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Hanging By A Thread

Unbelievable best-case scenario, in the absolute worst case.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 244 (August 2017).

Kelsey and I woke in our cars as the sun peeked over the infinite cliff bands of Indian Creek and etched lines of warmth into the iron-oxidized walls. The plan was to summit all the Bridger Jack Towers.

The two of us had only met that season, but we were already making climbing plans for the future. Kelsey is an absolute bone crusher, though you’d never hear it from her. She’s more interested in meaningful connection and growth than the typical climbing rundown.

By 3:00 p.m. we had dispatched the first four of the towers. Arriving at the base of Hummingbird Spire, we ran into an acquaintance, Andrew, and his partner. After swapping pleasantries with them, Kelsey and I set off on Hoop Dance, supposedly 5.11 X. We shrugged the “X” off—everything on Mountain Project gets an X rating these days, right? Kelsey floated the first pitch in typical style. Without glancing at a topo or even looking up, I grabbed the rack at the top of pitch one and took off toward the summit.

Placing no protection in the disjointed rock, I gained 20 feet above the big belay ledge, tiptoeing around loose blocks and sandy footholds, knocking on rock that all rang louder than I liked. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find anything that seemed solid. I picked the least loose block I could find and pulled down, not out.

Least loose wasn’t good enough.

The cooler-sized rock dislodged and fell toward the ledge below, with me underneath. Everything slowed down, just the way you read about. I always wondered what this would be like: to go out young and in a flash; remembered in people’s hearts and heartfelt posts, and eventually to fade out, as life continues.

I grappled with reality as it was transpiring. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to someone like me. I’m experienced, safe. I wear my helmet.

The sandstone boulder hit the ledge and exploded on top of me, as I bounced off and continued downward, ripping out the anchor piece I was redirected through.

Twenty feet below the ledge where Kelsey was belaying, I jerked to a stop. Hanging upside-down by the rope looped around my ankle, I glanced down and saw a six-foot tail of rope coming from my harness, then nothing. The rope was cut completely in two.

Miraculously, when the boulder had come off, several smaller blocks rained down with it. One fell directly into a wide crack near the top of the first pitch and wedged itself in as a chockstone, somehow catching a section of rope in a U below it—with my foot hooked inside the 10-foot loop. The cord had me only around the top of the instep.

My right arm was bent over halfway down my forearm, where the bone had broken and pushed thorough my skin. My legs were lifeless, directed only by the pull of gravity. I was certain I was paralyzed. I would turn out to have a broken pelvis and back, and though my legs were floppy, lacking attachment to a normal pelvic structure, I found I could flex my shin muscles to pull my foot downward to cradle it in the loop.

With broken bones and only the rope wrapped around my foot standing between me and the ground 120 feet below, I had this first thought: Crap. How am I going to tell my climbing partner I just shit my pants?

“Kelsey, are you O.K.?”

“I’m fine,” she called back, voice trembling.

Kelsey removed the Grigri from the lead side to use as a rappel device, dug out the rope from the debris on the ledge, fixed the longest undamaged strand to the anchor, and rapped on it 10 or 15 feet to where we could hear better. I asked her to grab the rope that was precariously seated around the chockstone and led to my ankle, and from above she wrapped it around her right hand, holding as much weight as possible. After taking a moment to make sense of things, I asked Kelsey to throw down a line so I could tie in.

Still with my rope in her right hand, Kelsey used her left to gather up another length from the damaged stack of rope above her and dropped it and a locking carabiner on a bight down to me. I snatched the rope and tugged it down toward my harness. It came just short.

I pulled myself up with my good arm, grabbed the carabiner with the other, and flopped my cadaverous right arm toward my harness, hoping to clip into my belay loop. Consumed with frustration, I missed over and over again. My left arm started to fatigue. I flopped again, missed again. But this time, the carabiner landed on my left leg loop. With nearly useless fingers, I clipped it through.

Kelsey was still holding the rope around my ankle. In order to reach the anchor and fix the rope I was now clipped into, she had to free her hands. I needed to get off the rope. Without thinking, I reached over to the flare chimney on my right, rammed my broken pelvis in as far as it would go, did the best chicken-wing my flaccid arm could muster, and held on. I was free soloing with one functional limb. Although it felt like an eternity, Kelsey quickly fixed the rope, and I gingerly weighted the carabiner attached to my leg loop, then placed a chain of cams in the chimney and clipped in from my tie-in point.

Having heard the rockfall, Andrew ran around the corner. I told him what had happened and that our rope was too damaged to get us down. He raced down to his car and sped toward the Canyonlands Ranger Station.

While I hung in the air, Kelsey pulled me over to a small ledge on my right, where we rigged a crude series of slings to help stabilize my legs.

Time stopped on that ledge. My adrenal glands slowed their onslaught of epinephrine, and pain overwhelmed me. Kelsey told tales of her time by the ocean, whales and other stories to keep me conscious, as I tried, unsuccessfully, to be charming.

Andrew ran up the talus cone to the base of the climb, calling, “Rescue is on the way!”

He roped up, ventured up the first pitch in the dark, and carefully lowered me to the ground, as I tried desperately to hold steady and keep the broken
bones in my back from jostling and damaging my spinal cord.

Safety third! The author puts a positive spin on his ordeal. Here he relishes his first bite of food after a surgery. It was Jell-O. Photo: Chris May.
Safety third! The author puts a positive spin on his ordeal. Here he relishes his first bite of food after a surgery. It was Jell-O. Photo: Chris May.

Three hours after the fall, I was on the ground. Within another hour, a helicopter arrived and a paramedic and flight nurses met us at the base of the climb.

A needle full of ketamine in my arm, I was certain I was experiencing death. It was a kaleidoscope reality I couldn’t make sense of. To my surprise, I opened my eyes to find that I had, in fact, not died. I was naked on an operating table with 10 heads floating above me, moving my body and asking questions I could understand, but I couldn’t move my mouth to respond.

I had sustained a broken back, pelvis, sacrum and arm, a dislocated wrist, and nerve damage. I spent the next 33 days in three different hospitals, staring up at the same off-white, gray-flecked ceiling tiles. The weeks and months that followed the accident were hard, and they still are. But in more ways, they are beautiful. Each day is full of introspection and humility.

It would make for a better story if I could tell you that the accident sparked a fiery romance. But sometimes life gets in the way. I can tell you that I woke up in my hospital bed to find Kelsey and all my other friends from the desert by my side.

The lasting effects on my body are a constant reminder of how wonderful it is to experience life. Had I hit the ground that day, I would have looked back
on mine with gratitude. That is the great paradox—the things, like climbing, that make us so madly in love with life are the same ones that can
take it away in an instant.

Craig Gorder—as he continues to recover—is transitioning from Washington State to Bend, Oregon, to work as an EMT and continue taking prereqs for nursing. When not injured, he splits most of his time between Yosemite and Indian Creek.