Scrape, scrape, scrape, with the nut tool, and my feet are littered with dirt. A tiny seam is exposed, too small for anything I have, and it's facing straight up anyways. I stand at ease in the eye of a hurricane. My comfy stance is an illusory bubble of safety: smooth wall in front, big air behind, pro far below to the left, harder unprotected climbing to the right. The river thunders a few paces behind my belayer far below, reducing our communication to hand signals. He flashes a thumbs up and thumbs down in quick succession, asking after my progress. Earlier I answered with a wavering hand, but now I simply drag my finger across my throat, from ear to chin. Back to chiseling dirt. It prolongs the fantasy that I'm still alive.
It began with dreams of a king-sized adventure. Le_bruce and I had been drooling over these plans for the last month, since I had scoured the old Roper green and red guides for worthy obscurities. You see, we'll never be world-class climbers breaking speed records or uber-studs pulling down big numbers, or even ticking the real hard man classics. But we can be counted on to bite off a little more than we can comfortably chew and make our version of a man-versus-nature epic. We thrive on that stuff. But odds have a way of catching up, and if you bet against the house often enough you're going to lose. So this here's a tale of losing.
Our approach the previous night was an adventure unto itself. During autumn, this approach to the Ribbon Falls Amphitheater is the only one I'd done faster than a Supertopo estimate. We both thought it was pretty casual. In the present high river season, trying to stay on the right, on a moonless night, it was an entirely different beast. We parked somewhere west of The Captain, and took several false starts before navigating a passage through the alluvial swamps. Impossibly, we seemed to be on a narrow island for most of our approach. Many times we slid across wet stones, pulled at tiny twigs for balance over a boiling cascade. Even if there was no climbing to be had, this adventure would make the trip worthwhile. I was often disoriented by our circuitous path, plowing toward El Cap. But le_bruce was the navigation king. Following his intuition, we crossed the right number of rivers, skirted across the correct precipices, crossed back at the right time to avoid the traps of the West Chimney and El Cap Gully, reaching the top of the slopes near the base of The Hourglass. We chose our sloping manzanita-covered bivouac poorly, and I noted the passing of hours by the bright band of Milky Way marching across the starry sky. Morning came at an entirely vulgar hour, catching me unprepared.
After a quick morning scramble along the cliffband, we came up short: the sum of water bursting forth from the Ribbon Falls Amphitheater was compressed to a single jet hurtling over a large boulder. It looked like the path of the dry season approach. At present, it would require scuba gear, winches, axes and a big bowl of wheaties. From that impasse, we spied a gently sloping ramp that looked third class, but there was no obvious pine tree to mark the start of Chockstone Chimney. I explored a bit, but decided it was more like 5.9 so I backed off in pursuit of the correct approach. We did see a likely pine a little uphill to the left, but we couldn't get through the water barrier. There was a potential dry passage, but we failed to pull the chimney to double-handjam-roof to flaring wide buttery smooth slippery offwidth. We tried a shoulder stand, but failed miserably.
Not ready to give up on the dream before we had begun, I launched up our previous path, to a back-to-feet chimney through a sloping runnel slippery with decomposing hummock dust and river mist. I hung out in a clump of trees with a rotten bail sling, while le_bruce sussed out a rope mess and I charted the next ten feet of steep hands and off-fingers to a possible face exit out left. It might connect back with the Chockstone Chimney route. I made short work of the steep crack, but my sack inverted when I spied the little face out left. Not wanting to flame out in indecision, I plugged a red Camalot and spontaneously launched up right across a face and sloping ridge to another gutter system that might reach salvation. I knew right away I couldn't reverse the moves as I mantled up to a comfortable stance a few body-lengths above my last pro. I felt good and alive with the commitment.
Soon thereafter my heart sank. The gutter had nary a crack all the way to the exit point well above me. I spent a long time scraping in the dirt. At one point I pounded a tiny offset brassy into a seam with my nut tool, but it yanked easily in my hand. After the ear-to-chin finger pantomime, I could stall no more, scrape no more, and I had a choice to make: take the plunge, maybe 20 feet, or burl through. With little preamble, before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed high with my left hand for a steep open-palmed gutter edge, and swung out right in a fully committing motion with no feet. Fortunately my hand stuck. I just hand-over-handed up the steepening gutter rail with smearing toes as I traversed out and up from my last pro. Eventually, I mantled onto the last hands-free stance near the top of the gutter system. Now my predicament took on an air of gravity. Just as before, there was naught for pro! My last gear was out of sight below, and a fall from here would be unthinkable. We're not talking sissy free-air bungee-jump, or weak-sauce slab slider. We're talking whoosh and boom-badda-boom face-smacking tumbler. I just had to sack up and get through the final ten feet to make sure that didn't happen. I took a few moments to compose myself and get my bearings, cool as a cucumber.
That last ten feet is almost vertical, smooth rock, with a pure sideways pull gutter edge and very oblique smooth wall for the barest of opposition. Pretty grim. The path to that is guarded by three desiccated hummocks barely clinging to imaginary vertical seams. Grimmer! But in a ray of salvation, I lean waaay out right and find a seam that opens to a small pocket for a single TCU placement. Excellent! I sink a piece, which looks decent for a downward fall, but it yanks from the flare easily when I pull straight out or up. I fiddle with it a few minutes, extending the sling to minimize rotation. I have no intention of testing this thing with my body, but it gives me the edge I need to go for the happy ending.
Deep breaths.... I reach high and dig two fingers into the top hummock, while pretending to side-cling another that I'm too afraid to touch. Hard gulp, leap of faith, I'm stepping up and onto another hummock, body now fully committed to this junk and terrified! I'm trying to stop my foot from shifting, but it keeps grinding out hummock powder on the ticking time bomb. Fricken' HOLD STILL! I can't release my death-claw from the top hummock, but I get the other up to a wide sideways pinch while pasting a toe out high and wide on nothing. I'm yarding up in powerful sideways opposition... death claws out of the hummock for the next reach... I'm maxed out and about to lose it and can't see what's next!!! Oh sh#t, back toward the hummocks *#* POP *#*
My right foot flies off in silence loud as thunder... I'm falling sideways, twisting, hand instinctively reaching for the cam to arrest my fall. Down, not out... my hand slides across the sling in a blur, I feel a brief jolt, and it rips out!!!!
This is it. I'm going big.
My mind is silent, no life flashing before my eyes.
Just silence. And waiting.
For an eternity, eyes pressed shut and waiting,
As I sail sideways in freefall.
Smack - CRUNCH
as the back of my helmet kisses the rock hard, I take a concussive impact right between my shoulder blades.
and I cleanly bounce away to more air....
Another eternity, sailing in who knows which direction.
Soaring free, spinning, and a solid crater impact.
But it's all fuzzy, mercifully spared the ugly details.
I'm laying on my back in an adjacent gully, head pointing up hill. The rope runs in a taut line straight from my harness to the red camalot about 25-30 feet above me. Quick body scan, wiggling toes and fingers. More deliberately, I bend my arms at the elbows and watch my fingers move one at a time, to make sure I can control them. I'm wheezing, back has got to be destroyed, better get off this pile before I pass out.
"Siiiiix feeeeet" I wheeze out weakly. I want to slither down to a tree where I can quickly build an anchor and rap while I'm conscious. Still laying on my back, I wheeze out again "siiiix feeeet" but le_bruce can't hear me. I feel kind of desperate, and try a few more times before he can understand through the backdrop of the roaring river.
I reach the tree, girth hitch a sling, and pull through enough slack for the brief rap to the ground without bothering to untie. I think le_bruce took care of things from there, helping me to drop the rack, slings, gatorade bottles dangling from my harness, vest laden with 2 days of adventure snacks, flip-flops, and whatever other crap was hanging on me. By this time I notice a burning in my fingers and see the skin flayed off the back of the first digits nearest the knuckles. My ring finger actually has no skin for a 270 degree arc! It reminds me of that story of Maurice Herzog in Annapurna, where he's rapping down the rope with his bare frozen hand and ribbons of skin are peeling off. It's hideous, but in a fascinating way. My other fingers on that hand aren't much better.
It's stunning, but I'm alive! My back and ribs are pretty beat up, but I'm walking and basically mobile! I lean over by the frigid river and give my hand a good soaking and cleaning until it's numb, which only takes about two seconds. I'm glad for the abundance of water as I continue to clean and numb it at intervals on the hike down.
After le_bruce cleans the pro and gathers up our stuff, including our first night bivy gear, it's clear he can't carry it all. He repacks his haul sack with the sleeping bags and light stuff, and I have to carry it. It's light, but it's still a chore for me. I'm still laboring to take deep breaths and moving in slow motion when trying to sit down or get up, and I wince as I open my arms to get through the pack straps, but I can do it. For the next two hours, we take it easy down the hill, with frequent pauses and careful traverses across the steep hanging dirt slopes, brushy forests, and monster talus fields where I grimace and slide from my butt down little drops where normally I would jump. Back at the car... my fingers are clean from the rivers, and the rope or sling burns seemed to cauterize the tissue where it burned through so there's no blood. My vision is good, no light-headedness, doesn't feel like my organs are bleeding out, so we forsake the stop by the medical clinic and just head home to the bay. In hindsight we should have done a pupil dilation test, but my head really felt fine. I decided to monitor myself on the trip home while le_bruce drove, and would go to the doctor if things went downhill. Well, today (a week later) I went to the doctor because the skin on my ring finger doesn't seem to be growing back, but the doc said it's healing fine. I've been putting hydrogen peroxide on it every day and keeping it covered, and a little pus-crust comes off each time, but the infection has been kept at bay. Now I'm switching to antibacterial ointment to minimize disruption to the new skin, to keep it wet, and keep the bandages from sticking so clean tissue can grow back.
I feel a little guilty that I'm not having more spiritual revelations about being alive. It's just a matter of fact thing that I flew through the air an astonishing distance with a couple of big smacks, and now here I am more than walking around. For sure I notice some things that ain't right in my body at the moment, but I cheated death and dismemberment, or a lifetime chair sentence. Why am I so lucky?
On the drive back with le_bruce, I was joking that maybe it was karma because just the day before, on the way out of town, I got a monster cashier's check and paid to reinstate my second house on the last day before it was sold in foreclosure. It had been a moral and pragmatic dilemma for me, whether I should back up my convictions with most of my worldly savings in the aftermath of a divorce. I could have easily walked away and been $110k richer with no more headaches. But it would have destroyed my credit, and I would have felt like I cheated. I don't have a perfect ethical record, but for the big things in life I think it matters to take a stand and define who you are, what you want to be in the world. So I decided that my integrity was more important than my savings account, and I don't regret it. I paid the backlog to clear the foreclosure, and am going through the process of getting it sold and paying the difference for the underwater mortgage. I found a way to pragmatically rationalize that it's a good financial decision too, because a few years from now when I want to buy a house, that $110k saved would buy me much less house than the loan I will be able to get against my income with decent credit. So my heart is light and clean, my savings account is light, and maybe I'm still alive because the dude upstairs saw that I’m trying to do the right thing.
Who knows. Sometimes terrible people seem to get all the lucky breaks, and sometimes good people lose and die horrible deaths or worse. All I know is there's no accounting for me coming out unscathed from a terrible fall, and I'll find some solace in believing that my commitment to do the right thing put a karmic mattress in that gully to catch me.
CAPTAIN'S LOG, SUPPLEMENTAL. STAR DATE 2011-05-19. HERE ARE SOME PICS.
The business on Hourglass Left (general vicinity of our bivy spot):
4th Class downclimb to the left of Nottingham as we skirt the base toward Chockstone Chimney:
Our way is blocked by water, and we can't get up the chimney/cave roof even with a shoulder stand (see le_bruce back in the shadows):
This seems like the proper approach in a drier season:
Here's looking up "our" route:
It didn't look like much in person either, and foreshortening skews distance perspective. That big tree/bush sticking out of left wall up higher obscures the final gutter system I was climbing on when I fell. You can see the vertical crack area where I had my last pro that held.
Looking up from immediately below the vertical crack section... the pine tree waypoint from start of Chockstone Chimney may be up and left.
Working on my cover shot for "19th Century Furtrapper's Quarterly" (the pine tree from Chockstone Chimney in the background?):
Looking down from where I took the last 2 pictures, bottom of the crack. The red camalot that held me was about 8 feet above this, and I fell to 6 feet above the tree with lots of sticks showing in center left foreground. I had come up the ramp system straight from where le_bruce is in the right side of the picture. Sorry I didn't think to take pics after this!
During hike back to car, river was raging!
And it was generally a good adventure:
Back to the cars, gathering up goodies from the El Cap bear boxes, and taking in the alternate view from the bridge: