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A Bad Fall near Fitzroy

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New rock climbing routes in Europe are a rarity, all obvious lines on accessible rock having been climbed a long time ago. The Hot Rock expedition was developed with the raison d’être of giving climbers of all levels the opportunity to set up new routes on the almost virgin rock in the rest of the world. So when we discovered crag after crag near Fitzroy in Argentina it was no surprise that Dave, our expedition leader, had picked out a likely one, Red Sector, and was keen to get us out with the bolt gun to continue the Hot Rock new routing tradition.

Red Sector is a lovely two-layered crag about twenty minutes walk outside El Chaltén. With just 5 existing lines it has stacks of potential for budding new routers. While the hard men of the truck headed into the mountains for mind bogglingly difficult and dangerous assaults over ice, snow and rock to the top of Cerro Fitzroy, some 3 kilometres overhead, we were off to stretch our own boundaries in the familiar setting of a crag.

My plan was simple, do a couple of sports climbs to warm up then spot a good line and top rope it until the moves were wired. The next day I would come back with Dave and bolt the line before leading up it and naming the route - a welcome addition to my climbing resumé.

Once we were arrived at the crag a single line cried out to be climbed. All my plans went out the window. I could do this one onsight, on traditional protection, no top rope, no bolts, no pre-existing knowledge. Not only would it be a new route but I could do it in the best possible style.

I quickly got ready for the climb, so keen to get it under my belt that I stupidly dispensed with the annoyance of a warm up climb. From the moment I stepped onto the rock I realised that the climb was very dirty. This should have come as no surprise because if no one had climbed it before then no one would have cleaned it. Normally I would clean out dirt clogged cracks with my nut key, however in my rush to get started I hadn’t bothered to take one with me. I really should have gone down and got it but my “Ahh, it will be fine, and it looks fine a bit further up” attitude won over common sense.

About 4 meters off the ground I placed a chock into a crack and clipped my rope into it to protect against groundfall. It was not a very good placement and would have only protected against a downward force, no real problems there because if I fell, it was downwards I’d likely be falling. I was happy that it would protect my next move but aware that a taut rope later in the climb would pop it out. Another couple of meters higher I placed a bomber cam deep in the crack. Though feeling safer I continued to move up at a snail’s pace, starting a move then reversing, going up a bit in search of hold, fingering the rock over my head in hopes of finding something positive.

There was no real problem, the climb was easy enough but the uncertainty of what lay above weighed heavily and upward movement was painfully slow. The next available piece of protection was in a dirt filled crack, “damn it I really should have brought my nut key to clean it out,” but I was basically half way up the climb. I got just enough dirt out of the crack to place a small chock about the size ladybird near the edge of the crack. It wasn’t the best of placements but it would probably hold a fall. With a nut key I’d have been able to get it much deeper and more securely into the crack, but never mind – it was time to go on.

The crack was really starting to widen and I climbed by jamming my hands into the crack, expanding them so that my skin and the sides of the crack form a solid connection and I could pull myself up. Trouble was the crack was flared, wide at the edge and narrowing deeper in, and nothing on my harness was going to fit it easily. I put in chock but I could not fool myself that it would hold so much as a family of flies. I went up a meter trying to place something better, no joy. I held on fumbling with chocks and hexes, nothing was fitting. I needed a big cam. I had one big cam; trouble was I had already placed it five meters below.

The end of the climb was just another 3 meters away. I could easily just plough on and finish the climb without any further protection, but that would be foolhardy, risking groundfall. I was getting tired and my leg started to shake in an action that climbers call “sewing machine leg”. It was time to reverse a couple of moves down to a rest position and re-evaluate my situation – if I could not work out a way to protect the top section of the climb I was going to have to back off and downclimb the route.

I started to downclimb to a rest position, well in control, now that I knew exactly where each hold was. Suddenly I was falling – something had given way. Everything happened very quickly. Calmly but with dismay I looked as my first piece of protection slipped out of the rock without so much as a tug of resistance on the rope. Vaguely in the back of my mind I heard a scream coming up from the ground. Falling unchecked my feet crashed onto a small ledge, slowing me but toppling me backwards. Bush, rock and gorse whizzed past in a blur. A tug on my harness followed by a continuing fall meant the second piece of protection had also failed to arrest my fall. This was going to hurt. Then came the reassuring and firm pull on my harness as the dynamic rope finally found a solid piece of protection and I stopped. Thank God for that bomber cam.

I was horizontal, just a meter off the ground, hanging face down looking at Barbara’s terrified face as she lay in the thorn bush where she had flung herself in order to shorten my fall. “I’m okay,” I said “Don’t worry I’m okay”. She lowered me to the ground and I realised I couldn’t stand, my ankles hurt like hell so I just sat down. I may have been okay but I was hurt. Suddenly everyone was around me. Dai, Elizbeth, Anthea, Sarah all looked shocked, and even cool as cucumber Nick’s cigarette almost fell out of his mouth.

Dave, our expedition leader, swarmed over me, giving macho reassurances while getting a damage report. “How’s your head?” he asked “Nice fall, you didn’t scream, that’s good because you are less likely to break your ribs if there is air in your lungs. How’s the back?” he ran his hands down the length of my back, no pain thank God. “I’m fine, no real problems, it is just my ankles, I can’t stand right now, I’m going to have to rest here a bit.” Damage had been done, it didn’t feel too horrific but damage had certainly been done.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of an Xray of caelen's ankle Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
Photograph of the gang going to try Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
X-ray of Caelen's foot

Geoff Badger and Gary

Photograph of the fall Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
Photograph of Caz climbing Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
The route Caelen fell from with all the details

Caz leading up a new route as it should be done

Picture of Dave carring Caelen out Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
Photograph of Caelen waiting for the crutches Fitzroy Chalten - Argentina travelouges
The route Caelen fell from with all the details

Caelen waiting for the crutches