Monday, April 4, 2011

Boulder Group Newsletter: A Climbing Drama

Editor’s Note:

In our fourth story on near-epics, Tonya Clement shares a climbing tale of leading and getting injured on a popular Eldorado Canyon climb. It reminds us that even the most experienced and competent among us need to remember that safety should come first when climbing or engaging in any other dangerous outdoor activity.

Many thanks to Tonya for sharing her story. To read about her amazing adventures outside of Boulder, visit
— Donna Marino
Compass Editor, Boulder Group Newsletter

Over the Hill - A Climbing Drama
-contributed by Tonya Clement

I remember part of that day, but not all of it. I’m told that often happens with head injuries. I had been rock climbing for about five years and leading for maybe four years. We rallied a group of several friends (and CMC’ers) who were planning to climb Ama Dablam the following fall. I’d been climbing some big mountains for awhile, but Ama Dablam was to be my first big Himalayan peak. Prior to that, I’d summited Mt. Rainier in Washington, Ishinca and Urus in Peru, Mt. Kenya in Africa, and an ice route on Mont Blanc in France. We headed to Eldorado Canyon on this day for a team building experience -- we would tie into the ropes to bond with one another.

At the last moment I invited a customer of mine, a couple good friends, and another climber who was interested in joining our fall expedition. We were a group of about 12 people. It seemed to work as we were climbing in the Rincon Wall area where there are several moderate trad (a style of rock climbing in which a climber places gear in order to protect against falls) routes in close proximity and also a lot of room to hang out on the ground and socialize.

That day, I had a personal goal to lead Over and Out and follow the second pitch of Over the Hill. Since Eldo is always crowded on weekends, we planned to see what routes were available that day. Over and Out is a classic route in Eldo, known for its wonderful finger crack. Some climbers even consider this the best finger crack on the Rincon Wall area.

First Pitch of Over the Hill

Now for true confessions….I was just at that stage where I was getting a little cocky with my climbing. My confidence was skyrocketing. It was the first season that I’d climbed four to five days a week. There were days when I was the first car to arrive in Eldo, and other days where I was the last car to leave. This was the year I’d recorded close to 200 days of climbing. All my friends joked that Eldo was my home away from home. Like anything else, when you have a routine, you start to get comfortable. I was feeling comfortable with my partners and with my gear. I’d climbed many routes numerous times and was beginning to feel very comfortable on the sharp end. But I’d also started to develop some bad habits -- it seemed I was running pitches out with little protection and rarely wearing my helmet. Climbing is also a social activity, and there were often lots of people around, along with a lot of distractions.

On this day, I was going to be climbing with my long time climbing partner, Ted Handwerk. Unfortunately, the customer I’d invited to climb with us became uncomfortable with the person she was left to climb with by default. So, I said to her, “Let’s go up the hill and climb Over and Out,” the one I was looking forward to leading….and I suggested she trail a rope that Ted could follow on a bit later and then lead us up the second pitch of Over the Hill, making the climb a two pitch route rated at 5.8.

Ted was busy making sure everyone else felt comfortable so he would not tie in until I was halfway finished with my lead of the first pitch. Things went according to plan. It was a perfect day, perfect temperatures, surrounded by friends. I led the first pitch with comfort and ease, only adding to my already overbuilt confidence. I felt like I could have led anything that day. My partner arrived at my belay station which is about 100+ feet off the ground; we started high fiving each other over the pitch we just climbed. Then I asked, “Where’s the rope for Ted?” There is no rope -- she forgot to bring it up with her.

This presented a dilemma. We could walk off at this point, but our hearts were really set on doing the upper pitch of Over the Hill which is just at both of our limits (rated at 5.8+ or 5.9- depending on who you ask). We draw straws for the lead and I win. This climb is a face climb with good crack features, high off the ground. What made it difficult was the fact that I had never followed it first, so I did not really know what to expect.

I also had no details or beta about the pitch since I’d expected Ted to lead it. With confidence, I start out and it is not too hard at all. I make it through the crux with ease which only adds to my cocky attitude. And then, I reach a point and am lost. I do not know which way the route goes. I am at least 15 feet runout (since I’d last placed a piece of gear) and at this point, since I am above the crux, I expect that it will only get easier. I yell to the ground for advice and hear all sorts of advice to follow the protection, which seems to be a crack fading off to the left. I follow the suggestions, placing a very poor piece of gear (a small cam). I think to myself, this will not hold me, but at least it will slow my rate of fall.

Gear in, legs trembling, hands sweating, and heart throbbing I move above the poor piece. Seconds later, I slip and the cam catches me just long enough to flip me upside down, where I proceed to fall past my last good piece 15 feet below. Fortunately the piece holds but I take a 40 foot whipper of a fall and my head slams into the wall.

My accident was called in as a fatality as head injuries bleed with such magnitude. I was dangling upside down only maybe four feet from the ledge where my belayer was in shock over the situation. I was unconscious for about five minutes. When I regained consciousness, I remember only the piece popping. I did not recall the impact of hitting the rock.This gives me some solace in knowing that people in plane crashes will not know they hit the ground.

While it took over two months for the black eyes and cuts/scrapes to fully heal, only four days passed before I begged two friends to take me back to the crag and lead me up it so I could see what I did wrong. These two very dear friends (Jordan Campbell and John Parsons) made sure I got back on the horse. While it did not take me long to lead again, to this day, I have not led that pitch again (my wimpiness just won’t allow it).

The lessons that I learned are plentiful and are in order of the value I personally place on them:

1) Do NOT leave the ground without a helmet.
2) When one thing goes wrong, it is usually a sign of more trouble. On this particular day we had a lot of warning signs….an upset climber, followed by a last minute change in plans when she arrived with no trailing rope…
3) Try hard not to place a piece of marginal gear. This is my opinion only. I knew the piece I placed would not hold. But had no piece been there, I would likely have dropped straight down in an upright position.
4) You are the one leading the route. Do not seek counsel from the ground below but instead follow your own instinct. My gut was telling me to go right but to those on the ground it appeared the route went left.
5) Don’t run out your gear; it’s crazy. I paid a lot for my rack, I might as well use it.
Probably the most embarrassing thing about the whole episode was to have Malcolm Daly, the founder of the Trango Company (where I worked at the time and still do) visit me in the hospital. Mind you, we sell helmets and I was at the time his VP of Sales . My scrapbook boasts a clipping from the Daily Camera that reads, Tonya, Age 40, Takes a Leader Fall on Over the Hill.