This past weekend I went climbing with a few friends at Elizabeth Furnace up in Northern Virginia. On Saturday we hit up a small roadside crag called Talking Headwall where we cranked over some pretty fun well protected roofs. We wore ourselves out and then the next day went to go climb Buzzard Rocks on some classic slab routes, a nice two mile hike up the mountain from Talking Headwall. It was a great weekend with some super fun climbing ranging from crimpy face climbs to juggy overhangs to featureless slab but you may deduce from me writing about it that in classic Grayson adventure fashion, things didn’t quite go as well as intended.
Buzzard Rocks features some super long routes. They’re so long that you need to bring an especially long rope that’s 70 meters, or be prepared to turn it into a multi-pitch rappel or walk-off. There were five of us in the group so having two 70m ropes would allow two groups to climb at a time. I knew my rope was 70 meters, and my friend had a 70 meter rope so we should have been good.
A couple of my friends were top roping on a route I had just led and my friend left an hour earlier to get home to see his wife. He left us with his rope so we could continue climbing on two routes. I read the beta for another route, a 5.8 runout slab classic at Buzzard Rocks right next to my friends and tied to the sharp end. My girlfriend knew that when she lowered me she’d have to walk up the class 4 terrain to a tree so that she could lower me all the way.
So I climbed the route, my girlfriend started lowering me, and about 35 feet off the deck she shouts up that she’s out of rope. I did some fancy rope work to extend it a bit and got maybe another 5 feet lower. She walked up a little further and maybe got another 5 feet lower. But I was still way too far off the deck to untie and downclimb safely. So I shimmied over to a couple of anchors about 15 feet over, pulled the rope and then rapped down on those anchors.
No big deal. So why am I so friggin freaked out right now?
Well here’s the deal. What would’ve happened if my girlfriend hadn’t noticed that she was nearing the end of the rope, if she weren’t such an attentive belayer? Nothing, the system was closed, there was a knot in the end of the rope. But I didn’t tie that knot nor did I verify that there was a knot before stepping off the ground. No, she tied that knot when I was at the first bolt on the pitch and she remembered that we needed to tie a knot in the end. Not once did I think anything about it. All morning I had been tying knots in the end of the rope and had been reminding my friends to do the same. But neither of us remembered to do it before I left the ground. It was so close to being missed. I’ve reflected on the dangers of these sports before, but it’s not the subjective hazards that I thought I’d be worrying about. I was more concerned with objective hazards like rock fall.
So I was saved from a devastating, likely crippling if not fatal, drop from 35 feet off the deck by my girlfriend being extremely attentive. That’s not something it should ever come down to. Always, always tie a knot in the end of your rope. Make it like putting on a seatbelt: utter habit that feels weird if you forget it. Know the length of your rope. And know how long the route is. But my god, even if the other two are certainties, still close the system with a stopper knot in the rope.
This isn’t limited to beginners and it isn’t limited to Buzzard Rocks. This is a nearly universal accident and risk for all climbers at all crags: Almost exactly the same incident happened to Alex Honnold two years ago and it didn’t end as well for him.