Trip Report
Falling in Vegas
Friday May 20, 2016 3:56pm
I wrote and rewrote this some years ago. I decided to share, but was not sure where to put it.


After 38 years of our sport, none of my friends have died climbing. I’m a Black Canyon good luck no bivy talisman with hundreds of vertical miles on stone. I’ve been seriously injured once. My partner Joe was an Emergency Medical Technician and a SAR team was practicing so close we could hear their helicopter. Luck. But, if I’m injured again, I quit!…. I think.

I met Joe in Okinawa. Boston Joe to my family, he enlisted in the marines after 9/11 and shortly afterward found himself confined to a Marine base in the Okinawan jungle, the victim of a Japanese/Okinawan/American pissing contest. I was his ticket off base.

Joe went on to Iraq and after surviving the worst of Faluga, settled down to an EMT/fire fighter’s life in Boston. I moved back to DC, and we got together every few months for climbs in the Gunks, Adirondacks, and Red Rocks. Our first trip to Red rocks was great and we made our second trip January 07. I decided to up the excitement with a 12R on the brass wall.

Coordinating our flights, we arrived together and shared a midnight ride to Bonnie Springs. Joe thought Rip Cord sounded cool and by sunrise I was racked up and leading. Rip Cord has a hard boulder problem start to a poor stance with a no longer available # ½ cam placement in a corner. Vertical miles in Yosemite told me the cam was solid, and I didn’t examine the rock. Above was a section of hard stemming with 10 ft to a green alien placement. I could see it well and got the piece ready before I committed.

After evaluating pro, difficulty and danger I climb silently or retreat, concentrating every drop of my ability on climbing. Danger is a memory enhancer, but this route to my brain is partially blocked and climbing memories are no longer vivid. I remember stemming hard thinking, “ohoh, it is cold, and the rubber isn’t adapting well. Go!” I got my finger into the crack and went for the green alien as my feet slipped and body fell. The corner cam provided a momentary arrest, followed by a loud crack as rock broke. The cam zinged and a 5 ft. flake flew at me, hitting me as I hit a ledge, causing severe pain in my heel and chest.

I did not lose consciousness but I was paralyzed from the rock hit. I saw Joe dodge the boulder then heard him yell for me. I could not speak. I struggled to breathe for minutes with Joe’s yells a fading distraction. Hanging limp, I wondered if I would die. There was no calmness and I fought desperately to gulp air. If I lost consciousness before breathing I was sure I would die. My life did not flash before my eyes, nor did I have any revelation. I can’t say if this represents vacuity or verity. Just before brown walls closed in, I sucked a few mouthfuls and signaled Joe—his yelling was bothersome and had taken a new edge.

After lowering I managed to sit, and since I was bleeding from chest and arm Joe stripped away clothes. Bruises were forming and I had deep lacerations. Joe put his ear to my chest and determined there was no blood filling my lungs. Ten minutes after the fall, I still wasn’t sure I’d live. I felt horrible, could not get enough air, and a section of my chest and belly was turning crimson under the skin. Although my foot looked OK, I put it on the ground and the heel screamed facture. Joe pulled out his cell phone and we were informed a SAR team and helicopter would arrive in 10 minutes.

The helicopter landed on a boulder. By this time I knew I wasn’t dying soon and the thought of a helicopter rescue made me sicker. In 2002 I had a balcony view of a botched Yosemite rescue. Erik Strom and I could hear bones break as a rescuer and a climber with a fractured elbow were pin-balled through trees on a gurney attached to a helicopter. For several years afterward I answered e-mail about the fatality. I did not want a helicopter ride; I wanted the rescuers to carry me out and I told them so.

“If we carry you, it will be a whole lot of misery for you and us.”

The helicopter ride was 10 minutes of agony. My clothes had been cut off, I was covered with blood, and my chest was bare but for my bloody down jacket drape. It was near freezing. After loading me beneath the helicopter, a rescuer hopped into the litter with me, avoiding the injured parts but putting severe pressure on my thighs.

An ambulance was waiting at the park entrance, and within a minute I was inside begging for heat. I don’t remember them turning the siren on. Maybe they did, or maybe they figured that the guy begging for heat wasn’t badly hurt. They chuckled. It had been a busy night in Vegas and I was triaged in the hospital parking lot. Lifting my jacket and seeing a huge bruise, the physician barked a few orders, and an ultra sound unit appeared.

“You are hemorrhaging inside. We may need to open you, but first we must determine with dye and imaging what is bleeding. We are going to put in an arteriole line too. Here is some Morphine.”

The arterial line wasn’t bad and the die was weird; strange going in, and later a metallic taste in my mouth. The magnetic cocoon for imaging slid over me and then back off.

A tall black man appeared. “I’m your surgeon. We are going to monitor you, but if you get worse, I’ll cut you open. Your liver is lacerated.”

The rest of the day and night was a haze of arteriole draws, hourly monitoring, morphine and my buddy Joe.
“How you doin Colonel”
“Kinda like I ate Cass Elliot’s sandwich and she tried to get it out by jumping on me.”
“Bouldering’s great, sorra for leavin but here is some Whole Foods premo”
“Its way betta than that hospital stuff in front of ya”
Somewhat later the police came for my roommate who was suffering from multiple fractures. He was accused of a “hit and run” which involved way more hitting than running.
Well, the bleeding stopped, and after two days I made it home reporting for duty as my commander requested. I hadn’t told him I had a fractured calcaneus and fractured ribs with internal injuries. I worked until noon, and then hobbled to the Emergency Room on crutches. The ER doc had a quick look, and said “You are seriously injured. What are you doing?” I left in a wheel chair with an escort.

As required by regulation, some weeks later my commander and a few colonels came to my office and gave me a safety briefing on rock climbing. By this time, laughing did not cause extreme pain.

Post script: “Hey Sukowski that felt like 5.12, do you think the fall was clean?”

  Trip Report Views: 3,059
steven Curtis
About the Author
steven Curtis is a trad climber from Petaluma.


Trad climber
  May 20, 2016 - 06:28pm PT
Thanks for the share. I chuckled through gritting teeth while reading.

I know it's been a while, but it is still amazing to see how you bounced back from such a serious injury and continue to crank hard and how the experience did not put a damper on your passion for climbing. Very inspiring!

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  May 20, 2016 - 07:00pm PT
January 07. Just out of curiosity, had it been raining before your arrival?

I have climbed a lot of R routes and still will, but my philosophy has always been that the rating has to be close to "i just can't imagine falling at that grade and that kind of route". Which leads to Another question (don't feel compelled to answer): was that 5.12 R in your comfort zone?

I was actually just thinking about this issue the other day because I will not lead 5.9 R anymore, even though there was a time I was not at all concerned about it and I still don't fall on 5.9. So there's some threshold that's different for different people at different times in their lives. Has your own philosophy about R routes evolved since the accident?
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  May 20, 2016 - 09:57pm PT
Ouch! And then some.
I'm not sure what to say, but it's good to survive, and over time you healed up pretty well.

Maybe the lesson is not to trust a single placement in sandstone that is between you and disaster?
Could test it by downclimbing back to the ground and yarding on the rope?
I remember the first time I saw this done -
doing FAs in Connecticut where the crags are short and the ground
is never that far away.

I've never been in that much pain.
My wife fractured her liver once, falling to the ground when playing baseball.
It looks like it was extremely painful, and she has a high tolerance for pain.

Fractured heel has to be pretty bad, too.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  May 21, 2016 - 03:38am PT
Glad you made it through

Social climber
  May 21, 2016 - 04:06am PT
hey there say, steven... whewww... just as there is always some bad thing that went wrong, when you fall, there is some good thing, that went GOOD for you, to make it through...

so glad, for you...

thanks for sharing this event in your life... a lot of climbers
out there can sure understand... man oh man...

you had a great crew all around, for you, too... (that's the good) ...


trip report... great place to share it, so you did well...

Trad climber
  May 21, 2016 - 04:10am PT
Glad you didn't die.


Trad climber
Bishop, CA
  May 22, 2016 - 09:38am PT
Great read. Thanks for sharing.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  May 22, 2016 - 09:51am PT
Wow, nicely written....allows the reader to be there, although I'm not sure that is a good thing.

Social climber
  May 22, 2016 - 10:07am PT
Harrowing account! For such a bad incident, the stars were aligned for you, with SAR people already there.

Stemming on that varnish is sketchy! Glad you're around to tell the tale.


San Jose, CA
  May 23, 2016 - 05:15pm PT
Steve, thank you for well written horror story, I felt your pain and sorry that you pick up wrong route at the time. The good things that you still climbing.
I checked Ripcord on MP after reading this.

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  May 23, 2016 - 05:35pm PT

As usual, nice work. Staying alive is its own crux sometimes. TFPU

Does this mean you need more time on Pinnacles rock, to train for more Black Canyon? :)

Trad climber
  Mar 10, 2017 - 05:52am PT
Yup, sounds like the Steve Curtis I know. You've never been scared of hanging it out there. A long ways out from one cam in sandstone is the climber I knew you as. I remember meeting you shortly after this accident. You were TRing 5.11 in GF on crutches and hobbling out to Seneca with me and still climbing 5.11 with one foot. It was later on that I truly was able to witness to your mettle. Thanks for all the great adventures Sensei! To this day, you're the best all around climber I've ever met and I was lucky enough to climb with you. Talk soon, Steve.

-Joe DeGaetano

Oakland, CA
  Mar 10, 2017 - 09:56am PT
The helicopter landed on a boulder. By this time I knew I wasn’t dying soon and the thought of a helicopter rescue made me sicker. In 2002 I had a balcony view of a botched Yosemite rescue. Erik Strom and I could hear bones break as a rescuer and a climber with a fractured elbow were pin-balled through trees on a gurney attached to a helicopter.

Horrific. See Clint's post and links here for more info:

Social climber
  Mar 10, 2017 - 01:04pm PT
Damn dude. Glad you are OK. thanks for sharing.

Trad climber
  Mar 10, 2017 - 03:37pm PT
Man, that's an experience I'm happy to not be able to relate to. Glad you survived!

[Click to View YouTube Video]

Social climber
Choss Creek, ID
  Mar 11, 2017 - 11:38am PT
Nice job on writting your story. Glad you recovered.

Ice climber
Pomfert VT
  Mar 11, 2017 - 04:28pm PT
Nice writeing.. I will say that I do find it amuseing and not surpriseing that a Jar head thinks 5.12R is a good idea ;)

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
  Mar 12, 2017 - 03:25am PT
There was no calmness...
My life did not flash before my eyes...

Interesting. Had each of those happen, one in each of two separate incidents, one climbing one not.