In the Shadow of Lions Head

It was a nice day.  The sun was shining as we reached the edge of the cliff and our eyes devoured their first view of a sparkling, blue and turquoise Lake Huron.  We were all excited and energetic; happy to be outside in such perfect weather, and ready to tackle a new crag.  Everything seemed ideal.  The sky was cooperating, despite promised storms, and we all felt prepared for what we were about to do.  It certainly didn’t seem like the kind of day where anything could go wrong.  And maybe that’s exactly why it did.

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The hike to the crag was an easy one, with incredible vistas spanning over the lake at every turn.  With a guidebook in hand, we made our way to a cluster of routes within our skill levels ranging from 5.8 to 5.10.  This was our first experience as a group doing multi-pitch routes and hanging belays, but we had all spent time practicing the techniques, and we had learned to prusik in case we should find ourselves at the bottom of a route, unable to climb back out.

There were a total of seven of us on the trip, and once we reached the crag, we split into groups of two and three to set routes.  I was the second to rappel into the 5.8 we were setting in my group of three.  I thought this would be a good warm-up climb, and I planned on leading it.  I had no idea that it would end up being my only climb of the day, or that once on the wall, I would not be able to coerce myself into climbing lead.

As usual, the beginning of the rappel was intimidating for me.  I always find it difficult to lean backwards over a sheer cliff face knowing exactly how far I have to fall.  Once started though, rappelling is fun, and soon I was halfway down the wall, joining my husband at a set of bolts where he was anchored and ready to belay me.  I briefly clipped into the bolts to tie a climbers knot onto my harness, and then I prepared to lead the route.  I inched out to my left, and easily clipped into the first bolt.  A little farther to the left, and I made the grave mistake of looking down.  Every other time I’ve climbed lead, I have started from the relative security of the ground, but here in Lions Head, I was already well above the ending height of any route I had led before.  Dizziness surged into my head, and I inched back to the first bolt to give myself a second to calm down.  I told myself that this was just a normal sport climb, and there was nothing to warrant so much extra fear.  I tried again.  Same results.

Eventually, my husband asked if I would rather he lead the route, and I agreed with disappointment and embarrassment.  We switched places, and I belayed him, and then stayed in position to belay another friend.  All the while, I grew colder and colder, as the sun had not yet touched the cliff face, and I stood pressed against cold, unyielding stone for the better part of an hour.  By the time my partners had set a hanging belay from the top of the cliff, I was shaking violently, and my fingers were stiff from the cold.  I had no choice but to get up the wall, which proved difficult in my numb and trembling state.  Once passed the crux, however, the route was easy enough and I made it to the top where I donned my fleece jacket and let the sun return warmth to my frigid limbs.

Sitting on the top of the cliff, and talking to another member of our group as he was belaying, we suddenly noticed a couple of tiny figures climbing a boulder down in the lake below.  The pair turned out to be two more friends from our group, and they eventually made their way back to the crag to shout for assistance.  They had been attempting to set what they thought was a 5.9, but got halfway down the wall to find it unclimbable.  Rather than prusik back up, they had chosen to rappel to the bottom of the cliff and explore the shore below.  Now they needed a second rope if they were going to get back out.

After a brief discussion, the two friends I had climbed the 5.8 with decided that we should go all the way to the bottom to check out the shoreline as well.  We grabbed one of our ropes, leaving the pair that was on the wall at the time to finish up with the understanding that they would join us.  Once again, my husband led the rappel, and called out to me when he was clear of the wall so I could descend.  I secured myself to the first rope, and lowered myself over the edge and down to a set of anchors, where I clipped in to switch to the second rope.  This is where our problems began, and it is where they should have ended.

I noticed that the second rope, rather than being anchored into the bolts where I was secured, was clipped into three consecutive quickdraws.  If I had been climbing smartly, I would have used this opportunity to set a proper anchor.  Instead I looked at the setup, thought “That’s unusual,” and proceeded with my rappel, unclipping each quickdraw, and then re-clipping it above my ATC to avoid z-clipping.  I made it to the bottom, where I met up with my husband and the two friends who were already on the ground.  We chatted about how the day was going, and they explained that the route was simply to hard for them to climb and we would have to ascend the rope to get back out.

At this point, the third member of my smaller group was starting her rappel.  She made it to the midway anchors, and got on the second rope, but soon we noticed that she had passed by the first two draws without clipping around them.  She was z-clipped, and we yelled up to warn her of the danger.  Unfortunately the warning proved to be too late.  In trying to rectify her situation, she became entangled in the rope.  It wrapped around her leg, and she could not move up or down from where she was.  We tried to keep communicating with her from below, but after a few failed attempts to free her leg, she started to panic.  My stomach dropped as her leg shifted higher and higher in relation to her body, and I knew that she was in serious danger of injury.

At this point, the remaining two climbers from our group had made their way to the top of the rope we were using, and were ready to rappel in.  We called up to the top to communicate that somebody would have to come down the wall and mount a rescue.  In the only lucky part of the incident, one of them was already on the rope and waiting to descend.  He acted quickly, and soon he was halfway down the wall assessing the situation. He clipped into the nearest bolt, and used a quickdraw to attach the entangled climber to his harness, and a runner to attach her to another bolt. Through all of this, he kept a calm and collected demeanor which may have helped to calm me down as much as it did my friend who was trapped up there.  That is, until he uttered a phrase that I never want to hear while rock climbing.  He called out, “Does anyone have a knife?  I have to cut the rope.”

My gut turned over on itself, and the four of us on the ground exchanged looks of wide-eyed skepticism.  An image of two of my best friends falling to the sharp rocks that were too far below them weaseled its way into my mind and stuck there.  Someone-I don’t remember who-asked, “Are you sure that’s the only thing you can do?”  The idea of cutting the rope, the one thing that keeps a climber from falling to a probable death, was unthinkable.

But the response from above was, “I don’t see another way out of this.”

The last climber at the top of the cliff had a knife, and he attached it to a carabiner and sent it down the rope to our friends.  I had to turn away at the moment the rope was cut.  I didn’t want to watch, but I could hear the pain in my friend’s voice as the rope dug into her leg.  After a moment, I turned my eyes back to the scene on the cliff, and saw that they were both still safely on the wall, working on untangling the leg from the severed section of rope.  From there it was just a matter of waiting for them both the rappel to safety, where I immediately pulled them both into the hokiest of group hugs.

The climber who had been entangled nervously quipped, “That must have looked pretty bad if Kaiti is willing to hug us.”  An accurate statement on all counts.  I am not a big hugger, but the situation did look bad, and once my friends were safely on the ground, embracing them seemed the only thing to do.

Everyone bounced back surprisingly quickly from the ordeal.  The two who had rappelled first, started ascending the rope, and the rest of us set off the explore the lakeshore as long as we were down there.  We scrambled over rocks, and waded through the ice-cold water.

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After a while, we looked back at the crag and noticed that the other two weren’t done ascending the rope yet.  By our estimation, this meant that we couldn’t expect all four of us to have time to prusik the rope before nightfall.  We didn’t know how long it would take to hike out of the crag from where we were, but the friend who had executed the rescue and I volunteered to hike out and meet back up with everyone at the top.

We parted ways, and used the opportunity to talk about what had just happened.  He told me everything that had led to his decision to cut the rope, and we agreed that it was the only thing to do.  The thing that bothered me the most, and still does, is how many small mistakes it took to lead up to a potentially dangerous situation in which someone could have been seriously hurt.  First of all, the anchors weren’t set correctly to begin with, and I still don’t know the reasoning behind that.  My husband couldn’t fix the anchor because the rope was tied down on both sides at the bottom of the cliff.  This made sense because it was the only way back up the wall, and nobody wanted it to become uneven and fall to the ground while it was unattended.  I could have reset the anchor, but after seeing my husband rappel past it with no problems, I just did the same thing he did without really questioning it, and when the next climber came down, she didn’t even notice that anything was amiss until it was too late.

I have read countless stories about situations much like this, where climbers make a series of small mistakes that lead to catastrophe.  I never expected to experience this first hand.  It’s not something I ever thought would happen to me because I tend to be a cautious climber.  Something about the group made the situation feel safer than it really was.  When you see other people do something and it works, it feels safe.  We are extremely fortunate that nobody was hurt, and the main takeaway for me is to listen to my better judgement when I think a situation is unsafe.  I need to make sure I am triple checking every anchor, and if something isn’t right, I need to either point it out or fix it myself depending on what the situation calls for.  There is no room for complacency in a situation like this, and we all learned that the hard way on this (mis)adventure.

The hike out ended up being an hour and a half long rock scramble that took us into dense patches of undergrowth.  I was still wearing my climbing shoes (which are as good as destroyed), and we only had a couple of sips of water left in one bottle.  It was cumbersome hiking, and we were relieved to find a tranquil waterfall to drink from along the way.  Eventually, the wall grew shorter, and we were able to climb up a section that was completely covered in grass clippings and compost.  Once at the top, we realized we were in a backyard.  We must have been quite the sight, heaving our way over a cliff, covered in sweat and dirt, and clad in climbing gear, only to land on the sprawling, manicured lawn of a formidable estate.   We quickly dashed out to the road, eager to cease our trespassing, where we were able to find the trail that would lead us back to Lions Head.

We hiked back to the crag just in time to see my husband emerging from the unclimbable route.  We were quickly losing daylight, so the six of us pulled the final prusiker out by the rope.  Then we packed up, and hiked back to the cars in the dark.  Tired, hungry, dirty, and incredibly thankful to all be hiking out under our own power together.

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