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Chopped: Cut Ropes in the Potrero

When both lead ropes get cut in the Potrero, the author needs the miracle of a lifetime

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Joseph Bahder, Ataman Billor and I loved El Potrero Chico so much we found ourselves in the Mexican limestone paradise for our third trip in less than a year. Having looked forward to the outing for months and driven 20 hours from Alabama, we felt obligated to push ourselves.

We asked around and learned of Devotion (5.11d). It seemed like a good next-level multi- pitch: 5.11+, 2,000 feet, 15 pitches, semi-runout, and maybe super chossy, or maybe not. No one seemed to know. Maybe it was the climb’s lack of popularity, the long approach, or the uncertainty of the rock quality that enticed us.

We spent a few days hiking up and down trails, cactus whacking and hopping on the wrong climbs just trying to find the thing. Once we finally located it, we went back to our sleeping bags exhausted and woke up at 5:00 a.m. the next day—two hours later than we meant to—only to bail on the 10th pitch due to our late start and slow pace.

Stoked for another attempt, we set our alarms for 2:30 a.m. We felt ready even though Ato was getting sick with a cough and we were up late howling and washing soy chorizo tacos down with tequila.

The climb requires two 70-meter ropes due to a tricky descent. Ideally, those two ropes would be one single lead line and smaller tag line for weight savings, but all we had were two single ropes. Since the ropes looked similar, we tied them in like twin ropes and clipped both in at each draw—yay for extra safety! But really, the system caused an unnecessary amount of drag that led to loads of extra grunts and yelling.

Eventually, after dodging broken holds and loose rock, we made it up to the third-class section on the seventh pitch and sat down for a short break. As most of our conversations go, we started with banter about the climb and segued into some pseudo-philosophical semantics.

Gazing off into the valley and out of the blue, I asked my friends, “What would you guys want to happen to your body if you died?”

The general consensus was that we would be dead and wouldn’t care. Still, it would be cool if we were buried under a tree or had our ashes spread on top of a mountain.

Ato had led the first seven pitches and sent the first crux, so I took the upper crux, pitch nine, also getting the opportunity to send pitch 10, the one we had bailed on. I was cruising until I encountered some absurdly thin slab that seemed way too hard for 5.11 and had me screaming on every move. I was so loud I even got some verbal support from climbers on the other side of the canyon, including my girlfriend, Walden Jones, on Yankee Clipper.

I fell, was a little disappointed, and realized I should have climbed the cactus-filled juggy crack a few feet off to the right. Who’d have guessed? Despite rope drag, I zoomed up the rest of the pitch, and made it up to three or four bolts on the ninth pitch, again deciding to climb around a sharp corner into a dihedral off to the right with significantly easier holds. Even though I was clipping both ropes, only one was running through Ato’s belay device. Thinking of the possibility of a rope cutting, I yelled down.

“Hey, can you put me on a separate belay in case I fall around the corner?” I asked Jo. Now one guy was belaying me on each rope.

Then I climbed roughly 10 feet above the fourth bolt, courtesy of bomber jugs. I was halfway up the ninth pitch, one and a half pitches (over 35 meters) above the third-class terrain of pitch seven, when I placed my hand on what looked like another bomber jug.

“Rock! Rock! Rock! Fuck! Rock!

A car-sized boulder peeled off the wall, free falling directly toward my two best friends, who were standing a foot apart from each other. Surely they would be killed. I started hyperventilating. The boulder crashed into the wall with a deep thundering vibration. Jo and Ato ducked. Boom! Another deep vibration. The boulder smashed into the third-class area about three feet below their belay, rolled off and echoed throughout the entire canyon.

Panting, I yelled, “Are you O.K.?”

“Yes, we’re O.K.!”

Seconds before, I had thought I’d just killed them. In shock, I yelled again, apologizing, and tried to control my breathing.

Below me, Jo automatically took in slack. He kept taking and taking, and then the end of his rope whipped down in front of him.

“Fuck, the rope’s cut!” he said.


Ato then realized that the rope he was belaying me on was also chopped.

They both yelled, “The ropes are cut! Go in direct! The ropes are cut!

Go in direct!” and then decided only to yell, “Go in direct!” in hopes of keeping me calm enough to solo down to my nearest draw.

I couldn’t concentrate enough to hear what they were saying above my deep breaths, and they were 120 feet below me. I heard a faint, “Go in direct,” but I was so stunned by the rockfall, and things were happening so fast, that in the moment I did not think about it too much, nor did it occur to me that either rope was cut, let alone both of them.

All I felt was an urge not to be on the rock anymore, such that I even contemplated taking a whipper to get off the wall faster. Instead I began down climbing.

I climbed 10 feet back to my closest draw, stretched out left while holding onto a crimp with my right hand, and stared down the draw, sweating, dreaming of being safe. Finally my fingers touched it. In haste, I wrapped them around the dog bone and swung my feet ready for either belayer to catch me because I was too shaky to hold on with one arm.

“Take, take, take!”

I started to fall, felt a whoosh, and for a split second thought maybe there was just a lot of slack. Then I let out what I thought was my last gut-wrenching screech.

I plummeted, watching the quickdraw grow smaller above me as the ropes whipped through.

Foster Denney, Ataman Billor and Joseph Bahder in La Huasteca Canyon, outside Monterrey, Mexico. Photo: Ataman Billor.

There was nothing I could do. If I didn’t die, I would certainly crack my skull, break my spine, or puncture a lung at the very least. As I fell, I rotated a little and struck a small ledge, right hand first and then with my elbow and shoulder. I bounced off and went limp; my glasses shot off my face, and my vision became a rotating blur. I continued falling, scraping a bit, my friends watching in horror.

With a swift crack and thud I smacked face-down into a small tree and a bundle of sharp yellow cactus on the third-class ledge. All I could hear and see was crumbly cactus underneath my trembling body. Remarkably, I was conscious. For a second everything was calm. I didn’t feel a thing. I rolled over onto my ass and started to moan, smart enough to know I wasn’t capable of feeling all the gnarly injuries sure to cause me a lifetime of pain.

“Why?” I asked repeatedly. I was at a bolt. How could I have fallen all the way to the ledge?

Jo and Ato, five feet away, were stunned. After a few seconds we began to assess the injuries. Wiggle your toes and fingers, check. No blood in spit after cough, check. We calmed down a bit and phoned some locals for help. A good friend called for a heli rescue, but it wasn’t guaranteed. Jo and Ato started to measure out how much rope we could salvage for a rappel, and there was just enough to rap one pitch at a time.

Even though I was in a lot of pain, I stood up, with the help of my friends. I couldn’t believe it. The ropes may have created some friction, but in what world does someone fall one and a half pitches and stand up?

After a couple of hours of baking in the direct Mexican sun, we got a phone call confirming the helicopter was coming. Meanwhile, a rescue squad formed, with the support of almost the entire climbing community in the area, ready to climb up to us if necessary. All we had to do was wait.

In time the helicopter arrived, turning our chill scene into an intense and loud one. As I was winched up, I had the best view of the canyon ever, and one I hope never to have again. Below on the rock, Jo and Ato found the courage to rap on the remnants of the severed cords.

Four days later, I was discharged from the hospital with the news that I would be back up to speed in two weeks. After I returned to the United States, a radiologist confirmed I had no broken bones or any serious damage: only a small bruise in my lung, some contusions and scrapes. How is that possible? I fell 120 feet and walked away. Am I lucky? Unlucky? Hard to say, but here I am.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 258 (July 2019).

GOT AN EPIC? We welcome tales from our readers. Please submit your story to Alison Osius,

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