Tip 7: Where is Your Helmet?

By Derek Branstrom and Calvin Landrus

The Story

I took my helmet off and saw a chunk about the size of a baseball missing from the back out it. I whispered to myself “Thank you Lord” and showed it to the couple getting ready to head back to their car and said out loud, “No, I’m not ok, but better than I could have been.” They gasped and asked if they could help.

Earlier that day, as I left the house, excited with the anticipation of climbing Icarus, an easy 5.6 classic in Eldorado Canyon, my wife said her usual “Have fun and be safe” to me as I walked out the door. I was used to it and yet always looked forward to hearing that same phrase from her. Although she’d ultimately rather I not climb, I appreciate how she acknowledges my passion for climbing and mountaineering. It is because of her saying this every time and her tolerance for my climbing that I wear a helmet all the time now. I didn’t always wear one although I always brought one with me. On sport routes I rarely wore it justifying the relative safety of clipping bolts and the unlikely event of hitting my head. Now it’s just automatic and I feel naked (the “driving without a seatbelt” type of naked) without it.

With my helmet, rope, and gear in tow, I headed out the door thankful that my wife was once again “letting” me climb. But first I had to teach summer school which meant a later start and, in Eldorado, the weather can always be dicey as it comes in fast and furious over the foothills and is difficult to assess. However, I was itching for some trad climbing and was rather tired of clipping bolts in Clear Creek Canyon and North Table. I figured we’d see how the weather was when we got there and if it looked like it would hold we’d go for it and, if not, we’d do some single-pitch stuff instead.

We had just finished the third pitch. The weather was holding – barely. I was leading every pitch and making good time. The climbing was easy and I was placing gear about every 15 feet. I started the fourth pitch and about half a rope length up, the wind gusts started. They were so strong that I was nearly blown off the rock. Then it started to lightly rain. I knew I had to make a choice. I knew the protection on the next and last pitch was scarce at best. But a retreat meant leaving gear – something I had always told myself I would have no problem doing. “What’s my life compared to $50, $100, $500 of climbing gear?” I’ve always said to myself. I decided to down climb to my partner who was anchored underneath a roof and therefore was unable to see me. Communication was difficult at best.

I had just taken out a piece. I looked down and saw my next one about 10 to 15 feet below me. I then looked down at my shoes and saw they were wet. Suddenly the next thing I knew I was upside down and had a strange sensation that something wasn’t right. The next instant I slammed into the rock and suddenly came to a halt – 15 feet below my partner. My left shoulder was in pain. I was bleeding on several places on my hands, left arm, left shoulder, and my legs. I surveyed myself, looked up at my partner, and then tried to decipher what just happened. I looked down and noticed a cam on the rope at my waist. After several minutes of gathering my composure, I finally was able to understand. I had just taken a serious fall, perhaps about 60 feet, and one of my pieces pulled. I was now faced with the next decision. How to get down?

My partner was not capable of taking over. I was going to have to get us down. I climbed my way back to the anchor and then retrieved the first piece I had placed above the anchor. (I had fallen on the first placement I had made above the anchor). I down-led about 100 feet to a large ledge. My partner seconded down to me and we traversed the ledge to the rap station. Two raps later we were back at our packs.

Climbing Tips

Even an easy grade (5.6 in this case) becomes extremely hard with water on it. If a route becomes wet, immediately secure yourself to the rock. Be willing to leave gear behind to retreat.
Obviously, we all know we have a greater chance of injury when climbing. Accidents, by definition, happen because something goes wrong. You won’t have a chance after the fact to put on a helmet. Remember, the most dangerous climbs are the lower angle climbs we think are easy.
If Derek had been incapacitated by his fall, the chances of his partner being able to get herself out of the system were next to nothing. She would have had to wait to until rescuers arrived, greatly reducing the best outcome for all involved.
The Rest of the Story

On the drive to Eldorado Canyon, I was struggling with several decisions I had already made about climbing that day. First, my climbing partner for the day was someone my wife had previously asked me not to climb with. Also, going to Eldorado so late with somewhat threatening weather was asking for trouble. Finally, we could have easily climbed something other than Icarus. God was clearly trying to tell me something, but my selfishness clouded my decisions. Why is it that when I should most turn to God through prayer it’s the last thing I think of? Simple. I won’t like the answer…I’m like a child who doesn’t get what he wants when his parent says no. God is one patient parent!

Amazingly no bones were broken…just some strains and sprains. After 4 months later my shoulder is almost completely healed save some stiffness I get occasionally and a couple scars. I still have my helmet – retired of course. It is a constant reminder not just of the poor choices I made, the protecting hand of God, the couple that graciously helped us get down and back to our car, and of the sense to always wear a helmet, but of the amazing love of God- like a parent who unconditionally loves their child. I thank God that He loves me so much to have given His only Son so that my sins are forgiven. That helmet is only plastic and foam but has so much more meaning now, just like a couple pieces of wood in the shape of a lower-case “t” which had no meaning over 2000 years ago, if not for fateful events that changed that forever.

Living Tips

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:26-27)

God is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Continue the discussion at the Where Climbers Gather Forums. Date Posted - 12.23.13

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