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Friday, May 20, 2011

Lover's Leap (Lake Tahoe) Trip Report

I start writing this from my comfortable bed at my home in San Francisco this sunny Monday morning after surviving an epic climbing accident at Lovers Leap in South Lake Tahoe this past weekend. I wanted to share the story:

Steve and I are old climbing friends. We go a long ways back to the fall of 2003 when I met Steve for the first time. I don't remember exactly when we were first introduced but my most distinct memory is of meeting him at an outdoor climbing trip in North Carolina, at this small crag called Pilot Mountain a couple hours away from my then home in Charlotte. I had been climbing maybe twice in my life at that point, and I was trying to muscle my way up 5.6, 5.7 climbs (beginner grades in rock climbing). Steve was on some 5.10 or maybe a low 5.11 climb (harder but still moderate climbing grades). And while I was on top rope, Steve was leading this climb that was of a level I couldn't conceive then. I was awed and inspired. My interest and love for the sport grew quickly and exponentially. We did some climbing together at Inner Peaks, the local climbing gym in Charlotte, and then followed that up with weekend trips to nearby crags - Crowders, Pilot, and the New River Gorge (The 'New' remains my favorite climbing area of all time). Outside of climbing, we bonded over similar interests and outlook to life. As is wont, our circumbstances changed. Steve had to move away to the Outer Banks of NC - beautiful beaches but no climbing. His construction career and a difficult marriage took priority and his climbing waned. I continued to climb religiously (organized my life around it somewhat), and progressed to harder grades with regular training at the gym and trips to the New every weekend. I eventually moved away to San Francisco to pursue a new life and career towards the end of 2006. Steve and I stayed in touch but obviously didn't get on the rope together much.
Couldn't find a an early picture together but here are a couple from us circa 2006 from our old stomping grounds in the South East. Steve, you are ripped homie!

Fast forward a few years. Steve met a beautiful girl to settle down with. They decided to get married (later this year in Aug 2011). Steve called me up and asked if he could come visit me in SF as part of his 'bachelor' festivities leading up to the wedding and proposed a weekend trip to include some outdoor climbing time along with the usual SF frolics (Bay to Breakers anybody?) . I was stoked. Mulling our options for an easy day trip, I voted for Lovers Leap near Tahoe, given its proximity to the Bay area about (2.5-3 hrs) and plenty of moderate traditional (or 'trad') climbing routes. My preferred style is sport climbing (more on that later), but a day of trad climbing would be fun for us. As local climbers know well, Northern California is a trad bastion, with fewer options for high quality sport climbing.

Sport climbing and trad climbing have significant differences.Wikipedia seems to explain it well enough. My preferred style is sport climbing which emphasizes physical prowess and athleticism over adventure and risk taking. Moving to the Bay area forced me though to make some furtive attempts to take up trad climbing, a discipline for which I maintain high respect and intellectual regard, but still have been reluctant to commit due to the steep learning curve and limited time while juggling a busy career and other myriad interests. I've made a few (and sporadic) trips to trad climb over the years, a few in the South-east, a couple to Tuolumne, and then a couple more in summer 2010 to Lovers Leap in Tahoe. After that enjoyable trip to Tahoe last year where I excitedly lead my first trad climb, I decided to throw myself into the sport and acquired all the basic gear (also called a 'rack'), a significant financial investment as well. However I didn't actually use any of this newly acquired rack until this fateful weekend due to lack of time and other arbitrary factors. 

Coming back to the present, Steve was open to any kind of climbing and was game for Lovers Leap and the novelty of the area (for him). Given his lack of prime climbing fitness he was also looking forward to the idea of following an easier grade. While Steve has more experience with placing gear and trad climbing in general, it was decided that I would lead all the pitches since I was the stronger climber at the moment. To minimize the 'unknowns' we decided to climb the same route that I easily led last year, a 400 foot 5.7 classic called Bear's Reach, a route also immortalized by Dan Osman's ridiculous free solo from back in the day.

Bear's Reach. 5.7 classic

Our first mistake really was to choose trad climbing over sport climbing, and a multi-pitch one at that. I have scant experience or good training to lead such a climb, with all the many prerequisites, such as the finesse needed to place good pro, build natural anchors, route orienteering, and ultimately more advanced skills such as self-rescue and emergency first aid. Sport climbing and trad climbing are radically different. I have logged hundreds of days sport climbing over the last 7.5 years, at diverse places around the world, with grades ranging up to low 5.13. Being a strong sport climber helps but is far less important in the scheme of things.

Gloomy skies as we arrived at Lovers Leap (the wall in back)
 We (myself, Steve, and his younger brother Shawn) left San Francisco lazily around 10 am Saturday after an enjoyable morning making breakfast followed by coffee and treats from Philz. The forecast called for good weather during the day but snow after dark. We were in great spirits and arrived at the Lovers Leap parking lot about 2 pm. It was grey but beautiful, with white-capped peaks in the horizon, riparian greens with fir and other early spring blooms, and then the sublime granite walls that were foreboding yet inviting, After sorting through the gear - my cams, stoppers, slings etc. were all new and we bantered while removing tags and shrink wrap! We passed the occasional climber on the 20 min approach hike, which unlike my trip last summer involved dodging snow and squishing puddles. Lovers Leap becomes quite busy later in the season, but right now it was still early and we enjoyed the crisp and quiet hike in.. We arrived at the base of the climb at about 2:30 but didn't actually start climbing until about 3 pm. We figured we had enough time given the longer days with sun setting around 8 pm.

Racking up at the parking lot

Hiking to the approach. The talus field await us.

Steep rocky approach to the base of the cliff.
The cliff looms behind us. Beautiful eh?

Scoping out Bear's Reach. Such a classic.
 Next mistake. Many unforeseen events can happen with a multipitch climb given its adventurous nature. We should have been more careful, giving ourselves plenty of extra time, given especially my lack of experience leading trad, and the storm forecast for later.

I found the first pitch fairly straightforward. It is considered run-out (with fewer protection options) but the actual moves are easy. I got in my groove quickly but had to fumble with placing gear. No surprises there. Point to note is that I was carrying one set of cams, and one set of stoppers or nuts. The book recommends 2 sets of cams but we decided to make do with what we had. I was extremely sparing with the pro, really only placing stuff only about every 15 feet or so, and trying to use as many nuts as possible, aware that I would need the big cams for the top of the pitch and also to build anchors with.

Not prudent. Yes, I daresay most people get away with carrying less gear than recommended. But then some folks free solo as well (an extreme end of the sport). For most of us more gear usually makes us safer. With my inexperience, I should have carried extra gear and plugged in many more pieces. The climbing felt easy, but contrarily a slight mistake could have lead to a long lead fall on slabby, uneven, and hence injury-producing terrain. Well as we know, that's exactly what happened later in the day.

Stopping to place pro at the first pitch.

Steve looking every bit the seasoned alpine warrior!
Posing for a high five at the first anchor station. Notice the fat ledge that affords a nice belay seat.

I made anchors at the first pitch. Wasn't too difficult with bomber protection opportunities and a solid belay ledge.It still took me much longer than for somebody with ready trad experience. Looking down I noticed two other climbers come to collect their backpacks at the base of the climb. They had evidently completed the same route and were now moving on with their day. Steve started up on top rope and had a big smile when he made it up. We high-fived in our exhilaration - the fantastic climbing, , the spirit of adventure, and finally, the camaraderie we shared over the purity of the moment. The other thing i noticed was the bit of fatigue, realizing Steve's insufficient fitness resulting from little climbing in his recent past. I had ignorantly chosen a climb that made up for its lack of difficult movement by its continuous nature and need for at least a moderate level of endurance.

It's important to have a good gauge on the physical ability and climbing skills of your partner. That is usually not an issue as I and most others usually go on trips with partners we climb with on a regular basis. In this case however, Steve and I both over-estimated each others skills and stamina for this kind of climb. 

After securing Steve to the same belay station, I started collecting gear that Steve had brought up with him on the way up on top rope. I'd need this gear for the next pitch. I knew I was going to miss the three cams that I had to leave behind to serve as Steve's belay anchor. I took a swig from the camelbak on Steve's back and started up, maneuvering around him to reach the first few holds. As I started up I remembered the crux of route, or the the infamous 'bear's reach'. A high hold that you can muscle up to either by using tiny crimps, or if you are like most, reach for it getting your legs wide and with a pseudo-deadpoint. Making sure that I had good pro right below me, I went for the hold and grasped it with relative ease. I kept moving at a decent pace continuing my good cadence on the smooth granite..I did notice now that I was high enough that Shawn on the ground looked really small and it appeared that he had put on an extra layer to combat the dropping temperatures. It was starting to chilly rapidly with the hide-and-seek playing sun losing the game to the clouds. I didn't feel a sense of urgency yet, aware that we still had over 3 hrs of light remaining, and deliberated, enjoying the rhythmic flow and the serenity around me. Rock climbing at a high level can feel dance-like with its choreographed movement. The difficulty level wasn't quite stiff enough but nonetheless required a moderate amount of precision and focus that allowed me tap into the meditative zone that is so seductive about the sport. Your mind empties of all thoughts except the core task at hand and the immediate move in front of you. A pure joy that is difficult to articulate to a non-practitioner but is immediately understood by other climbers. This is why I climb!

Taking the odd look down I could no longer see Steve, or Shawn at the base. The meandering nature of the route and the uneven nature of the wall. meant that your partner can often get shrouded from view.. I completed the pitch easily, built anchors, and used a combination of practiced yells and rope tugs to communicate that I was off-belay and that Steve should start as soon as he was ready. Steve released himself from his anchors, collected the gear and begun the climb up to meet me. With supplementary 5 inches of height (he's well over 6 feet), he had no difficulty with the 'bear's reach' move and climbed steadily to meet me at the 2nd belay..

The 2nd pitch felt much longer but Steve made steady progress. The follower can take as much time or longer due to the need for jimmying gear on top rope Stoppers / nuts especially have an annoying tendency to get horrendously wedged and it can be royal pain to pry them loose. Steve almost gave up on one particular stopper very close to the top but labored on with my pleading looks imploring him to not abandon a piece from my brand new rack! My consumeristic sentiment would prove to be very ironic indeed. When Steve made it up I could see that he was beginning to feel the continuous nature of the climb. Our spirits were still buoyant but we realized that we needed to hurry with the storm clouds looming in the horizon. Of course the pitches took much longer than expected.

In retrospect I believe that I took an inordinate amount of time placing gear. An experienced trad climber can slot a piece in almost as quickly as clipping a quick draw to a bolt. I, on other hand had to often test multiple pieces in order to find the perfect fit (if indeed so). Over a long climb with multiple placements the excess time added up and affected my time calculations more than I'd care to admit.

We exchanged gear, already faster than our sloppy first exchange. We were also getting pretty cold by this time. I think the temperature had dropped to the low 40s. We dearly wished we had some gloves to keep our hands warm at the belay. Starting the climb with cold hands doesn't help at all. I was starting to feel the first sense of urgency. I remembered the last pitch being straightforward with albeit a tricky last section at the top, and off-width that I could jam and mantel, or like most people, just trudge around.

Starting this pitch, I remember the first 20-30 odd feet of the pitch being easy, however my hands were getting raw with the cold.. I had to stop intermittently to shake them out to maintain sensitivity, and take extra care of the jams I was slotting in the rock Climbing with numb hands can feel very insecure. I have experienced that often sport climbing but never on this kind of adventure where falling was not really an option. Placing gear was also a bit harder with the wind buffeting me and makng it harder to concentrate. I continued to climb and made it to perhaps 30 feet above the belay where I reached a corner with a fat crack and a small roof above me. It appeared a bit more challenging then what I had encountered so far in the pitch (I understand now that some people describe this section as the crux of this pitch). I added a stopper, but then backed it up with a cam for good measure. This was the first time I had added two pieces together at one place. In retrospect I think that the ostensible security of the two partnered pieces made me cavalier about inspecting each individual piece for reliability. I had the right idea but did not confirm that each piece was secure in the crack.

I continued a few feet up until I was right at the base of the small roof. This part felt insecure. My hands in the crack felt stable as long as I maintained a stemmed out position with my feet wide on small granite smears. Because of the bad feet I had to use greater upper body strength to hold on. I perceived what looked like hidden incut holds above the roof block, but didn't know for sure. I felt a committing move ahead and I hesitated.  I cannot recollect this section from last year because it was probably not anything that I found challenging. Amazed at how contrastive the same climb and movement feels once you drop the temperature by 30 odd degrees and take away sensitivity in the hands!

I wanted to also put another piece of gear in but wasn't sure if I had enough, PLUS I didn't want to take hands off to fiddle with my rack on this unstable perch. I stalled, debating what to do. And that's the last thing I remember.

Because the next second I was off. I recollect it as a very 'pure' fall where I had no moment to think or prepare. I launched off the wall and was spinning and tumbling. I remember hitting the rock a few times and screaming (Steve confirms). I kept on falling and wildly thought "why the hell do I not stop?" I finally did brake. I was dazed and in shock. I took a moment to catch my breath and then instinctively moved my hands and feet about to check for injuries. I felt a searing pain in my lower back but was able to move my hands and wiggle my toes tolerably well. I first looked down to check for Steve (I had no idea how far I had fallen!). Didn't find him and got a bit confused. I couldn't see him looking up yet but did notice the long rope above me and it dawned on me that I had fallen way below my belayer. He was hidden from view because of the uneven rock between us. I figured that the first step was for me to make it back up to him. I had fallen in a direct line away from the route but spotted a thin juggy flake in front of me that looked promising. I grasped the sides of the flake, ignored the sharp pain in my mid-section and started clambering up. Steve had me on an assisted belay and helped me by keeping the rope tight as I moved up. A little bit later I looked up and made eye contact. I still had to stop every few feet to catch for breath but stayed persistent and plodded on up to the belay ledge.

AlWAYS, always wear a helmet on any activity that could result in a head collision. It saved my head and neck. My helmet cracked on the inside in 3 distinct places but the shell remained intact. If not my life, it saved me from certain cranial trauma.
The approximate location of where I believe I fell

Steve and I looked at each other. He appeared ashen but unhurt. He gave me the once over and said that he thought my nose was broken. I felt blood on my fingers as I wiped my hand across my face but didn't feel any sharp pain that would indicate a fractured nose. But yeah my face felt lumpy and it did hurt and my back didn't want to budge. But again I could not immediately perceive any deeper injuries. Taking stock of our situation we started plotting escape strategies. There was no way I could continue to the top, not in the shape I was. Steve did not feel upto it either. Just as we were discussing the rappelling option, we also realized that we had my trusty IPhone on me. Steve got it out of his CamelBak and grinned when he found that not only was the phone charged up, it had cell service, at least 2-3 bars worth! We decided to call 911 first, and then called Shawn at the base to let him know.

ALWAYS carry a cellphone everywhere. If you find reception, you are golden!

We described our coordinates to the best of our knowledge, hoping that the authorities would know enough about the area to ascertain the location of this particular climb on the East Wall though it was getting dark very fast. We confirmed that we didn't want to rappell if that could be helped, and they immediately agreed to mobilize a rescue operation together. Shawn was only too relieved to hear his brother's voice, and played a key role in the rescue -  making his way in the storm to the SAR command center vehicle and helping them pinpoint our location.

Now began the forever wait. We struggled to make ourselves as comfortable as we could, huddling on the small platform with a mess of rope, slings and gear all around us, covering our face and staying close to retain heat. For the second time that day I fervently wished that I had brought a wind jacket. It wasn't too bad as long as I had back support and I made sure to effectively use Steve's tummy for that (Ha! thanks bro!). In my weak state, I also made a couple of phone calls to a couple of close friends. Thank you - you know who you are - for NOT picking up your phones. There was nothing you could have done at that moment and I would have made you feel terrible in your helplessness. My thoughts went in all directions. I was somewhat delirious but I think I thought of my family, friends, the fall, erratic scenes from my past, and of warm blankets!

A little while later, we were excited to note a couple of strong light beams from below coming closer to us. It appeared that the rescue parties had identified our approximate location. Steve started waving the phone to help them locate us and we both started yelling as well at the top of our lungs. 

We did not carry headlamps. Seriously?! We had left ours in our bigger packs below. Not smart at all. 

Seems like our voice and weak light carried down despite the snow and strong winds. We got immediate feedback that felt very reassuring. However the interminable wait was hardly over.. Steve talked to the rescue officials as well as exchanged messages with Shawn to get status. We were told that they were sending a team to the of the cliff as well, along with a chopper that was on its way. This felt good. I think I fell in and out of delirious sleep a couple of times. Every time we would hear a loud rumble we'd excitedly look up only to be chagrined realizing that the noise was coming from below from trucks rumbling down the highway in the distance.

Shawn providing steady reassurance that help was on its way

After more false positives, we perked up from a roar from the distance that seemed to be getting stronger by the second. Soon we could see the helicopter in the far distance. It seemed like a big one with twin set of rotors, its heft calculated to combat the stormy conditions. The chopper circled around the valley a few times in what appeared to be a search for us. Not sure what went on there since we believed we had been geo-located already by the ground teams. Maybe a communication gap, or some safety maneuvering that we did not understand. Finally the big bird seemed to hone in on us and came directly overheard blanketing us with bright incandescent strobes and very powerful winds. We were elated and somewhat awestruck too, especially when its belly parted up to lower the rescue person on rope below to us. All the elements seemed to conspire to make it feel very Hollywood-esque!

It was immensely comforting after the 'solitary confinement' to have another human being in our midst esp somebody who seemed very well equipped and took responsibility immediately.. The young paratrooper employed a series of precise questions to validate our state of consciousness and injury. I think he was very relieved to see us relatively unimpaired and probably expected much worse. In the meantime he asked the chopper to leave and return in five minutes. It had been hovering dangerously close to the wall and the vicious gusts around us could have proved deadly. He then proceeded to confirm that we felt comfortable going down the cliff via an assisted belay instead of the air-evacuation that appeared to be high risk in these conditions. The next step was the difficult task of preparing me for the the haul down with getting a body harness around me. The three of us were on a small ledge the size of a coffee table and entangled with the jumble of gear and daisy straps that held us tied to the anchors. He made me strip off the gear around my climbing harness and clumsily get in the rescue harness.

In the meantime a flashlight from above indicated another rescue person (Mike I believe?) descend from above on twin static ropes. He was part of the rescue team on the top of Lovers Leap. It appeared that all different teams had established contact and were now working in close concert. Mike asked a similar set of questions to confirm that I was physically sure of safely lowering down on the 300 foot ropes that would go all the way to the base. I could hardly say no! He also made sure that both Steve and the chopper guy felt confident to rappel down on their own after he had deposited me on the ground. I didn't see Steve again until he and Shawn both drove to the hospital to meet me later that night / early morning.

Once we lashed the ropes to our harnesses, being lowered was fairly uneventful if a little ponderous. Mike and I came down together with constant radio convo with the teams to control the descent. The harness cut into my hurt back, but boy, I was not going to complain! Soon we saw the rescue team at the bottom of the route and that gave extra energy to both of us (Mike was tired too from the long night!). The SAR folks rushed over to us the moment we touched down. I was frankly amazed at the number of folks at the bottom. Must have been at least a dozen (I was humbled to learn afterwards that over thirty different men and women had assisted in the rescue in various capacities). I remember hands holding me and arms under my shoulders to assist. They were fussing over me, untying my rope and the harness. I felt pampered and at that moment realized that I was going to be ok, and that the ordeal was about over.

They decided to strap me in a gurney and cover me from head to toe in a blanket in order to safely carry me on the hike back to the trailhead. The facial covering barricaded the raining snow from splattering on my exposed face. The hike out was fairly treacherous given the talus, darkness, and just snow, water and wetness everywhere. There were many sets of hands carefully hoisting the gurney on the way out. I was moved about and I was shivering head to toe. But despite it all, I felt very safe. The rescue folks were making small talk with me and they were also relieved I think to find that I still had my wits about me and was not in any danger of losing consciousness soon. The thought that kept repeating itself in my worn state – “AMERICA is incredible! I salute you!”  Yep, cheesy I know, but I felt a wave of gratitude rush over me. It hit me for the first time as an immigrant on how much this country values each and every individual – judging by the immensity of the SAR operation and the comprehensive foundations to make it even possible. I felt truly glad to be living in the US. 

After what felt like an eternity, I could sense bright lights through the thin blanket covering my eyes. I was lowered and then transferred to a waiting ambulance. The friendly paramedic slipped some heat packs around my body but I continued to violently shiver. Judging by my phone logs, I believe I took the fall right around 7 pm (the first call out to 911 was at 7:32) I estimate we made it to the ground between 11:30 and midnight. That would mean that our exposure to the snow, winds, and other elements during the wait lasted about 4-5 hours. I think the temperature dipped down to the 20s after dark. We got chilled to the bone! The paramedic congratulated me on wearing my hard hat He commented that that very morning he had taken a young kid to the hospital who had run into a parked car on his bike and had not been wearing a helmet – he had suffered bad head wounds :(:(
Getting wheeled into the ambulance all strapped up. Psyched to warm!

Shawn looking appropriately distressed. THANK YOU again Shawn! You are the unsung hero of this epic weekend!

Rescue vehicles....snow everywhere!

Whiteouts on the drive back from Tahoe. This is May....unbelievable!
Quasi-mandatory post-climbing grub at In-And-Out. Can you say Americana?!

The rest is pretty boring. I was motored to the ER at a hospital in South Lake Tahoe. They performed a bunch of tests – CAT Scans, XRays etc that took the better part of the night. After ensuring that I had not suffered any truly gruesome injuries – no broken bones, spinal cracks etc etc, they decided to discharge me in the early morning. They are not gonna let you cop any free hospital time if they can help it. Haha! Steve and Shawn had taken refuge at a nearby Motel 6. We decided to drive back to SF immediately. They had to catch a flight that night back to the East Coast and not going with them would have made things very complicated. I popped Ibuprofen and Shawn valiantly ferried us back. It was a long drive given that it was still snowing heavily. I could see that Shawn was really tired from lack of sleep and everything else but trucked on – You are a trooper buddy! I was in some pain and discomfort but in high spirits the whole way back. I believe I was in shock (and somewhat still am a week hence) and my adrenaline was pumping after the stupendous nature of the accident and the rescue. Of course I was also incredibly amazed that I got away with minor injuries - minor haematoma on my left eye, a sore back, strained obliques, and skin wounds at a few different places. All stuff that is going to heal quickly and permanently. RIDICULOUSLY LUCKY. If you have had any interaction with the climbing world, and have heard / known / experienced of the fragility of the human body in similar adversity, you’d know how fortunate I was (and so was Steve).

I decided to make the decision to post an update on our way back and was immediately overwhelmed by the outpouring care, concern and affection from all. That has continued over the week. I am IMMENSELY GRATEFUL for the beautiful family I have - my folks, friends and everybody else. Thank you again for your phone calls, texts, emails, gifts and the personal visits. You know who you are. You make me feel extra special about being in one piece.

I called my family that night (with a 12 hour difference to them in India, it was their morning). Thank you, Mom and Dad for empowering me to be completely honest with you. It is with conflicted emotions that I recounted the ordeal. I cannot underestimate the strength that is called from you not to judge me for my choices and actions. For sending me support and unconditional love. You are my best friends.
The long drive back from Tahoe to SF the next day. In great spirits, exponential improvement over night!

I also thank the climbing community for rallying around me. The promptness of the report on the interwebs was astounding. What other sport in the world has such an extraordinary fellowship!? Hope this report sheds light on what happened, and perhaps serve towards safer, smarter adventures for those reading.

Finally, I have to thank the SAR team from that night and its brave individuals once again. I'll remain forever indebted. 

Thank you for reading and for any feedback.