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: 41-45 of 45

mvs - Nov 2, 2009 1:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Dtressler

Yes. It seems to be one of the worst mistakes. Thanks for the read and (sobering) comment.

setrent - Jan 21, 2010 11:00 pm - Voted 10/10


MVS: Thanks for the insight and advise on dealing with the aftermath of your fall. I took a 60 footer in the Pickets this summer, and am still recovering both mentally and physically. Luckily, I was the only one injured, but I have been struggling with whether or not I want to continue mountaineering, at least on that level.


mvs - Jan 26, 2010 9:38 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Thanks

Absolutely. Was this on Mt. Terror? Wherever it was, I'm so glad you are recovering. You should definitely feel free to explore other ways of spending your free time. Explore, and pursue what you find most beautiful. Thanks for writing!

usbackpacker - Feb 20, 2012 7:56 am - Hasn't voted


It is useful, thank you


norco17 - Mar 15, 2013 6:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Just re-read this

I read this once when you first posted it here. I am glad you shared this with SP. It is a good reminder of how fragile we are and how small mistakes can have big consequences.

Viewing: 41-45 of 45