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Luck of the Desert: Walking Away from a 40-foot Groundfall

How do you walk away from a 40-foot groundfall?

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 This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 237 (October 2016).

It was April Fool’s Weekend, and a crew of us headed to Indian Creek, Utah. No one had played any tricks on each other yet, but as our group set up camp under the trees of Cottonwood Creek, I saw, half buried in the sand, a heads-up penny.

“A lucky penny! It’s gonna be a good trip!”

I picked up the coin, read the date and set it on a rock near our tent.

We hiked up to the crags in the late afternoon. The sun was close to setting, but I wanted to climb. I was about halfway through Way Nutter (5.9) when, as I leaned out to place a Big Bro, the tipped-out #5 Camalot I had for pro turned sideways and fell 15 feet into the back of the crack. There was no reaching it. Planning to come back in the morning with tools, we left the gear and a note explaining our plight.

That same evening, on Blue Sun (5.10), I got a locking carabiner full of slings stuck shut when I weighted it to clean the anchors and rappel. With my bill for the day now approaching $175—for the locker, the cam, the Big Bro I’d lowered from and several Dyneema slings—I wasn’t exactly feeling lucky. Everyone in the group tried to cheer me up, but I shrugged, defeated and annoyed. Oh, well: I would go back the next day and retrieve my gear.

Our friend Nick arrived later that evening, and had pliers in his vehicle. I was able to release the locked-up slings and biner, both still on my harness.

The following morning we packed a tire iron to tap out the stuck cam and hiked back up to the crag. Two people already on Way Nutter graciously allowed me to climb it using their toprope, and I set up a rappel to attempt the gear retrieval. Even with the tire iron, I couldn’t reach far enough for leverage under the cam, nor could anyone else. After an hour of antics, my wife, Kate, attached the tire iron to a trekking pole; within moments, she knocked the cam out of the crack. Everyone at the crag cheered, some came over to high-five us, and a few even passed around libations to celebrate.

It was now around 1:00 p.m., and I perked up, hiked the crag looking for the next route, and found an aesthetic flake in the back of a chimney called Renegades of Funk (5.10). The flake emerged from the chimney and finished on the wall in the sunlight. The breeze in the fissure, combined with the beauty of the climb, was invigorating. I began climbing and had placed six pieces in about 40 feet when I encountered the first crux moves, exiting the chimney. With smeary calcite “feet” and a rattly finger lock, I jumped for an obvious jug on the ledge, came up short and fell.

Rocks flew by as the first cam ripped out of the crack, slo-mo, in an explosion of sandstone. Finely textured Wingate scoured my left arm as I free fell down the chimney. I let out a “Whoa, whoa” as two more pieces that I was certain would hold, popped. With a heaving grunt, I landed squarely on my pack on the ground, as if lying down for a nap.

My body buzzed. I’m on the ground. I think I bit through my tongue. I lay there, aware of the taste of blood and the smell of the cool silt-filtered chimney: bewildered and thankful to be alive.

“I Felt the finely textured Wingate scour my left arm as I free fell down the chimney.”

“Don’t move!” Warren, my belayer, said, then yelled for help.

He looked at the wound on my tongue. “Just nicked it,” he said. “How do you feel?”

“My left side hurts, and I’m hopped on adrenaline, but I think I’m OK.”

“Well, stay put,” he said. “Someone’s coming.”

He looked at my left arm. “It looks like raw hamburger,” he said. Kate ran up, pale.

“I think I’m OK,” I said.

Her face carried more pain than I was feeling. I could see her fear for me, for losing any part of me, and feel the love.

Moments later, an EMT who had been climbing nearby arrived. “Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m going to be taking care of you.” Sarah asked me questions, checked my spine and head, felt my bones. “I think you’re OK,” she said, shaking her head in wonder.

“I think I’m all right,” I said, laughing, elated at the thought that I was able to talk, stand up and even hike back to camp.

How had I fallen directly on my pack? Rocks jutted from the dirt about a foot on either side of where I’d landed, in a two-foot-wide strip of soft ground.

At camp, we wondered (and cried) at how I had gotten away with only a bitten tongue, rock rash, a big bruise on my left thigh, and a touch of whiplash.

Later, I considered all of the physics at work—seen, unseen and unconsidered. Possibly, the act of climbing, requiring a focus on the moment, kept me from resisting the fall, allowing my body to impact loosely. One moment I was climbing; the next, falling. No fear, no tension.

As we cleaned up camp the following morning, I looked around to make sure nothing was left. Near our tent lay the rock where I had set that penny, but it was gone. I laughed and hobbled to the car, thanking God I could still walk.

Sam Wagner lives in Golden, Colorado, with his wife and #5 cam. He would like to thank Sarah the EMT and tire irons everywhere.

Also read My Epic: Groundfall – Climber Lands Hands-First After 45 Feet