Leadfalling in Rumney
June 30 - July 4, 2001

Saturday: I was leading for the first time. People unfamiliar with rock climbing often ask "how does the rope get up there?" I was now that agency.

I'd climb, place some protection and clip the rope into it. Repeat. Soon the rope looks like it belongs there. This was "sport" climbing. The bolts in the rock hold half-moon steel loops into which I'd clip a carabiner. A short length of super-strong webbing connects that carabiner to another. The rope was tied to me; to my harness more precisely. It trailed between my legs as I climbed. Clip, pull up the rope. Clip. Repeat.

This was a 5.7 climb. Not terribly hard in the scheme of things, but just below my normal seconding limit of 5.8. The difference between seconding (or following) and leading is not small. When following a leader, I'm on a short length of rope should I fall. My leader will keep the rope taut for me. This is good. I can try things I don't feel great about. I don't have to be sure. A short fall is the only consequence of failure. Not so for leading.

It's not called the sharp end of the rope for nothing. I'm now how the rope gets up there. By definition I have to climb past the protection to place more protection. This makes you vulnerable to bigger falls. It works like this: you will fall twice the length of rope between you and your last piece of protection (assuming it holds) plus rope slack. Plus rope stretch which can be a double-digit percentage of the total rope deployed (especially for new rope).

You don't want to fall far. It's scarier, sure, but it's astoundingly more dangerous. Bad things can happen.

So you climb more carefully. You're more conservative, because the falls will be bigger. You feel the danger more. Because it's more dangerous. And it's all you.

Mind you, I've only done this once as of this writing, but it's a rush! My climb had small crimpy handholds and sketchy feet halfway up. I had to remind myself that I was leading -- I couldn't just attack the difficulty.

The climb had a large shelf about a quarter of the way up. Any leader fall would bring me to it forcefully. This must be avoided at all costs.

I was spooked. I couldn't find anything secure enough to hold on to to keep the danger in check. I had to climb a bit to the right of the true route to find something to work with. I was at my limit, but talking myself through it without words. I was proud of myself.

The last clip was about 10 feet below the top. I was at the top, but an arm's length right of the anchor. There was a nice ledge for my feet directly below the anchor. I just had to move left and down about 18 inches. My hands weren't solid. They were engaged, but not supporting my weight. My feet were even less sure. One foot smearing on a lichen-laden near vertical nubbinless face. How did I get here?

I knew I was in a dicey place, but I wasn't scared of falling. It wouldn't have mattered much if I had been, because I had to pull this move regardless. Place one foot. Move other foot...

There was a far-away part of my mind which accessed a memory that took over my mind. Bungy jumping in the Swiss Alps. The first second and a half of free-fall. It's so sudden you can't perceive it. It seemed like a spontaneous trance. I remember the world rushing in a colorful smear past me. Next I opened my eyes (were they closed?) and I was looking right at this guy on the ground. He was standing next to one of my party, his face a mask of horror.

I was upside down, near the ground. I had fallen approximately 30 feet, including the stretch in my brand-new rope.

I hadn't been in the trance of denial long, but long enough for the guy on the climb next door to swing over to the ledge I was hanging half off. His voice was the first thing I remember hearing. "I'll check him out."

"Are you OK?" asked the guy on the ground.
"I'm OK." I say, though my confidence was suspect.

I could feel the rope pressing on my crotch and one leg. I was half off that major shelf that must be avoided at all costs. My back was registering some pain. Someone asked if I could right myself. I thought I could, said so and then did. I was sitting on the shelf. My back was definitely hurt--no details yet, just knowledge.

I answered the usual questions with precise answers. Where I was, who I was, when I was born, etc. Facial muscles relaxed in the crowd. The guy who had swung over asked if he could look at my back. I said sure and I could feel his grimace. "Your back's messed up." is all he said.

I was fine to be lowered to the ground and walked down the rock. When I got down I untied from the rope and took off my helmet. It was damaged. I had bounced off the face near the end of the inverted fall.

Next I took off my shirt. My back felt all tingly and slightly on fire. People were making faces and oh-my-goding when they saw it.

I felt OK. I knew I still had adrenaline--noradrenaline actually, because I was calm. I was focused. I hadn't been scared before, during or after the fall. I had a settled, even good feeling. Not happy or ecstatic, but OK. Not even the OK of post-emergency, nothing serious happened. I had a stable equilibrium.

Others weren't so OK. My belayer, Craig, couldn't look at me without seeming like he was seeing a ghost. He kept apologizing. "I had you locked off, but you kept falling." That's all he could have done. He was taking it too hard. Wayne and I reassured him he did good. It wasn't about him.

After I had been walking around and talking for a while, people were a bit relieved. Even finding a large bump on my head where the helmet was most damaged didn't bring people down. The group next to us announced they were going to buy helmets that night. People were very friendly. All but one came up individually to tell me it was the worst fall they'd ever seen. I was second on the other guy's list.

I spent the remainder of the day stretching my back and keeping calm. I was becoming more angry at myself for falling. Not for the damage: it would heal, but because I knew the smart thing was not to climb again. That was depressing. To blow a whole day on the first climb of the day.

My right thumb and forefinger were sore. The finger cleared up slowly, but the thumb got worse. By the 2d day it was visibly black and blue, swollen like a cucumber, but the blinding pain of the first day was gone. My back will take a long time to heal. It will probably leave a large scar, but I can't see it in detail. The scabrous interregnum will be memorable. The head contusion went down overnight. The other various cuts and bruises are just background noise.

So what did I do wrong? Wayne, the leader in our group, climbed after me (on the rope I left) to complete the anchor. "That was a helluva first lead." he said. Joe, a much more experienced leader, believed it was harder than 5.7, at least as I climbed it.

Conclusion One: I was on a climb too hard for my first lead. That I got to the top is immaterial--I shouldn't have attempted it. So why did I? I was told it was 5.7 and I believed. I should have been more conservative in my judgment.

Conclusion Two: I had inexperience working against me. It turns out (quite logically) that sport leading, especially early in your experience, is best done after top-roping the same route. That way you know the moves and have reduced the complexity. You only need worry about clipping the protection, not the moves themselves. I would have heeded this advice, had I known it.

While I was keen to lead, I wasn't too eager. I picked the easiest climb in the area (as we understood it).

I didn't have enough information about recommended practices. I need to be more proactive in making sure I've covered all the bases. Be more conservative.

Conclusion Three: I had been very careful about my movements before clipping in each piece. In general, I was very deliberate in my actions. I had a several stage plan at all points. Except one. No points for guessing which one.

I knew I had to go left, so I went left. I wasn't thinking about the anchor. I was just too sure of the moves. I should have had a better plan than simply "go left". Don't let up. Every moment above your last pro is important. There are no gimmees.

Sunday was rained out after a brief visit to the Vader Wall. We saw a talented young teen work something hard and overhanging. Then his little sister worked it. Her height is the only reason she had trouble.

Monday I climbed. My thumb is useless. Still swollen and very sensitive to the touch. Black and blue visible under the skin. Still I had to climb. I worried what would happen if I didn't.

The 5.7 was a sloping arete. I cheated by chimneying up using a tree near the bottom. Conveniently, that was the crux. The route went left and then crossed back right midway up. I couldn't get a grip around the corner with my 4 fingers, so I cheated by grabbing the quickdraw to walk over to better footholds. Topping out felt good.

The 5.8 was a real challenge. At roughly 3 foot intervals I thought I'd be peeling off momentarily. I wanted to climb, and objectively falling would have been OK, but I was terrified of the prospect. I didn't know at the start whether I could do the climb w/o an opposable right thumb. I just wanted to try.

I cheated again near the start, resting against a tree trying to figure out where to put my hands. I'd advance a bit and feel tweaked out from the lactic acid and fear, but I'd find something to work with. The alternative was not an option. A tolerable foothold to stand on--enough to rest my arms slightly.

I must have announced I was falling about 10 times. I didn't. I kept working it out. I got to the top and the elation was worth the trouble.

And then there was the 5.8 crack. A vertical, mostly off-width (too big to use a clenched fist in) fissure. It looked very straightforward and fun. There was a small cave-like hole just midway that I could tuck my body into. I availed myself of the opportunity because I couldn't figure out what I would stand on to get higher. It was slightly overhanging.

I distracted myself from that problem by trying to figure out where I could hold onto. OK, there's not much. Back to the feet.

OK. This is probably it. Jam my hand in here, stick my foot in there. Inch up. Repeat. Now I can get a handhold and swing my foot up there. Yeah! That's the step.

That's how it went the whole way. Me freaking out and then talking myself down enough to see the resources plainly available. I even got a rest MI:2 style by collapsing my legs into a depression and locking my arm (by the elbow) in a crack. Use the skeleton to let the muscles rest.

Oh yeah, scratch hell out of your watch crystal. Don't forget that.

I got up and I felt great. This is why I climb. It feels great.

Tuesday we met Miro and he showed us the Waimea wall. An awesome petrified wave chock full of 5.13s. The draws we saw weren't resident. The people who placed them rightly figured no one could get up to steal them. Meanwhie they didn't have to place them anew each time.

Then you notice they're all flying out from the wall because it's so overhanging. Just incredible.

We passed by the Fly. The hardest sport climb in the world. 5.14d. An overhanging smooth face with one hold that was positive for about two fingers. No feet. Yeah.

Miro took us to a site with some 5.9s and a 5.7. We traded a sandwich for some beta. Miro bantered in Ukrainian with Andy. I talked chess with him. He was fun.

I set a new Guiness record for incompetence on the 5.7. I got offroute early and was in a desperate place both hands matched with feet on a small ledge. I was pissed.

Then I saw the small frog. Its pattern mimiced the rock perfectly. But how did it get all the way up here?

Now my dilemma was how to get back on track w/o falling (and taking a whipper) and without hurting this frog.

Luckily I could do both. Standing on a ledge under the overhang, I knew I needed to barndoor (lean back and walk up the opposing wall), but I couldn't trust my right hand w/o my thumb. I had to. It took me an inordinately long time to get up something I should have been more comfortable with.

Even topping out was joyless. I overestimated my mantle and was about to fall off. Pitiful.

I decided to retire for the day. I tried the hard 5.9 initial move on the corner climb at Bab's insistance. I was schizophrenic about it. Part of me wanted to stick it. The other part said "so what if you do? You suck." I lost my fire and backed off.

Wednesday saw unexpected great weather. Some of us stayed to check out the parking lot crag, and eventually moved to the Meadows. Craig led a spectacularly sharp 5.7 that everyone agreed was very stiff. I tried it on toprope, but bailed after the first clip, badly spooked. Falls would have meant sliding on rock striations described in the guide as "steak knives". They didn't exaggerate.

There is a great juggy climb on the corner I would have been excited to try, but it filled me with dread. Another 5.7 looked pretty easy, but I couldn't talk myself into climbing.

Finally, Babs puts up a 5.7 that she says is more like a Gunks 5.5. She talks me into an attempt.

I'm a mess. No confidence. Over the top nerves. It was ugly and embarassing, but I got to the top.

Thank you Babs. If I hadn't done it, I don't think I'd have come back for a while. As it was, the "success" of that last climb grew in my head. Maybe I can still climb?

It's worth a try.

Epilogue

Climbed with Babs and Andy on the following Saturday in the Gunks. A couple classics: Horseman (5.5) and Baby (5.6). Both were difficult with my now obviously sprained thumb still MIA, but I wasn't nearly as freaked out. I did have to prussik up over the 6 feet of the crux of Baby, but that's a concession to injury, not ability. I fell once near the top of the second pitch of Baby. It felt good like falls used to feel. Almost.

I'm just glad to start my month or so off on a high note.