Penance in Red Rocks
The pain of an accident goes beyond that of the injured.
Jodie stood at the base of the buttress, her jacket purple against the rust-red wall, her light-brown ponytail poking out of a borrowed helmet. It was 10 in the morning in mid-January in the sun.
“Well,” she said, pulling on her harness, “at least we’re not going to epic.”
It was our fifth and final day in Red Rocks, Las Vegas, and Jodie Mohrhardt and I were finally gearing up for a route. Bouts of rain the first day and waiting for the sandstone to dry for the next few days had turned our climbing trip into what 90 percent of people would consider a classic Vegas excursion. We drank too much. Climbed fake rocks, went to shitty clubs. We had stayed up late the night before, drinking whiskey and salsa dancing.
While experienced sport climbers, we were both relatively new to trad climbing. We had borrowed a friend’s rack, and today was our last chance to use it. A late start meant downgrading our intended objective, Johnny Vegas to Solar Slab (13 pitches, with a 45-minute approach) to a two-pitch 5.7 in Calico Basin called Geriatric Therapy. I had suggested the route.
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The first pitch is a 60-foot bolted 5.5 slab. Barely a warm-up. The second was 110 feet, following a left-facing flake with lots of options for gear, then moving right onto a face to finish. I offered to lead the first pitch so Jodie could have the second. I climbed and set up a belay on a ledge that was almost perfectly horizontal, a refrigerator laid on its side.
I could see Vegas sprawling across the valley, like trash spilling from an overturned can, helicopters buzzing around it like flies.
Jodie, arriving and racking up for the second pitch, tapped me on the helmet and showed me her knot. The gear on her harness, comprised of doubles to 3 inch and a set of offsets, jingled as she tugged the rope, checking that it ran correctly. I clicked the gate of my locking carabiner and pulled on the rope to show I was locked and loaded. Looking up, she drew a quick breath. Though it was easy terrain, she had not placed any gear for a year.
“Have fun!” I told her. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Jodie moved with ease up the edge of a Jumbotron-sized flake, placing four or five pieces over 50 feet or so. As the flake petered out, she clipped the rope into a pre-slung block the size of her head. It looked like an anvil sticking out of the wall. Up and to her left was a bolt, and to her right, a patina face flecked with chicken heads and large edges.
“I go right here, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I yelled. We hadn’t brought the guidebook, but had seen from the ground that our next anchor was in that direction.
Jodie nodded, chalked up and moved onto the face. I glanced out to the horizon again, then back up. Jodie was about five moves past the slung block.
As she released her left hand to reach for a hold, the incut flake in her right hand ripped. I don’t remember the sound of the rock breaking, just her scream as her shoulders and torso pulled away from the face. Her leg caught behind the rope, and she flipped upside-down and bounced off the slab below. I braced for the catch, and for a millisecond felt her weight on the rope, then the anvil broke off.
Another piece popped, then another. I reeled in rope, but it was useless.
Jodie hit the rock again, a rag doll, then slammed into the belay ledge a few feet to my left, her hip taking the brunt of the impact, then bounced once more, finally stopping 10 feet past me. The sound her body made when it hit the ledge, wet and hollow, wrenched me. Thankfully, though, something caught her fall and kept her from decking. Whether a piece held or the rope had gotten stuck somewhere during the fall, I couldn’t tell.
“Are you O.K.?”
“Well, my ankles are broken.”
She pulled her shoes off and tossed each down to the desert floor. I nodded, unsure how to respond to the matter-of-fact nature of the statement. Blood flowed down her left hand, and her ankles were starting to swell. Her face twisted in pain as she adjusted herself on the wall.
“I’m right here,” I said. “We’re going to get you up to the anchor, O.K.?”
I looked up, trying to assess what had finally stopped her fall, but still couldn’t tell.
“I think the rope might be caught on the rock above us,” I said. “I’m worried it might break off if we try to move you.”
Her body tensed and her eyes widened as she traced the rope’s path upward.
“It’s O.K.,” I continued. “I just need you to unweight the rope a little so I can hitch you off. Can you do that?”
She nodded, grabbed some edges, and pulled up.
With effort, me pulling and Jodie climbing as best she could, we got her up to the anchor. In her lap, still slung and clipped to the rope, sat the anvil that had broken off the pitch. I imagined it bouncing off the wall, pummeling her as they fell.
With Jodie tied off to the anchor, I assessed the situation. At least one of the pieces she had placed had held, catching her fall. Now we needed to get down. I rigged the belay to lower her.
Descent was slow, the 50 feet taking 20 minutes. Jodie never complained, but as her body scraped against the slab or she struggled to push herself away from the wall with her hands and knees, she grimaced and sometimes froze, asking me to stop and breathing quickly as if to exhale the pain.
A man and a woman climbing across the canyon had seen the fall and rushed over, and were waiting on the ground to help. They helped Jodie lie down on her back. Her palms covered her face, her jacket was torn and covered in red dust, and one of her shoes was caught in a bush near her head. Looking at the scene from above, I felt as if I was only now realizing what had happened.
From the base of the climb it was about two miles out to the road. The first mile followed a web of steep, loose climber trails, winding over boulders and loose gravel, before joining the main trail at the base of the valley. With one of Jodie’s arms over my shoulder, the other over the shoulder of one of the kind rescuers, and the second rescuer at her knees, three of us endeavored to carry Jodie out,slipping and almost dropping her multiple times. After about 30 minutes gaining barely a quarter mile, we ran into another group, and a guy—twice my size, and all muscle—put Jodie on his back and was able to carry her to the main trail. There waiting paramedics hefted her on a litter the rest of the way.
At the hospital we found out she had shattered her heel, snapped an ankle, fractured her hip, and sustained a compression fracture of the L4. The pain during the walk out must’ve been hellish.
Early morning light poured between the wall and the curtain alongside the hospital bed. Jodie’s feet were splinted and wrapped, white gauze spilling from the collar of each boot. I held her hand as she slept and looked down as I wrote a list on my phone. Buy plane tickets. Get wheelchair. Pick up meds. Return rental car. I stopped, looked up and berated myself for not taking the second pitch, for picking that route, for anything I could’ve done differently.
Three days later, after a long flight to Denver, we were back in Colorado, in another hospital.
“You are never allowed to say that to me again,” she said, looking up at me.
“‘Have fun.’” She looked me in the eye, laughing but angry, tears glinting. “You’re never allowed to say that to me again.”
The hospital room looked out on the snow-capped Continental Divide over the top of the foothills. Her shattered right heel had required emergency surgery and three pins, and her broken left ankle took another two. In an hour she would be fitted with a back brace to support the compression fracture in her lower spine. There wasn’t much they could do for the fracture in her left pelvis.
It was bad, but it could’ve been much worse.
Two months after the accident, I find it hard to think of much else. Jodie, an art teacher, won’t be able to go back to school for at least a month. She doesn’t remember the fall, but I replay it in my mind compulsively, trying to pinpoint where each bone broke, or looking for anything I could’ve done differently.
We found out later that the route we were on was not what I thought but All That Jazz, a three-pitch 5.8 that went left where I told her to go right. I chose the route, I suggested she lead, and I directed her into choss. Of course, this assessment discounts Jodie’s ability as a peer to make her own decisions, as she often reminds me. Still, I internalize, and I watch her fall. She hits that ledge, and I hear that sound. I flinch every time. But the pain I feel offers absolution. I don’t have control over when the vision hits me, but I accept it. Each time I watch is a penance for walking out of that canyon as she was carried out.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 261 (January 2020).
Luke McTighe is based out of Louisville, Colorado. He and Jodie, who has recovered and is stronger than ever, are currently climbing their way throughout Asia.