Rock climbing has historically had one golden rule: The leader must not fall. EVER. Not two feet, not 20 feet. You stay attached to the rock at all times, lest you land yourself in a world of trouble. 150 feet off the deck on an isolated cliff in the middle of West Virginia, I’m contemplating breaking this iron fast rule.
I yell down to my climbing partner Jeff: “I think I’m going to fall!” Jeff’s eyes go wide as he tightens his grip on the rope, his knuckles flashing white as he prepares to catch one big fall. Just as I’m about to break my tenuous grip with Mother Earth and go careening off into space, Jeff yells back: “Wait, don’t fall!”
Great. Just the advice I need right now. I have absolutely NOTHING to hold on to, my hands are smeared against rock, desperately seeking out friction with a surface that right now feels slicker than Linoleum. It’s not a question of whether I’m going to fall or not—it’s when. And that time is now.
Let’s pause for a second and go over why I’m not allowed to fall. I have a rope, right? My partner is holding the other end right? What’s the big deal?
A lot is a big deal. The biggest fear is that your gear will fall out of the rock. When you lead climb, you place protection in cracks and fasten the rope to them with snap links called carabiners. If you were to fall, you trust that that those tiny pieces of metal will actually hold you in place. Furthermore, you fall twice as far as your last piece of gear. So, if you haven’t placed a piece of protection in the last 10 feet like I have, you’re looking at a 20+foot fall. With rope stretch, make it 25 feet. And if you fall, all those ledges that you stood on comfortably while you climbed up come zooming back at you, threatening to break your ankles, back, even neck.
If you get hurt, you better hope Sly Stallone from Cliffhanger is coming to rescue you, otherwise who/what else but a helicopter can pluck your broken body off the side of a cliff? Like I said, the leader MUST NOT fall.
Back to reality:
As I feel my hands slowly, inexorably peeling off the rock, I yell “Falling!” and launch into free space. After what seems like an eternity in free fall, I come to a slow stop, dangling in free space 30 feet about Jeff’s head. Jeff is hanging six feet in the air, having been launched off the ledge he’d just been standing on. He lowers us back to the ledge, still 100 feet off the ground. I check my back and ankles: no damage. Other than my heart rate, nothing has changed dramatically. My last piece held, I didn’t hit any ledges, and Jeff didn’t drop me. As I gather my wits and thank the rock climbing gods for their benevolence, I turn to Jeff and cajole: “You want to lead this pitch?”