Falling Down

by Toby Whitley Mar/2007
This article has been read 15,039 times

Toby Whitley's photograph below got this message, " Congratulations! This photo was chosen as Photo of the Week, based on votes by registered users over the past 7 days," three times. This shot is part of a sequence, presented here, of Toby's friend Dean Dorrell coming off Capitaine Courageux IV+ in the Fournel Valley, France. The camera used was a Nikon D70s with an 18-70 on aperture priority. In addition Toby has supplied us with an essay about the photo.

You can read the comments about this photograph here. The Weekly Top 10 Photos & Galleries out of over 43,100 photographs user-submitted photographs can be viewed here.

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First ice screw blows...now.
© Toby_W, Jan 2007

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You sure you're alright?
© Toby_W
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Falling Down
© Toby Whitley, Mar 2007
It's easy to make mistakes, it's human in fact. We try to avoid, plan for, and protect ourselves from these events, especially when climbing. Now our little climbing group has had its fair share of adventures. The first that stands out was Anders taking a factor 2 fall onto me on a climb in the Avon Gorge leaving us both hanging upside down off one rusty peg over a considerable drop. My belay had not been up to scratch but the lesson we took home was always get that first piece of gear in.

Skipping forward a bit, to a few years ago, a rather hard lesson for me was breaking my leg while ice climbing. It was the end of the day, I was itching to get on some harder stuff and while messing around on a small ice face I fell. I thought, bend your knees and land well. I did neither of these things and with a crunch my leg was broken. Dean very kindly took some lovely pictures of me being rescued and flown off in a helicopter to hospital (see gallery).

Skipping on a few more years to this January, it was time to return the favour. As is usual on these trips we were pretty excited, especially Anders who arrived like a 5 year old who's eaten too much sugar. We'd equipped ourselves for the re-tox diet and filled the fridge with beer, wine, meat and spicy sausage. Everything has been sharpened; new kit waved around and oohed over, guidebooks thumbed and finally we got to bed late filled with beer ready for the first day of climbing. I say this every year, but the first day is always the hardest days climbing.

To get serious though, we drove, we walked and we arrived at our chosen climb for that day, Capitaine Courageux. Dean and I had done the climb the year before and the last pitch is superb, properly steep, technical and interesting. It gets a French grade IV or IV+ depending on the guide and can be done in about 4 pitches with 60m ropes. Dean led the first pitch then I the second and Anders the third. Dean is strong and confident, Anders steady and level headed and I'm technical but a little erratic.

Dean started up but was not happy. He had brand new Black Diamond leash-less axes with wafer-thin picks designed for pure ice, and they were getting stuck. After three sixty metre pitches he was still not really happy with his new tools. Still, Dean's enthusiasm carried him onto the last pitch and he moved up quickly towards the start of the steep ice placing screws as he went. I chatted to Anders and took photos as Dean started up the first of the short vertical steps. I adjusted my camera trying to get the best from its dynamic range, depth of field and so on; the automatic settings couldn't quite cut it. Suddenly, “SHIT!” Dean cursed and went from relaxed, to bunched up, pulling up on his axes and sketching with his feet. He shouted “I'm coming off, I'm coming off” each time louder and higher. I thought, you can't fall and began shouting useless advice, and then I came to my senses, lifted the camera and pressed the shutter release. I don't remember much after that. You see what will happen, it is inevitable, nothing you can do will stop it and so you just act. When it was over I looked down at Dean lying on a snow slope just above the top of the third pitch, head down. I called to him and it seemed like an age before he replied “I'm O.K”.

We regrouped on the belay, quiet, shaken, swearing and laughing. I set off to recover the lonely axes still stuck up in the ice, F**K. Fear ran up and down my spine, all bravery evaporated. I wound in a few more ice screws and then started up the short steep section. It was awkward drainpipe ice that made for difficult foot work and non ideal axe placements and still not consolidated. I reached the first axe and hung while I tugged and pulled until it came out, I needed a rest before the second axe and in the end it was too much and I knocked it out. Luck was with us and it dropped into the snow below. We bailed.

When we got back to the apartment and got the photos onto the laptop it became clear how lucky we'd been. Dean must have fallen more than ten metres and in the photo his first ice screw really was just about to blow out of the ice. I think his years playing rugby along with staying calm and folding up as he fell saved him. He said at the time all he was thinking was not to break his leg(s) like I had. The whole thing happened so fast, one minute in control and fine next minute pumped and then off. Lessons, be cautious on the first day and be careful when you're using a new system or kit.

The rest of the week was great, we took it easy on a few more 4s and 4+s and finished with a superb 5+ that we did last year. Magic. The re-tox diet added 3 kilos to me and probably knocked a few years off my life expectancy, already looking forward to next time.

Cheers Toby

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