They Say Falling is Peaceful

By: Michelle Smith, Boone, NC

They Say Falling is Peaceful

As I sit here in Boone, North Carolina, watching the mist rising through the peaks of the oldest mountains in the US, I feel somehow connected. I have a gift to be able to run in these age-old hills, to see the cobalt blue skies beyond the changing of the leaves in fall, or to simply find peace in the mountains. I have been thinking lately about how lucky I am, and what my life would be like if I had not found a passion. Playing around on rocks and cliffs has taught me about the most important parts of life. I have learned that to be humble is the only way to survive life and to realize you can die at any second definitely keeps things in perspective. We all spend too much time concentrating on our future or our past. When in reality, our mind is stimulated by the present. I want to share this story because it was the time in my existence when I became conscious of what reality had in store for me. For a few minutes, I was forced to appreciate the true facts of life.

Winds were whipping, kids were screaming up at me to hurry. The north face of Hueco Tanks was welcoming the high pitch screams of an enduring windstorm. I was leading Alice In Bucketland, to set up a toprope for a group of kids who had trekked across country with my co-leader Rob and I. We had picked this route because it was relatively easy, and it topped out at 150 feet, making it a perfect setting for the group who wanted to get over their fear of heights. It started with a bolted, vertical face pocketed with huecos, and when the pockets disappeared it presented a perfect finger crack in which you had to place gear. The crack led diagonally up and right 40 feet to the fixed anchors located at the back of a ledge. The route was so tall that in order for the kids to climb to the top, I had to bring an extra rope and tie the two rope ends together.

As I began the route, the wind seemed calmer and less frequent. But while I was clipping the rope into the quickdraws, a gust of the wind swirled all around me, so powerful at times it could thwart me from moving at all. It seemed the wind was yelling at me, telling me to hurry and move fast, ??something is coming!? I found myself breathing quickly and rushing so that I could get down and away from this troubling wind.

After securing the ropes to the anchors, I began gathering the lines to toss off the ledge to the ground below. As I stood there on the ledge, I noticed the need to hulk down in my shirt and against the rock when the air became incredibly turbulent. I was worried about trying to get the ropes off the ledge without them tangling. I decided I was going to have to throw the ropes when there was a lull in the air.

Just as I was finishing the last coil, the wind stopped. I took my window of time and tossed the ropes off the ledge. As they got airborne, a gust of wind came along, enticing the lines to dance and twirl in the air. For a second I was mesmerized, until the wind released them and they dropped beyond my view.

Before I made the descent, I checked all the systems, and put myself on a very thorough check of my rappel. I looked over the edge, but couldn?t see the lines and what their status might be. Just the girls sitting on a picnic table screaming about the dirt and dust in their newly applied lip gloss, and the boys, well the boys looked miserable sitting in their unlined institutional harnesses trying not to pinch anything. I needed to get down.

The descent was going fine, until the rappel device jammed into the knot. Feeling scared and mostly focused on the task of rappelling, I did not realize the crucial mistake I had just made. Instead of pulling the knot up to the anchors before I left the ledge, I was now going to have to pass the knot of the two ropes on rappel. I had created more work than necessary. Luckily the knot was directly in front of a nut I had placed in the finger crack. I assessed the situation quickly. I decided with the options I had to work with, the most time efficient would be to secure myself onto the nut and take myself off rappel while hanging on this one piece. I had no other gear to put into the rock.

Now, I have been someone all my life who has double-checked everything. Even before leaning back on a six-piece anchor while standing on a sidewalk sized ledge. I have always been aware of the heights and respected them. And a lot of times fear will cause me to back up gear that didn?t need backing up. For example: A number two camalot in a perfect hand crack does not need to be backed up with another one. So without saying, placing all my weight on a piece of metal the size of bubble gum was not something I would have ever done before. But when time feels like it is ticking, we will do what we deem the EASIEST AND FASTEST. We are Americans aren?t we?

I took the webbing I had girth hitched to my harness, and clipped into the quickdraw attached to the nut placement. I felt the burning in the back of my brain that was telling me this was a REALLY bad idea. Regardless, I eased onto the piece holding my breath and chanting to myself ?you weigh nothing, you are air.? I watched it shift and felt ok with the way it had settled into its slot. I began the procedure quickly. Now that the rope was not weighted, I unlocked my carabineer attached to my harness, opened the gate, and pulled out the two ropes that at one point were holding my very existence in the air. All of a sudden, I realized where I had put myself ? and I felt overwhelmingly exposed, very exposed.

Feeling quite nervous, I quickly pulled the knot up over my head, grabbed one side of the rope and began to aggressively push it into the device. We were using 11 mm ropes for guiding. The rope was too thick for the rappel device, so you could only push one side in at a time. It took what seemed like an eternity to push one bite through. I finally clipped it into the biner secured to my waist, and that is when I heard it.


To this day I will never forget the sound. It happened so fast I wasn?t sure of what had just occurred, until I started to fall.

At some point in the transition, my body weight shifted so that I was pulling out on the nut as opposed to downward. This movement forced it to pop out of its slot and sent me on a four second ride of my life. My belay device was attached to just one side of the rope. The side of the rope I had managed to clip in was the side with the knot. This meant my weight was pulling the entire rope through the anchors with nothing left to stop it.

They say falling is peaceful?I am not sure who actually said that but in this situation, I would have to disagree. The whole time you are falling you aren?t thinking of how good you feel and how life is great. The only things you are aware of is the sound of wind, the feeling of your stomach in your throat, and the thought chanting in your head ?I don?t want to die?. Falling happens so fast that your brain doesn?t have time to do anything but try to survive. I tried to kick the wall, I tried to grab the other rope, I grasped for any jug that would be sticking out of the rock. But I was moving too fast to do anything.

And then, instead of moving towards the ground, I was jolted to a stop. I had gone from 95 feet to 15 feet off the ground in the matter of seconds. And now I was dangling in mid air on a belay device attached only to one side of the rope. It took me a second to realize I had stopped and that I was alive! I was alive! Then I thought,

Wait? am I?

I looked down again and saw Rob, with his hands over his eyes, and yes there?s the kids jumping up and down and cheering. And yes, I am staring at a big huge bolt on which I am about to clip into and puke.

Thank God for wind. I will never complain about it again. I will take the duct tape off my helmet and let wind reign free in my head and ears. The exact thing that had caused me to make hasty decisions is the one thing that saved my life. Later on, Rob told me that when the gust of wind took the ropes, the bottoms of them had intertwined. They had wrapped themselves around each other and when one side began pulling through, the friction caused them to coil up into a knot. Therefore, stopping any rope from feeding through the anchors. I was a dangling miracle.

When I stopped, I quickly clipped into the bolt, pushed the other end of the rappel line into my device, picked up the ropes and began detangling. In about two minutes I was on the ground, and the kids, the bystanders, and Rob were all at my side asking if I was ok. I was embarrassed, grateful, and honestly felt like crying. Rob kept mumbling something about when it?s your time to go, it will happen. A part of me wanted him to shut up, another part of me wholeheartedly believed him.

It all hit me standing at the bottom of that cliff looking up. What can really happen when you allow your fear to take over? Instead of taking the time to relax and be calm, I got scared and allowed my mind to not be focused on the present. Sometimes in anything you do, you need a wake up call. Just when you think you know it all, you realize you never knew anything to begin with. If we spend our lives focusing on the past or the future, we lose out on the present, causing us to lose touch with the seconds in our lives. When I watched the ground come up to meet me, I knew then I had faced death and it had taught me some important lessons. Hold onto the people and places in your life while they are happening. Be passionate about what you?re doing right now and give it everything you have. And most importantly, be conscious of your moments, because no moment is ordinary.

?You know we can?t get out of life alive! We can either die in the bleachers or die on the field. We might as well come down on the field and go for it!? ? Les Brown

Cheers and safe climbing,
Michelle Smith

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