Outside Insight | That Could Never Happen To Me: When Luck Runs Out

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, climber and leadership coach Tracy Rekart shares the story of her partner's climbing fall, and the importance of vigilance in the outdoors.
Tracy Rekart Tracy Rekart
Climber and leadership coach
July 13, 2019
Outside Insight | That Could Never Happen To Me: When Luck Runs Out

I was lucky. In over 25 years of climbing, I was accident free. Friends have been injured. Others have died. I figured that I wasn’t better than them, just lucky.

Time spent in the mountains means you hone your craft through trial, error, and uncomfortable mistakes. You get better at judging terrain, quickly placing solid protection, or bringing just the right gear. Time spent in the mountains also means you put yourself at more risk of an accident. It’s a numbers game.

Climbing is dangerous – it says so on all the gear. To mitigate the danger, we prepare: take climbing and first aid classes, practice our series of double checks, and communicate. We also hone our attention. Preparation, communication, and attention are key.

Rock is my razzle-dazzle. It was love at first climb. I practiced a lot. I devoted all my free time to climbing. This meant monthlong climbing ‘road trips’ to Thailand, the Southwest, and Joshua Tree, weekends at Smith and Squamish, and long aid and free routes on sandstone and granite faces.

I ‘grew up’ climbing at Index. The first outdoor gear route I led was The Lizard, aka Aries, a 5.8 flare chimney. I had to redeem myself after the immense frustration I had following that beast. It’s one of the scariest routes I have ever led.

My partner – in love, parenting, business, and climbing – has summited mountains all over the world as a guide. Big mountains with thousands of feet of glacier are his sweet spot. He’s confident and crafty, and he can find his way out of anything. You want him in a white out. You want me to place bomber gear in uncertain cracks.

July 14 was our first climb in six months due to my injured toe. We had a day alone to climb whatever we wanted while our kids were at camp. It was hot and sunny. I had the perfect place for an easy climb in the shade: Private Idaho. Our objective was Senior Citizens in Outer Space, a 100-foot climb on clean granite with lots of rests and a bomber crack for gear. It’s one of the easiest – and busiest – four-star 5.7s at Index.

No one was on the route when we arrived. I put my stuff at the bottom just in case those people we saw in the parking lot were headed this way. There were others at the crag with the same idea we had – shade and moderates.

We climbed the route four times. He led it first. I wanted to test my toe on top-rope before leading it.

Because of my, ahem, superior skills on rock, I often offer advice. Today, no advice was needed. His gear was bomber. His anchor was fine. I chose not to say anything, but reclipped a few slings to make it cleaner. I asked if I should rappel or if he wanted to climb it again.

He chose to climb again. He wanted to think through his rappel as he was taking our daughter up Ingalls Peak in a few days. I belayed him up. He clipped into the anchor and yelled down, “Off belay.” I took him off and went to research our next objective.

He seemed to be taking a long time. I thought he was probably working through systems he would use with our daughter. He kept pulling up rope. I figured he was probably evening out the ends and trying for a clean throw. I looked and saw part of the rope in a tree and a bunch on the ledge halfway up the climb. This is not unusual with a slabby crack. You clean it up on the way down. I thought, “Does he know there’s a middle mark?” We usually buy bi-weave ropes. Last year, we decide to get a solid color 70-meter with a middle mark. We’d climbed the route four times, I assumed he’d paid attention. I was not worried about the rope reaching the ground or I would have stayed. A 70-meter rope for a 100-foot climb leaves more than enough reserve.

Even so, I kept checking to see if it all looked alright. I know things happen and I love the man. I saw two lines ending at a pile on the ledge. It all looked ok.

We both have strong personalities. Sometimes, when I state what I think is obvious like “Do you know it’s a single-color rope with a middle mark?” I get push back. Normally, I don’t care. But that day I consciously chose not to say anything. His gear had been good. We climbed the route four times. He’s an experienced climber. I didn’t want that to ruin our day by questioning the obvious.

The next thing I heard was, “Arrgh.” I turned and he was falling.

I saw him hit the ledge, bounce onto the pillar at the base and crumple like a rag doll. It was slow motion. It looked as if the earth reached out and grabbed him. When he stopped rolling, in a faraway voice that sounded small and scared, he called for me.

“Traaaacy. Help me.” You never want to hear anyone call you like that. At that point, I left my body. I went to him, but part of me stayed behind.

He was face down in a loose pile of choss, tree branches, moss, dirt, and leaves. He asked me to help him up. I briefly paused. I didn’t want any other debris to fall on him. And he is 6’3” and 180 lbs., I am 5’3” and 120. In the 10 seconds this ran through my mind, he sat up.

He said, “I can’t use my legs.”

“I know.”

Seconds later, there was someone in front of me holding a cell phone. They asked if I needed help.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

“Yes.” Soon, I heard a siren.

My partner was in shock. Over and over he asked: What happened? Did I fall? You fell. I fell? How far? About 50 ft. What was I doing? Rappelling. I fell? Yes. How far? 50 ft. How did I fall? I guess one end was too short. Where are we? Index. Did I fall? Yes. What was I doing? Rappelling. And on and on in a loop with these same questions for ten minutes.

In the moment, I was two people – the one I left up on the trail reading the guidebook and the one that was here taking care of him. One wondered, “What’s going on? Why is he asking me all these questions? Is he crazy?” The other remained calm. As a master somatic coach who’d spent years tending to my clients’ unresolved trauma, I knew he was in shock. All I had to do was stay by his side, tend to his wounds, and answer the questions.

Soon, the rescue team arrived and took over. One went to his hold his head. Ah, the head. Right. It had been so long since I had practiced rescues, I forgot to hold the head to protect the neck.

At this point, he came out of shock. My partner’s 15 years of Wilderness First Responder (WFR) practice returned. He started running the show. Do we really need the neck brace? Yes. Ok. Before you back board me you have to splint my legs. No, lets backboard you first. No, splint my legs. Ok. He had been on their side before.

They splinted his legs, then backboarded him. At his request, they used his harness to strap him to the litter. This kept his legs from bumping against the end as they lowered him down over the skinny, steep, undulating trail that hugged the cliff during the three-hour long evacuation. It was amazing to watch this skilled team of volunteers communicate with each other. They had just practiced this type of rescue a few days before. Their knowledge was apparent.

All the while, the people we saw in the parking lot at the beginning of the day stayed with us. They tended to me, gave me water, gathered my stuff, and carried it down. They supported the rescue. They offered moral support. These people were wellpracticed in being human. They spontaneously volunteered to be of service. Angels. All of them.

Once we were down, the ambulance took him to Harborview. I followed.

My partner broke both his legs and fractured his neck. After three months in a wheelchair, two more on crutches, and with an uncertain future, we’re still trying to figure out why this happened. Our lives have changed forever.

When I share this story with climbers, some get arrogant and defensive, fortifying the “that could never happen to me” wall. Others become somber and withdrawn – carefully reviewing past mistakes out loud or in their mind. Most marvel at my vulnerability. I tell them I have an agenda. I am trying to change our culture.

So, listen to me now. Share your mistakes. If you see, feel, or think something, say it. Practice ways to increase your awareness. Take the time to communicate. Be over the top. Risk pissing someone off by stating the obvious. Be so prepared people think you’re uncool. Spend the time and money to practice. It will come in handy someday.

Experience doesn’t protect you from accidents. Stay sharp. Recognize your vulnerability. And don’t unconsciously rely on luck. Because luck has a way of running out.

Tracy Rekart is a highly respected somatic leadership coach. She loves to prepare people for the adventure of communication - helping shape healthy cultural norms and building trust in communities. In spring 2019, she worked with The Mountaineers to offer three Leadership Development Series seminars for our volunteers. Tracy lives in Seattle with her husband, two children, and dog.

Learn more about our ongoing leadership development opportunities at www.mountaineers.org/leadership.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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