"Falling!" Brian yelled.
I went into the belayer's brake position without conscious thought. This made no difference: even as Brian accelerated down the featureless slab, riding the wet streak he'd tried to step over, he was still far above his last (and only) piece of protection. There was a LOT of slack in the system. I'd have to take in as much as I could. For a split moment I stared at my belay device, unable to remember which end of the rope to pull in what direction with which hand.
"Take! Take! Take!" Brian screamed.
"I'm taking! I'm taking!" I replied, and it was true: I had already pulled in three or four arm-lengths by the time he yelled "take".
The piece (a red tri-cam) held. Brian had lost a fair amount of skin from his elbow while sliding, but was otherwise unhurt.
Our adventure wasn't over. We eventually teamed up with another group in order to get down using two-rope rappels, which we completed in the dark, searching out bolted rappel anchors by headlamp.
As the proverb has it, experience comes from making mistakes. I learned some obvious lessons that day, and some further lessons emerged as I reflected on the incident later. What if Brian had been seriously hurt and I'd had to get us down alone? What if there hadn't been another group nearby, and we'd only had one rope? I'd have been pretty helpless.
As the years went by my skills improved, and I gained a greater sense of self-responsibility. I made it a point to study routes and rappel options in advance, and to bring two ropes if needed (or if unsure). And I promised myself I wouldn't try to climb Whitehorse after a rainstorm.
So when Jeff emailed me asking if I was up for some multi-pitch in New Hampshire, I spelled out my limitations: He'd have to lead - I'd hardly gotten outside all summer and didn't fully trust myself to place gear or build anchors. (I knew Jeff to be a strong, experienced climber, and he was proposing routes that should be within my ability, which is to say, rather easy for him.) Given the forecast, I suggested we stay clear of Whitehorse and do something on Cathedral instead, "but I'm not the one leading, so it's no skin off my elbows."
We discussed our options over email and decided our first choice would be Thin Air, a 5.6 route on Cathedral. Jeff had led it before, and it looked like a fun climb, exposed but not difficult, with good protection.
A couple of days before the appointed weekend, Jeff informed me that two other members of our extended circle of hikers-who-also-climb, Dani and Woody, would be joining us. I knew Dani socially, and had met Woody once or twice. I'd seen each of them toproping at local crags a couple of years ago. From what I could remember, I had trouble picturing either of them leading a multipitch route, but probably they'd improved in the meantime (I'm sure I hadn't made a good impression myself - I remember failing to complete a 5.7 on toprope), and Jeff and I would stick close to be sure they didn't get into too much trouble. So I had no objection to this change of plan, even before learning that Dani would let us spend the night at her lakeside house in New Hampshire, saving us a lot of daylight and/or sleep.
Saturday morning we departed Dani's house in a convoy (we'd all arrived at the lakeside house separately and had separate plans for after the climb), with me in the rear, being the least familiar with the driving route. We got a decent look at Whitehorse as we drove into the state park. It seemed pretty dry, so I didn't make a fuss when our convoy stopped at the Whitehorse parking lot instead of driving along to Cathedral.
I often get nervous before an unfamiliar climb, and as we walked out of the parking lot to the base of Whitehorse, I had to take a few deep breaths. Arriving at the base and staring up at the four visible pitches of climbing, the sight was beautiful but I found it made the butterflies in my stomach worse. I turned my attention to my gear and hoped nobody noticed, and that I'd be able to avoid puking.
The change of location wasn't the only change of plan, I soon discovered. As we geared up at the base of the slabs, Jeff explained that Dani was feeling nervous and wanted him to lead her because he "knew her ability." I still didn't want to lead, but Woody was game, so we decided that Woody (who had brought a single rope) would lead me, then Jeff (with doubles) would lead Dani up the same route, sticking close behind us. We also had radios, though there wasn't much wind and communication by shouting proved to be adequate.
I'd been at this spot before, with Brian. We'd brought no map, but I'd heard of a ledge called Lunch Ledge and thought this might be it. Woody told me that Lunch Ledge was higher up; this spot had no official name but he liked to think of it as Mouse Ledge because a friend of his had spotted a mouse up here once. I had a brief mental image of little nylon mouse ropes and harnesses.
To make sure there'd be room at the anchor, I decided to stand a little further away, anchoring myself using the rope and a clove hitch, as opposed to the short "chicken sling" girth-hitched to my harness. I was so out of practice that my first several attempts at a clove hitch were either Muenters or not hitches at all. Normally I just think "clove hitch" and my hand twists the rope the right way without invervention from my brain, and I had no conscious memory at all of the actual sequence of looping and twisting that I'd used. Woody had to show me his method, which requires two hands but - crucial point - works every time. I felt confirmed in my opinion that I was too rusty to lead.
It was a fine sunny day and we each had removed our outer layers by this point, with Jeff and Dani embarrassed to discover that they were wearing matching neon-lime shirts in addition to identical blue helmets. My radio was malfunctioning and somebody else was also using the channel we were tuned to, but we had no problems communicating between or within the rope teams. Our hopes were falsely raised when somebody using the same radio channel announced that they would soon "be there" with a twelve-pack. We had plenty of daylight ahead of us, and so far the rock had been bone-dry. I knew, however, that the spot where Brian slipped had been somewhere high on or just above the arch which we were about to attempt. From Mouse Ledge, we could see only the bottom section of the arch. "Be careful up there" were my final words to Woody as he left Mouse Ledge.
Woody climbed on, placing at least three more pieces, until he was out of my sight past a bulge in the rock. Then he stopped moving, and I heard him call for me to take in slack. I did so, and after a further pause he called out, "lower me."
"Is it wet up there?" I asked. It's brilliant insights like this that make up for my character flaws.
By this time Jeff had joined me on Mouse Ledge, and he and I started discussing options for retrieving the gear Woody was leaving behind. (Woody was removing most of his gear as I lowered him, but obviously not the piece I was lowering him from.) One of us (Jeff) could repeat the pitch, placing lots of gear, then downclimb and risk only a fairly short fall at any time. Jeff wasn't thrilled with that idea, so I came up with an alternative: we (Jeff) could climb the neighboring route -- called Sliding Board -- up to a set of bolts just above Woody's highest piece, then make a two-rope rappel back down to Mouse Ledge that would let us retrieve Woody's gear along the way. We knew that Sliding Board was dry up to those bolts because we'd just watched another party climb it. We had not quite reached final consensus on this plan when I discovered a more immediate problem.
I had run out of rope, and Woody was still at least thirty feet above our ledge. This last section wasn't too steep and had a decent crack for hand-holds, so I proposed to tie into one of Jeff's ropes and climb up far enough to lower Woody to the ledge, at which point I'd untie from Woody's rope and downclimb while Jeff belayed me on his rope. (Dani by this time was safely on our ledge, so Jeff's ropes were free for me to borrow.) Woody, however, decided he'd rather build an anchor where he was and rappel from there. Which he proceeded to do.
Having untied from Woody's rope to permit him to pull it up to his anchor, I had nothing to do but enjoy the views. I don't think any of us were watching Woody after he'd started his rappel. So nobody (except Woody) witnessed the moment that Woody's anchor failed.
I heard the all-too-recognizable sound of unrestrained rope sliding down featureless slabs. When I looked up, Woody was, amazingly, not falling, but merely lying motionless on the slab, at the nexus of a tangle of rope. "Well, I'm stuck now" was all he said, as the three of us on the ledge scrambled to secure all the strands of his rope that we could reach. He wasn't tied to it, but the rope went through his belay device, so if he slipped, odds were good that he'd be between two tie-off points and the rope would catch him.
Woody happened to have come to rest by a pocket in the rock, and secured himself by placing a cam. Jeff belayed him the last few feet to our ledge, while I tied the free end of Woody's rope back to my harness.
Using my newly-refreshed clove-hitching skills, I left myself about twenty feet of slack. While Woody got tied in to the anchor and sorted out the tangles, I climbed up to retrieve the last piece that Woody had placed. I'd slightly misjudged the distance or the amount of slack, because I had barely reached it when I came to the end of my rope. But Dani adjusted my clove hitch to give me enough room to get comfortable, and I set about excavating a pink tri-cam from deep inside a narrow, muddy hole. Once that was done I looked up and saw that Woody's first piece (or second, technically - the cam he'd placed after that nut fell out) was not far away, at the same height as me. I walked halfway there, only to be brought up short like a dog on a leash. Though at the same height, the piece was farther to the side of the anchor than I'd been. Stupid Pythagorean theorem...
"Hey Dave, you want a belay?" Jeff had noticed my predicament.
"Uh, yes please" I replied. Thirty seconds later the cam was out. I looked up - the next piece was at least ten feet higher, and I wasn't eager to go fetch it, since I was acutely aware that I was above the belay with no gear between me and the anchor. (In retrospect I could have clipped Woody's cam and placed more gear as I climbed, but at the time I hadn't considered this. Since Jeff didn't want to lead-then-downclimb this pitch, I unconsciously assumed it would be too hard for me. I'd left the ledge without taking a rack.) I started downclimbing. The slab was dry and not too steep, and since this lowermost part of the arch offered a crack full of handholds, the downclimb was actually pretty easy - 5.5 or so if I think about it from the comfort of my chair. But at the time, I felt like I'd gotten my dose of lead-climbing risk for the day, and I was quite happy to reach the ledge again.
Next we proceeded to rescue the rest of Woody's gear. His top piece had come down to Mouse Ledge on the rope, but there were a couple of pieces still in the crack where he'd placed them on the way up, and one or two others had somehow wound up lying in the middle of a slab.
Jeff led the neighboring route while Dani belayed him: first a slight descent to enable him to traverse toward the anchors that were level with Mouse Ledge, then a long pause while Jeff considered the ten feet of steeper slope in front of him. He may have been thinking about the pendulum fall he'd take if he slipped here, or he may simply have been looking for non-existent hand-holds. Dani and I encouraged him, pointing out that the route soon became less steep again, and that he'd have a bolt to clip, shortly after he passed the steep part. Jeff eventually made up his mind, conquered the steep part with a couple of high-steps (Dani complained that his long legs gave him an unfair advantage), and proceeded more confidently toward the first bolt.
Carefully keeping my voice low so Jeff wouldn't hear me, I mentioned to Dani that "that's actually a nasty place to fall from." If Jeff slipped here, he'd fall over the lip of the arch before hitting the slab below - and that would only be the beginning of his fall since he had no protection other than our anchor. But Jeff has the strong nerves of an experienced leader, and, though he climbed slowly and carefully, the ridiculously run-out nature of the pitch didn't seem to bother him. He did pause again just below the anchors, which are located in a steep section and once again unnecessarily close to the lip of the arch. (Of course, we were also counting on that, in order to reach Woody's gear by rappelling from there.) The safer route, which Jeff chose, finds easier ground to the left of the anchor before traversing almost above the anchor. Dani kept telling Jeff "the anchor's to the right!" but he knew what he was doing and was soon safely installed.
"Who's following me?", Jeff called. "Somebody needs to clean my gear."
Dani demurred, and Woody understandably didn't volunteer, so I went.
My most obvious route would be to repeat Jeff's traverse on an easy ledge system, but with the advantage of being belayed from above, I wanted to try something a little more challenging. I considered climbing directly over the lip of the arch to reach the slab above. It looked difficult (a high reach to a rounded slope) and awkward (assuming I could gain enough height, maybe using a sapling for my feet, I'd still end up flopping into a mantle), so I decided to try a direct traverse around the base of the arch - similar to what Jeff had done, but without the ledge for footholds. The first few moves went well, but then I ran out of good holds. I was amazed to find that my shoes weren't slipping from the tiny dimples I was edging on, until I realized the rope was taking part of my weight. So I gave up on traversing the hard way, leaned back, and kicked my way around the arch while swinging on the rope.
Jeff kept me on a tight belay as I made my way up the steep section of the pitch. For some reason I felt that I should keep pace with his belay, so I didn't make careful foot placements, and once in a while a foot would slip out from under me. With the belay from above, of course, it didn't matter, and I was soon over the steep section and unclipping the first bolt (while wondering again why it had been placed just above the arch, when the obvious route was further left). The rest of the pitch quickly followed.
Jeff and I had a brief debate about what gear to leave at the bolted anchor. This anchor was not equipped with rappel rings. I was (needlessly) nervous about threading the rope directly through a sling. In the end we added one of Jeff's carabiners to the sling. Jeff rappelled down and, guided from below by Woody, retrieved Woody's gear. I followed and our party of four was soon reunited on Mouse Ledge. From there we all rappelled back to the Launch Pad, using two ropes to cover the distance. We still were a little ways above the ground, and we discussed whether some or all of us should rappel from this point (either leaving some gear behind as an anchor, or letting the last man downclimb unprotected), when another party, including a young boy, rappelled down to the Launch Pad and simply walked down from there. For Dani's benefit, the boy lay down on his stomach and lifted his hands and feet, to show he wouldn't slide. Eventually he took Dani by the hand to coax her off the ledge. A minute later we were back on the ground, removing our climbing shoes and wondering what to do with the rest of a sunny afternoon.
Incident reports usually conclude with a moral: carry a headlamp, carry a first aid kit, respond if you hear searchers shouting your name (I'm not making that up), that sort of thing. Personally, I think lessons are better left as an exercise for the reader. There may be a quiz the next time you rope up.