2.2: The Fall

On Friday, January 17th, 2020, a friend and I boarded an afternoon flight to Monterrey, Mexico. I had just bailed on a long-planned trip to Patagonia because I was feeling too busy at work to take three weeks off. To compensate, I opted for a laid-back 3-day weekend in El Potrero Chico, with a friend from Virginia. 

El Potrero Chico is known for its low-commitment multi-pitch sport climbing routes, great margaritas, and in the words of Alina Garbuzov, ‘2-avocado days’. “Sport” climbing relies only on pre-placed bolts for protection, so you don’t have to carry or place any of the complicated protective gear used for more traditional (“Trad”) routes. That also means sport climbing tends to have fewer scary runouts between pieces of protection, and is generally less committing and less mentally taxing. A low key weekend away from the lab.

EPC Sport Climbing
Photo Seb951, Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

The second leg of our flight was badly delayed, and we arrived in Monterrey well after sunset. We took a cab to the climbing area, about an hour from the city, and I got to practice my Spanish with the driver. We scrounged for a very late dinner at the hostel. The few stores in the area were already closed and we had only brought some packaged snacks. Then we went to sleep. We wanted to pack as much into the weekend as we could. That meant an early start the next morning, January 18th, to get a climb in before the shops opened and we could head down to get breakfast.

We finished the surprisingly steep approach to our route around 8:15 AM. We took the rope out and started climbing. Climbing felt fast without the trouble of placing trad gear, and we soon found ourselves at the top of the 7-pitch route. It was 9:30 AM. We chatted, enjoyed the view, took some pictures, then started to rappel. As I threaded the rope through the rings, I daydreamed of breakfast. The first avocado of the day. 

Photo from top of route. Jan 18th 2020

I was used to climbing quickly and rappelling quickly. I previously wrote in this blog about how, on big routes, climbers sometimes remove some redundancy from their safety systems to move faster. The reasoning is that, in the mountains, moving quickly mitigates risks that come from moving slowly. For rappelling, that might mean two climbers rappelling at the same time on opposite ends of the rope, counterbalancing each other. It might mean not taking the time to add a backup friction hitch. It might mean not tying knots in the end of your rope, so you don’t have to pull them up and untie them between each rappel. The combination of all these ‘time-saving’ measures dismantles a system that is normally extremely safe. The combination of all these ‘time-saving’ measures killed one climber, Brad Gobright, and nearly killed his partner, in El Potrero Chico just a few weeks before my trip.

I had done these things during serious storms when it was the right thing to do, but increasingly I was doing them on sunny days when the biggest risk was a late breakfast. I can’t explain why I felt OK cutting the corners when I didn’t need to. I had read the accounts in the AAC’s “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”. I knew it was dangerous, but I had gotten used to doing it without anything bad happening. Every time you choose to cut the corner, there’s a 99.9% chance that nothing bad will happen. Of course, if you do that a thousand times…

Rigging a rappel. Bugaboos 2015. Lara Thompson photo.

After three pitches of rapping, the midline mark, a piece of tape, came off our rope. I usually buy ropes that have different patterns on the two halves, so it’s easy to find the middle when hanging the rope for a rappel. That day, however, our rope wasn’t bi-pattern. The correct solution is to measure out the middle and mark it again, before rapping another pitch. The ‘time-saving’ solution is to start rapping with the strands uneven, and fix it along the way by keeping your eyes on the ends and letting more rope through one end of your rap device than the other. I chose to do the second.

Maxim ropes
Bi-pattern rope.

We continued our rappels to a ledge two pitches off the ground, where another route branched off from the one we had just climbed. Did we want to do another one? I was way too hungry, and a bit tired. We decided to continue down. I pulled through roughly half the rope, and started the next rappel. Unlike the earlier raps, the rock below the ledge followed a steepening curve, so I couldn’t see the ends of the rope below me. I decided I would rappel over this hump, then sort out the rope as I went. I didn’t give a second thought to the corners I was cutting. Everything felt comfortable and familiar.

After I rapped onto the steep section of the wall, I noticed that someone was climbing the route, heading up to my right as I went down to his left. We exchanged a few words, and my focus shifted. Still looking to my right, I lowered myself a couple more feet. I was about 140 feet off the ground, the height of a 13-story building. It was not quite 10:30 AM. I rappelled off the end of the rope.

I remember that moment with a special clarity. I felt surprised, then I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed because I knew I was climbing irresponsibly, and now everybody would know, because I was about to die from it. I tried to grab anything I could as the rock flew past me. I never got to have a 2-avocado day.

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