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Groundfall: Climber Lands Hands-First After 45 Feet

“Will it go trad?” my climbing buddy asked. “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that. Wonder if it could?” I wanted all my hard work of route developing to pay off. I wanted something that others could climb, that was the best it could be.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 235 (July 2016).

“Will it go trad?” my climbing buddy asked. We were in the car, traveling over the mountains in Western Washington.

“Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that. Wonder if it could?” I wanted all my hard work of route developing to pay off. I wanted something that others could climb, that was the best it could be.

In spring of 2015, I had developed four climbs at Raptor Haven, near the small mountain town of Naches, Washington, in the foothills of the Cascades. I logged 100-plus dusty, grimy hours dangling from a rope cleaning crumbly basalt. My tools were an old framing hammer, a wire brush, a cordless 18-volt drill, and a leaf blower. My bolted routes number one and two, 5.6 and 5.9 respectively, were enjoyable sport climbs. Routes three and four, 5.10b and 5.10c, both started well but shared an overhanging top section of flakes on crozzly rock. Bolting the hollow features seemed out of the question, so I instead toproped the routes dozens of times on the shared anchors.

May 24, 2015: route four, 5.10c, 45 feet, Raptor Haven. My wife, Anna, was belaying. Her sister, Abbey, and Abbey’s boyfriend, Scott, came along to watch my historic first ascent as I attempted to lead the route on gear only. I breezed through the first 30 feet, hardly feeling the effort of placing two bomber pieces. For the last 15 feet, I placed a #2 cam behind a horizontal flake and moved into the crux finish: a left-hand crimper with high feet and a mantel to slopers. I passed the powerful crimp and grasped the sloper. All I had to do was bring my feet underneath me. But placing the gear had drained me; my arms were screaming. The chains were just out of reach. My cam was below my feet.

I don’t remember letting go or hitting the ground. I retain, for some odd reason, a microsecond from halfway through the fall. I thought, My gear pulled, and I’m going to hit the ground … NO!

I fell 45 feet and landed in a push-up position. Anna was nearly certain I was dead because I was not breathing, my eyes were wide open, and I was motionless for a couple of minutes. She examined my chest for ribs sticking out, indicating a punctured lung, in which case CPR could be detrimental. As Abbey reached me, and Anna told Scott to call 911, I gasped. For the next 10 minutes my body fought to squeeze air into my deflated lungs.

I remember waking up to Anna yelling at me to keep breathing, and Abbey shouting to keep my eyes open. My first words were, “Why are you yelling at me?” Anna tells me that before regaining consciousness I whispered, “I love you,” and she thought they were my dying words.

The author. Photo: John Hagler.
The author. Photo: John Hagler.

Within 45 minutes paramedics wheeled me in a litter over the rough hillside to the ambulance. At the hospital in Yakima I was assessed as the least critical among five trauma victims and waited five hours for the one on-duty doctor. Upon seeing my wrists, he knew I needed a specialist and sent me to Harborview in Seattle, a two-hour ambulance ride over Snoqualmie Pass. At Harborview they looked at my CAT scan and hustled me into the ICU.

My hands had hit first, disconnecting my wrists from my arms; skin was really all that attached them. I broke ribs (the doctors never told us how many) and broke my sternum; my liver was nearly split in half, my kidneys were damaged, and I separated the inside of my cheek from my jaw. My helmet didn’t have a scratch. Amazingly, I only had a mild concussion. But my damaged liver and kidneys were life-threatening. My family braced for the worst, praying intensely. After another CAT scan and blood work, doctors determined that the liver would likely recover and that only one kidney had any longterm damage.

In the middle of the night I underwent two surgeries on my wrists. The doctors couldn’t use sedatives for the first because they might further damage my liver. Instead they used pain medication. I eventually passed out, but remember a surgical team pulling on my hands to position them back on my wrists. Anna, who was allowed in the surgery room, says she will never forget my cries of agony.

The second surgery happened a few hours later. Anna was again present, as research has shown that close family members often cope better if allowed in the room. This surgery was delicate and required me to be unconscious despite the risks. My ligaments were mostly destroyed, so the surgeon inserted a dozen small pins and screws into my wrists to hold many bones in place.

Four days later I headed home with casts on both arms for 12 long weeks. As my swollen wrists shrank inside their casts, the pins emerged closer to the surface of my skin until some of them poked through. After the casts came off I had two months of physical therapy. Wrists that ache are my new reality, but I have regained about 90 percent (much better than the predicted 50 percent) of my range of motion and 95 percent grip strength. My liver has healed, and the dead spot in one kidney is inconsequential.

In October, five months after my fall, I returned to toprope the route I’d named Mayday. I needed to see if I was afraid of climbing. I found that I still really enjoy climbing, and I was thrilled to be climbing 5.10. I sold all my cams and nuts, which was bittersweet. It turns out gear really keeps its value, though, since I came out ahead on the deal.

On May 29, four days after my fall, we found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. He was born in February.

Will Harris has been climbing for 17 years in the Pacific Northwest. He plans to continue route developing in the Central Washington area.

Also read My Epic: The Fall – A 60-Footer Leads to … Inspiration?