I waited until the broken hold thudded on the ground few meters from where I was standing.
“Near miss,” I added and laughed.
An hour later, the same friend loosened an almost 70 kilo rock. This time with no warning.
“Straight hit! Sinking!”
Suddenly, it didn’t look like we would continue climbing that day. So we leisurely packed our gear and went for a one-hour stroll through Elbe valley to the car. We drove straight to the hospital in Ústí to have some medical professionals fix compound fractures in my elbow and radial head.
Are you anxious when a family reunion or business meeting prevents you from climbing for two days?
Do you get nervous and cuss at yourself?
I know that feeling very well. Then you do one bad move into the zone of no return, grasp the hold too firmly, unclip one wrong carabiner or just stand in the wrong spot for a moment and it all goes wrong. A month, or a whole year of forced rest is like torture. It happened to me just after I had talked my boss into granting me two months of unpaid vacation time that I planned to spend climbing on sandstone. Bad luck.
Of course, sliding down coarse slab getting grated like a red beet isn’t a great feeling. When you hit yourself with a hammer placing a ring bolt during a first ascent doesn’t feel stellar either. Or when a sharp crack turns your hands into delicious cherry pies. The missing skin after you grabbed that vicious mono, scraped ankles from the offwidth, stubbed heel after a long swing directly into the rock, strained shoulder after a proper yoga session in a smooth technical corner.
I know, it doesn’t really sound like a paradise. But worse things can happen. And no I don’t mean hurt ego or broken heart. When I look around and plunge into my own past, I have to admit that accidents do in fact happen. It can happen as a result of over-training, climbing close to your limits, from some ill judgement, mistake, or a wrong choice, or just by a bad luck.
Once, we were staggering to the pub after a long hard day of climbing. While taking a shortcut, we passed our friend Makak, who was starting a chossy grade eight route – according to his own words “a great route to finish the day.” Two hours later, he was still enthusiastic about the route over the glass of beer, he mentioned in passing that he took three six-meter groundfalls, landing on his feet each time.
I think we all can agree that the thought of six meter flight from below the first piece of protection is not exactly the thing we like about routes. Definitely not three times in a row.
A few years ago, I was belaying a friend at Suché Skály, where he broke a hold and send it and himself straight to the ground from a height of 12 meters. Of course, he’s climbing again, but that wasn’t so sure back then. The doctors took him to the hospital with broken vertebrae, ribs, shoulder blade, and a pierced lung. I went around midnight to take his car to his wife, whom I had never seen before to explain to her and their seven children why her husband and father hadn’t arrived for the dinner.
Another story? Saxony – “Gemeinschaftsweg” route. It’s an iconic VIIIb starting with a corner, then overhanging corner crack, and then a crack through two massive overhangs. There is a legend among the Saxon climbers about a guy who hadn’t placed a crucial sling in a hard passage on the lower third of the route and instead went straight into an overhanging corner crack to save some strength on this RP attempt. How does this story end? He slipped and ended up in a wheelchair. When the SBB – the Climbing Commission of Saxony – negotiated adding a bolt ring into the route, he attended the meeting and voted against a new ring, saying that it was his own mistake. A radical climber.
“The fall on Růžová tower at the Elbe Sandstone. It was my mistake. We had a rope that was always long enough for that route and had cut it a bit shorter, and we also added a new belaying point there, which was higher than the former one. I hadn’t checked the end of the rope when I was lowering Tomajda to the ground, and it went through my belaying device. In a second, it slipped through the rappelling point, and as he was vanishing somewhere into the slope, the rope was unwinding before me. I was in such a shock that I immediately grabbed the rope and followed him. I broke an ankle and an arm close to my shoulder, Tomajda had to have an operation on his heel and was generally badly bruised.”
“It was probably a triple rupture of the tendon ligaments on the middle finger of my right hand. They popped all at once. In a few moments, the finger got swollen twice the size, and changed color to dark violet. I couldn’t climb for two or three months. I continued climbing after it healed for the next three years (they gave me a bandaid on the ambulance and said I was good to go). Later, I met Filip Hebelka, who explained to me that it doesn’t work like this, and made me get proper plastic surgery of the tendons. I couldn’t climb for some months after that, and later I had several recurrent inflammations on the finger. The finger is okay now, but it will never really be the same. I cannot use it 100 %, some moves are painful with it, the mechanics are a bit awkward, but it works! After that, I had two more ruptures of ligaments. I never expected it, although it always happened during a hard training regime, was preceded by a inflammation, and in winter conditions.”
Jirka „Prcas“ Slavík
“Pantheon rocks. However, it didn’t happen during climbing but when I was leaving the wall. At first it looked like I would end up in a bed or wheelchair forever. Now I got to the point when I can even climb some easy routes. Of course, it’s not that smooth, almost every move is painful. When I fell, the only part of my body that stayed intact was my backbone and a head. It took me almost a year of hard work to get to my current shape.”
“My worst injury was a torn spleen. It happened during a bouldering session. But it still remains to be a kind of mystery because there was no direct cause – no bad fall or direct impact – I had to rest for eight months and got to the former shape in a year or so.”
David “Komíňák” Griger
The grounder I took in Tisá. That day, I climbed a couple of routes from VIIIb to IXc. At the end of the day, I wanted to climb “Liftboy.” That was actually the goal of the trip. I wasn’t so strong after the previous routes, so I felt a bit uncertain. It had a same start as a previous route, so I hadn’t placed any slings there even though they would have been bomber. I just wanted to save some strength, and I thought that I would reach the first ring without any problems. But that was a mistake. My power was vanishing and as I was few meters under the ring, I got unsure.
That spot is already quite high. I tried to reach and find some good holds – they get a bit smaller up there. And right in that moment, my foot slipped. I don’t remember it exactly but maybe a hold broke under my foot or in my hand. I suddenly lost balance and was tumbling down. The belayer and the camera guy didn’t expect it at all. Later, they told me that I looked calm and was just figuring my way up and suddenly I was falling. So to see the exact cause of it, we would have to watch the video. It doesn’t really matter now, though, and I decided to leave it after I retire. Nobody has seen it yet.
The fixed sling popped out, I landed on a slab with my feet, and bounced into a nearby stone right with my head. That impact cracked my skull – the crack was 12 cm long. I got intracranial bleeding, fortunately the brain membrane remained intact, so the blood didn’t get into my brain. Moreover, two of my cervical vertebrae were compressed. I also broke a rib, tore a ligament in the thumb of my right hand, and messed up the cartilage in my wrist. I woke up in a hospital the next day and the first thing I instinctively tried was moving my legs. When I found out that it is possible and that I could think normally, my father came into the room and I raised a thumb to show him that everything’s going to be alright. I will never forget that moment…
I was back on the rock in a month. The first route was a solo at Křížový Vrch (I needed to find out if I am still in a shape). Later, during one of the checks in a hospital, they told me, that I was being “unreasonable” (well, they used a bit stronger term) and immediately prohibited me from any more climbing for some time. I started climbing full throttle again in three months.”
Honza “Makak” Makovička
“I fell in a Holešovice climbing gym. Almost from the top all the way to the ground – that’s around ten meters with a carpet landing. It was a belayer’s mistake. I broke a bone on my right leg and bones in my pinky toe on my other foot. I spent around a month and half in a wheelchair and then a month with crutches.”
People say that Makak then trained campusing in overhangs, hanging on one hand, clipping with another, and that they always had to lower him straight into his wheelchair because he couldn’t step on his plaster.
Petr “Jony” John
“I broke two of my thoracic vertebrae just before the finals exams of my grammar school in the Ostaš climbing area. I was a beginner back then and I wasn’t really good at placing slings. I placed one badly, climbed a bit further, realized that I couldn’t do it, and decided to return. However, my technique wasn’t good enough, and I was afraid, so I slipped. The sling popped out and I headed straight to a rock and then to the ground. The next months were a hard trial. The first squat, the first push-up… Thanks to that I realized what I really want to achieve in climbing. The next spring, I was climbing again, however, I had to be cautious about falls because of the metal in my back. Well, I think it was for the better. Yet another year later, I finally committed myself to become a full time Adršpach climber.”
“The gravest injury was probably breaking my vertebrae transverse processes after I fell on rocks at the start of the “Porcalova Stěna” route at Větrník tower at Hruboskalsko rocks. Still, it wasn’t anything fatal, I got back to climbing after two months. Paradoxically, a broken arm was much worse for me. It was a bone that usually heals badly, so I spent five weeks being afraid that they would have to mend it together with metal. Moreover, it was exactly the time where I was training hardest, and got into really good shape. So the two-month climbing break felt really depressing back then.”
“This trial helped me to find what I really want to achieve in climbing.”
They say that a cat has nine lives. We’re definitely not that durable. One fatal mistake and GAME OVER. And if you don’t believe in reincarnation, then that’s it. When the storm is coming, and you start some hard route, not warmed-up after you haven’t slept well, not focused… you’re surely asking for trouble. But it’s not always that clear. Even the experienced make fatal, and often really stupid, mistakes.
For example Lynn Hill tied in improperly in 1989 in Buoux. She took a 25-meter grounder. Almost miraculously, there was a branch that slowed her on her way down and she survived.
One of my friends continued using a belaying device after he had broken its attaching wire. While he was abseiling one time, it had stayed on the edge of the tower and all he could do was to wonder why he is gaining speed towards the ground.
Bobr: “Hey Mak, you left something here!”
Few moments later, though, the device popped over the edge and Makak fell right into the rocks on the ground. He was really lucky that he had just a few meters left and that the sharp stones were covered in snow.
Mathias Gäbler (a prominent Saxon climber) fell totally hammered from a bivouac into a black chasm beside it. Twice. The second time it was during his birthday party – that time, it was his last flight ever. Just a few years ago, a youngster Tito Traversa died because he was climbing with quickdraws that were connected only by a rubber band. He wanted to take a rest at 25 meters, and that was it. Do you remember?
“Probably the death of Míra H. It happened two years ago in Paklenica. A few moments before that, he was helping some people tie in. Then he tied himself in badly, climbed to the top, sat onto the rope, and fell to the ground. That’s why I keep saying: “Always double check everything and make sure you tie a knot on the end of the rope.”
“I’ve seen some bad grounders and falls into a wall. You should always keep in your mind all the possible dangers of climbing. The weirdest fall, though, I’ve seen was in the US, where my friend somehow managed to tangle his pinky finger into the rope while falling. He lost one or two knuckles.”
“A grounder from eight meters at night, in my sleeping bag. I broke two vertebrae and bruised my skull. I woke up two weeks later in a hospital and remembered nothing. I was told about it by my friends who I owe for saving me! We were sleeping in Saxony on a 20 by 3 meter ledge on the Schrammstein tower. 30 meters above us, around 8 to 10 under. It was an ordinary after-climbing party. Johhny, the Voltmeter, told me the story: “You are a complete idiot. You went to pee around a midnight with a headtorch to the edge of the cliff, and looking into the chasm you commented on how dark and deep it is. Then you went there around two o’clock again and you fell.” This fun cost me two broken vertebrae, a scraped skull, and invaluable experience that when you are somewhere high, it’s never a bad idea to be tied to something. Definitely, when you’re sleepwalking, drunk, or just like a bit of that extra space in your bed.”
Honza “Makak” Makovička
“Two things come into my mind and both have something to do with clearing the ground below the start of routes. The first one happened to my friend while we were climbing at Roviště. There were three of us, and I was just waiting for my turn. As I was looking for the route that I would climb next, I found a short unprotected route, just with an abseiling point after seven meters. So I decided to try it solo. Before I started, I cleared some stones away from the ground under the route. One of my friends wanted to try it as well. When he was around three meters off the ground, he broke a foothold and fell straight on the only stone I left there. He broke his heel and ended up for month and a half with crutches.
Second time, I decided to remove a large boulder from the starting point of a hard route. I broke a hold around a meter from the first ring and instead of falling into the cleared place, I managed to hit the stone I had moved. Fortunately, nothing happened that time. A few moments later, I finished the route without falling.”
And what about Zuzka Brtnová?
“Once I made a stupid mistake while I was removing holds in a climbing gym. I was on abseil and so focused on the holds that I haden’t realized that one of the ends of the rope is shorter. Fortunately, it was just around two meters to the ground. But the floor was wooden and I fell right on my wrist, so I still managed to break it. Perhaps the most stupid injury was when my friend Jizva, crashed with us on a motorbike during our climbing trip to Kalymnos. After they sewed his leg together he had to continue climbing with one trekking boot on – not comfortable at all.”
Crashes are crashes. However, another problem is when you focus solely on climbing, then there’s nothing that can hold you together when you have to stop climbing for a while. In such moments you need friends that know how to talk about other things besides grades, routes, and beta over a beer. I think it’s important to have that ability to always find something positive about anything that meets you in life. Of course, at first, things like injuries always feel completely disastrous.
When I had my two month break, I spent my time walking around Adršpach and taking photos. I also learned to play didgeridoo – found my new hobby. Of course, it didn’t really improve my relationships with the neighbors when I regularly filled the concrete walls of our house with Australian vibes. But, it definitely helped me to find another piece of my own self.
“Well I never really had to stop climbing, so I cannot really help. It depends on the type of injury. If you can keep moving then play some sports. If not, try playing saxophone, work more, or travel.”
Jirka “Prcas” Slavík
“Of course, it depends on the injury. In my case, I gathered up my last pieces of motivation and told myself that euthanasia is not allowed in our country, so I had to start climbing again. I started all the way from zero. I learned to walk, to eat using cutlery. Everything is just in your head. Motivation, discipline, endurance…”
“I have a family, so I always have something to do. Have children and you will never get bored, even during breaks from climbing – castles, theater, cinema…” (she laughs) But I also exercised the core muscles and was running and generally exercising a lot. Actually, there’s something I like about returning to climbing. Suddenly you appreciate every meter you climb and every step forward. A pure happiness without thinking about any grades: “I’m climbing! A miracle!” and that’s what it is about.”
Petr „Jony“ John
“Even the small steps forward are worth it. It is important not to lose your direction. You should focus on doing physical activities that your injury allows you to do. If your head fails, the order and discipline can put it back into shape. If the injury happened during climbing, then it’s natural. If it happened during some other activity – that just happens.”
“Never get desperate. Everything will get right one day. What really helped me (when they prohibited me from really climbing) was just traversing a few meters off the ground in very easy terrain – something like walking on the rock. Then I started with grade three, four, five, and then it was all right again.”
David “Komíňák” Griger
“My recovery was quite quick, and I also knew that it would be all right from the very beginning, so I didn’t have the chance to go crazy because of it. Those who have to face consequences of their injuries even later or those whose recoveries take a very long time have it much harder. I really admire when they manage to start climbing from scratch. But that’s fortunately not the experience I had. As my mother said: “It was as fast as if I had a flu. The crucial thing is how grave the injury is and which consequences it has for you and how probable it is that you will recover fully. Such information can either bring you down or can give you strength and faith.”
Honza “Makak” Makovička
“Find an activity that you can continue doing. I was doing pull-ups, off-foot bouldering in easy overhangs, and later went swimming. A friend who injured a tendon started climbing cracks. When you’re ready to climb again, start slowly at first because your body isn’t used to the performance anymore.”
“You can see it as a chance to do things that you otherwise wouldn’t. (One of my friends for example learned to play harmonica.) But as I have already told you, I was so frustrated from the injury of my hand that all could do during that time was to think about the climbing and read Montana and guidebooks, even though it was an exam period. I was also going to the Smíchof climbing gym and was always trying to find some people who would belay me on slab routes where I could climb with one hand. (she laughs) The most important thing is to stay in the community – never stay sitting at home being sad! During the weekends you should join climbers as usual and you should try to find something positive about it. When you cannot climb, you finally have time to walk around with a guidebook and find some routes you’ve never tried before. You can also just take photos and rest below the crag. Everybody will love your wise advice about the routes they climb. In the evening, of course, drink and sing with the others, it will cheer you up. When I went to Adršpach like this I was always taking long walks though the crags, eating blueberries and swimming. Alešák, for example, finally found some time to do something for the community and went to the Skalák area during the opening of the season to help clean the forest using his one functional hand. (she laughs)
“Even the small steps forward count. Never lose your direction.”
Are you out of the game for a while? Never get desperate. You can always learn something new. Something you have always dreamt about but had no time to do it. Hold on!
Loves the pulse of metropolis. Amazed by technical progress… Watches the latest fashion. Never misses any cultural event or social intercourse. Reads newspaper daily, follows financial market. (smiling)
“Climbing is not about the grades and life is not about the money.”
He loves to write about inspiring people.
Addicted to situations when he does not care about the time – in the mountains or sandstone crags.