About five years and fifteen pounds ago, I was a pretty serious sport climber. I was at boarding school, and climbing five or six days a week and training every day. There was this kid Evan (he was a senior and I was a junior), who I had hung out with at the fingerboard in the gym.
Rob, my climbing partner, hated Evan with a passion, because four years prior (before I was at the school) Rob and Evan had gone climbing, and apparently Rob had been working on this route for months, when Evan gives it a shot, and manages to kick off the one hold right before the crux. Rob never managed to do the climb, and never spoke to Evan again. So Evan had been pestering me to go out with him, and I had always put him off, ‘cause my partner didn’t want to climb with him, and I didn’t want to climb without my partner.
One Saturday, Rob had gone home for the weekend, and Evan stopped by my room and asked if I wanted to go climbing? I agreed, and we went to go bouldering at this no name place right by school. The rock itself was just this little 55 foot face that I would top rope at all the time. The plan was that Evan would go for the quarter of a mile walk around the back side of the face, set up the anchor, and rappel down, as I carried the rest of the gear in.
So I get there, and I’m smoking a cigarette as I see the rope drop over the edge. I then see Evan silhouetted against the sky, and not really thinking about it I looked away. I remember seeing something out of the corner of my eye, and then hearing a faint thump sound.
Later I found out that Evan had been rappelling with a tuber, which is simply a cylindrical belay device with one end slightly smaller than the other. When belaying with a tuber you pass a loop through the middle of the cylinder and clip it in to a carabiner attached to your harness. The effect is that you will have one end of the rope attached between you (through the tuber) and the climber, and the other side of the rope (back through the tuber) you hold in your hand. The friction caused by the rope being passed through the device is then able to hold the weight of the climber. However, when rappelling, the rope is passed through a carabiner which is attached to the anchor at approximately half way. The result is that you have two ends of the rope which you must pass through the tuber, and you must pass both loops through the carabiner attached to your harness. In a crucial oversight, Evan had only passed one of the two loops of rope through the carabiner in his harness. Thus when he stepped off the cliff one loop simply popped out of the tuber and he freefell the entire 55 feet on to his ass.
This was a stupid mistake. No gear failed, and there was no act of god, he just forgot what he was doing for a second.
By the time I got to Evan’s side (figure 2 seconds) he was in pretty bad shape. He was in and out of consciousness, and said he couldn’t feel his legs. I left him and ran to a nearby house to call 911. The emergency response team was great, and they were able to set up a zip line type thing, on which he affixed to a back board was able to cross the broken ground between the base of the wall and the trailhead. He was taken to the hospital.
In the end he spent several weeks in traction, and wasn’t paralyzed, though he woke up that mourning 5’10’’ tall and fell asleep that night 5’8’’ tall. He had to wear this back brace which rested on his pelvis and went all the way up to his collarbone, for something like two years.
The school year ended and I never saw him again… It was a very uncomfortable scene with a lot of guilt and allegations and hurt all of the way around. That summer I went climbing a couple of more times, but I had lost my nerve, and it really wasn’t fun the way it had been. Shortly after that I hocked my rack.
I still think about getting back into climbing sometimes.