My Day at Beacon Rock

Glenn Widener
(Sorry, no photos!)

Since Mazama Basic School in 1989, I have been gradually building my rock climbing skills and confidence, with sporadic top-roping up to 5.10a, completing and teaching rock in Mazamas intermediate school, and recently, six flawless leads, 3 at 5.6 and 4 multi-pitch. So, on November 4, 1995, I decided I wanted to try the 5.7 Southwest Corner route on Beacon Rock, on the recommendation of an experienced Mazama leader. He had also recommended Cinnamon Slab and Super Slab at Smith, which I found to be well within my abilities and very pleasant.

I hooked up with my friend from intermediate school, Robert Joy, and we arrived at the route about 1PM Saturday November 4th, 1995. A red letter day in my life, as it turned out.

I breezed up the 5.6 first pitch, and Bob followed relatively easily. Pro was excellent, as it had been on all my previous leads. Bob led the easy but exposed traverse to the wide belay ledge, and set up a solid anchor off two big bolts. First red flag: on the belay ledge, tied into the bolts, was a first-time climber. He had been coaxed into trying climbing by following a couple of experienced friends and had burned out attempting the next pitch. They had left him tied into the anchor, completed the climb, and were rappelling down. He waved in the general direction of where his buddies had gone, and after chatting briefly, I started up the pitch.

I found a fair placement for a #10 hex about 8 feet off the ledge, then the route steepend and I could see no placements above me. There was an easy ramp off to the left that seemed to lead to an easy sloping traverse, so I tried it. As I did, I noticed a couple of rain drops. Bad weather was expected in the evening, and was appearing earlier than I had hoped. I considered bailing, since we barely had enough daylight left anyway, but postponed the decision. There were no more raindrops.

I got two more placements, a #1 hex and a #7 stopper, each in shallow cracks, at four foot intervals. Four feet above the last placement, I had my left foot on a sloping ledge, my left hand in a flaring crack, and was searching for right hand/footholds to make the traverse back. Nothing! What looked like an easy sloping traverse from below was actually a blank 45 degree slab. Easy ground was a tantalizing 4 feet away. I searched for holds for a couple of minutes, and was a few seconds from down-climbing back to the first piece, when without warning my left foot popped off. Apparently, the rock shoe had been slowly oozing off the sloper.

OH SHIT! (I reserve this word for special occasions such as this.) I remember the rock rapidly ascending above me, than I start spinning, and the next thing I know I'm hanging with a view of my rope headed off along a rock face and disappearing over an edge about 20 feet away. Where the hell is up? and why does my right foot not look to be where it feels like it is? There is up, let me get there. Great, a fractured femur, let's see if it is compound. No, but I start to notice that it hurts more than just a bruise. And there is a wicked laceration on my left palm.

Meanwhile, Bob watches my fall in slo-mo. Uh oh, Glenn yelled and is falling straight out into space, but he's got that piece just below that should catch him. Nope, surely the next piece will. Man, that big hex flew straight out of the crack, and Glenn is falling past the ledge. Oh my God, this is going to be a long fall, I'd better get tight on my anchor and hunker down for the impact. Oh good, he hit the end of the rope, a pretty gentle impact, and it didn't get cut over the edge of the ledge. I have no idea what the terrain is like over the edge, or how close the ground is. He must be banged up pretty bad. I hope he is still alive. "Glenn, are you ok?"

I have not had a chance to talk to the guy clipped into the ledge, so I can only guess what was going through his mind as he watched my fall! Bob was busy with the belay, but the guy told Bob that he saw me bounce off the ledge.

Bob calls down to me, and I report back OK, but broken leg. OW, if this goes compound, I'm in real trouble. Better grab a sling and clip my knees together, the flapping leg is scary. Hmm, I wonder what Bob is up to, I think I'll just drop a #9 hex into this big crack here for a little belated insurance. There, that feels much better! Another sling around my ankle, and I can relax a bit.

Luckily, the two climbers who had left their friend were rappelling off, saw the fall, and one rapped down to me in about five minutes and checked me out. He informed me that he had broken his lower leg in a fall at the same spot three years earlier! He assisted while Bob lowered me the 80 feet to the ground. Meanwhile, someone hiking at the base off the rock had run out and called an EMT. She showed up about five minutes after I was on the ground. The ambulance people arrived about 15 minutes later. They had called the Burlington Northern railroad. Their tracks run 20 feet from the base of Beacon, and they will send a locomotive over if it's in the area. After splinting my leg, they loaded me on the engine, which carried us all a mile down the track to where it joins the highway. Into the ambulance I went, off to the hospital for morphine, xray, surgery, and a shiny titanium rod permanently inserted the full length of my femur with four big screws holding it all together.

Meanwhile, Bob spent about an hour helping teach the guy left on the ledge how to rappel, and getting everyone off the rock. By the time they were down, I was being carried off. Then signals got crossed on which hospital I went to, so Bob did not find me until the next day.

As I review and revise this sad tale, it's now exactly one year later. When you are approaching 40, broken bones take a lot longer than 6 weeks to heal. I've recently done a couple of easy climbs, but I am still far from fully recovered. I feel almost as nervous on rock as when I first started climbing in 1981. Every day my body reminds me of my accident.

What have I learned? My wife has learned that 6 years of anxiety over my climbing were justified. I don't think I'll be leading rock for a while, not until I've seconded an experienced pro setter who knows how to put pro in that will stay in, and tested my placements enough to master the technique. That's assuming my wife will ever let me lead again!

Many things have come to mind that contributed in various degrees to my accident, that I wish I had done differently. Here is my list of new climbing resolutions, starting with the ones that I think contributed most to my accident:

- I have come to believe that the biggest hole in my leading is not having TESTED actual placements. Nothing like falling on your bum (as Joe Simpson puts it), to demonstrate the difference between good and bad placements! I'm going to take lots of falls on my pro in a safe location before trying it 120 feet in the air again.
- Hand your second a hammer and pick, so you do not have to worry about whether he can extract your placements. I believe that one reason my placements failed is that I did not yank them into place hard enough.
- If you are stepping up a grade in leading, do it on a route you have already followed.
- Check your feet periodically when standing on slopers.
- I tend to be overconfident in my ability to accurately analyze situations, and thus I can fail to allow sufficient margin for "analysis error".
- I need to stay in touch with my feelings, and pay attention when things are starting to feel marginal.
- Rock steepness is hard to read when looking straight up. Practice, practice, on top rope.

The following come to mind, though I don't think they were much of a factor in my injuries:

- Intermediate school is not sufficient to learn to lead rock. Take advanced rock before attempting a lead on natural pro with a significant likelihood of a fall.
- Find a good leader and be their apprentice.
- Always put in a directional first piece, even if your belayer is right next to the wall. Apparently, my lowest piece flew out of the crack before I hit the ledge. This means that I never actually came onto that piece, and that it pulled just from the outward forces caused by the very slight bend of the rope between the upper pieces and the belay. In fact, I conclude that a directional is a good idea any place along the route that the rope bends significantly. In my case, it apparently didn't matter, since the damage was done before I would have been stopped by the first piece, but still, it would have been nice to see at least one piece hold!
- Learn to take falls on lead, on a nice safe vertical sport route, before launching out on natural pro. Any leader who has not taken a leader fall is an inexperienced leader.
- Don't race the dark.
- Don't race the rain.
- Abort now, not later! The rock will still be there tomorrow.