Protect the Belay

Protect the Belay

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Trad Climbing

In memorium

In response to the losses of Brutus and Cyrill, I want to tell a story of something that happened to me in 2005. My hope is that it gets people to think a little longer about keeping the forms. About following the mundane rules that protect us from ourselves.

Watch the weather. Don't drive exhausted.

Protect the belay.

A difficult story to tell

Photo of the Dorothea Wallner Ged├Ąchtnis RouteMat stands beneath the wall. Enlarge to full size to see a topo of the route. The red dots mark the start and end of my fall.

Over the last few years, I've tried to write this story down several times. I never get very far. Complicated feelings of shame or sorrow usually stop me. Mat tells me that I make too much of it. But I'll never forget the quiet shock I felt when we went back two years later. Mat stopped to get some water, some distance ahead of me. A ray of sun broke through the clouds encircling this southern Wetterstein corrie. The back of Mat's neck bore a nasty scar. "I did that." A hush fell over me like a
thick blanket, and forever seemed like a long time indeed.

Only gradually I've realized how the experience changed me. I feel like I have a secret. That if people really knew me, they would want to avoid me. Perhaps this brought a hardness to my eyes that wasn't there before. When I think about it, my mind riffles through the narrative, then always comes to rest on Mat, drinking water. Going on with his life. Scarred. It makes it hard for me to see him.

November, 2005. I'd just moved to Germany and worked my first week. Everything was exciting and new. I was flush with a feeling of accomplishment, having successfully orchestrated the move of my family and all of our things to the other side of the world. For now I was alone, in a rented room. And the Alps were in my backyard! Finally, the best climber
I ever met, also the funniest guy, lived down the road in Garmisch. Mat was already famous in our circle for his climbing feats, usually accomplished with raw strength, at night in a storm on a big mountain. Just to give you an idea, once he was soloing the Gibralter Ledges on Mount Rainier when a climber rocketed down from above. He down-climbed a steep icy gully to reach him, tend to the man's bleeding and call 911 for a helicopter. I still have a serious case of hero worship for this kind, funny guy.

Anyway, Mat and his girlfriend created a great life in Garmisch. Hiking, climbing and doing good work in the medical field. For my first Saturday in Germany we went to climb a 6 pitch sport climb on the Mieminger Kette peaks. For the next day we planned a real alpine rock climb with less bolts. We chose the Dorethea Wallner Memorial Route on the South Face of the Musterstein, with several pitches of solid 5.10 crack climbing. Little did I suspect it would almost be a memorial route for us.

A few pitches up was the first 5.10 crack. I climbed it, finding it tough to hang from a jam and get a good cam in. At the end of the crack I found a belay station to bring Mat up. As it turned out, I'd only led half of a pitch. Mat led a bolted 5.10d face with a wicked runout finish with an overhang. Struggling, I aided through this part.

For the next pitch I felt tired, but I thought it was a grade 5.6 corner pitch to connect with more crack climbing pitches above. But actually the grade was 5.8 or 5.9, so it would tax me more than I wanted. The months of preparing to move to Germany had left little time for climbing, and after two hard pitches and the previous day I was pretty wasted. I considered asking Mat to lead for a while, but decided instead to go one more pitch and rest higher up. This is one of those, at the time, momentary, almost meaningless thoughts that haunts me years later, assuming an outsized proportion.

I started up an easy but scruffy corner, not bothering to protect. Two years later, when Mat led this pitch, he placed 3 pieces in that region that I scampered up without any gear. "This is pretty hard!" he said. "You're a funny guy," he added. All I could feel was shame though. Why didn't I protect on the easy ground? Or what was wrong with me? You always protect the belay! Once again, feelings of incompetence nearly paralyze me.

After 15 or 20 feet I reached an overhang and figured to sew it up. I found a piton, clipped it, and then found a nut placement at the same level on the right in a flaring crack. I clipped the other rope to this piece. Now I failed to notice that I should traverse hard left and avoid the worst of the overhang. Powering straight up, things started happening in rapid sequence.

First a foothold broke. I caught myself with my hands. But then at that moment the nut, now at the level of my ankles, pulled out of the flaring crack. Maybe Mat pulled the rope in a bit when the foothold broke. I was in a strenuous position and immediately thought: "up or down?" I looked up to see a hand crack that would get me to a ledge. Making my decision I got a hand jam and brought my feet up. Another jam higher, I was almost there. And then--

--then I was in the air. Puzzled.

--then the piton pulled out, and I'm arcing in a backwards dive. Looking straight down into an impossible gulf below Mat. I thought I was dead, because I knew that having lost my nut and the piton, there was nothing between me and the belay 20 feet below. To me a factor 2 fall was a kind of mythical situation, just to be feared. That's when carabiners break, when ropes snap. I had enough time in the air to feel sadness, to feel that I'd foolishly thrown my life away. To see my small Family, standing together with unreadable expressions. I knew Sorrow. I thought how I'd let Mat down so badly. It's only a matter of time now, and though it stretched out I knew it would eventually end and everything would go black.

At Mat's insistence, we went back, though it took two years. I guess he thought to banish the demons of that day. I really didn't want to banish them, if it were even possible. I felt that they should remain to punish me, to serve as a signpost to me. "It's not all fun and games," I felt I needed to be told. I didn't trust my instincts. I never will trust my instincts the way I did. There is a spot on the sun that takes a small measure out of the simple joy it brings. Have I been somehow ruined, or is it just living that does that to everyone?

WHAM! There was a dazing impact and I gradually realized I was alive. I was hanging upside down, the rope wrapped several times around and among my legs. I heard groaning. I didn't know if it was me or Mat. Finally I realized it was Mat. He was asking me to take the weight off the rope. I was sure I must be bleeding out somehow, remembering stories of shell-shocked accident victims wandering around spurting blood. I checked my legs, hips and back, then swung around on the rope. I had fallen to the anchor of the short pitch directly below Mat. The impact was my backpack hitting the wall. I clipped into the anchor and tested my feet to see if I could stand. "Okay Mat, I'm off!" I called up, shocked by the raggedness in my voice. I was already hurrying to rationalize, to repair, the situation. "I think I can climb," I said. Somehow I thought that if I could keep climbing that would erase the magnitude of what just happened.

But it was clear that Mat was injured. His groans were frightening. What has to happen to make such a big strong guy sound like that? I waited. Mat worked with the ropes, setting up a rappel to come down to me. He arrived. "You were like a cat in the air above me," he said. He had to duck out of the way. He said he was certain I was dead.

On the MustersteinOn a misty day, reclimbing the Musterstein.

Mat grimaced, with a nasty wound on the back of his neck where the rope had neatly removed a 6 inch long strip of flesh. The same kind of strip was missing from his hand. His belay hand.

But the worst injury was less visible. During the fall, the rope tightened around his leg and twisted, possibly tearing his ACL. I thought about his upcoming trip to Patagonia. He and Jeff had been planning it for months. Mortified and ashamed, all I could think was that I'd ruined his trip.

We made 5 rappels, then carefully down-climbed a long grade II-III ledge system to reach a basin below the peak. "Why did you fall?" Mat asked. I tried to explain, but there was no explanation that would exonerate me from carelessness, poor judgment and weakness. I was really in a mood to beat myself up, and years later, I still am.

We hiked down, Mat limping. My injuries wouldn't bother me until that night. In the next few days my legs would turn yellow and purple where the ropes had squeezed them. I had nothing to complain about though.

Mat took us to a beer garden with a beautiful view of the Wetterstein. We hobbled in, looking beat. I have to smile though. It's just like Mat to go get a beer just like normal after an event like that.

I felt anything but normal though. I felt like I had to do something drastic. It would be...I thought...monstrous to go on like death didn't almost occur. Mat though, despite the fact that he could barely hold his glass of beer was already playing it down. But I insisted on apologizing to his girlfriend for almost getting him killed. Talking to my wife on the phone about it was surreal. Chiefly, she was glad I was okay, she left it up to me to decide what the accident meant. As a family man, I thought about the timing of the whole thing. Here I was, establishing an apartment and new job in a new country, my family was temporarily "homeless," staying with parents in Hawaii until we could re-unite at Christmas. What would it mean for me to disappear at that point?

The question made me shudder. I couldn't sleep, and even had shivering fits. I felt like an actor watching myself from a distance, and when my thoughts returned to the event it was always the sickly swaying backwards as I flipped upside down when the piton came out...seeing the scruffy valley floor rushing towards me.

I logged onto cascadeclimbers to learn Carl Skoog had died. I remembered him years before at Washington Pass telling me he felt more secure on ski edges than with an ice axe. From across the valley I watched him ski the South Early Winter's couloir masterfully. I told my own story in a rush, needfully, emphasizing that I felt like I'd come back from the land of the dead...or ventured so close to it's borders that the aura of silence and sorrow coming from that place seemed to surround me. I don't know if I made a sound when I fell. I do know I was absorbed within myself, watching what was happening with sadness. People replied to my message, expressing
relief that we were okay. Nobody yelled at me. People talked about their own close calls. They said they lived life differently after that. I thought that I would too.

Two years later, in 2007, Mat and I were roping up at the base of the wall again, after third-classing the approach ramp just like before. It was misting lightly. I was ambivalent, alternating between not wanting to lead at all and wanting to grapple again with the pitch I fell on. Mat still had the scars on his neck and hand. I felt a little better recently when he
said that "chicks dig it." In the months after the accident, Mat did an MRI on himself in the hospital and prescribed a course of daily swimming. He managed to heal completely and he and Jeff successfully climbing Fitz Roy and other mountains over Christmas. I was extremely grateful for that. There is nothing worse than being the person who by action or inaction allows harm to come to someone else. While I waited to see how his healing went, the color was drained from the world. I pray to God I'm never in that situation again.

You would think two years would be enough to dispel the darker emotions around the fall. I thought so. But I was surprised that when it came time for me to lead the pitch I fell on, I immediately relinquished the lead to Mat. I just had zero interest in it. I didn't care what kind of narrative that would project about my resilience. The stories we tell ourselves about goals met, failures overcome, about "getting back on the horse," seemed hollow and pointless. Somehow I was becoming crabby and resentful. It didn't help that when I followed the pitch the step leftward to avoid the overhang seemed both easy and obvious. I was hating myself.

Near the top, I shortened a pitch due to rope drag, then was slow to get away on the pitch after. "Ding, times up!" said Mat, concerned about the chance of thunderstorm as we traversed the ridge to get down. He took the lead, leaving me to feel like a furious child. Somehow all the negative emotions clanged together, and once he reached a belay I called up that I would untie and follow. Mat watched me evenly. I couldn't explain my anger, nor the inexplicable decision to solo a few hundred meters of easy ground to the chossy, not-very-significant summit of the Musterstein.

Even as I climbed, feeling absolutely miserable without knowing why, I began to understand I had flown too close to the sun again. I wasn't ready to come back here. There would be no conquering of this place for me. There would be no diminishing of the fear that coated these rocks. And it was partly because I wanted it so. That is what my soloing reaction was born of: a petulant, helpless NO. I was saying no to the whole experiment. It didn't matter that we had climbed it. It was better to mar the event. The Musterstein for me is a testament to complacency, to carelessness, to arrogance. I will not tear it down.

Because I need it.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 45

TJ311 - Jun 19, 2009 12:39 pm - Voted 10/10




mvs - Jun 20, 2009 4:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Chilling!

Thanks TJ311. I didn't realize it would seem that scary but I re-read it after your comment and definitely feel the "horror" vibe :). Everyone is okay's more just the feeling of coming close to worse problems.


rpc - Jun 19, 2009 4:40 pm - Voted 10/10

well written

& an honest retelling of a scary & painful event. Kudos.


mvs - Jun 20, 2009 4:00 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: well written

Thanks Radek.


Mountainjeff - Jun 21, 2009 4:09 pm - Hasn't voted

Reminds me of myself

I still have an occasional nightmare about a climb last summer where I watched a close friend fall unroped 500 ft and smashing his head on a rout finding mistake that was my fault. He survived after a one month coma. It is a terrible feeling, but I just had to accept the fact that everyone forgave me and nothing more could be done. It has changed the way I climb.


mvs - Jun 21, 2009 4:22 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Reminds me of myself

Oh man that is really rough. I feel for you and your friend and everyone involved and am really glad things have worked out!


mvs - Jun 22, 2009 6:17 am - Hasn't voted

Re: The kind of experience

Thanks Sergio, that is an excellent takeaway.


Tsuyoshi - Jun 22, 2009 12:01 am - Voted 10/10

thank you for sharing

after i took a 20'+ whip on a stupid overhanging corner 450' up the sw face of the tooth (with an easy traverse below it which i completely missed), i told myself i was going to go back and lead through it. i went back there about a month ago. as i arrived at the belay about 30m below the overhanging corner i got angry and ashamed; angry because i couldn't believe i even tried the corner in the first place, and ashamed because i was standing there thinking about doing it again. i took the rack and traversed right to meet up with the s face route where we rapped off. i didn't talk the whole way back to the car.

i think the thing that made me most ashamed was the fact that i tried leading through the roof with only a cam in a wet flaring slot below me. below that was only the belay, i would have surely pull both my partner and i completely off the mountain.


mvs - Jun 22, 2009 6:20 am - Hasn't voted

Re: thank you for sharing

It's a good learning experience, eh? Sometimes it's a fine line between being bold in a way that gives credit to the climbers and the route, and in just doing something dumb. It's understandable to be mad at yourself when you recognize you are on the wrong side of that line! :-) Heck, that's how you'll survive and thrive.

Thanks for posting your story here too!


kamil - Jun 22, 2009 8:38 pm - Voted 10/10


"Watch the weather. Don't drive exhausted. Protect the belay."

Words of wisdom. Thanks for sharing your story.
I had my closest call so far driving back home from the mountains 3 yrs ago, one of my TRs begins and ends with that. I just can't imagine how I'd feel if something had happened to that trucker I just narrowly avoided...
Such experiences change our perspective of everything, besides all that you wrote there's a good side to it, no matter how much fucked up the life can become, we're just grateful we're still here...
Thanks again, Michael. I just realised how difficult it must've been for you to write this story.


mvs - Jun 24, 2009 8:28 am - Hasn't voted

Re: thanks...

You are welcome. I'm sure that it's made you a bit more cautious and safer too, which is a great thing.


myles - Jun 23, 2009 1:00 pm - Hasn't voted

a good lesson for all

Took some guts to bring all that back. Thanks for a valuable contribution to this site. I try to make a mental note to protect early from the belay, and this will help re-inforce that in my mind.

Fine job on a tough event to write about.


mvs - Jun 24, 2009 4:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: a good lesson for all

Right on. Thanks Myles!


Blair - Jun 23, 2009 3:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Writing

Thanks for sharing such a tough subject man. WOW


mvs - Jun 24, 2009 4:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Writing

Thank you, and thanks for your time and comment too!


RobSC - Jun 24, 2009 12:04 pm - Voted 10/10

Wonderful Story

You sound like a wise man.

The year after my climb of the Nose, my main climbing partner was with her other partner and he took a 60 foot groundfall on what he considered easy ground because he didn't put in any pieces. He walked away uninjured, but maybe that wasn't a good thing. The following year, he took a factor 2 fall on a pitch high on the Middle Cathedral on a route that they'd climbed the previous year. He hadn't put in any pieces and his fall ripped out the belay and both climbers fell a thousand feet to their deaths. That was the end of one of my very good friends.

If only my friend's partner had learned from his errors the first time, she would most likely still be alive.

It sounds like you have...

Thanks for the story. I know that it's tough to write things like this.


mvs - Jun 24, 2009 4:47 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wonderful Story

Dang Rob, that is a really terrible story. Seeing what you wrote and some other contributors to this thread, I have this image of these darker experiences "coming out of the woodwork," so to speak. We don't talk about them much...they are certainly nothing to brag about. But they never leave us either. These kinds of brushes with death and (worse) culpability are more common than I would have thought. I really appreciate all these comments, they are deepening and adding new dimensions to the article.

Travis Atwood

Travis Atwood - Jun 24, 2009 6:51 pm - Voted 10/10

Thank You

Thanks for sharing this. It's good for all of us to hear these types of stories to remind us that we're not invincible. I'm just glad you're still around to write it.


mvs - Jun 29, 2009 6:52 am - Hasn't voted


Thank you so much, your comments are right on. Mat, aside from a little bit of shaking his head at how silly people can be, doesn't blame me at all. That says so many great things about him, but it also deepens my feeling of responsibility. Writing this and then reading all of the thoughtful comments has really been a growing experience for me. Thank you for contributing!


Koen - Jun 25, 2009 10:25 am - Voted 10/10

thank you

for being so honest. Maybe the good thing about shame is that it's a good motivator to act differently in the future, in any aspect of our lives. I hope you have found some peace with this. From your tr's you seem to me to be a very competent and careful climber. At least it's not kept you from climbing the Ortler Northface! Happy climbing.

Viewing: 1-20 of 45