When he hit the ledge, I was sure he was dead.
He was a young college guy, and we had exchanged maybe five sentences as he climbed past, and then from 20 feet above us, I heard his cam pop out of the crack, the taut rope make a sickening twang like a plucked guitar string, and suddenly he was flying down toward us on the belay ledge at the top of the first pitch.
He hit sideways, face-first, a slapping thud, a sound you’re not supposed to hear. Unconscious, one eye open, his body slowly recoiled from the impact, curling against the sandstone. I don’t know what anyone said. I just grabbed his harness because it felt like the right thing to do. I grabbed our anchor with my other hand. Blood started to run out of his mouth onto the ledge. Chris grabbed a runner and a locking carabiner to clip him into our anchor.
Then he had a seizure, involuntarily groaning and sucking in air for 30 seconds. Is this the last thing people do before they die from head injuries? Is He Breathing, his partner yells, from the other end of the rope. Yes, he’s breathing he’s breathing I say. Jesus, I’m going to be the last person this kid ever talked to and I don’t even know his name.
“What’s his name?” I yell down to his partner. “Peter.” Peter, don’t move, I say, putting my hand on his back. Peter tries to get up, and I hold him down as gently as possible. Don’t move, chill out, we’re going to get you some help.
Help. Is anyone a medic, Chris has an expired WFR, how high are we off the ground, 140 feet, could I carry someone down from the base of the tower, do they have helicopters in Moab yes they do because they sent one for Aron Ralston when he cut his arm off, how long does that take. How do you fix someone this broken, I don’t know what I can do for him.
Castleton Tower is spooky, steep on all sides, a finger of red sandstone rising 400 feet out of a 1,500-foot talus cone in the desert east of Moab. The “easiest” route, the Kor-Ingalls, is a historic sandbagged 5.9 put up in 1961, freed in 1962. Blocky, with an offwidth crux pitch, lined with slick calcite in spots. I had led the first pitch, then watched two people climb the second pitch and it didn’t look straightforward.
Then began the most bizarre 15 minutes of my climbing life. As Chris started up the second pitch, a body fell out of the sky — a BASE jumper who pulled his chute with a loud crack about 100 feet above our heads, then floated down to the road below. Then Chris plugged in a few more cams, passing a loose block the size of a VCR precariously wedged in a crack 30 feet above the belay. He didn’t touch it. It fell anyway. I hopped to my right as it exploded into a million red pieces somewhere above me. Two blocks sat on our rope where they had cut through the sheath. I carefully lowered Chris and told the party below us they could go ahead and pass us, since our rope was cut and we needed to figure out what we were going to do next.
Peter climbed up, passing us, placing two cams above the ledge. The rope was tight when he stopped to hang on the third piece of gear he placed, 20 feet above the ledge. The piece pulled out of the crack, who knows why, and he was high enough above his last cam that when he fell, the rope had no chance of catching him before he hit the ledge. His foot must have caught something and spun him sideways in the air, and his body was parallel to the ground when he hit.
You think you’re desensitized to violence because you’ve seen a million violent movies and TV shows, and then a young kid with his whole life ahead of him and all that smashes himself on a ledge three feet from you and you realize how scared you can really get. If what I had seen had been on a movie screen, I would have hidden behind my hand. Humans’ faces aren’t supposed to do that. I don’t ever want to see that again, I don’t ever want anybody to do that again, even if I’m not there to see it.
The party above us rappelled down. Micah was a wilderness EMT and Hilary had a WFR. They worked to stabilize Peter. We rolled him over, got him comfortable, and he asked what happened 10 times in the next hour. Minimum broken jaw, cheekbone, and who knows what else, I thought. I couldn’t believe none of his teeth were broken or missing. I called 911. People and ambulances started to show up at the trailhead, and a rescue began to materialize as the sun sank. A helicopter circled the tower several times. We hauled up a litter, a c-collar, a vacuum splint. The sun disappeared. Five hours after he fell, we watched Skyler from Grand County Search and Rescue rap down with Peter in a litter in front of him. Then a helicopter hauled him off to Grand Junction. We walked down the approach trail in the dark.
Chris and I drove around Moab the next day, up to Dead Horse Point, worn out. We talked about it every couple hours, searching for the piece of evidence, the thing you want to hear that means That Won’t Ever Happen To Me because who knows why. I kept trying to fix it in my head, the thing you can’t take a photo of, a busted human being lying at your feet after he fell doing what you do all the time. I wanted to remember it more than any sunset, summit, hand crack, whatever, and I didn’t know why. I drank coffee and stared out the windshield and tried to remember every fall I’d ever taken on gear, maybe less than 10 falls total, cams, stoppers, big ones, small ones.
I called hospitals on Monday. Asked for Peter, first name, last name, no one by that name ever checked in. I rubbed my forehead. That night, I got an e-mail from Zac: Peter’s OK, needs extensive facial reconstruction surgery, broken wrist, eating through a straw right now. Doesn’t remember anything from the day except the BASE jumper. Then I got an e-mail from Peter, and a photo. And I started laughing in a coffee shop staring at my laptop screen at this kid and his bruised face that didn’t look nearly as bad as I would have imagined.
I’m going to go and see Peter and Zac in a few days, and I don’t know exactly what I will say. Peter doesn’t remember anything, and Zac was 30 feet away from him for most of it. I just need to find the words to describe how I saw it, and that I had enough fear and dread and helplessness in one day to last all of us the rest of our climbing lives. And I hope that makes an impact on them as much as it did me.
Climbing is an amazing thing partly because of the possibility of falling, but I try not to. I try really hard not to, all the time, and now it’s scary, more than before.
When I dropped Chris off at his car at City Market in Moab the next day, we sorted gear, minus the cams we left up on the route during the rescue, and then the last thing he said was “Don’t not climb.” And I said I won’t.
Brendan Leonard writes at Semi-Rad.