Climbs in Rifle have been done hundreds and thousands of times. Yet as I moved off a rest on Defenseless Betty during a last lap, at dusk, I felt an odd sensation below
my right foot. It took half a second for me to understand, and bellow, “Rock!” just as the ashtray-sized missile whacked the ground by my belayer
Jim’s foot. We stared at each other, pop-eyed. A week later Jim returned, picked up the rock, and brought it home to put in his garden.
More recently, something a lot worse happened.
I wasn’t there for this one, but it happened on a cliff and route and even hold I know, and to a good friend. My husband, Mike, and our friends Jim and Randy were out at a local crag, Main Elk, near New Castle, Colorado. The crag is a mesh of sandstone, quartzite and some limestone, with bands of junk interspersed with solid panes. It faces south, gets loads of sun in winter, and hosts many nice routes, but they are new and still cleaning up.
At afternoon’s end, the three stopped at one more route, the long and mega popular Velociraptor (5.11a). Mike led up and took its new alternate ending, Triceratops (5.11c). They’d all done it. They knew of a creaky hold. They all had helmets, used at various times, but on this last climb the helmets were on the ground.
Mike used the creaky, chalky undercling, it broke, and, as if in slow motion, he watched it dive down and hit Randy in the head. Randy heard the shout
of “Rock!” as, pulled off his feet by the leader fall, he swung in toward the base. He tucked his head, not—thank goodness—looking up. The blow took him to his knees. Randy steadfastly held onto the belay, though Jim quickly took over to lower Mike; they helped staunch the blood flow with Jim’s extra T-shirt; and all packed up and drove to the hospital, where followed a CT scan, stitches and staples. Randy was diagnosed with a two-millimeter
depressed skull fracture. He is recovering well, because he is a strong and fit person, and all of us are shaken by what could have been catastrophic.
Randy is irritated at himself: wouldn’t you know, he’d worn his helmet belaying every other pitch that day. Jim wishes he’d said, “Hey, there’s loose rock, you might want to put on that helmet”—which sat four feet away. Mike keeps seeing replays of the sickening images of rockfall and impact.
We all know, though these are personal decisions, that everyone should wear helmets for climbing. But I’m reminded that it is as, maybe more, important to wear one while belaying. Or even walking from route to route. And to be careful simply when pulling down a rope, which can dislodge something.
Jim recalls finishing a route near Glenwood Springs and grabbing a big chalked dish he thought was the usual clipping hold. It blew, with three people standing below in the alcove where it shattered. At Main Elk, which gets more popular every winter, holds have smacked the ground by people eating lunch, and near a child and a dog. Earlier this year, while lowering someone, I was hit—got a nice black eye—by a quickdraw that accidentally
twisted off a climber’s harness, and fell 30 feet onto my upturned face.
Moreover, I often, especially in climbing at Main Elk, have called down, “Heads up. The rock isn’t very good right here.” If the belayer moved sideways—and when I, on belay, have done the same—I assumed we were protected. Yet the belayer can still be pulled, inexorably, into the fall line.
Randy and I have lately talked about how we all get a little too used to hearing random rockfall hit nearby. We say, “Wow, did you see that?” and are shocked for five whole minutes, and then forget about it.
Herewith, a few reminders:
—Wearing a helmet to belay, especially at a newly developed area, is as important as when climbing.
—Moving out of the fall line as a belayer may not protect you.
—If you take children, protect them from potential rockfall.
Now is the time, after the freeze-thaw cycle, when rockfall is most prevalent. At Rifle last spring, my friend Chris and I peered through the shattered back window of the pickup truck into which a rock had bounced, landing in the mayhem in a case of beer bottles. In the concrete-hard-packed dirt road, where vehicles pass and people stand and socialize, was a sickle-shaped ding where the rock had bounced.
Last weekend at Rifle, I noticed—and obsessively pointed out—many fist-sized rocks dotting the road. Mike didn’t like the newly developed and
rather loose cliff where Jim and I did some moderate routes; instead he walked around on the canyon road, gazing with new eyes up at the truckloads of choss that line the whole sloping rim. We’d heard some rockfall across the canyon earlier that day.
It was three or four years ago that I knocked that rock off Defenseless Betty. The next summer, another friend, Johann, was standing below the same climb among a crowd of people, packing up to go home. He’d just climbed the route and someone else was taking a toprope burn on his rope when
a broken hold the size of an orange beaned him.
“I don’t remember the event,” Johann says. “I remember waking up and feeling warm blood in my face. I think I was out for 10-ish seconds.” The laceration took 10 stitches, and the symptoms of concussion (such as dizziness and memory lapses) lasted a week, but he felt he got off easy.
“I’m pretty grateful to come out the other side of that one,” he says.
“I feel like people, especially belaying, take risks they aren’t aware of. I often climb without a helmet at Rifle or Main Elk, but always wear one when
I belay or hang out at a busy cliff where there are people above.”
Holds and cobbles and blocks can snap and fall. For all the times they miss, sometimes they hit, and that could change everything.
Please tell us your own tales. We hope they are of near misses and not non-misses!