I have to confess up front that the near death experience wasn’t actually for me, it was for someone climbing right next to me, but I’ll get to that story in more detail later. I headed out around 8am on Sunday for a day of climbing with two of my buddies at a climbing area called Farley Ledge out in Western Mass (Erving, MA near Springfield). I considered this a different type of exercise from my Bouldering workout in the climbing gym on Friday because I would be lead climbing and top roping outdoors which is a pretty different experience as compared to bouldering indoors. We were out all day long so I didn’t think it would be wise to record my heart rate for the entire day so instead I recorded my peak for each climb. If you’re not savvy with climbing lingo, check out this forum thread for some snarky definitions: MoutainProject.com.
My first climb of the day was leading an easy 5.6 route which resulted in a heart rate of 128bpm, pretty calm (leading = clipping the rope into bolted anchors as you climb). My next climb was a top-rope on a 5.8 which actually had the same peak heart rate, 128bpm (top-rope = rope is tied to an anchor at the top of the climb). It was interesting to see that my heart rate on a 5.6 lead climb (more dangerous but easier) was the same as a 5.8 top-rope (safer but more difficult). Falling on top-rope is no big deal, but falling on a lead climb could mean a more serious 10-20 foot fall in some cases so it’s certainly riskier. When I then lead that same 5.8 my heart rate jumped 20 beats per minute to 148. So if it wasn’t obvious while climbing at the time, leading a route is certainly more nerve wracking than top-roping that same route. Lastly, I did a 5.10 on top-rope and that brought me up to 155bpm. I tried a few other 5.10 climbs but didn’t complete any of them, I only managed to get part way up so it wasn’t really worth recording my heart rate. I’m sure had I lead climbed that 5.10 my heart rate would have been closer to 180, a combination of harder climbing (physical) and higher probability of falling (mental).
Speaking of taking falls while lead climbing, it’s time for the near death experience story. There was a group of two girls and one guy climbing next to us doing the same 5.8 lead I just talked about. It was pretty clear that the guy had some idea of what he was doing but that the girls really didn’t (although they pretended they did). One girl who had never lead climbed before started up the 5.8 with the other inexperienced girl belaying her (strike one, two inexperienced people lead climbing together is not ideal). I believe I was having a conversation about Tough Mudder with somebody so I was halfway paying attention to them. Then all of the sudden, as the leader reached to clip her rope into the 4th clip, she slipped and fell. This should have been a no big deal fall and resulting in a 10 foot fall maximum with a soft catch on the rope because the clips were pretty close together. However, her belayer had taken her hand off the brake (CARDINAL SIN! strike two) and the rope shot through her belay device when the climber fell. She grabbed the rope with both hands to slow it down and the girl stopped 4 feet from the ground after falling upwards of 30 feet, almost slamming her head into the head of her belayer (neither were wearing helmets, strike three). This tore up the palms of her hands which she tried to brush off as not being a big deal (read: actually a huge deal).
Had the climber hit the ground she certainly would have broken several bones if not been easily paralyzed or killed. They tried to laugh it off as a “no big deal” accident but one of the older climbers who was around nicely told them that they should pack up, go home, and revisit the basis of lead climbing and lead belaying in the gym before going outside again, they didn’t argue and decided to head home. One strike in rock climbing can be enough to kill you or seriously injure you but these guys had three red flags that said, “You shouldn’t be climbing out here”. It was a scary experience but I hope it turned into one of those teachable moments where nobody got hurt.