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Bouldering Accident, Colorado

Leader & Author: Mike Sullivan

I learned a lesson yesterday.

A busy schedule had kept me from climbing for a week. I longed for the feel of stone under my fingertips, so I set out late in the afternoon to do a little bouldering in Boulder Mountain Park. On a whim, I decided to go explore what was available in Gregory Canyon, instead of the more popular crags on Flagstaff Mountain. After a mile or two of hiking, the views looking down the canyon inspired me to stop and explore. The castle towers on the summit of the First Flatiron were shining with an orange glow in the afternoon sunlight. I dropped my pack at a small outcrop of granite perched on a steep slope just above the trail.

The crag appeared as though it was seldom, if ever, climbed. So much the better. The landing was rather ugly with plenty of jagged rocks, but the bouldering didn't look to be all that difficult, so I didn't give it another thought. I laced up my shoes and began making some exploratory moves on the left side of the face. Finding the holds to be rather easy, I traversed right towards a steeper section with smaller holds. It was beautiful - moderate moves on clean rock with positive edges. The day was perfect, and I felt completely unified with the surroundings. I traversed further right, as the ground sloped away below me.

The situation changed in a fraction of a second. With a loud snap, the overhead edge that I was crimping came loose in my hand, and I started a slow peel backwards from the rock. In a single instinctive movement, I spun a half-turn away from the rock and flexed my knees and ankles to prepare for the landing. Oh, shit...

I had plenty of time to aim my feet for a flat spot on the sloping top of the boulder below me, and took the impact squarely on the balls of my feet. The slope of the boulder and the momentum of my upper body flipped me headlong into the rocks below, and I tucked my chin into my chest. Words can't really describe the next few moments. My body flipped and bounced completely out of control. The horizon spun crazily, like the footage from a video camera that has been thrown into the air. It wasn't painful or even scary. It was as though I had become detached from the turmoil of my body and just processed the sensations that wove past me.

After a long moment, I rolled to a halt on a low-angled slab. I was lying on my back with my head downhill, looking up at the sky. Still no fear or pain - just a headful of shock and adrenaline. I stood up and tried to assess the damages. Lots of scrapes, a little blood, but nothing seemed seriously wrong. I wobbled back up to the base of the crag and sat down to think. Was I really OK? Yeah, I think so... Was I really that stupid? Yes, definitely...

As the shock wore off, the pain began to creep in. I gave up my initial thought of continuing to boulder, and took a closer look at the landing zone. My eyes bugged out. I had freefallen about 9 feet, then bounced like a pinball down a wicked pile of very large, sharp, and angry rocks. How could I be unhurt? I did a more thorough check. My skull was intact... no major bleeding anywhere... all my joints moved, even though a few were reluctantly stiff. I had survived what might have been a fatal fall and escaped without any significant injuries.

I changed out of my climbing shoes and began limping my way back down to the trailhead, pondering the meaning of what had just happened. I spent most of last night pondering as well, and got up this morning to write down the story. It's not that big of a deal, really. Countless numbers of climbers have survived much closer calls from a wide variety of causes, in situations that have been more dangerous, more exotic, and less - well - outright stupid.

I'm not normally a stupid person, and I've always felt that I had a healthy respect for the dangers of climbing. Yet somehow, I let my familiarity with climbing and my eagerness to be on the rock short-circuit my judgment. The warnings were all there: untested holds, a bad landing, and no partner or spotter.

I was primed for a bad experience, and I got it. Fortunately, fate was kind enough to give me a mere slap in the face rather than the ultimate penalty. But I have literally dozens of aches, bruises, and fresh scabs to reflect upon. I'm hopeful that the changes to my body caused by this experience will heal up within a few weeks. I'm also hopeful that the changes to my attitude will last for a long, long time.


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