Bad Luck and Lessons Learned

Morgan Solomon's picture
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A Chestnut climbing adventure gone wrong.

There are times in our lives when we look back at the bad luck we've had in the past and feel grateful—grateful that it wasn't worse, that we didn't end up in a wheelchair, or permantely bedridden, or even dead. Some supreme being has given us a wake-up call, a second chance. Whether or not we curb our reckless side and pay attention to our surroundings is up to each of us. Me, I choose to respect the dangers that Mother Nature throws at us. But I wasn't always so humble—not until my bad luck taught me a lesson while climbing at Chestnut Mountain.

It was a warm day in mid-summer. A wet-behind-the-ears climber, foolhardy and fearless of all rock-climbing routes, I woke up to the continuous hum of flies circling my head. Crawling out of my greasy, sweat-drenched sleeping bag, I looked over at the three lumps of nylon and polyester resting next to me. Paige peeked out from her own bag. “What time is it?” she asked, her raccoon eyes broadcasting the fight she had with a downtown bench the night prior.

Rock climbing Chestnut Mountain Bozeman

“I don’t know, climbing time,” I said as I slipped my Chacos half on and started breakfast. With a whimper, she touched her broken nose and slid deeper into her sleeping bag. While making the oatmeal, I flipped through Kyle Vassilopoulos’s guide to Chestnut, stoked to climb somewhere new that didn’t have a lot of traffic. Gradually, Paige, Kat, and Matt made their way around the bowl of oatmeal like mummies awoken from a thousand years of rest. Everyone chugged water—it was going to be a scorcher.

Breakfast complete, we applied sunscreen and strapped on our harnesses. Go time. After warming up on a couple 5.9s, Kat and I felt red and scaly. We decided to make our way to the west side where the sun had yet to migrate—over to Chestnut’s classic and most featured route. 

"Kat and I are heading over to 'No Cowboys,' you guys want to come?" I asked Paige and Matt as I gathered my rope.

"No, I think we'll stay here. I want to try this 5.10," said Matt. 

"Alright. We'll be around the corner," I replied, giving Matt a thumbs-up. Kat and I scampered on top of scree and into the shade, dropping our bags at the base of the crag. Looking up, we surveyed the route.

It was beautiful. Two-fingered pockets, to three-fingered pockets, to a slabby resting section, to a slight overhang, to the chains. The yellow limestone was cool, full of friction, and… well, chossy. As I leaned against the rock to put my climbing shoes on, the surface scraped loose under my hand, dropping pebbles to the ground. Still, I didn’t think much of the loose rock disintegrating beneath my fingertips; I was only two years into climbing and still felt invincible. Plus I was hung over and didn’t give a shit. We were tied in—nothing really bad could happen, right?

Wrong. Feeling pretty good up to the overhang, I placed my left foot on a hold painted black by previous climbers' shoes. The hold protruded from the slab as a triangular block, sharp and seemingly solid, convincing me to place most of my weight on it. Confident in my position, I clipped my quickdraw on the overhang and pulled the rope from between my legs, directing it toward the bottom part of the draw. It was in this millisecond that the aforementioned supreme being decided to give me a reality check.

Clip-crack! My "trusty" foothold broke and I missed the bolt, dropping to the low-angled slab below. I hit the rock and slid down on my left thigh; a jolt of pain overwhelmed me. Luckily, the lower quickdraw caught me, jerking me upright. Screaming and flailing like a cat held above water, I was quickly lowered to the ground.

Blood covered my thigh. After taking a few deep breaths, I grabbed an apple, like any woman in distress would—food and sugar do wonders. I sat there shaking, trying to calm my nerves. Kat played her best nurse with our minimal first-aid supplies—iodine, gauze, and tape—while I munched my apple like it was going to disappear. It was all I could do to not scream from the stinging pain.

 

Soon thereafter, I had recovered enough to belay Kat up the route—neither of us wanted to leave our gear on the rock. Suddenly, Paige rounded the corner of the crag, exasperated and out of breath.

“Dude, Matt just pulled a block of rock off the wall and it came pretty close to hitting me! Oh my God... what happened to you?”

I explained with a shaky voice while I lowered Kat from the chains. With a look of awe, Paige stammered, “We should get going… your leg… we have an hour hike out…”

“Yeah, I know.”

We gathered our stuff and made obscene jokes about our ridiculous bad luck. Paige rolled her eyes at me as I grunted my pack onto my back.

“It wouldn’t be an adventure if something didn’t go wrong," I half-heartedly exclaimed, trying to better my situation with a positive attitude.

Intense throbbing set in as I descended the trail with a backpack full of gear and a shredded leg. Along the way, I stopped to pee and a group of guys caught up to us. They had a collection of assorted beers and gave me one when they saw my leg. I dug my canine into the aluminum and pulled the tab for a picture-perfect shotgun. Now, I’m no shotgunning pro, but at that point, all I wanted was a little something to ease the pain.

Back at Paige’s turquoise Pontiac, we loaded our gear and made our way back to town. But our misadventure didn’t end there.

Paige’s car stalled in the middle of 19th. Two policemen walked up, leaned their heads toward the window, and asked, “What’s the problem? Oh geez... do you guys need medical attention?”

“No, we’re just trying to get home,” said Paige. Kat and Matt chuckled in the back seat, amused at the string of events they had witnessed that day. Fortunately, that was the end of our bad luck for the day. With the help of the police officers, we pushed the car into the nearest parking lot. Soon after, the engine had cooled off and she started right up.

In the end, I have a scar on my leg and yes, a story to tell. But more importantly, this experience probably will save my life. Now when I go climbing, I take in my surroundings, analyzing the route before I start up it. Am I strong enough to make this route safe? Is there choss? What's the weather look like? Is it worth it? These are all questions that pass through my mind. It's not easy for me to walk away from an unsafe route knowing I could probably complete it. But I do so anyway, because there are other routes to climb, and who wants to be slowed down by a bum leg?

Another life lesson was taught at the hands of negative reinforcement, thanks to the supreme climber in the sky.

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