the cam was roughly three feet below his stance, he slipped.
“The fall itself was totally unexpected,” Marmar said. “I was standing on slabby feet, looking for my next move, when both feet suddenly blew off.”
Marmar whipped below the roof, face first and upside-down, and slammed into the slab below. The cam above the roof popped, and he estimates he fell 35 feet. Immediately after falling into the slab, he was only able to wiggle his fingers and toes.
After some communications, his wife started to lower him to a ledge, but he was in pain, and possibly had a spinal injury, so she tied him off 20 feet above the ledge and did her best to immobilize him while nearby climbers came to help: Andy Rich rapped in from an adjacent route, and Bryce Yaple and Tyler Davis climbed up from below on the same route. Marmar hung upside-down for an hour and a half.
Marmar was extracted by helicopter hours later, and is recovering from a spinal injury called Central Cord Syndrome, which he says, “results in a sort of reverse paralysis. My legs are pretty close to normal and have been since a few days after the accident. My chest and arms are weak but are getting better. My understanding is that I have a mild case. Most people with CCS never regain full use of their arms and hands … so I got very lucky.”
Marmar fell unexpectedly, as we all do. The seriousness of the accident—he suffered C2 and C3 spinal fractures—was exacerbated by a few factors.
His stance above the roof and in the dihedral was an unfortunate place from which to fall. Add to the mix that the cam below his feet pulled and a slab lay below, it was one of those places on all routes where consequence is extremely high … despite feeling the contrary. Plus, the rock wasn’t good at the spot of the cam. Depending on how you protect it, a 5.6 crack can be vastly more dangerous than a 5.13 gear route.
The route’s dirty condition might not have helped. Marmar says, “My wife and I had both noticed that the route seemed pretty dirty that day, so I might have been standing on a bit of dirt or a pine needle without realizing it.”
The slab below magnified the injury, with greater forces of impact.
Had the cam in the dihedral held, likely the fall would have been “routine,” as Marmar has noted, landing him inside the roof section or dabbing the slab. But once the piece pulled, his fall became potentially deadly, sending him face first over 35 feet to the slab below. He does not recall having his leg behind the rope, and thinks the piece that ripped could have been the reason why the rope was wrapped around his leg when he hit. When a piece pulls, a large loop of slack may be generated (because the rope is no longer held tight to the wall by the pro), and this loop could have made its way behind him in mid-flight. We don’t know for sure.
Given that he had cell service, experienced climbers who came to his aid, access to a good emergency room and a helicopter, it was a “best case scenario.”
Marmar agrees that his “biggest mistake was complacency”—he had climbed the route five or six times.
Complacency can cause accidents when you let your guard down, even for a second. This goes for rote tasks such as rappelling and belaying as well: Climbers continue to be killed and injured in avoidable rappelling and belaying accidents. Be vigilant in all scenarios, especially the ones we often take for granted.
“I was not paying close attention to the climbing in front of me,” Marmar wrote, “and I did not think about the consequences of a fall at that spot.”
Recognizing high-consequence sections of a climb is an art born from experience and awareness. In this case, the most relevant element was the fact that a single piece placed in bad rock was the only pro between him and a slab. Marmar is correct to note that he should have paid special attention to his technique while in such a position, and placed another piece as a back-up.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 255 (January 2019).