There is a shout that resembles a call for help, but it’s too far away to really make sense of. The group sits next to a rock face waiting in silence. Suddenly a rope is dropped over the cliff and an older man dressed in a dark blue paramedic uniform descends, followed quickly by another man, similarly dressed . They rush over to where the climbers stand, all huddled around their friend.
Andrew is on the ground, lying on his back, in immense pain but nonetheless calm. His face is pale and his head is being held in place by another climber. A friend sits to his right holding his hand while the red shirt he was wearing earlier is now wrapped around his right ankle in hopes of slowing the bleeding. He is covered in stray articles of clothing as his temperature has begun to drop; two raincoats, a heat blanket, an extra sweatshirt, a shirt.
It’s clear that he is severely injured and that help made it just in time. He lies between two large rocks in a position that appears to be greatly uncomfortable. The paramedics proceed calmly to evaluate the situation and Andrew’s condition.
On this clear evening towards the end of July, Andrew had been lying on the ground for close to an hour. He had fallen 40 feet while attempting to clean and rappel down from an 11.C climb called S’more Energy. In the height of the excitement of finishing his hardest climb yet, a few mistakes were made.
As a seasoned climber, Andrew had cleaned more routes than he could count and it had always gone off without a hitch. But in this case, after telling his belayer he was indirect—attached to a secure anchor—he pulled the rope through the stationary anchor points and set up a rappel system. But one side of his rope was not grounded, and he had not tied a stopper knot. As he was descending and cleaning the route, there was a sudden jerk and his autoblock loosened and unraveled, sending him plummeting some 40 feet to the ground. Andrew made two simple mistakes, both of which could have been solved by tying a simple knot. He wasn’t the first climber to do this, but he was one of the luckier ones—he was still alive.
The fall occurred at Endless Wall, a popular climbing location in the scenic New River Gorge of West Virginia. The New River is a place made for outdoor adventurers. With a river that offers challenging and exciting whitewater rafting options, tourism provides stable income to locals or those who choose to come and stay. It’s a welcome antidote to the state’s usual travails—grinding poverty and an environment damaged by decades of coal mining. But whitewater is not the only thing the gorge has to offer. There are a multitude of different climbing crags and types of climbing opportunities that attract climbers from all over the world. Andrew got his start there, working his way up and down the miles of solid rock face and hundreds of routes.
This day began with a group of friends, all experienced climbers and most of whom were working as local climbing guides. Just 30 minutes earlier Andrew had been free soloing on a nearby boulder completely at ease with the height and confident in his abilities. With long, orange hair and a muscled frame, he looked like a climbing version of Tarzan moving gracefully over the rock face. With an easy confidence he began the climb, two others in the group had already attempted it, so it was Andrew’s turn. He took his time, slowly and thoughtfully moving his way up the 90-foot route, pausing to save energy and contemplate his next move with heaving breathing and pumped arms until he reached the top.
After stabilizing his legs and head, the paramedics along with a team of at least 20 firemen start to rig a rappel system up the side of a 90-foot cliff, the fastest way to get him to a nearby helicopter waiting to airlift him to he hospital. From above the repel system looks like a manmade machine. The 20 ples firemen work together to heave Andrew and one of the paramedics up the side of the cliff and then continue to wheel and carry him for over a mile out of the crag. Once they arrive at the parking lot, Andrew is whisked into a waiting ambulance which carried him to the helicopter.
Today marks three months since the accident and Andrew still isn’t walking after multiple surgeries to stabilize his heal bones and leg. His recovery has been incredibly quick considering the fall he took. As a healthy young man, every doctor Andrew saw came to the same conclusion—he was extremely lucky and his fitness prior to the accident would work to his benefit during the recovery.
Looking back Andrew says, “I was so angry with myself and the mistake I made. I just felt crushingly disappointed and kept questioning how I could’ve let that happen. But I was so grateful for everyone around me and their support in the moment.” Every athlete has had that moment where the mistake makes or breaks their ability to continue, this was Andrew’s.
He remarks, “I am now even more driven to strengthen myself as a climber and person. I aim to better myself and my climbing capabilities once I am healed.” But he’s still not walking and will not be for at least a few more weeks. It’s hard to say exactly how long recovery will take with an injury like this, but Andrew is the kind of person who radiates positivity, which will help his recovery.
Andrew is currently planning a biking trip, another passion. His return to climbing will come in time and he notes, “I was angry at myself for making a mistake, but I was also lucky. I know that in the future I won’t let something like this happen again.”
Even the most experienced climbers make mistakes. Doing something simple that seems so routine can be the difference between life and death in the sport. But even so, climbers lace up shoes, strap on harnesses, tie into ropes and chalk up their hands just to face the challenge of a climb. And sometimes they push themselves farther then they ever thought possible. One day soon Andrew will be among them again.