This is the story of the time I fell 10m, ripped all 3 pieces of gear, and caught myself on an Arbutus tree at my belayers feet over a 20m drop. Lesson of the day: limestone is not granite; it does not hold gear like granite; don’t climb limestone like it’s granite.
August 6th 2017
Horne Lake is a pretty phenomenal place, known for it’s beautiful, overhanging, bolt-protected limestone climbing routes. World-class sport routes — where’s the fun in that? After we finished work one evening, Felix Ossig-Bonano, Spencer Ranson, and I decided to bushwhack up to a new cliff to do some exploratory climbing. The route looked pretty dirty, but there was an alluring, gently overhung dihedral about 35m up, which was enough to convince us to give it a shot. The first 22m pitch was pretty easy, but the abundance of loose blocks held in by grass and dirt called for some careful climbing (downwards forces only) for fear of sending microwave sized blocks down on the belayer. The climbing here was an omen of what could be found higher up.
The dihedral on the lower portion of the second pitch was fun and challenging, with a lot of stemming and balancey moves on chert bands. It took gear ok, not great, but ok. Beyond this I was unfortunately met with some more climbing up grassy, dirty blocks, which were definitely not trustworthy for protection of any sort. Around this time the sun had just begun to hit the horizon, and of course, my headlamp was in my pack at the base of the climb. Classic. This added a sense of urgency as I hauled up the last 10m of the climb, raining down dirt and moss onto Spencer and Felix below. After a solid 15m runout I crested over the edge of the cliff. Losing sunlight, I needed to start descending fast but there was absolutely nothing here solid enough to rappel off, so I had to scramble up another 15m to reach an Arbutus tree to throw the rope around. I started to rap, but there was no way I’d have enough rope to make it all the way back down to the belay ledge. At this point it was dark. I built a gear anchor halfway down the cliff using the residual light from Spencer’s headlamp below, and set up another rap to get back down to the belay ledge. I left 3 cams, because safety, which would have to wait there until we could come back for them.
Spencer and I returned in the evening a few days later for the gear rescue mission. The upper portion of the route was too rotten to be climbed again trailing an extra rope for a double rope rap, so I had the excellent idea to climb up to the gear, then down-climb and clean as I went. I made it up to the gear, cleaned it, then started trying to reverse the moves I had made on the way up — turns out down-climbing ~5.9 on questionable rock is easier said than done. I made it a few metres down before reaching an especially tricky move, which I hadn’t placed any pro on, of course. I wanted to try and aid down through this section, but all I could find for gear was a tiny pocket, large enough for a #1 nut (you know, the one that’s smaller than your pinky fingernail). Being a Squamish climber, I was used to gear placements in granite that you could hang a house on, so figured this little guy would have no problem holding me. I weighted the piece and removed the gear above. *PING*. Ledge, bushes, hanging on to an Arbutus tree with my feet dangling 20m over the dark forest floor. That’s all that really registered from the two seconds that followed. So it turns out that limestone doesn’t hold gear quite as well as granite does — the #1 nut blew out, and the #3 and .3 cams below both ripped. I slammed onto the ledge 5m below, then tumbled down another 5m through steep, thorny bushes until the small belay ledge. I somehow, subconsciously, managed to wrap and arm around a tree trunk and catch myself from plummeting another 20m and taking a near factor 2 fall onto the final remaining piece of protection in the system, Spencer’s sling wrapped around the trunk of a twisted arbutus tree.
I hung there for a few seconds in shock as my brain tried to piece together where I was, and why my shoulder hurt, and why there was no ground under my feet. Spencer and I exchanged a few exclamations of disbelief and some stupid comments that I had found the fastest way to clean the route, before I clambered back up onto the belay ledge. I was pretty rattled; got a nice rope-burn curving from chin to cheekbone on the right side of my face, a handful of scrapes and cuts, and popped my right shoulder out, which is a small price to pay for narrowly avoiding a factor 2 over the cliffside. Realistically I think it couldn’t have gone much better for that situation; once things went bad, they went well. So that’s good.
All in all I got pretty lucky that I was able to walk away from the event, albeit covered in dirt and blood, without any serious injuries. Definitely learnt a geology lesson the hard way, and received a not so gentle reminder that maybe i should place more than 3 pieces in 10 meters I had a couple of four hour cave tours the next day, but spared clients the details so they wouldn’t get too nervous when I was rigging their rappels…