The sound of rope sliding across coarse granite prompted me to turn and watch Rock and Ice intern Jonathan Vickers falling through the air. He was about 20 feet up, curled like a fetus, head turned earthward and emitting a growling yell. His sacrum drove into the turf like a 150-pound meat bullet. On impact, air exploded from his lungs in a roaring howl. Jon crumpled, then lay still. Gouts of blood oozed out of his mouth.
It was 2 p.m. on July 4. Jon and I had been rappelling and cleaning scabs of lichen off a previously unclimbed highball block about an hour east of Basalt, Colorado. Our ropes were anchored to pine trees, then ran up the back side of the boulder, across the top, and hung down the problems we were cleaning. Just as Jon was pulling over the top, his rope slipped off the corner of the boulder. I zipped to the ground and ran over.
“Don’t move. Stay with me, Jon.”
Blood colored his teeth as he attempted to talk. He choked. The force of the fall had broken capillaries in his eyes and the whites were flushed a strange violet. They crawled over my face, fuzzy and helpless. I thought grimly about the possibility of paralysis or death.
“Jeff,” Jon managed to cough out. “I think I’m gonna be all right.”
“Really? What about the blood?”
“I bit my tongue.”
Ecstatic relief flooded me.
“Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?” I asked.
He could. I examined his pupils, palpated his head and neck, felt for broken bones in his legs, and gently rolled him up to look at his back. There were scrapes, but no signs of bruising. After talking with Jon for about 10 minutes and allowing the shock to dissipate, I decided to move him.
He hollered as I heaved him up and dragged him 20 yards across the talus to the truck. It was a long hour and a half to Aspen, where the emergency doctor gave him a shot for the pain, scanned his innards and took pictures of his bones.
Jon had fractured his second and third lumbar vertebrae. He is wearing a brace and out of climbing for three months. He should recover fully.
It is not uncommon for climbers to set up directional anchors using terrain features to hold the rope in place. In this case, a hump of rock on the left side of the boulder prevented the rope from slipping off the top — provided the direction of loading was straight down. When Vickers was topping out, he slipped and pulled back on the rope, causing it to roll off the hump, and off the boulder.
After the accident, I called Cleve Williams, the head of Colorado’s West Eagle County Search and Rescue, and asked him what he would have done in the same situation.
“If he was in a life-threatening situation, I would have moved him,” Williams said. “But if he was doing all right, I would have logged his position with GPS coordinates or flagged it with some bright clothes — even a boot on the road — driven 30 minutes into cell-phone range and called for a helicopter.
Emergency protocol dictates that victims of falls of over six feet be fitted with a neck and spinal brace before being moved. Williams also referenced the golden hour, an emergency-medicine term stipulating that in cases of severe trauma — where there might be internal bleeding — the time between injury and treatment be kept to an absolute minimum.
Relying on a toprope merely draped over a boulder to hold it in position was asking for trouble. A directional bolt or other anchor placed on top of the boulder, and directly above the line Jon was cleaning, would have prevented the rope from slipping off. Alternately, a second rope strung perpendicular to the main rope, anchored, knotted and clipped to the main rope would have kept the main rope pinned securely in place.