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Fractured Ankle in the Gunks


Original Post
Oren · · Bronx, NY · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 0

Hey Everyone,

This past weekend, a buddy of mine was climbing in the Gunks, took a fall, and fractured his ankle. By the time I got over there with my partner from our climb, he was down and his ankle was wrapped. Since then, we have all done a lot of discussing about what transpired, and if things could be done differently in the future to avoid this outcome. This post has been written with input and a reading by both the injured climber and the belayer. I'm reaching out to y'all to see if you have any ideas for anything else that could have been done to have prevented this accident, or if this is one of those "welp, sometimes shit happens when you climb up tall things".

Buddy was climbing Alley Oop, and was probably a good 40-50 feet up it, well past the hard, ankle breaker start, and getting into the easy region. His foot slipped, and he fell really far (past his first piece (not sure if he decked--if so, it wasn't full force), and hit every ledge on the way down.

As we do each time something happens that we feel we can learn from, we debriefed, and concluded it looked to be a series of many small things that facilitated the outcome. His last piece was on a full length sling, so when he climbed above it, that was ensuring a 14 foot fall minimum (4ft of sling, 3-4 feet to his harness from his feet). Add to that that his belayer is considerably lighter than the climber and got yanked up just short of climber's first piece and belayer was giving climber just a little bit more slack because of his position when his foot slipped, it all added up to a big fall

We talked about what could be done next time. The way the climber ran the line necessitated that double length sling, so a better line could have very much reduced the length he'd had to extend his last piece. The belayer could have held him just a big tighter, but really, you don't want to short your guy when he's moving. The belayer was looking down at the time of the fall. However, climbing in the Gunks has lots of areas where you can't see your leader after about 20ft, so not sure how much of a role this played. The weight difference played a big role in how far and fast climber came down, but people of differing weights can safely belay each other. It's possible that maybe if someone is so much lighter, belayer could have tethered himself to a backpack, so so he'd be heavier to move up, but still mobile.

Any ideas climbing friends?

Marc801 C · · Sandy, Utah · Joined Feb 2014 · Points: 65
Oren wrote:Hey Everyone, This past weekend, a buddy of mine was climbing in the Gunks, took a fall, and fractured his ankle. By the time I got over there with my partner from our climb, he was down and his ankle was wrapped. Since then, we have all done a lot of discussing about what transpired, and if things could be done differently in the future to avoid this outcome. This post has been written with input and a reading by both the injured climber and the belayer. I'm reaching out to y'all to see if you have any ideas for anything else that could have been done to have prevented this accident, or if this is one of those "welp, sometimes shit happens when you climb up tall things". Buddy was climbing Alley Oop, and was probably a good 40-50 feet up it, well past the hard, ankle breaker start, and getting into the easy region. His foot slipped, and he fell really far (past his first piece (not sure if he decked--if so, it wasn't full force), and hit every ledge on the way down. As we do each time something happens that we feel we can learn from, we debriefed, and concluded it looked to be a series of many small things that facilitated the outcome. His last piece was on a full length sling, so when he climbed above it, that was ensuring a 14 foot fall minimum (4ft of sling, 3-4 feet to his harness from his feet). Add to that that his belayer is considerably lighter than the climber and got yanked up just short of climber's first piece and belayer was giving climber just a little bit more slack because of his position when his foot slipped, it all added up to a big fall We talked about what could be done next time. The way the climber ran the line necessitated that double length sling, so a better line could have very much reduced the length he'd had to extend his last piece. The belayer could have held him just a big tighter, but really, you don't want to short your guy when he's moving. The belayer was looking down at the time of the fall. However, climbing in the Gunks has lots of areas where you can't see your leader after about 20ft, so not sure how much of a role this played. The weight difference played a big role in how far and fast climber came down, but people of differing weights can safely belay each other. It's possible that maybe if someone is so much lighter, belayer could have tethered himself to a backpack, so so he'd be heavier to move up, but still mobile. Any ideas climbing friends?
Ground anchor for the belayer - more than just a pack.
More frequent protection, especially when near the ground. After the opening moves, Alley Oop has lots of pro - place it and use it, even if on easy ground. Because of all the ledges on moderates in the Gunks, you really don't want to risk long falls.
Tyler Lomprey · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 55

"Climbing is inherently dangerous"

Tethering down helps, although it can cause some intense forces on a belayer if the whip is significant enough. Sounds like clipping a ledge with the ankle while free falling is what caused the break. Dunno what could have helped avoid hitting the ledge besides not having the foot slip in this scenario....

mbk · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 0

Placing gear after a ledge can make for really bad rope drag so one thing to consider is placing low, and backcleaning after you get a (solid) piece in a little higher.

SethG · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2009 · Points: 237

I wish the climber a speedy recovery!

Two things jump out at me:

1. It's hard to understand exactly where the climber "ran the line," as you say, but I know that route very well and I can't see why double-length extension would be needed. The route traverses a few feet to the right, and then works its way back left to the final roof escape. But the traversing isn't terribly drastic. So my first suggestion would be that the leader might want to think about whether he needed to extend his pieces so much.

2. But more importantly I think the leader needs to evaluate what his limits are and try to stick within them. After the first few moves that route is considerably easier than 5.7 until the finish. The terrain is blocky; there are things to hit. A shorter fall would have been less risky, to be sure, but an unexpected fall of any length on that route could easily produce a broken ankle. Far better to make sure you don't fall.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 525

I think Seth is right; there are a lot of no-fall zones in the Gunks. A broken ankle is a good possibility on many routes, even those with reasonable pro.

There is no way to say this without sounding a little snarky (and I honestly don't mean to be snarky), but your foot isn't supposed to slip on moderate ground a fair distance above your pro. Changing a sling or two or anchoring the belayer might or might not help in this case, but the real issue is slipping on moderate ground when somewhat runout. This is where the real soul-searching has to happen, not whether a shorter sling or a heavier belayer would have been better.

I might add that in the Fall, it is more likely that there will be leaves on the ledges. Pine needles are a year-round possibility, and millipedes and (in some years) gypsy moth catepillars can be dangerous as well. Shoes can pick of slippery stuff and may need to be brushed off. The crux could be the safest part of the climb.

Lose focus for even a moment, step on something slippery or squishy, and you're in for a ride.

Best wishes for a speed recovery!

Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 2,745

To expand on rgold's comment... I see WAY too many (IMO, of course) climbers who place gear as though the crux is the only spot that they need to protect. A couple cams there and then Boom, they're off to the races for another 30 feet. Now, here's where I get concerned: to me that sort of pro scheme speaks to a cavalier attitude and/or a sense that "I'm OK now". If that means the leader lets his guard down, then as you just learned, bad things can happen. The ledges don't care if you fell off a 5.12 or a 5.2 move.

So to answer your query, more gear, wiser use of extension thereon.

Hope your buddy heals quickly!

Bill Lawry · · New Mexico · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,503

Last three-plus posts are very good.

And, often, 5.7 terrain is do-not-fall terrain anyways.

Do the soul searching about the slip on easy terrain. Then he can eventually graduate to breaking ankles on easy 5.10 terrain ... like I did many years back ... with commensurate soul searching. :-)

Oren · · Bronx, NY · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 0

Thanks for the input everyone. I've sent my friend the link to this discussion, so he'll be able to read it directly, rather than me relaying it to him.

Much appreciated.

Brett Kitchen · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 10

To the guy above, I wouldn't want a ground anchor on my belayer. Especially on Trad; it'll put extra shock on the piece arresting the fall and it'll increase the chance of the climber getting spiked into the wall.

Brian · · North Kingstown, RI · Joined Sep 2001 · Points: 650

I don’t know if any of this is applicable here, doesn't sound like it, but a pet peeve of mine is the "soft catch" misapplication learned in leading school at the rock gym. At the Gunks, I see unanchored belayers standing ten feet away from the cliff with a big loop in the rope and the climber is 15 feet up. You don’t have to have a PhD in physics to know what is going to happen in a fall. I’d rather have a short hard catch than a long soft one especially at the Gunks where there are frequent ledges. When I'm breaking in new belayers I'm constantly telling them to keep a straight rope to me when leading unless I'm on an overhanging route.

Brett Kitchen · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 10

What you're describing doesn't come from 'soft catch' techniques, that's just shitty belay. That big loop of slack is how you get more broken ankles or worse.

Logan Schiff · · Brooklyn, NY · Joined Jun 2012 · Points: 60

First of all, hope he heals up fast!

My partner and I were nearby walking down to the carriage road when we ran into the climber and another one of his buddies (I don't think you Oren - he said two other friends were retrieving his gear).

We helped him get down to the road to await the ranger. The climber told me he actually fell about 50 feet and was way above his last piece of protection on easy ground. Perhaps he just ran it out because he was comfortable on the easier terrain (which if so is a cautionary tale)? The pro is definitely all there after the initial start.

Of course as others mentioned a short fall could have produced a similar result on such blocky terrain, so it's really a do not fall kind of climb.

Oren · · Bronx, NY · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 0

Hey Logan,

It was me you helped to get my buddy down to carriage road (the two friends were climbing on my gear by that point--I had run up it and gotten his gear back down by then).

I agree with your sentiments; thin pro at comfortable climbing about 50ft up, making any slips that much more dangerous was the final culprit. It's too easy to get cavalier with easy climbing; something to watch out for.

I'm not a fan of tying down the belayer both to avoid overloading the gear in a fall as well as a potential hazard situation where they can't get out of the way of falling debris.

So lesson: don't fall, but if you're going to, make sure you have mitigated risk by protecting yourself, even on easier terrain.

Appreciate the input from everyone; we get better by learning from those that already are.

ChapelPondGirl · · Keene, NY · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 20

This person should be drinking a bottle scotch right now, celebrating the fact that they only broke an ankle after a 50 footer off a ledge 5.7!

As usual, RGolds comments are pretty spot on. Running it out on easy ground has risks, and this time those risks were illustrated quite graphically. Perhaps the lesson here is learn to place good gear efficiently in order to save time, rather than running out to save time.

I hope the ankle heals fast. I know how it feels. I have a 3" screw in my ankle from a fall in The Gunks. Guess the route and you get an autographed copy of my X-ray!!

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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