It must have been a nightmare. Seriously, I don't do that. I know better. Way better. I've been climbing for over 12 years without an accident and just plain know better. Only rookies do that. Apparently not so.
When I awoke in my bed on Friday morning I was hoping it was a nightmare but when I looked down at my left foot wrapped in a bandage and covered with an ice pack and felt the discomfort coursing up my leg, I was painfully aware it wasn't just a nightmare and I had definitely fucked up. It could have been worse though...when a climber rappels off the end of his rope it's generally a lot worse than a severely sprained ankle (with torn ligaments), a bruised left ass cheek and a scraped left arm. Yes, I had been very lucky.
On Thursday evening I had driven down to Gallows Edge to replace some anchor hardware on four routes there. I had been given some hardware in support of the Anchor Replacement Initiative (ARI) and wanted to replace some of the weird anchor setups there that involved chain links bolted directly onto the bolt stud using washers. It turns out I didn't need to drill but one new hole because the existing stainless steel bolts looked great. So I just replaced the hardware that was attached to the bolts. Also, while down there, my friends Matthias and Lee had been looking to establish a new route that they had top-roped before.
For all of this work I did what I normally do for working on routes--I setup a single line static rope anchored to some huge blocks. My static line is about 60 feet in length and since I planned to only work on the top of climbs and drill some holes for Matthias and Lee, I didn't need a longer rope. I did all my work with using a Grigri on the single static line which allowed me to rappel down and stop to work with the Grigri locking up on the rope, as designed, while working. I replaced three anchors and drilled the holes/installed the bolts for Matthias and Lee without issue and things were going great. Our friend James showed up and had been planning to climb but his partner bailed on account of the weather. It had rained once while we were down there and it was looking threatening again as the evening wore on.
Matthias and Lee climbed their new route and got ready to head out. I wanted to replace the hardware on a route called Planet of the Apes because it also had some non-standard chain-on-bolt action going on. It was getting darker but I still had plenty of light to replace this one anchor. So I moved my rope over to this route leaving it tied around the huge boulder it had been tied around all night. This boulder, though, was some distance from the route I was now working on. Matthias and Lee headed out but James stuck around to walk out with me after I replaced the anchor. The anchor replacement went fine but just as I was finishing up I dropped a piece of the old chain I had removed. By now it was getting pretty dark, a ominous looking storm was brewing to the south and I was engaged in conversation with James. I told him I was going to zip down to the base of the route to pick up that chain and that he could take down the rope once I was off rappel. I started rapping down and got down at least 2/3rds of the route, maybe more, when I noticed a curious and quick sensation--the rope whipped through my Grigri.
In that instance I knew exactly what I had done, knew I was fucking stupid and knew things were about to hurt. I did my best to stay upright and spot a landing and crashed into the ground. I think I fell maybe only 10 or 20 feet (I don't really know but I plan to go back with the same rope to rig it the same way and find out for sure) but it doesn't take much when you're falling onto blocky terrain. I let out a big 'ol "Ouch!" more because I expected it to hurt rather than it actually hurting. It was all over in an instant yet I felt I had time to ponder my future and think about how the next months were going to be spent laid up with some injury. I crumpled into the ground with my left side against the wall and then thought, "OK, you just fucked up big time but landed feet first and are still cognizant." I quickly assessed my situation and for a moment thought I was the world's luckiest SOB as I could still wiggle my extremities and actually didn't think I was injured. I yelled up to James that I had just rapped off the end of the rope but was OK. I think I might have even said I was off rappel, obviously, in an attempt to lighten up the situation.
I felt my knees and ankles and stood up without issue. I took a few steps and noticed my right side was completely fine. My left side, however, was not as good. My left ankle felt broken, my left knee was sore, my left ass check was super tender and my left arm was scraped up pretty good. I could still walk, though. So I told James I'd limp back up there to get my pack and asked him to pack up some of my gear into his pack. All the while, James was staying level-headed, positive and extremely helpful. I took advantage of the shock and limped quickly around and up to the top to gather my stuff. (I had left some hardware and a hacksaw in a hole/cave up there so if anyone wants to go get that, I'd appreciate it.) (Edit, 8/30/09-Daniel was kind enough to go pick up the gear on Friday.)
James coiled up the rope, we loaded up our packs and donned our headlamps as it was fully dark by now. Thanks to James taking most of the gear, my pack was pretty light and I limped/hopped up the trail. In places where it was steep I could use the rocks on the side as support and in places where it was flatter, James offered up his shoulder for me to lean on. We slowly moved up and near the top I asked James to go up a bit and drop his pack so he could take mine. He graciously did this and we limped to the car with good efficiency. It took probably 30 minutes to get out whereas normally I can hike that in 15.
At the car, I took off my harness and drank some water while James went back to retrieve his pack from the canyon edge. He came back to the car insisting he drive me home but I was feeling completely aware and since I have an automatic car, a screwed up left foot wasn't an issue for driving. I insisted he need not drive me home and called Allison to tell her why I was late. I told her James had helped me out and that my plan was to drive straight to the emergency room because I thought I had a broken ankle. She said she'd meet me there.
James has had some medical training in the past and checked my pupils, palpated my upper and lower body to ensure I didn't do any damage to other parts of my body that weren't my chief complaints and reluctantly let me drive myself home. James' help was invaluable.
I arrived at the hospital around 9:00pm and had beat Allison there so I limped across the parking lot into the ER. It was a short wait (we're lucky to have such a quality emergency room and hospital here) and I was visiting with doctor Chadwick in short order. Dr. Chadwick told me a story of him breaking his ankle on a volcano hike somewhere where they did not have very good medical care and how it was quite the ordeal for him. This made me feel better for sure knowing that there is life after an ankle break/sprain. The nurse cleaned out the scrape on my arm and I had x-rays done on my left elbow and left foot. Dr. Chadwick came back with the good news that my ankle was not broken but that had likely torn the ligaments and obviously I had sprained it big time. My elbow checked out OK and is just bruised.
I'm at home now icing and elevating my ankle and will see an orthopedist soon for a better picture of my injury. I've got a walking support boot for my ankle but otherwise feel OK. My left knee feels sprained or strained and I hope it's not anything serious. I definitely cannot sit on my left ass cheek. I now have time to ponder how lucky I am after a moment of completely stupid inattention. I have taught new climbers how to climb/rappel and stress the importance of tying a simple knot in the end of the rope so something like this doesn't happen yet I failed to practice what I preach but thankfully got off very lucky.
Addendum, 8/30/09: Thank you to everyone calling, stopping by or emailing me to give your support--it means a lot. I've had a lot of people comment with something like, "Well, no doubt you learned a lesson and won't do that again." The thing is, I knew better already and can't say that I really learned anything new from this. The notion of always tying a knot in the end of your rope when rappelling has certainly been reinforced but was something I was already well aware of. This accident was a result of rushing to get out coupled with being distracted by external forces (and not tying a knot in the end of the rope.) If anything it should serve as an example to others to slow down and pay attention to details even when circumstances are pressing and distracting.