Friday, August 15, 2008


Shelley and I were out climbing a few days ago.

The first day we had planned to do a climb called Joy in Kananaskis but we woke up to rain and low clouds - not the kind of conditions we wanted to start a 10 or 12 pitch climb, even if it was easy.

So we drove out to Yamnuska where the weather was at least a bit better. The clouds were higher and it only sprinkled on us a couple of times. We did an easy route called Kings Chimneys which we'd done before but not for many years.

The next day we met up with a couple of friends (Mark and Jackie) and set out to do a route called Gooseberry on the side of Tunnel Mountain just outside Banff. Again, we'd done the route before, but not for a few years.

One of the nice things about Gooseberry is the short approach - it only takes 15 minutes of easy walking from car to base. We arrived early and set off. The plan was for Mark to practice leading on some of the easy pitches and for Shelley and I to lead the harder pitches. Shelley and Mark would climb on one rope, Jackie and I on another.

Shelley led the first pitch, Mark the second. I was belaying Jackie up the second pitch as Mark belayed Shelley on the third pitch. The third pitch is the crux of the route. Not hard by modern standards, but a bit awkward and slippery. Both Shelley and I had led it previously without any problems.

Shelley was around the corner out of sight, but we heard a yell and the rope went tight to Mark. Holy shit! Shelley had fallen! There was no warning, she hadn't been in trouble or off route. It was a scary minute or two. At first all we could hear was some groaning. We yelled to try to find out if she was ok. I thought she didn't sound too bad but Mark had never heard Shelley make those kind of noises and he thought she might be hurt badly.

Eventually (probably less than a minute but it felt much longer) Shelley yelled down that she was "ok".

There was a guided party on a nearby route and the guide had seen Shelley fall. He talked her out of immediately climbing back up and trying again. (Shelley can be quite determined!)

Luckily (?) the last piece of protection had been a bolt. Mark was able to lower her back down to the belay. Between the rope going around the corner, Shelley being above the anchor, and then the rope stretch, she'd fallen almost 20 feet, luckily stopping just before a broken ledge.

Considering the fall she'd just taken, she looked remarkably unscathed. No blood or even visible scrapes. Her harness had dug into her ribs on one side and she'd hit her tail bone on something but neither seemed serious. Apparently she had been climbing along just fine when her foot had slipped off with no warning.

At first she was still talking about going back up to finish the pitch. When we talked her out of leading she still wanted to follow on the rest of the climb. But as time passed her bumps and bruises became more painful and she finally started to talk about going down.

Next, she wanted to go down on her own, so the rest of us could continue the climb. We refused to let her go down alone. She argued but I told her the victim doesn't get to make the decisions! We lowered Jackie down and then Shelley rappelled so she could control her descent (with Jackie controlling the bottom of the rope to stop her if necessary). Luckily we were less than 60 meters off the ground and we could do this with a single rope.

Predictably, when we dropped the rope to them it got caught and Jackie couldn't pull it down. So Mark and I had to pull the rope off the next pitch so he could lower me to where I could unsnag it.

Shelley insisted that Mark and I should finish the climb and we agreed, partly because I knew Shelley would be pissed off if she "ruined" our day.

We had started early, to avoid other people on the route, but by the time we finished all this two other parties had passed us, with the very slow guided group in front. We waited almost an hour more on the ledge before they'd all gone by and we could continue. We ended up having to wait at every belay and twice I had to wait 10 or 15 minutes halfway up a pitch because the belay was too crowded.

I was a little nervous leading the pitch Shelley had just fallen off, but it went fine. As did the rest of the route (albeit slowly). Despite the rather unnerving events, Mark led three of the seven pitches and did very well.

Not being in shape for climbing (having only been out a few days this year) I relied on my experience and finesse more than strength. Thankfully that's possible on a relatively moderate route like this. (Speaking of experience, when we were on Kings Chimneys the day before I'd been having trouble remembering the route from the first time I climbed it. Shelley pointed out that it wasn't surprising since it was 30 years ago!)

While we finished the climb I was concerned about Shelley but she'd seemed ok. The worst part was that every time I shared a belay with the guide he kept telling me how bad the fall looked and how he sure hoped she was ok. Still, I was grateful he had talked her into going down instead of trying to finish leading the pitch.

We met up with Shelley and Jackie after the climb. They'd gone to the hospital for x-rays and everything looked ok. A bad bruise on her tail bone, and maybe some torn cartilage around her ribs, but no broken bones.

Shelley and I have had a remarkably "uneventful" climbing career. This was the first lead fall either of us have had (other than on single pitch bolted sport climbs). We hadn't even been around when anyone else had taken a bad fall. That's partly due to our conservative style, but it's also pretty lucky considering all the years of climbing we've done.

If I was religious I'd be thanking God. A fall like this could have been so much worse - broken bones, compound fractures, hitting your head. I don't even like to think about it. To come out with only a few bruises was incredibly good fortune.

Shelley's ribs are still quite painful, but I came home yesterday to find her mowing the lawn! So I guess she's not going to let it slow her down too much. And, of course, she's insistent that we have to go back so she can finish leading that pitch!


  1. Good to hear everyone is okay. That's pretty scary! That's why I stay home :o)

  2. Ah yes, Gooseberry. That was my nemesis: a broken hold and no bolt other than the belay. Shelley is indeed lucky.