• Sarah Schlaefke

The ethics of rock fall


View from atop Shadow of the Blade, Devils Castle, Albion Basin, UT

From time to time when I'm out on the crag, I come across some hooligan throwing rocks from the top of the cliffs. I remember specifically once when I was climbing with my boyfriend in Smith Rock and we were coming down a well traveled trail that had all kinds of skree and pebbleage on it.

The thing with Smith Rock, or any climbing area that's also a well-loved, well-used state park, is that there are people everywhere, all kinds of people and some of these people aren't really on the same page as nature yet.

Kudos to these guys for even being outside, like I'm 100% behind that. But when you go to any public place, you have to be respectful and responsible toward the people around you.

Anyways, these goons were sitting on some loose rock, high above the winding path, and as we passed them, we noticed that they were chucking huge rocks off the edge. Alex (boyfriend) said something to them, politely explaining how dangerous it is to have random falling rock when there is a path below. They replied that they were being safe. But they were wrong.

There's no such thing as safely falling rock, thrown or not.

So this past weekend I was climbing with a new friend, Justin, at Albion Basin on Devils Castle, a chosspile of a mountain ridge at best. The jet-black limestone was glorious and solid in some spots, but could crumble under your fingers in others. By the time we reached the top of the first pitch, you could tell that if anyone was climbing any route on this bluff, you'd want to be at least 50 feet away from the base due to how many time we had to call, "ROCK!"

We made the decision before we hit the climb that we were going to walk off the side of the bluff, somehow, instead of rappel down the most chossy, well-traveled route on the bluff. We didn't want to be throwing ropes and large rocks on top of whomever was climbing under us and didn't know we would be coming from the top. This seemed like the right choice at the time, and I still think it was.

However, on our walk off, we ran into the issue of skree-filled gullies and serious snow fields. Having never really encountered any serious alpine climbing, I wasn't aware of the danger we faced. Gravity, man, was waiting to strike.

A snow bridge right at the base of Devils Castle

After about an hour of downclimbing, we finally reached the bottom of the rocky ridge. We now had to cross about 60 feet of snow before we made it to the loose rock that was still another 200 feet from the trail.

I traverse along the ridge a little longer while Justin decided to take to the snow mound right away. Within three steps, he was glissading to the bottom, crash landing in the skree. He looked graceful and seemed fine so I didn't question it. It didn't look like I could go any further on the traversing so I jumped on the snow, too, thinking I would walk it so that I wouldn't get too snowy or wet. One step, two step, slip and suddenly I'm bounding, having the time of my life, sliding down this ice field feet first toward piles of rocks. It was fun until I hit them, ankle first.

Hi, just injured on the side of a mount, nbd.

It could've been so much worse. But it wasn't. But it certainly could have been. I only messed up my ankle, I hobbled out of the rubble and down the trail and back to the car. Nothing seems broken. But it could've happened anyway. Justin slid the same way I did, and thank God nothing happened to him or we both would be bums still sitting on Devils Castle. I have to take a few days off climbing, and my standing desk at work is a pain in the ass (well, ankle), but that's not bad. It could have definitely been worse though.

Which brings me to think about about whether or not we should have rapped. Was it safer to walk off the way we did, because we didn't potentially drop rocks on potential climbers? Or if we rapped, I wouldn't have foot-dived into large rocks dying to break my bones. I can't tell. Since I didn't get more severely injured, I think walking off was the move. A blow to the head is a little more serious thing to chance than a twisted ankle, but some many other things could have gone wrong on the downclimb.

I guess in all, I don't think I would change it. I had a blast regardless. I just don't know what I'll do next time. Think about it a lot until then, probably. I know I will definitely be going back though. Snow and skree don't scare me.

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