No Mercy from the Edge of the Blade

On April 26, an unfortunate accident occurred at Ragged Mountain. I happened to be nearby having a discussion and observing with 2 guests on our way to the Main Cliff.   I was not going to write about this, but there has been a flood of inquiries and I figure I might as well tell my story. I hope it helps to put my mind at ease, as this has been on my mind and bothering me ever since. I will not name the names of the party, so don’t ask. They deserve confidentiality. If the time is ever right for them, they can tell their own story. I will not provide an analysis of the accident either. There is no need to.

We stopped at the Small Cliff base to have a discussion in the warm sun shine as it was chilly first thing in the morning. The Main cliff faces west and can be cool in the spring and fall mornings. When we experience these conditions, I often approach this way to warm up. It adds about 5 minutes to the approach, but it sure is nice.

We had our packs off, and helmets in the boulders below the Troll Crack. It was a picture perfect Sunday morning. There were 2 parties climbing here, one roped up, leading on Diagonal, a Weissner classic, and one picking out a place to top rope. Both parties were from Massachusetts and Colorado.

The leader on Diagonal was cruising right along, placed a piece about 10 feet up, and then another. Just before the leader left the ground, we arrived, and exchanged “good mornings”. Seemed like it was going to be a great start to our day. Almost immediately after placing that second piece, the leader unexpectedly popped off. During the fall, the higher piece failed, pulling from the rock. He took an off balance sideways fall bounced off the arête/wall, and landed on the ground just as the rope came tight to the belayer. The belayer, obviously experienced, ran backwards when the top piece failed. The leader impacted the ground on his right side.   His right torso and head both landed in rocks at not quite full velocity. The belayer did the right thing, in a last ditch effort to make a difference. In my estimation, the fall was about 20 feet.

Being a direct witness to this, I grabbed my first aid kit, cell phone and took a deep breath. Initial impressions were that the leader was unconscious, and in respitory distress. The top rope party (we will call them the Professor and Ginger) was helpful immediately. I put my first pair of gloves on. I instructed the Professor to get his phone and dial 911, explain where we were, and what the situation was. I also told him to tell the dispatcher that we required a back board, Stokes litter with wheel, an O2 cylinder, and a Paramedic unit. I told the Professor and Ginger to head down to the base of the driveway to flag down the EMS crew as they arrived.

With the help of my two guests, and the belayer, we were able to roll and drag the leader to a flat area about 3 feet from where he landed. At this point, after about a minute or two from the impact, I was able to gain a verbal response (avpu scale) from the leader. I performed a rapid head to toe exam, with the following results:

  1. Continued respitory distress
  2. Laceration to skull
  3. Blood in mouth, no fluid in ears or nose (good sign)
  4. Crepitus to the right ribcage, full flail segment
  5. Large contusion to the right back ribcage.
  6. Large contusion to the right wrist.
  7. No spinal abnormalities discovered, no external blood that I could find, no major distracting injuries.

At this point, the leader became more alert, A+Ox2 to be exact (alert and oriented to name and place). He repeatedly asked who I was, and what happened. I repeatedly told him every time he asked. At this point, he became agitated, and began to move around against my directions. He was having difficulty breathing, and I told him if he insisted to moving, that he needed to make himself comfortable, which was difficult, and then stop. Ultimately, he ended up laying back down and his breathing, while still labored, appeared to be improving slightly. He was guarding his torso aggressively.

We heard sirens, within about 10 minutes, when a police officer arrived. I could see him in the driveway and yelled down to bring his trauma bag and O2. The officer ( a second one now) administered O2 and I took a second set of vitals and recorded them. The Southington Fire Department brought up a backboard and straps and the Stokes Litter. We packaged the leader, and transported him about 5 minutes down the trail to a waiting ambulance. He was then flown by LifeStar to St Francis Hospital.

The after action report from the leader’s friends the following day was 10 broken ribs—some broken in more than one place, pneumothorax, and a thump to the head.

The moral to this story is this: you better have your shit together at the cliff, in the mountains, and at home.   Shit happens to experienced, solid climbers. The leader appeared to do nothing wrong. It looked like a freak mishap.

A couple of things may have helped here:

  • a helmet (may have mitigated the head thump)
  • having some important emergency contact info in the backpack. It may have assisted with the who are you and who should we call questions.

This is not the first major accident I have seen or been a rescuer on. It sucks. I’m happy to help and will do everything in my power to help, but it’s stressful, and the adrenal dump afterword is not fun. Leadership will be needed, and directions will need to be taken. Work together, get the job done and do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Having a communication device (cell phone) at hand can be a time saver.

I’ve debated writing about this. This particular accident has been wearing on me more than any other I have responded to. I’m not quite sure why, but it might have something to do with the fact that the leader is a legend in my mind, and in the minds of others. He is one tough dude. That fall would have killed a lesser human lacking fitness and the will to get in the ring and fight it out.

Climbing is very rewarding, intense, physically and emotionally demanding, and most of all fun. It often about the people you are with, and the connections you make working on a common project. It’s a good physical activity. That said, nothing is with out risk. Always weigh probability/consequence, and exposure/physical vulnerability matrix. Make sound decisions, use good judgment, go for it when you have to, and retreat when it doesn’t feel quite right. The closer we get to the edge, the more difficult it is to define.

There is no mercy from the edge of the blade, and the blade does not discriminate.

* many thanks to the professional rescuers of the Southington Fire Department, the Southington Police Department, and the volunteers onsite who dropped everything to assist. The actions taken would not have been possible with out the full commitment of the first responders and the quick actions of the Professor and Ginger.

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