Fall from cliff doesn’t deter rock-climbing passion

Tom Crawford, of Princeton, was injured in a rock-climbing accident in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just over a week ago, escaping death in what was an approximately 90-foot fall along a rock face.

Crawford, who graduated from Princeton High School this year, was climbing a granite face near Sylvan Lake, along Needles Highway in the Black Hills, during  the afternoon of Aug. 7, when he lost his balance from his foot and hand holds on the granite and fell.

Crawford, 18, didn’t fall all the way to the rocky ground below. The belayer, or person in charge of holding the other end of the rope, had taken up enough slack so that Crawford’s descent stopped about five feet above ground. But before he reached that point, his body slammed into the rock wall, causing some blood vessels to burst in his left eye and making gashes on his left arm.

The four rock climbers who were there with Crawford and who were on the ground below when the fall occurred, held him up while lowering him the rest of the way. He said they removed his shirt and wrapped it around his lacerated arm before helping him to a car parked about 150 feet away. From there they drove him to the hospital in Custer, S.D. Crawford remembers medical staff there cleaning up the bloodied arm and calming him, as he was hyperventilating. Crawford was given antibiotics and morphine and taken from the Custer hospital to the regional hospital in Rapid City, where he remembers spending four hours. Staff members at the Rapid City hospital stitched dissolving stitches beneath his skin and then attached 30 staples to hold the arm wounds together.

Nothing was broken on his body.

Crawford said the accident has not deterred him from continuing rock climbing, which he began two summers ago.

He emphasized that the belayer did what it was supposed to do in taking up the rope slack when Crawford’s mishap happened. Crawford was doing what he called lead climbing, meaning he had the job of bringing the rope to the top of the rock wall to hook a carabiner with loop into a bolt at the top. He was planning to then rappel down the rock side and let each of the other four rock climbers take their turn going up. The other four would have the advantage that there was a rope going through a carabiner setup at the very top and back down to the ground.

Crawford was using a series of six or seven bolts, already anchored into the rock face, to hook his sets of carabiners into, to run his rope that was hooked to his harness, through to the bottom. He was about to hook a carabiner onto the fourth bolt, he said, when his left arm that he was using to hold onto the rock side, and his two feet gave way as he lost his balance.

Crawford said there were several things that he should and shouldn’t have done regarding this climb. For starters, he attempted a climb that was above his rock climbing technical skill level, and also he and his group did not know enough about this rock face, he said.

Also, he said, he should have hooked a rope loop around a horn or piece of rock jutting out, that was halfway between the third and fourth bolts, as an extra safety catch.

“If I had hit the ground I would have died,” Crawford said.

Asked to describe his experience during the fall, he said: “I didn’t feel anything. My mind just went blank and my left side hit the rock. I was wearing a helmet. Without the helmet, I would have died. The left side of my face hit.”

Crawford described his injuries as a 15 cm laceration on his left forearm, two smaller lacerations above and below that, and the bruised eye. “I didn’t break anything, which was nice,” he said.

The accident altered his original plans to spend a couple days after the rock climb, doing things around the Black Hills. Instead he spent those two days mostly sitting on a porch at a friend’s house in back country, about an hour out of Rapid City. That turned out to be a “nice time,” Crawford noted, saying that he wouldn’t have wanted it to end up any other way.

Crawford said he encourages people to consider rock climbing. It’s the total experience that he said he enjoys about the sport. A big reward he feels in rock climbing, he said, is after he has come down and is looking up where he has been. But more than that, it is being out in a natural environment with views that he wouldn’t otherwise have. He advises not rock climbing alone and said he likes the kind of people who get into the outdoor environment and care for it.

One big thing that he said he took away from the accident, was that “people are good,” and pointed out the four fellow rock climbers as good examples.

He also looked at the what-if he had died supposition. “I enjoy rock climbing and if I died doing it, at least it would have been when I was doing something I enjoy,” he said. 

Crawford will be starting his first year at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, this fall, major undecided.