Climbing Gym Auto Belay – Clipped In? Uhh...

"I think the doctors thought of me as kind of an interesting jigsaw puzzle." Notes on a fall off an indoor climbing wall, and the aftermath. Bill Ashby's own words, lightly edited. SPOILER - Bill is well on his way to a full recovery.
David Shema David Shema
Safety Chair
December 06, 2016
Climbing Gym Auto Belay – Clipped In? Uhh...
Bill Ashby prefers outdoor climbing

Vertical World, Magnolia, Seattle - june 30,  2016

Excerpts from the personal blog of Bill Ashby, Mountaineers Director of Operations.  

Before the Fall

Naturally the week before the fall was a busy week: standard Ashby protocol. The prior weekend we had climbed Black Peak's North East Ridge and it was fantastic. However, taking the weekend to climb put me behind schedule on wrapping up a six month DIY project for my daughter's birthday.

Also I needed to prepare for the coming weekend's climb of Tupshin, Devore, and Flora. One other pressing matter was a job interview scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Hence, on Thursday morning there was a lot going on and I found myself in a bit of a hurry and a little distracted and probably a little mentally tired from the all-nighters.

Climbing at Vertical World in Ballard on Tuesday and Thursday mornings as well as Sunday evenings was a part of my usual schedule. On this particular Thursday my usual climbing partner was on vacation and so I was using auto belays.

I have used auto belays all along the way and have a very methodical approach to clipping in and double-checking that I am clipped in before climbing. I very rarely boulder climb, so there is absolutely no circumstance where I would intentionally start heading up a climbing route without protection.

With everything else going on that day I was in a bit of a hurry. I had already finished one lap with all of the available auto belays and had one route left to go to complete my second full lap.

Because this was my last route of the morning I didn't intend to get to the very top but to get most of the way up to the crux and then just auto belay back down. As a result I would be letting go of the wall rather than triple checking the auto belay at the top of the route.

It is still absolutely incomprehensible to me that I could have started climbing without clipping in but there's no other explanation. People who were close by when I fell noticed immediately that the auto belay I should have been using was still clipped to the wall.

When I imagine the moment when I let go of the wall and realized that I had no protection, I still flinch in shear amazement. For crying out loud, how could I have possibly allowed myself to become that distracted?!

The Fall

It's fast. And then you're on the ground. Moments later I was surrounded by people with medical skills watching over me and letting me know I wasn't alone. I didn't lose consciousness and afterwards people told me I was apologizing for the disturbance and inconvenience.

My nervous system did a pretty neat thing. Immediately, it gave me only a dial tone rather than pain. I knew I needed to stay still but had no idea how injured I might be. I was breathing through a bloody nose so knew I had hit my face at some point.

The paramedics arrived in no time. The ride to Harborview was quick and uneventful and I was thinking, 'hmmm maybe it's not so bad.'  Maybe not. 

The good news is my spinal cord was not impacted, I didn't injure my brain, and I have 100% control of my nervous system, so I am one lucky dude. 

The bad news I did pretty serious damage to both feet, ankles, and shins, backbone, both wrists and forearms. I landed at sort of a 45 degree angle feet first, then butt, then hands and finally face.

Once at Harborview I was able to make several phone calls to let people know I wouldn't be able to meet certain commitments later that day or that weekend. Marijane (my wife) got the first call of course letting her know what had happened and where I was and that I was okay but not so okay.

I still didn't know how serious the injuries were and was probably in total denial.


As it turned out four separate teams of Harborview doctors got to work on me right away: a separate team for each foot, a team for the wrists and forearms, and another team for the backbone. Subsequently the teams got together and awarded me the dubious honor of having presented the greatest amount of repairable injuries in a single incident short of amputation (in the last 12 months). I think they thought of me as kind of an interesting jigsaw puzzle.

I was in ICU for the first week and for the first round of surgeries where the teams put things back more or less in the right location.

The second week at Harborview I was out of ICU and going through the second round of surgeries where the teams were installing rods and plates and screws and all kinds of neat stuff and making final structural placements as accurately as possible.

After two weeks at Harborview I was finished with surgeries, off of intravenous pain meds, and more or less stable and ready to transition to Anderson House in Shoreline, a full-on nursing / convalescent facility.

Bill continues his narrative at .

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