The following was originally posted in the ClimbZA forum – Click here to see the original thread.
Bolt Failure As I saw the ground rushing up fast towards me, I thought I was going to die …..
It was our first climbing day abroad. We found the sea cliffs that our web research had told us of before leaving Cape Town. The man at the lighthouse told us the routes were on the cliffs below and behind. We scrambled down and soon found one bolted route at least. It was some 22-25m and easily doable in a single pitch. We discussed who would lead. I was happy to lead and the group was happy for me to lead also. It was near vertical volcanic rock. There were reasonable hand and foot holds and the 6-8 or so bolts were spaced fairly evenly apart. I did my buddy-buddy checks with my belayer and set off. I was steady and patient. It was quite a long run out to the third bolt and I clipped in. I continued upwards and reached a flat section of the rock face above it. A couple of moves later and the fourth bolt was reachable. The hand holds were getting smaller. Somehow, I managed to get my right foot and knee into an awkward position, making it hard to step up from it. Meanwhile, I was losing grip with my hands due to the very high humidity. I rested and relaxed before trying to step up again. I tried a couple of times more and decided to down climb to rest on the rope at the quick draw. My right foot did not allow. The third bolt was about 2.5m below me and to my left. The obvious move was to jump off. I told my belayer to be ready to take a fall. He acknowledged my communication and steadied himself. I jumped away from the rock …..
I heard myself scream. I then heard another scream. This scream was not mine. Next, I was looking down at the ground below. I could clearly see the rock pool below my belayer, pale pink against the black rock. I had seen ground rushing up at me before. I had parachuted and bungee jumped so it was ok. But what? I very clearly remember seeing my body from above. My blue helmet. My arms flailing in front of me. My back. My legs spread and moving randomly. It was very distinct. A complete out of body experience. I knew then I was going to die. I saw and heard nothing. A flat matt olive green pane of uniform palette. My body arched and sprung. It was perhaps like a somersault or a forward dive. I cannot really remember other than a turning sensation in the air. I came to rest on my back. I was in water up to my neck in the rock pool. I was lying flat and looking back up at the rock face. WTF happened there? My arms and legs were ok. I lay still. My climbing colleagues came rushing over. Was I ok? Meanwhile, my belayer on rocks above me was half hopping around with severe pain in his foot. I couldn’t understand but the paradox was evident. I felt ok after the fall but he seemed more injured. I looked up at the face wondering what on earth had happened. Suddenly, I remembered my mobile phone was in my right pocket and I slowly edged myself out of the water. My hands and legs were bleeding heavily. My neck was ok and I was conscious albeit in shock. I started to assess the height from where I had fallen. It was some 15-16m from where I jumped away to the rock pool below my belayer.
The third quick draw was resting around the rope attached to my harness. The rope led upwards to the second quick draw, through the first, and back down to my belayer. I could see the third bolt in place. Someone said that the hanger was broken. The two broken ends were open at an angle of some 45 degrees. Despite the relatively small intended fall, the hanger had sheared. The second bolt was less than half way to the ground and so I had hit it.
I owe my lack of serious injury (x-ray, MRI and CT scans afterwards reveal only one broken rib and severe soft tissue damage) to the amazing reactions of my belayer. He expected the rope to tighten as I jumped back off the face to take the fall. He had positioned his hands away from the ATC belay device. But what? The rope was suddenly no longer tight. Looking up, he saw me falling head downwards to the ground. Incredibly, he had the presence of mind (instinct?) to move his head to the side. He let go of the rope to ‘spot me’ in an tempt to flip me over from being head down. We don’t know quite how his foot was injured or exactly what happened but I his actions saved me from severe injury or worse.
Excuse me writing at length but doing so is therapeutic. I have thought of little else in the 6 days that have since passed until my return to SA. I know that our communications, technique and use of gear were all correct. This was a freak accident but nonetheless there are lessons to share (in no particular order). Your comments are warmly invited.
1. Was I the best to lead? I have thought of this many times. Would another member of my group have made it to the top? I am unsure but the thought occupies my mind. I guess the first person up on a new route in a new location, new country even, should be the most experienced climber. We had had a free and open discussion and it was universally agreed I would lead.
2. I had checked the bolts on the way up. They were secure. I did not check the structural integrity of each hanger. Would that have been reasonable to have done so? Or is that overkill? Hindsight is a wonderful skill. Was this hanger faulty? Would visual inspection have shown any clue of potential failure?
3. It was my bad technique that got my right foot and knee at an awkward angle. It made moving up or down tricky. Anywhere else and perhaps it would not have mattered but I shall be more conscious of technique in future.
4. Is it reasonable to take cams and pro alongside on a first climb of a new sport route? I actually took the link cam off my harness before starting to climb. Again, with hindsight, I should have taken it with and perhaps I could have used it and so not had to take a fall. Likewise, would it have been overkill to use trad protection on the first time up a sport route?
5. This was in a maritime environment and salty sea air is known to be corrosive. I don’t know how many sea cliff bolted routes there are (any in SA?) but I shall always take special care and never again assume bolts and hangers to be 100% failsafe.
6. Helmets! We both wore helmets. Miraculously, I didn’t seem to have banged my head or lost consciousness, nor my belayer. I have ranted elsewhere on the Forum about sport climbers, in particular, not wearing helmets. Far, far too many don’t. You will never persuade me it is safe to do so. One cannot just assume that it’s a sport route and so little chance of knocking off a loose rock on those below. Rant over.
7. Belay position. Do you belay immediately below the lead climber? Or to one side? The exact specifics of the climb, available belay positions and visibility, obviously influence. But, all else being equal, what is best? I guess to the side is preferred, especially if a trad route with the heightened chance of loose rock above. What about sport routes though? Do you make any conscious decision to be directly beneath? Or to the side? I am unsure and shall think about. I so know that on this occasion, directly below was extremely fortuitous.
8. Never let go of the rope…… I cannot think of a single manual, trainer, climber colleague etc who would ever advocate a belayer letting go of the rope. It was absolutely the right thing to have done in this specific instance in order to save my fall. I shall forever be thankful for the reactions of my belayer.
9. I spent the next day walking slowly around the resort where we were staying. It wasn’t until that night that I thought that I should have gone to hospital as my body was severely sore and I wondered if I had internal injuries. I know now that I was in shock and that that was my way of dealing with the incident. I know now too that I should have gone immediately to hospital and sought medical help. The lesson is I guess to insist on anyone you are with to go for evaluation and treatment immediately. You never know. Don’t let them (or me!) talk you out of it.
10. Medical aid. Again, I have written and commented on elsewhere on the Forum about this. It is wise to know exactly where you stand, even now for climbing in SA. My Discovery international travel medical cover covered me for “extreme sport or activities or hazardous pursuits”. These were defined as ‘an activity beyond conventional …. that puts you at a high risk of illness or injury. Examples include rock climbing, mountaineering … etc’. Search and Rescue operations are not covered. It was extremely helpful to have taken a print of the policy details with me (my mobile was broken so having it there would have been no use). There are cover distinctions between being seen in the Emergency Department of a hospital and being formally admitted to a hospital. Inbox me if you want more information. Expect administrative hassle!
11. When to climb or lead again? When you’ve taken a bad fall, do you ‘get back on the horse’ immediately? Or never climb again? Or somewhere between? My instinct is to climb again – second and then lead an easy route I know that I can complete. For the moment, that is not possible until my injuries, especially to my left hand, heal.
12. Therapy? I am replaying the incident in my mind near continuously. As explained above, writing it down and sharing is very therapeutic so my thanks if you have read through until here. I am not having flashbacks but have dreamed about. I am open to having therapy but unsure whether I shall for the moment.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. I’ll see you very soon on the mountain,