The Story of the Three Gym Climbers

On Saturday, June 4, 2000, my wife and I went climbing at Ridgeline with four friends. They all had climbing experience, but hadn't climbed in a while, so Ridgeline was a nice place to go. The weather was beautiful and it was generally a nice summer day for climbing. Although there were many cars parked on Catalina Highway at the trailhead to Ridgeline, there were not that many people climbing at Ridgeline. There was a small group of Intel professionals from Phoenix climbing on the west end of the wall (note that they were from out-of-town and were climbing using the "Rock Climbing Arizona" guidebook), so we headed down to the east end of the wall and started knocking off the climbs.

As we climbed, more and more people showed up to climb. When we started to climb on "Sudden Impact", three climbers showed up and started to prepare to climb the 5.7 route "Never to be the same". There were two male climbers ("goofballs") and a female climber ("victim"), all about 20 - 25 years old. Since we were climbing on the route next to them, we could follow their every move. First, we could see the victim and one of the goofballs explaining to the other goofball the task at hand: how to clip the bolts, how to lock on to the anchors, how to set up a top rope, and how to get lowered. This was very unusual since usually most people have a little leading experience before they dive in, but this trio was going to give it a go with virtually no experience. I watched this going on with great interest and hoped that they didn't get in trouble.

The first goofball started climbing. He was a little shaky starting out and got wigged out. He came back down and then started out again. Since I was involved in climbing and belaying, I didn't give them my undivided attention, but eventually he finally made it to the anchors. He set up the top-rope and was lowered down. I breathed a sigh of relief because now they could climb with the relative safety of a top-rope. But they didn't climb on a top-rope. Instead, they pulled the rope, leaving all their gear on the wall, and the second goofball started leading the route. By some miracle, like the first climber, he made it to the top, and was lowered down safely. Again, they pulled the rope and the victim prepared to lead the climb.

By this time, I had lost all interest in the group and wasn't really paying attention to what was going on. As I stood there waiting to lead "Fire Zone", I heard a big thud. The victim had fallen before she reached the first bolt. She landed on the granite at the base of the climb and was lodged in a crack in the rocks. She wasn't wearing a helmet, so my immediate fear was that she had smacked her head on the rock. Fortunately, she hadn't hit her head and she had only sustained an injury to her arm. It was scraped from the wrist to the elbow and was not too pretty - it appeared broken. Then things started getting really weird...

The victim sat to the side, embarassed, trembling and in great pain. One of the goofballs showed great compasion and tossed her a small container of aspirin. The non-verbal message was "suck it up" - and she did. It was time for them to go, but they had left their gear up on the rock. The goofballs milled around for about 10 to 15 minutes before one of them started up the rock to retrieve their gear. It seemed like it took forever before they completed the route. While the goofballs were diddling around, I led "Fire Zone", set up a top-rope, and three other members of our group climbed it. We posed for group photos, and packed all our gear. Meanwhile, the victim sat there in great pain. (Note: the Intel group offered to take her to the hospital, but the goofballs said that they would take her).

During the event, one member of our group was talking with the victim. She explained that they were gym climbers and this was their first experience on the rocks. The victim proclaimed, "I have been leading 5.9s in the gym and I should be able to lead 5.7 on the rock". This explained everything. They left their gear hanging on the bolts, just like the gym. They didn't know what to do at the anchors. And they didn't know what to do when a climber was injured. They found out that climbing an easy route is much more difficult when the holds aren't marked with tape and that solid granite is much less forgiving than the padded floor of the gym during a fall.

It was a strange experience. Immediately after the fall, my wife kept making these heavy breathing/sighing sounds. It really shook me up as well. It took several minutes to settle down once it appeared her injuries were minimal. I had climbed at Ridgeline many times, but it was time to move on. Unfortunately, the next time I returned, I got to witness something even more gruesome (see bloody Sunday).

Summary of lessons/mistakes from the event:

Wear a helmet: None of the three climbers had a helmet on. She was very fortunate that she didn't hit her head on the rock at the base of the climb. She was certainly sprawled out in a position which placed her head very close to the rock.

Spot the leader to the first bolt: In this accident, there were two male climbers and it would have easy and safe to spot the victim to the first bolt. In general, there is not much the belayer can do until the climber clips the first bolt. The belayer should always spot the climber to the first bolt unless there is a risk of the belayer getting injured. When my wife spots me, I tell her to spot me until my feet are higher than her head. At this point, she is at more risk spotting me than I am falling.

A 5.7 route can bite you: A fall on an "easy" route is every bit as dangerous as a fall on a harder climb. Sometimes the easy routes are even more dangerous. They can be sloping, less than vertical, where a fall will take you a bouncing along on the surface. Those nice "easy" handholds and ledges that you found going up will be waiting to snag and tear at you on the way down.

Get a guide or mentor before you start leading routes on the rock: There is a lot of technique in leading a route on the rocks. Placing the gear correctly, setting up a top-rope at the anchors, and lowering are all very important and can lead to injury if not done correctly. These are not good topics to learn from a book and you can't learn them at the gym. If you can't afford a guide then hang out at Rocks and Ropes or at La Buzz on Saturday and Sunday morning until you can find a knowledgable climber that will take you out and show you the ropes.

If you can lead 5.9 at the gym, you may not be able to lead 5.7 on the rock (and failure on the rock can hurt): In the gym, routes and holds are clearly marked with tape. Very little problem solving is involved and climbing the routes is somewhat like doing a dot-to-dot puzzle. There is no tape on the rock. You can climb wherever you want - or don't want. The route rating is based upon the easiest path up the route, but you must find it. With the wrong technique or route finding you can end up making an "easy" climb very difficult.

For that matter, if you can lead 5.9 on one route, it doesn't mean you can lead 5.7 on another: Ratings are very subjective and are based upon opinion. It is a common past-time of climbers to sit around and debate the level of different climbs. Within a given group of climbers, they usually don't vary much more than a single grade (peer pressure) but there can be considerable variation between different groups of climbers or different climbing areas (see the tables on Ridgeline to see the variation of grades between three different guidebooks).

Think ahead about how you are going to handle an injury - be prepared: There are many simple things you can do to improve your chances of surviving a bad fall: carry a cell-phone, a first aid kit and make sure your belayer can find the way back to the car if you get hurt. You might laugh at the belayer finding the way back to the car, but my wife (and belayer) likes to follow me in to the routes and will not pay attention to where we are going - unless I pressure her to do so. The ultimate irony would be for you to have a bad fall and need to send your belayer back to the car to get help, only to have them get lost.

Clean your gear: It was strange watching the goofballs linger around why they tried to figure out how to get their gear off the wall. I guess the big-guns leave their gear hanging while they are working a route, but for the easier routes, the gear is usually cleaned by the second on a top-rope. I can't really think of a good reason not to leave the gear hanging on the wall except for having seen the trouble it can cause if an injury occurs. If you can accept leaving your gear on the wall if an injury occurs, then go for it. If you can't, then clean the gear as soon as possible.

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Copyright ©: 2001, RAHutchins
Revised: May 15, 2001