White Cliffs, ColoradoNot too many people wake up in the morning and think that today could be the day that I die. Its the lack of that thought that sometimes makes me take for granted the things that I have, including loved ones, material possesions and even life itself. I guess I spend so much of my life living that the idea of dying doesn't really get much thought. So when one almost dies, it is such a surreal experience. The events of this day were so intense we were both reduced to tears. Its been just over two years since the incident and I still think of it on a weekly basis.
We woke up like any other day except for the fact that we were in Colorado. There was excitment in the air. It was like the first day I was allowed to take my car out on my own, kind of excitement. The mountains were our playground and we just got the keys. I had been dreaming of climbing in Colorado since I first heard John Denver sing of the Rockies when I was a kid. Finally here, we decided to do some more rock climbing to supplement our summit of Torrey's peak, ice climbing on McHenry's Notch Coloir and Eldo's Redgarden Wall. It was just going to be an easy day in comparison. A little mixed single pitch stuff on a 70m rope. The first thing I noticed about White Cliff was its proximity to the highway. We pulled right off the side of a major trucking route (highway) and looked up at the face which was just about 100 yards away. We got to the base geared up and banged out two easy side-by-side routes from the same central anchor I had created after the first lead. We did each route a couple of times. I had noticed that communication was near impossible when a car drove by and when there was a truck? Forget about it, you couldn't hear a thing. You would have to wait for no traffic to communicate anything. It was all single pitch stuff and seeing the belayer wasn't a problem so communication wasn't really that necessary or so we thought. After having our fill on the 2 routes we did, we decided to climb another menacing looking overhang off to the right.
It was Tyler's turn to move the rope and anchor. He topped off, took down the anchor and walked along the cliff top to the terminus of the new route with the overhang. He was off belay. I waited patiently at the base for him to build the anchor. During that time I had a drink, snack and piss. The rope had come down right after I finished my business. As I was tightening the leg loop on my harness Tyler yelled down, or I yelled up "Do you want to rap? or do you want me to lower you?" He said "lower me." So I'm standing next to the single strand of rope, looking through my biners for my belay device when the most terrifying thing I ever saw- happened. I heard a scream and looked up to see my best friend falling some 80+ feet above me. Ass over tea kettle, hurling through space clutching at air and running on clouds. 'WHAT THE FU*# HAD HE DONE OR FORGOT TO DO?' I thought to myself as time stopped for the longest couple of seconds of my (but more likely our) life/lives. I was in a mezmerized panic, temporarily frozen, as the sound of the rope whipping upward past my ear broke my trance. Without thought or further hesitation, instinctually I just grabbed the rope with my bare hands (not knowing if it was even running through an anchor above). I grabbed the rope so hard, like a last ditch effort giving every ounce of energy I had (and then some*). Skin burning as the rope slid through my palms and fingers for a second before my 'death grip' and Tylers weight on the line vaulted me skyward. There is no artistic licence here, no exaggerations, no embellishment. I did what I didn't think to be possible. I was able to stop someone who had been falling for probably 3 seconds with just my hands. This left us in a precarious position as I was now about 8 feet off the ground and Tyler was 70 something feet up hanging in space, off the cliff (because of the overhang.) Tyler was hanging there all relieved that his fall was arrested not realizing that I'm still holding him with bare, burnt hands. I'm screaming at the top of my lungs for him to pull himself into the nearby ledge and get safe and he can't hear me due to the Tonka sized trucks hauling by on the highway below. Finally a lull in the traffic and the lifting of shock makes him realize the gravity of the situation. He leans over and pulls himself into a foot ledge as I tear off a little more skin from my hands as I lower myself to the large 'target sized' jagged boulder just above the ground. Quickly I put him on belay and slowly lower him to the ground. He was shaking as was I. We were in tears, with pupils the size of nickels, from both realizing what almost just happened and more so in realizing joyfully -what didn't happen.
What followed was the wierdest thoughts I ever had. From thinking about what it would have been like to see my friend smashed, to having to tell my friend's parents their son wasn't coming home. Obviously after the shock had worn off I asked him why he stepped off the edge without ever having heard me say he was 'on belay.' He couldn't remember clearly but he thought he had asked if he was 'on' and that he thought he heard me say that he was 'on' but just thought my voice was slightly obscured by the ambient highway noise. Never did I say he was on belay or on rappel. We questioned how I was able to stop a 165lb person after they had already been falling for over 10 feet -with my bare hands. How fortunate he was that I wasn't still pissing 12 feet away from the rope. To this day I believe it was one of those 'grandmother lifting a car off a grandchild's pinned body' scenarios. A tapping into superhuman strength. Or as I like to believe an assist from The Man Upstairs*.
I still had to retrieve the anchor and the climb was at or above my ability level and I sent it like it was a 5.5, which surely it was not. I had unlocked a strength that I've only felt in moves that would result in a serious whipper if I didn't make it. We walked off and drove home and I contemplated what kind of food I was going to order for the free dinner Tyler was going to buy me. To this day he tells me that he thinks about the incident almost every day. I think most normal people would hang it up after some near death experience. Climbers aren't ordinary people, and so we climb on.