Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Here in Utah, we're celebrating International Rock Day today. Well, at least I am. On this date, 30 years ago, I was involved in a freak climbing accident; that is to say, an accident that occurred while climbing with a freak. My friend Kim and I, a couple of foolish 18-year-olds, were driving home from nearby Park City, when I pointed out the cliff nest of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) on the hillside. He suggested we climb to it, and I agreed to take him. We had no gear, but that was of little consequence; I'd grown up free climbing on rocks, and was so far uninitiated to its perils. The plan was ill-conceived on multiple levels; although there was little chance of disturbing an incubating bird this early in the year, the adult eagles could well have been hanging around the nest site already, and been put off by our intrusion. Kim pulled his truck off the road, and we hiked, dauntless and clueless, to the base of the cliff. The rock face was sheer, but a route of footholes made scaling it quite feasible. Kim began his ascent before I had a chance to suggest otherwise, so I followed, giving him directions from below. The nest itself rested on a ledge about 100 feet from the base. As Kim approached it, he lost his nerve, and began to make his way back down. Resting against a balanced boulder, he accidentally pushed it from its place, and it fell some 25 feet onto my hand. My descent was suddenly made more complicated with but one functional hand. Kim climbed down past me, to get to his truck and enlist help, but he couldn't find one of the footholes. I peered down from my position and tried to give him directions, but his grip gave out, and he fell. I watched him plummet like Wile E. Coyote, saucer-eyed, spread-eagled, and ever smaller and smaller. Falling in that air-resistant posture, his acceleration was minimal, and when his heels finally hit a steep slope of fine scree, they bounced, sending him rolling wildly all the way down the hill, absorbing his speed gradually, and leaving him draped among the tops of the Gambel's Oaks (Quercus gambelii) that lay beyond the scree. Kim couldn't have asked to come out of an 80-foot free-fall any nicer than he did. He broke his arm and big toe, and was released from the hospital in time for dinner. For me the experience could have been much worse, as well. Had it hit my head, the rock would have been damaged far worse. Shock actually made my first hour on the cliff rather pleasurable, and my recovery was quick free of complications. Festivities will begin at the original Rock Day site, and will involve massive quantities of champagne and tequila. Sorry, Kim, but the event is by invitation only.


Blogger burning silo said...

Well, that's one way to use up your fifteen minutes of fame. I'd say, "boy, were you ever lucky!" except that having a rock fall and crush your hand doesn't sound too darned lucky. I hope you still have good use of that hand -- I'm guessing that you do.

1:41 PM  
Blogger indigoGlyph said...

Thx for sharing this one, Carel. I hope it didn't put you off climbing for good. I've got two similar cuttings in the scrapbook. The happier of the two was the fall that put my brother in a neuro-rehab ward for a week. And I was belaying him at the time, watching every piece of protection pop out as he fell, so I know what it feels like. This year, I think he and I might just celebrate. Perhaps by repeating the route? :-0

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that really stood out to me in the newspaper article was the inclusion of both your and Kim's home addresses. Has the world really changed that much in so few years?

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carel, the more I learn about you, the more interesting I realize you are, though interesting may be a euphemism here! Good thing you didn't lose those fingers.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Bev: Yeah, I was lucky, all right. I still have a perfectly functional thumb and little finger on my left hand, and I'm right-handed.
Indigoglyph: I celebrated my first anniversary of this accident by repeating my route. I'm afraid that climbing was never much fun after that day, and it seems to get scarier the older I get.
Mystery commenter: You know, the anachronism there never occurred to me until you mentioned it, but you're right!
Mike: Yeah, I guess I am pretty knuckleheaded ...er... interesting. I actually did lose the fingers, but it hasn't been much of a handicap.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...

Wow, when I read the story I didn't realize you really lost your fingers. Sorry to hear about that. It was an interesting story and I see why you honor the day.

12:45 PM  

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