This scared-straight tale (an 80-foot, factor 2, fall directly onto a single, 3/4″ angle piton belay) happened 40 years ago when I first started rock climbing with my high school buddies, Stan Robinson, Rick Fritz, Rick Parizek, and Marshall Campbell. On this particular day, I was on the crag with Rick Fritz.
[NOTE: My brother Brian reminds me and my notes tell me…Brian, Néstor Cifuentes (high school exchange student from Chile), Rick Parizek, and possibly Craig Lahlum were with us for the first pitch. They then rapped off and departed–good judgement on their part!]
Oh, the excitement of it all! What freedom o’ the hills!
And what lack of judgment we had! At least initially…
The story, then, is an object lesson on why it’s important to get proper instruction before diving in to your new passion, whatever it might be…free diving, wing suit flying, bungee jumping, crochet, golf…
Youthful innocence and exuberance, and the associated sense of immortality, probably filtered out most of the trauma of the incident at the time. However, as I make a return this summer (after a 30-year hiatus) to the sport of what is now called “trad climbing”, I find that visual snippets of “the fall” come speeding back, flashback-style.
Damn, but did we come close to biting the big one, eh, Rick!?
Below is a direct transcription from the Arizona Republic newspaper, dated Sunday, February 2, 1975. The article has the basic facts fairly correct (maybe 80% truth), but was enhanced with a slather-thick coating of western melodrama and some crunchy conjecture. It was fun to write, I’m sure. Also note how Rick’s mother was named–she didn’t even have a first name of her own back then! Signs of the times…
My comments/corrections in brackets and italics were written on the news clipping the day the article came out.
Youth saved in 80-foot fall down mountain as single spike holds rope
by Jack West
A 16-year-old youth fell 80 feet [fairly accurate] down the side of Camelback Mountain Saturday but survived when his rope was snubbed [fancy language!] by a single piton, a spike hammered into the soft rock of the cliff [it was a fixed pin–we didn’t hammer it].
The injured youth, Rick Fritz, of 3933 E. Shangri La, was under observation Saturday night at the emergency room of Scottsdale Samaritan Hospital, where his condition was listed as fair. First reports indicated possible arm and rib injuries [he had a punctured lung and a cracked pelvis].
Fritz had been climbing with Dan Joder, 16, of 3902 E. Cholla, when the accident occurred. Both are members of the Arizona Mountaineering Club [wrong, Rick wasn’t yet a member]. The club’s rescue team used specialized equipment [is there any other kind?] and ropes to lower the injured climber to safety.
Police said they were told that the two youths were climbing above Echo Canyon on the mountain’s north side [a route called “Suicide” or perhaps “Suicide Direct” as we were likely off-route] when rock crumbled beneath Fritz’ boot, causing him to fall.
Joder said [ha ha, no idea where he got this quote] the rope tied to Fritz popped out one spike after another [we didn’t carry any pitons; natural runners zippered] until the last small piton held, yanking him to a halt near a ledge.
“I was attached to that rope, too,” Joder said. “He fell right past me, and he went bouncing and sliding down and I thought the rope would pull me down, too.” [True enough, but the thought didn’t cross my mind at the time–things happened too fast. And the quote? From whom? Not me!]
Instead Joder found himself swinging at the end of the rope [How exciting! I wasn’t affected except for rope burns–Sticht belay plate] high above Fritz, who reached a ledge safely. Joder then lowered himself to a safe spot and climbed to Fritz [I did not, a long-haired guy did, although I eventually rapped down].
Police and firemen soon arrived and the rescue team was summoned. At dusk a fire department utility truck equipped with powerful lights illuminated the rescue efforts as police and Department of Public Safety helicopters whirled overhead [oh, the drama of it all].
Shortly after 9 p.m., the rescuers carried Fritz to an area where he could be taken aboard an ambulance. His mother, Mrs. John Fritz, rushed to the stretcher.
“Has this cured you of mountain climbing?” Mrs. Fritz asked.
“Hey,” Fritz answered, “I don’t know.” [This last exchange was indeed true]
After this lovely experience that endeared us so to our respective mothers, we actually took some real rock climbing classes–the basics, self-rescue, leading, etc–and we started working a bit with the Arizona Mountaineering Club Rescue Team. Finding mentors with some patience and experience was the key to our survival through those formative years.
A big thanks, then, to folks like Bill Sewrey, Larry Treiber, Herb North Sr. and Jr., Humberto Urbina, Monty and Dana Hollister, Bob Box, Bill Jefferies, Dan Langmade, Kay Alderton, Stan Skirvin, Bill Kelsey, et al…and hang-out places like Sewrey’s friendly shop, Desert Mountain Sports…and even “Piton Joe” (you know who you are, Marty!).
There is an old saying among aviators–and climbers and other “risk-takers”–that when you begin working your way up the left side of the learning curve you are given two sacks. One is a sack labeled “LUCK”, and it is stuffed full. The other is a sack of “EXPERIENCE”, and it is drooping and empty. The goal is to fill up that sack of EXPERIENCE before you completely empty the sack of LUCK. Ideally, you’ll fill the bag of EXPERIENCE and still have a few teaspoons of LUCK remaining to help tide you through your remaining years, just in case.
That February day in 1975, Rick Fritz and I came way too close to dumping out the entire contents of our respective sacks o’ LUCK over the talus and boulder-strewn slopes of Camelback Mountain.
“Oh, we were young and our hearts were an open book…”
Here, you have a couple of crappy scans of even crappier old snapshots:
Rick Fritz, in an official Royal Robbins hat decorated with a United States Hang Gliding Association (USHGA) patch, coils a rope on top of the Crying Dinosaur in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. I guess I’m contemplating my navel (I am definitely not texting)…
Rick Parizek (foreground, in Royal Robbins big wall shoes) and Rick Fritz (in back), my first climbing partners, on the Crying Dinosaur. Sometimes we actually used helmets back then! Note the rope. It is the same one I used for the photograph above, which would make it at least 35 years old now–a perfect age for use as a greasy vehicle towline…
In an old photo album, I ran across some notes I made shortly after this incident. Here they are…
“Lets do Suicide. Here’s a bolt. Lets anchor to those trees, too.
Rick Fritz leads first pitch…one bolt, a #9 hex, another bolt, a natural runner on a chicken head, then a belay ledge with one bolt. Brian, Néstor, Rick P and me up the first pitch.
We look at the second pitch. Brian, Néstor, Rick P rappel and go (4:00p.m.) It’s late.
Fritz leads second pitch…one natural runner, two bolts, one fixed piton, one fixed angle piton…we belay here.
Second pitch has more difficult moves (5.7?). Fritz belays me up to the angle piton (I have bad feelings).
Fritz on third lead traverses off left 20 feet with no protection, then a natural runner, then up trough, bad rock, out of view. I heard him place a second runner…possibly a total of four. At least a 40-foot runout at this point.
Body comes flying backwards out of the trough. His helmet comes off, so does equipment sling. All protection pulls (bad placement of first runner, zipper effect).
There’s a jerk on the rope as it slides through my hands. I eventually lock the belay plate. Maybe ten feet of rope went through the plate before he stopped.
Is he dead? I call to him. No answer. I call for help. People come running from other side of Echo Canyon.
I call to Rick. He answers sounded pained. I ask him if he is coughing up blood. He says no.
He calls for slack. In total I give him about 20 feet of slack [he was working his way to the first pitch belay ledge]. Meanwhile, several other climbers have set up a belay to start up the first pitch.
Other climbers finally reach Rick, tie him in to the belay ledge anchor, and free the rope. I set up a rappel on the 3/4″ angle piton with a #3 hex for a backup. The rope runs through two carabiners in each of those anchors.
The rappel is a bit difficult as I have to go down diagonally to the first belay ledge.
I reach Rick and he’s tied in and this other climber is trying to figure out how to lower him. People argue. Rick gets cold and we give him someone’s coat.
The Fire Department arrives and there are about five police units in the parking lot. The Arizona Mountaineering Club Rescue Team finally gets there just after the Fire Department turns on their lights to illuminate the wall as night falls.
Humberto Urbina jumars up on a fixed rope…”
Rick was eventually lowered and carried back to the parking lot in a Stokes litter. He was back doing some easy climbing within a month or so. We, along with Rick Parizek, immediately got religion and became involved with the Arizona Mountaineering Club (our rescuers!), took some classes, helped and learned with the Rescue Team, and so on. Our bag of experience started to fill up. Rick Fritz eventually went on to do what was back then some pretty hard climbing, including a few first ascents in the Phoenix area and big wall ascents of El Capitán in Yosemite. He also set several records for long distance flight in hang gliders during the 1980s–his (and our) other hobby of the day.
But, boy howdy, are there lessons to be learned from this experience, or what?