Gear Rips, Leader Hits Ledge
Overenthusiastic climber cracks his skull in a 50-footer
Wes Walker arrived in Indian Creek, Utah, at about 7:30 p.m. on May 7. Despite the late hour, the failing light, a partially healed fibula fracture [see Accident Report, No. 178] and the fact that he was dog tired after climbing hard in Boulder for two days, he elected to rope up and try the 110-foot splitter called Long Island Iced Tea
(5.10+) on the Optimator Wall. Walker sank jams and did his best to torque his weak right ankle/foot into the sandstone fissure. High on the route, about five feet from the chains, with a terminal pump building in his forearms, Walker let go and fell.
Two pieces of gear ripped out and he plunged 50 feet, flipped upside-down and cracked his head against a ledge. He hung unconscious. Blood from a deep gash in his scalp poured across the rock, and his belayer lowered him to the ground. After about five minutes Walker regained consciousness and said, “These hand jammies”—fingerless gloves made of sticky rubber—“are sick!” He then asked why he was sitting on the ground, covered with blood.
Walker managed to walk most of the way to the parking area, but he lost consciousness in the car, vomited and had a seizure. His friends Brandon Roth and Ian Jones thought he was dead or dying and sped towards Moab until they were pulled over by a state trooper and re-directed to the much closer town of Monticello.
Walker was airlifted to the hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he remained in a coma for three days. He regained consciousness and is now home in Florida being monitored by his parents. He recently climbed again at a gym and is expected to make a complete recovery.
Several factors contributed to this accident. Despite a predisposition for functioning with little to no sleep, even Walker was fatigued after two days of bouldering and roped climbing—with a six-hour drive piled on. He had planned on resting but allowed the excitement of being in a new area to convince him to rope up. Climbing in the dark presents problems both for the belayer (who said that he thought Walker was clipping the anchors when he fell) and for the climber.
Ironically, given his penchant for wearing his helmet even on approaches to the crag, Walker wasn’t wearing a helmet when he fell. He’d lost it in the ice-climbing accident in February, and had stopped at Pagan Mountaineering in Moab on his way to Indian Creek to buy another but decided that hard hats were too expensive.
Finally, Walker, a novice trad climber, had a cavalier attitude about falling onto natural protection (he said that he just pushed off). Even if your placements are bomber, gear can shift and “walk” into less secure configurations as the rope jostles it. Other climbers have reported that the climb, Long Island Iced Tea, is notorious for creating drag that nudges cams out of their original placements. This may be why the top two pieces pulled.
Many injuries, from finger tweaks to fatalities, happen toward the end of the day when climbers are tired. Technique slips, the mind is less sharp and the metabolic reserves are dwindling. Resist the “just one more climb/problem/attempt” mentality, and you’ll often avoid injuries just by walking away.
A shock-absorbing helmet would have ameliorated Walker’s head injury. A helmet, according to Walker’s doctor, would have also prevented the gash on his scalp. Long runners might have prevented the gear from shifting and pulling.
Thanks are due to Utah State Trooper Rob Wilcox and San Juan County Sheriff Michael Bradford, who escorted Walker to Monticello and arranged the air transport that probably saved his life. A handy cell phone can be used to arrange rescues, or alert hospitals that a seriously injured climber is en route. Pack one, just in case.