Accident Story

Where to start with a description of how I broke my leg? How ‘bout some dialogue – they say dialogue engages the reader.

“Oh fuck, FUCK, Steve, I broke my leg, I broke – fuck! OK, fuck! My leg’s broke!” I shouted down after slamming into a corner with a small ledge. Steve said he looked up, saw my lower leg flopping side-to-side, and almost puked. Yup, I think I’d agree with your diagnosis, he thought to himself. Steve is my good friend Steve Halvorson, who lives in Bozeman and was one of my first climbing partners some 12–15 years ago, when we both lived in Missoula.

Hiking from the trailhead in Hyalite Canyon, with Winter Dance (the tiny-looking dagger far off, in center of photo) in the distance, perhaps the best ice route I've climbed.

Only he went on to become an E.R. doc, while I went on to waste my life becoming a climbing bum. Great stuff for us both. We had a terrific trip to the Bugaboos in August, and the Black Canyon in September, and I’d just finished a few days in Cody and was psyched for Hyalite Canyon, one of my old stomping grounds and home to so many great memories. Hyalite’s Unnamed Wall has a bunch of superb single-pitch routes, and the morning we left for the canyon I posted one of the original “Sketchy Kelly” stories, about a route there called Black Magic, with Pete Tapley about a dozen years ago. Steve and I pulled into the parking lot and, I’ll be damned, we saw Pete – first time I’d seen him in years. Big hug, huge smiles, a few minutes to catch up, and we made plans for beers after climbing that evening. Except I’d be going to the hospital, not the bar.

Steve and I hiked the 40 minutes or so to the Unnamed Wall – seemed a fitting place to spend the day – and I’d led our day’s warm-up climb, The Thrill Is Gone (sure seems that way now), a classic Jack Tackle mixed route that I’ve done at least a half-dozen times over the years. It’s great. Every time. Moderate but keeps you thinking, as it did this time. I climbed well, smartly (for once, I know…), placing good (mostly) pro and a fair bit of it, carefully running it out only when I had to. Topped out the main chimney/corner, hit a sloping little ledge that I’d soon hit again, and placed an ice screw in the body length of steep ice remaining – just to be extra careful. I love the feeling of self-control amid the improbable. Absolutely love it.

Steve below the Unnamed Wall. Behind him, to the right is Bingo World. The Thrill Is Gone is to the left.

Cruised up, hit the flats, now out of Steve’s sight, and plowed through some firm snow, mid-shin deep, to the tree anchor maybe 20 feet back. The tree already had a double strand of new one-inch webbing around it, but I added my cordalette to be sure, and clipped them both with two ’biners (one locking, one non-). Perfect, couldn’t be any safer. Steve probably wouldn’t be able to hear me from the tree, and he knew I’d topped out (it was obvious, and we’re familiar with the area), so I walked back toward the edge without yelling down, him paying-out slack by feel as I moved. I stopped at the top of the ice step, and the rope felt snug. The rope looked to be running clean. Again, all normal.

At this point, I can’t remember exactly, but I think I first felt the rope tight against me, and thus thinking no need to call “take” or “up rope” – a scenario by no means uncommon – I skipped a step and just yelled down, “Lowering!” as I leaned back. Suddenly I accelerated, screaming, “Too fast, too fast!” and then I slammed into the little ledge and corner, only about six feet down. Add a couple feet to account for the distance from the ledge up to my waist, and the total fall was maybe 10 feet. A couple more for rope stretch, perhaps, as I dangled below the ledge, my lower leg bent slightly but grotesquely to the side.

I’d forgotten that the route was more than 30m, even though I’ve done it before (typical…). Steve was just calling up to me about this when I leaned back and fell. Would have been no biggie, standard fare for my dumb ass, I’d have just batmanned back up and belayed Steve from the top. So many “ifs” – same as anything in life, when you think about it, with its innumerable forks in the road – like if I’d remembered the length, I’d have just brought Steve up and none of this would have happened. Then again, were I smart, it wouldn’t be me now, would it?

“Lower, Steve! Lower, slowly, slowly, aaarrrgghhhfuck!” – once my leg was broken, I just wanted to get the fuck down. Every time I’d accidentally bump the rock or ice with my right leg, my bones grinded together. I kept watch on the ends of the ropes and called down to Steve to do the same (he was already on it). With 10 feet of rope left on Steve’s end, and me 30 feet off the ground, I had to stop and, from a hanging stance on one leg, grit my teeth and build an anchor.

Steve's superb and resourceful splint job.

It’s interesting what emergency or desperate situations can do. For whatever reason, I’ve found over the years that I tend to handle them fairly well and can retain, even heighten, my focus without freaking out. So, I focused hard and cold and built a trustworthy anchor, thought it through, clipped in direct and then clipped-off the blue rope (on the side coming from Steve) to my harness to keep me from losing it. The green rope was still going through the tree anchor and back to me. Next I untied from blue’s end and pulled it (from Steve’s side, by where I clipped it off to my harness) through the tree anchor above, took its end once it came down and tied an overhand-bight that I clipped to my belay loop with a locking ‘biner, and then freed the clipped-off part (the part I’d originally tied-off to my harness for safe keeping). I took the blue rope going from my harness and clipped through my new anchor and called to Steve to take-up blue’s slack and lower me on it while keeping me on with the green rope – the remaining 10 feet on green (still going up to the tree) would serve as an extra backup to my new anchor, testing it for a short bit before green passed free through Steve’s belay device and I came exclusively onto the single rope (blue) running through my new anchor. The last thing I wanted was to make anything worse.

Soon after I was down, Steve splinted me and we began the four-hour haul out – the beginning of an even longer haul that awaits me.

The other day, Steve came across a passage in Farewell to Arms, a great book by Ernest Hemingway (though The Old Man and The Sea is my favorite – read it twice in a row, back-to-back):

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Tomorrow or Thursday I’ll post more details and an analysis (almost completed) of the accident.

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~ by Kelly Cordes on March 9, 2010.

7 Responses to “Accident Story”

  1. Man Yikes stuff!

  2. Brutal dude. Isn’t that just like life though? Not when you’re freaking out on some hard shit, just when we let our guard down. That’s how I broke my back last year. I skipped some gear placements cuz it was only 9+ and I wanted to link pitches. Sometimes life (and climbing) demands respect and when we don’t give it we are given harsh reminders. Keep posting and get well bro.

  3. As I said before kelly, a freakish accident.
    Just when you think you have everything dialed something gets stuck and….
    I hope you are doing ok now.

  4. I can see why it’s taken you this long to tell this story. It seems hardly fair that you suffered such a catastrophic injury because you forgot to say one little word: “Take.” I would be playing this over-n-over again. Did you see the NYTimes article a couple of weeks ago? Might be useful: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html?scp=2&sq=depression&st=cse

    Let me just add that your story is *very useful – to me. Thank you.

  5. Everyone should live like Santiago. Clearly, you do.

  6. That’s one of my favorite passages from literature- that one from FtA ^^
    Hope the recovery is going well man.

  7. thx, all — damn, clayton, bummer on the back. broke mine, too, but not from a fall, longtime old injury (had a spinal reconstruction with fusion in 2005). running it out on easy terrain — i hear ya, i’m horrible with that. just get in such a groove, and having so much fun, feeling so free, and it’s so damned easy to keep going. but can be disastrous. am always trying to remind myself — your note will help. indeed it’s the easy terrain where we let our guards down. must remain vigilant, don’t get complacent. whew, easier said than done sometimes. hope you’re doing well.

    kcg, thx for the link. wanted to read that when it first came out (get the NYT daily send-out), but didn’t — went and read it thanks to your link. really fascinating, thank you. indeed, it’s a bummer. i’m actually, somehow, not beating myself up too badly on it or replaying it much, perhaps somehow helped by trying to be totally honest and not defensive with myself over what happened. as if it somehow helps clean away any possibility of denial or regret. but indeed i won’t make that mistake again.

    MVH, thank you. though i’m surely no Santiago, that’s one of the best compliments i’ve had. different world, different times, of course, but i’m tryin’.

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