Bloody Sunday

It had been over a month since we had last been to Ridgeline. The last time we were at there, we had witnessed a young girl fall before the first bolt on "Never to be the same". Although I enjoy climbing at Ridgeline, it was getting old seeing some of the strange climbing that goes on there. We had been climbing on other walls for the last month, deliberately avoiding Ridgeline, but on Sunday, July 7, 2000, we went back to Ridgeline with a rookie climber. I had debated with myself on whether we wanted to take the novice climber to Ridgeline or go to the practice wall. Since I do not enjoy all the non-climbers hanging around the practice wall (milling around the anchors with beer in hand and looking down the wall at you) I decided to take him to Ridgeline.

If I climb at Ridgeline on the weekend, I usually wait until later on Sunday afternoon when most of the climbers have either cleared out or will leave shortly. Thus, we arrived at Ridgeline about 2:00 in the afternoon. As we moved to the wall, I headed for "Two Birds with One Stone" the first route that I ever climbed and the first route that I ever led. A great place to start the rookie. Lucky for us, no one was climbing there. When I stepped up and around the big Ponderosa Pine at the base of "Two birds with one stone", I was horrified to see dried blood all over the rock between "Two birds with one stone" and "Wind of change". It wasn't a little blood, it was a lot - almost as if someone had taken a bucket of blood and splashed it all over. A white "X" had been marked on the wall in chalk beneath "Wind of change", a grim reminder of the events that had transpired there and perhaps an indication of what someone thought the route ought to be rated. There were signs of paramedics - a pair of latex rubber gloves had been tossed in the bush. The area was a mess. (There were remnants of the dried blood stains over a month later - after the monsoons.)

I had my little mind made up that I wanted to start on "Two birds with one stone" and I started to unload the the gear from the pack. But every time I went to the pack to get more gear, I would look down and see the blood. Something about seeing a lot of blood before climbing bothered me and I couldn't take it. We had to move over to "Never to be the same" and climb there. Even after we moved, it seemed like some evil presence was still over there though, and I would have to look over and check out the stain. It never did anything, it didn't move, but I still had to keep my eye on it. Like it was going to come over and get me.

The other climbers on the wall also seemed a little bothered by the blood and the usually jolly Ridgeline atmosphere was subdued. No one knew what had happened. The gruesome event had most likely occurred on the previous day, Saturday, since the blood was very dry. When I went to work on Monday, a friend said his son was riding his bike on Mt. Lemmon on the weekend and he had heard rumors that someone had taken a 100 foot fall and nearly severed his foot. The climb is only 65 feet tall so part of the story was an exaggeration, but the nearly severing a foot part seemed feasible. There certainly was enough blood.

My curiosity about the event was really tweaked and I couldn't let it rest. I tried calling the Forest Service to find out what happened, but they didn't know anything. I called the Sheriff's department but they didn't know anything either. Finally I called the Mt. Lemmon Fire Department. They didn't know anything (but I got to hear a horror story about Hitchcock Pinnacle).

This is what happened!

A year and half after the bloody event, I received a note from Alan who was at Ridgeline at the time of the accident. Here is his account:

"...I think I do know the story behind your "Bloody Sunday" report. I'm not positive of the date (though I could probably confirm it by checking some emails I have stored at home), but I'm pretty sure that my wife and I were at ridgeline the day before (Saturday) and saw the 'foot severing incident.' -- at least, your second-hand description sounds pretty similar. The short version of the story is that the climber (a big guy: 6'3", 230+lbs) was on toprope and slipped, his belayer dropped him, climber bounced off the ledge and hit the ground -- 40+ footer? -- and sustained a serious open fracture of one ankle. "Fracture" is really understating it; the 'severed' characterization is almost pretty accurate.

The guy was lucid and never lost consciousness -- and was really, really lucky. His belayer is lucky that he didn't land on him -- would have killed the belayer for sure. The climber told us where to find his cell-phone, and while his belayer and I wrapped his ankle in a couple of t-shirts my wife called 911. From that point, the rescue took about 3-3 1/2 hours. My little first aid kid wasn't much help, but I did have some gloves, and gauze to help wrap the bandaging (I made sure to pack out my own used gloves)."

I had several questions about the event:

1. With the website, I try to emphasize safety. How did the belayer screw-up? Was it a first time belayer? What type of belay device were they using? Would a Gri-Gri have prevented the fall? Your note makes it sound like you were not too impressed with his belay.

If I remember correctly, the belayer was not a first time belayer. The two had done some climbing together before, but I think it was probably predominantly gym climbing, and I think that the climber was slightly more experienced than the belayer. He was belaying with an ATC or similar friction plate. The belayer literally dropped him -- as my finance and I were setting down our packs (had literally just walked around the corner) we looked up, saw the belayer looking at us with one hand loosely on the rope (above the belay device). The climber was on what I think was the higher, less steep portion of the climb when, maybe 1 second later he slipped. In the time it took him to holler "you got me?" as he slipped, he had bounced off the ledge and was on the ground. The belayer never had a chance of catching him -- although I think a gri-gri would have bound up and caught the fall safely.

Later on, I was really angry at the belayer, and my wife and I talked a great deal about how the belayer very literally has the climber's life in his/her hands, and even at a relatively small, low-pressure crag, with a climber on toprope, the belayer simply cannot, ever, take his/her eyes off the climber and hands off the belay. We reiterated to one another that we explicitly trust each other, and not many others, to be our belay. I occasionally hear rather nonchalant stories of belayers carelessly dropping climbers short distances (eg, at the gym, dropping to a rubber mat), and I get really paranoid and frustrated. Those guys won't be on my rope! (And we wear our helmets even at the "safe" places.)

2. What was done right? It sounded like it was helpful having a first aid kit and it sounded like the phone came in handy. I am surprised that your wife could make a 911 call directly from Ridgeline.

We were lucky to get reception on the cell phone from ridgeline -- we had to make the call several times before it got through and lasted long enough to relay the information. We were lucky that I knew the approx. milepost of the trail, and there were a couple of other small parties there. I think one woman went down the trail to intercept the paramedics. I was glad to have a small first aid kit, but mostly just because that meant I had some gloves; when a guy breaks his ankle like that and you're not in a genuine backcountry situation, there's not much to do but sit tight and wait for Fire/EMTs to arrive from Palisades (30-40 minutes?). The guy was so big that if he had any more pressing injury that required immediate evacuation, there's just no way we could have safely brought him down the trail.

3. What was the impact to your climbing? Just seeing the blood set me back. It is very difficult to imagine the stress associated with being around a fall victim for 3-3 1/3 hours. Did you go out climbing the next day? The next week? How did it your wife handle it?

Both my fiance's climbing and mine were affected. I went up and toproped at windy point later on in the summer, but Heather didn't climb until over a year later, just this last August when we did some toproping (and she has always been a much stronger, more confident leader than I). It made her reevaluate whether she wanted to do something that could so instantly cause such a serious injury. The fact that it took 4 hours to evacuate a guy down a relatively short trail, next to a highway, really highlights the fact that in a more remote location, help may be genuinely unavailable. Makes me want to refresh my WFR.

4. Did you ever hear anything more from the victim? Did he recover? Was he from Tucson?

We never heard anything in followup. I imagine the guy spent a long time in orthopedic surgery, but I think he's probably all right -- as long as he didn't have more serious injuries that weren't apparent up at the rock, like neck/spine problems. The nature of the fracture was pretty amazing; the entire time waiting and being evacuated, he had sensation in his toes, on a foot that was essentially severed. I guess he had enough intact nerves and circulation that his foot probably made it. He was from Tucson, a U of A student, I think. Heather remembered his cell number for a while, and we thought about following up, but we were also a little freaked out about the possibility that his injuries were much more severe than they appeared, and we weren't sure we wanted to be involved any longer. Thinking about it now, I'd really like to know the outcome.

5. What climb was he climbing on? The "Winds of Change"?

I've never had a good topo of Ridgeline (I have the old version of Squeezing the Lemmon), so I'm not precisely sure which climb he was on, but from your description at I think he was on winds of change -- the climb is the one that used to share anchors with the climb to the right of it. It starts going over a bulge to a ledge at 7 or 8 feet, then through a small scoopy-type overhang and on to the slabby upper section. It sounds just like winds of change from your description.

And that's the scoop. It was the most serious injury I've seen climbing, though not necessarily the dumbest thing I've seen somebody do (that honor goes to the guy who rapelled on his jeans' belt loop at squamish). Sorry I was overly verbose. Heather and I talked about the accident last night so the details are pretty fresh on my mind now. Posting these notes on the website would be fine -- I'm glad you find them interesting/useful.

Thanks for the write-up Alan. I think that anyone who climbs should read this story - a wealth of information can be learned about climbing safety.

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