The Flying Tiger: My Brush with Death

When an LVR staff member pioneers a new climb and is the first to complete it, we get to name it. I dubbed my first Indulge the Boulder. It’s a mere 10-15 feet bottom-to-top, perfect for breaking in campers who have never climbed before. Its name is inspired by its proximity to the much more formidable Indulge the Rock Dance. I probably could have climbed Indulge the Boulder without ropes. Another route that I attempted was a much different story. And while I didn’t complete it, I’ll never forget it.

We were about halfway through our weeklong leadership and adventure staff training. We had already completed a pack trip to the Platte River and were now at a climbing area called My Place. To pass training, my partner Uno and I each needed to execute three perfect setups: climb, rappel, and combo. I was nervous. I didn’t have much setup experience. My boss QD wanted me to figure things out on my own and I wanted him to tell me what to do. He looked on as I tied each knot and triple-checked my carabiners. I had to do a few setups with help before I was ready to attempt one alone. The first was Indulge the Boulder. During training, the person who sets up gets to do the route first. QD belayed me for an easy scramble up. I rappelled back down in three quick hops.

I moved to a much higher cliff for my combo. I set up at around 60 or 70 feet. A combination is belayed from the top. It starts with a rappel. Then the belayer adjusts the setup so the participant can climb up and rappel back down. QD checked off my setup and I was eager to get going. It was my first rappel of the summer and it looked like a good climb. My belayer checked that my harness was doubled-back and secured tightly and that my helmet fit properly. I had never needed my helmet except to deflect falling rocks. That was about to change.

My harness tugged at my waist. I felt the security of the belay rope that kept my balance as I leaned over the edge. I quickly made it to the bottom. My feet firm on the ground, I yelled “Off belay” and waited. With the go-ahead from above, I began my ascent. The route was moderately challenging. I started strong but tired quickly. I don’t climb much. A good climber relies on balance and leg muscles. Inexperienced, I use my arms too much and lack endurance.

I reached my limit before hitting the top. “I’m done!’ I called up.

“You sure?” QD asked. “You could make it higher.”

“Yeah, too tired,” I said. “Ready to go down.”

My belayer said she was ready. I leaned back, pulling my center of gravity away from the rock.

The rope wasn’t taut.

I didn’t hear myself scream as I fell backward off the cliff face. No life flashes. Instead, my trained brain wondered how I could protect my head and neck. But I was helpless. I didn’t feel the smack of rock when my back hit. I heard QD yell above me.

The rope caught. Suddenly I hung securely just a few feet off the ground. I panted for air.

“I’m ok!” I called out. I hadn’t figured out if I really was, but I knew they’d be panicked.

My belayer gently lowered me down the last bit. I unhooked and immediately hiked to the top of the cliff. Adrenaline blocked out pain and I powered up in record time. A distraught little crowd awaited me. I threw up my arms like an Olympic gymnast completing a perfect dismount.

“My ring is fine!” I announced happily. There had been a great debate about whether or not I should wear my engagement ring while packing and climbing. I didn’t want to take it off. For future trips, I would.

“I don’t care about your stupid ring,” Avi said. She was very shaken. Everyone was pretty upset, so I kept being cheery to prove I was fine. Uno was still piecing together what had happened. He had been working on another setup when he heard the commotion. Stir It Up was glad she didn’t see me fall. Avi went off in the woods to pray while Whopper put on a harness.

The pain set in. I tried to check my back when no one was watching. I didn’t remember hitting the cliff but my shirt was ripped and my back was bleeding.

“Just a scratch,” I said. It didn’t seem like much. Later I realized that the scrapes and bruises etched all the way up my back. Near my right hip, the skin was pocked and wrinkled with a sort of road rash from dragging on the rock. I never figured out if I hit my head or not. Praise God for the helmet.

About a week later when I still couldn’t sleep on my side, I really started to notice the pain in my ribs. I talked to the camp medic privately and we determined that they were most likely fractured or broken. But I never got an x-ray, so I can’t know for sure. They hurt for about six weeks. I can’t complain. It could have been infinitely worse.

They say when you fall, get back up. I chose to rappel early on the day after my fall. It took three panicked seconds of rapid breathing and wanting to cry. Then I stepped over the edge and the fear was gone. That day I threw on a backpack and hiked back to camp. It hurt but I didn’t want it to show. I was proud of my ability to keep going.

“I should get to name that climb even though I didn’t finish it,” I told Uno. “I think I earned it.”

“What would you call it?”

“Either Flying Tiger or Our God Saves. I like them both.”

Uno plans to work on adventure staff again next summer. He promised he’ll tell his campers the route is called The Flying Tiger. It’s a catchy name. It follows the tradition of using your camp name on your climb, like Kicks and Caboodle, Short for Avalanche, and Mossy Mopsey. But I could have died on that rock, so I won’t soon forget that our God saves.

For a while I would lie in bed and picture falling. I pored over every detail, analyzing and trying to remember it all. I thought about how things could have gone differently. What it would do to my parents, to Meredith and to Michael if I died. But it was mostly my writer’s imagination at work. Though the threat was real, I know I survived. I know there is risk involved in what I do, and I took my job very seriously. I’m glad it happened to me and not to another staff member or a camper. It confirmed what I already knew. Like my grandpa used to say, I ain’t afraid of dying; I know where I’m going. In this case, God saved me physically. But if He hadn’t, I rest assured knowing He has already saved me eternally.


About Nicole

Daughter of God, wife, mother, volunteer youth leader, substitute teacher, aspiring writer, rabbit owner, nature lover. These are some of my titles.
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4 Responses to The Flying Tiger: My Brush with Death

  1. Anonymous says:

    i still get shivers when i think about that day… and your retelling gave me plenty of shivers. i’m glad your not dead. Praise Jesus and down with grigris!

  2. Nicole says:

    Sorry for the shivers. Amen and amen. Down with grisgris and top-belay climbs in general, if you ask me.

  3. FleaStiff says:

    Sorry. Forgive my ignorance of rock climbing or mountaineering or perhaps just my ignorance of camping, but what was it exactly that went wrong?
    You said a rope was not taut. Did you test it first? Did someone else? What actually happened?

    Faith? Does that mean you flap your arms as you fall because you truly believe that you are able to fly?

  4. Nicole says:

    Faith means that I know God is constantly taking care of me. This doesn’t mean it won’t get hurt; it doesn’t mean I won’t die. But God sees everything that happens and weaves together a plan that will eventually work everything for a greater good far beyond what I can imagine. And most importantly, I have faith that Jesus Christ paid for my sins, that God has forgiven me for everything I’ve done and ever will do, and that when my purpose in life is fulfilled, I have eternity in Heaven to look forward to with my God. Flying would be cool, too, though. Or maybe some superhero move where I grab the rock and catch myself by two fingers as I hang suspended above the earth. But alas, I don’t have faith in my ability to fly or my ability to catch myself. Just in a God who never fails.

    The accident was an error in the setup and belaying at the top. I didn’t explain it well because I never used that particular setup again after my accident and I didn’t see what transpired on top while I was climbing. Here’s the best description I can give: The belayer was supposed to let the rope slide slowly through her hands to lower me down while the masterpoint took the brunt of my weight, keeping the rope taut. But there was a second person belaying on backup. The way he pulled the rope opened the system so that there was no longer tension where the rope when through the masterpoint. So when my belayer let the rope slide through her hands, my entire weight was on it and it came as if it weren’t attached to anything. When I fell, I screamed. The backup belayer let go, restoring the system to the way it should have been. Then my belayer easily stopped me by grasping the rope that was sliding through her hands. Had it been belayed from the bottom (the most common technique), they would have instantly seen that I was falling. As it was, I fell approximately 50 feet before I was caught. The shock of the fall had enough force to fray the rope, which was new, to the point where we retired it. But it did its job.

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