Close Call

An ‘Act of God’ is a legal term for events outside of human control, such as sudden floods or other natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible. This does not protect those who put others in danger of acts of nature through negligence, such as an adult who instructs a group of children to stand under a tree to escape a lightning storm.   However,  the legal term, “Act of God”, does not necessarily imply that God had a direct intervention which specifically caused a “natural” occurrence or disaster.

Now that we have that straightened out, you should know that free soloing isn’t for everybody, and it’s not always for me either.  I’ve probably backed off from as many pitches as I’ve topped out.  They say grades don’t matter in climbing, well, when you solo, they matter even less. I’ve backed off a 5.7 slab because it felt insecure, but later in the day soloed a 5.12b roof.  It’s not what is harder or easier, it’s what feels harder or easier.  Feeling is the most important part of the game, not thinking.  Well one time, I was feeling on top of the world, I was higher than a kite, and suddenly without warning, it all came crashing down and it left me thinking…

Exasperator, 2006

–    The pleasant chirping of birds echoed softly against the massive granite face before me, a morning song.  The infamous coastal wind swept up and across my face as I finished the crux sequence, and the classic fissure opened to swallow my knuckles deep.  I still remember my shoes sticking like velcro and clamping down tightly onto those tiny crystals, I felt the tight lock take hold of my fingers and secure any drifting thoughts I may have had.  A smile came over my face while reaching for my chalk bag and I knew with all certainty that this was exactly where I wanted to be, where I needed to be, it was the only place that felt exactly right.  With only a few more feet to the ledge…


Like the sound of a hot bullet whizzing by my face from an old Clint Eastwood Western, the rock that nearly killed me, the rock I never saw, ripped into the wooded forest behind me and bounced off (what seemed like) every single tree to the highway below.  I stared intently at the crystal white scar it left behind, only 16 inches from my pale face, still smoking like incense burning inside an ashram, while the knocking sound of hollow wood lingered in the air for longer than I’d like to remember.   What the fuck?  I thought, practically laughing to myself.  As if that just happened?   My face slowly drained of its warm blood and enthusiasm – what was once an extended moment of jubilation suddenly shifted into superstition and trepidation.  Does it always happen like this?  I looked up to see if I was in any more danger, to see if I could avoid getting hit by a close relative, who knows, maybe a big brother, but how much wiggle room did I really have to work with?

Nearly an entire rope length above the forest floor, my scattered mind began pondering the idea of luck vs fate, chance vs destiny, chaos vs predetermination, but there was no time for this shit, this senseless talk was for drunks during ungodly hours of the night, not a soloist.  Without a rope, and zero backup, I had to make a decision, up or down?  There was no way of knowing if another rock was on its way south bound to meet me, perhaps this time with the initials S.J.T. etched into the side of it?   Even if it hit me in the arm, hand or shoulder I was still a dead man, at least if it hit me on the head I wouldn’t be thinking clearly enough to care.  Ha.  I began a quick but very precise climb back down to the ground, reversing every lock, smear and shuffle I performed on the way up.

On a good day Exasperator is one of the most enjoyable free climbs in the world.  Especially the ‘second pitch’ where I was resting, where the climb traverses left across the wider seam.  I would have down climbed it anyway (there’s no easier way off) but I was hoping to rest at the belay for a while, who knows, maybe take my shoes off, pull in some deep breaths and enjoy the sensational lookout.  I never assumed I’d be a mark, retreating like a wounded soldier.  Just a few moves from the station.

The fact is, I was wounded.  Perhaps not my body, but my mind – at least for a short time.

For the rest of the day I pondered what would’ve happened had I been one move too late?  10 seconds and 16 inches to the right and I would have taken that falling rock right between these Irish eyes.  I wonder if they’d be smiling?  –   So what force allowed me to step aside before the bullet rocketed down to earth?  I came to a very important conclusion that it was nothing at all.  I think it was just life being life – completely random and perfectly unexplainable.  I could have picked another great climb with a slightly lower level of objective hazards.  I could have, but I didn’t.  I picked this line for this time for its beauty and quality, I picked this day in October for it’s high friction and low traffic.  I never saw a car in the parking lot.  I feel I made smart choices, I did what I could and yet the rock still fell.  Why?  Who knows!  Who cares!  Maybe it was a squirrel, maybe a snake, maybe a tourists warming up their pitching arm  OR  maybe it was just time it fell, but I think it is futile to always try and make sense of this crazy world.  We don’t know why some things happen and others don’t, and I’m assuming we never will.  So I ain’t spending more time thinking about it, I’m just glad I got down.

But, here is what I DO know, soloing is one of the best sensations I’ve ever felt,  it is a feeling I knew I would enjoy from the moment I stepped off the ground for the first time.  It doesn’t mean I enjoy it everyday, nor do I enjoy being terrified, but I do like to practice a little bit of ‘amplification‘ from time to time.  I find it makes the fruit taste a little sweeter.  So was it neglegence on my part?  Debateble.  I think I’ll continue on my merry way and chalk this one up as an inaction of god.  A close call with zero questions and even fewer answers.

Play safe!

  • Suzanne

    Whoa scary feedback there Sonnie, but glad you are aok and you made a wise decision to back down, as like you say, you never know another rock could have fallen at anytime after that last one. Close call indeed!
    I was wrong re. the osteopaths in Canada, just never seen them advertised, but I have since found some via google online.
    Take care! 🙂

  • great post

  • elias

    luck is on our side!! grab it!

  • Antoine

    Great post! A truly gripping read (no pun intended).
    Thank you.

  • Matt

    I love Exasperator, a great line that taught me that I didn’t know squat about finger locks or what 5.10 should feel like. I think experiences like the one you had put the rest of life into perspective, and I feel sorry for those people who don’t have them, or ignore them when they do. The reflection you put into the experience says a great deal about the kind of person you are – kudos!
    Either that or it says your cable is out.

  • ktmt

    We humans always want to make sense of things, to put our narrow misses, close calls, crossed paths, moments just in or out of reach into a framework, to find the meaning, the explanation, the truth. But “it was just life being life – completely random and perfectly unexplainable” is among the best answers I’ve seen.

  • Danny

    Sounds like Yam… first time on it I thought school kids were throwing rocks off the top in the handfuls

  • Paul

    Another great post Sonnie!

  • Claire

    I was watching the film ‘The 80s: Birth of the Extreme’ a couple of months ago (worth a watch if only for the lycra!) and Jimmy Jewel is soloing some amazing stuff in north wales. he just made it look amazing, so pure, so in control, kind of peaceful. i was so drawn in and said wow i wanna do that some day. then at the end they reveal he died soloing one day when he was climbing in trainers in the rain. no ones invincible! but is it worth the risk for those feelings?

  • awesome post. the whole bit about the blood draining from your face reminds me of the common thread passing through all of our ‘going for it’ moments. that is, the though process during the two times i’ve almost died climbing were really similar to, say, for instance, the first time I asked someone out (while i was sober). of course, what’s at stake is far different, but the way you kinda leave your body and watch it all happen from a distance is quite similar. this reminds of something i read on a message board last week (sorry for the long comment). but the post suggested climbing is just like any other hobby. he went so far as to compare it to world of warcraft. at the time i had several rebuttals churning through me, but i left it alone because it seemed the argument would boil down to a subjective interpretation of ‘being’. but it strikes me that the major difference between any ol’ hobby and climbing/love is the latter is almost entirely made up of ‘going for it’. the whole thing. all the time. going for it. in games, if you don’t win you just hit the reset button. but in climbing – like life in general – it doesn’t really work that way.

    that’s all 😛


  • family man

    good writing man keep it up!

    a ways back i had a similar ‘kind of’ moment when soloing an ice route.. perfect conditions, perfect weather, perfectly strong, head and body cruising .. peaceful y’know, just unwinding my shit in a beautiful place

    heard a faint ‘click’ and (duoh) looked up just in time to collect a rock in the face, straight out of a clear blue sky … booooooooooom both my feet popped but one slightly overdriven tool took the strain till the fog cleared and i could get my feet back on, blood was splashing all over the ice, me … ghastly and all i could hear was this screaming which i eventually figured out was me.

    anyway climbed down real fast and ran for the roadend where i freaked out a bunch of tourists with my blood splattered face. clothes etc

    makes you wonder about the what ifs , what if the tool had popped, what if the rock had been bigger or like you say had a few relatives on the way .. anyhow apart from the mental damage i healed fine but it left a few big holes in my psyche

    soloings a beautiful game and the rewards are indescribable, of course its deadly serious and it can leave more questions then answers, but i know why i chose to solo and i’m happy with what i found there

    i have kids now and it maybe a very long time till i solo serious stuff again, maybe never, i have big mountains to climb with my children as they grow and would like to be there when they head out on the sharp end someday

    keep up the good writing sonnie, its a pleasure to hear your thoughts

  • on the flip side, my friends and i used to mess around and slide down ravines after big snow storms… most of these were fairly short, but bottomed out totally flat in shale creekbeds. one day my friend just went running and jumped to slide the first 1/5th of a chute, intending to stop before the pitch kicked to vertical above the creek… only we didn’t know that he intended to stop, and in fact, he wasn’t able to. all we saw is the frantic final glance back at us, helpless, before momentum took him ripping over the edge and out of sight. as young kids, we couldn’t fathom that a human could live after that fall. we assumed a corpse awaited us and there were no responses to our shouts as we tried to circumnavigate down to the creek bed.

    in the end, the mini avalanche that he kicked up ended up giving just enough snow padding to let him escape uninjured, but so rattled he wouldn’t speak for a while.

    freak accidents victimize more than one… i’ll never forget that silent last look of desperation… stone cold terrifying.

  • Thought provoking post.

    My only comparable experience was out soloing a long mountain Severe last summer (5.6 or something? Don’t really get yank grades). It was a pretty chilled day, with 4 other friends at various points on the route. On the fifth pitch my foot slipped. Maybe it was lichen, maybe it was slick rock, maybe a crystal broke, who knows. All I know is that I’ve never focused quite so intently on anything in my entire life as i focused on that next move. Not a situation I’d ever wish on anyone else, or even myself again for that matter, but that sensation of pure crystalline focus I will always remember and will take it to the grave. As you say, soloing isn’t for everyone. The risks are great, but on a personal level the rewards can be immense.


  • Eric

    Did this happen in 2006? If not, could the rock have come from this?