Monday, September 5, 2011

The Luck of the Draw

Jeff and Eric's eyes grew wide with shock and their heads shook with disbelief as I told them the story.

"Holy shit. That's insane!"

"Dude, I've never even heard of anything like that!"

My head shook with theirs, for I could hardly believe it myself.

Joel cuts a striking figure when you first meet him. Not in a dashing, chivalrous way, but rather more like a crazed and stoned lunatic. Almost always shirtless in the Central Oregon heat, his face, chest, and arms have the burnt-tan look of a man who just survived a trek across the Sahara without sunscreen. The sunbleached locks of matted hair flowing down from his head make him look even darker. You might mark him as a California surfer - what with his somewhat goofy smile, super relaxed persona, and penchant for the magic herb - but surfers don't usually walk around covered in dirt with a climbing rope over their shoulder. I can't recall ever seeing him wearing pants, only the same tattered shorts and pair of flip-flops as he ambles around camp.

Someone once told me that Joel's been living at the Smith Rock Bivouac Camp since 2006, but I'm not quite sure that's true. Regardless, he's spent an enormous amount of time living in the Bivy and climbing at Smith. Almost everyone I know who has been there in the past few years has met him at some point. And whenever I mention his name they inevitably break into a smile, whether it's because they like him or think he's utterly insane. Personally, I like him and always have a good time when he's around.

Despite the beliefs of some, Joel actually knows what he's doing out on the rock. I learned this firsthand when I met him at the Monkey Face Swing during a trip to Smith last summer
(the video's not mine, but features Joel). He had rigged the entire setup himself, and myself and half a dozen others took the massive swing that day without falling to our deaths. When I asked him later about the setup he described in detail all of the mechanics and logistics that went into making sure that the swing was safe, if a bit scary.

Last week I returned to Smith Rock for a few days of climbing, and I was psyched to see that Joel was once again in residence at the Bivy. Excited to do the Monkey Swing again, I asked Joel if it was up.

"No man. But we got something new, something no one's done before. It's called the Rodeo Swing."

The Rodeo Swing is a massive loop of one-inch webbing that hangs in a large U from the
highline stretching between the 350ft Monkey Face Pillar and the adjacent cliff. To ride it, you traverse out to the middle of the highline, rappel on a fixed rope down to the bottom of the U, and either sit or stand on the webbing as your friends pull you into a pendulum swing with an attached line. It's essentially a grown-up version of the swing sets we all played on as children. Well, maybe if your parents let you play on huge webbing swings strung hundreds of feet off the ground.

Hearing Joel's description I was excited to try it, and made plans to go up to the Monkey Face the following day with him and Jesse, another local and Bivy resident who had set up the Rodeo Swing.

I ended up climbing with my friends Eric, Becca, and Jeff the next day and wasn't able to join Joel and Jesse, but they still made the trek up to the Monkey. Joel went first. He clipped a quickdraw between his belay loop and the high line and began to pull himself upside-down across the gaping chasm. Chatting with Jesse as he went, he quickly neared the rappel line and twisted his body to get a better look at its position. As he did so, the single quickdraw attaching him to the highline shifted. With a SNAP! the gate flicked open and Joel began to fall.

"When I saw him start to fall," Jesse told me later, "I was sure that he was going to die."

There he was, hundreds of feet off the ground, in a free-fall. If he was lucky, he might just hit the ledge 40 feet below the highline and escape with some badly broken bones. It was much more likely, however, that he would miss the ledge, slam into the rocky notch after a 60+ foot free-fall, and tumble hundreds of feet down either the East or West Face of the Monkey. If he went down the West Face he'd certainly die. If he rolled off the East Face he might live, but would probably be so banged up that he'd wish he were dead.

Instead of thinking about all of this Joel reacted instinctively. He reached his arms out in front of him, grasping for the rappel line that hung next to his falling body.

Somehow, miraculously, he grabbed the rope with both hands. Gripping it with everything he had he brought himself to a sliding stop just a few feet above the Rodeo Swing. He quickly lowered himself down to the line, straddling one leg on each side of the webbing. The whole thing took about five seconds.

As Jesse frantically yelled down to him to clip into the Rodeo line, Joel responded with the strange calmness and clarity that often overcomes those who have just survived a near-fatal experience.

"Chill out man. I've got it. Just give me a minute."

Joel sat on the swing for a few seconds, still not clipped in, holding onto the rappel line for balance as he looked down at the void beneath him. Benefitting from the experience of hundreds of solos and countless meetings with high exposure, Joel cooly let go of the rappel line and carefully balanced on the thin webbing while using both hands to clip himself in. Safe, at last.

Now all he had to do was jug 30 feet back up to the cliff. But his lifesaving catch had absolutely obliterated his hands. The friction of the sliding rope ripped the skin off most of his fingers, and where it hadn't come off completely it rose in huge milky blisters and hung in loose tatters. By the way he winced as he told me the story later that night I could tell how painful those 30 feet had been.
"By the time I got back up to the cliff my hands were on fire! That shit sucked BIG TIME. Jesse handed me a cold beer and I grabbed it between both hands and took off running back to the Bivy. I'm pretty sure that I set a land-speed record on that one."

After hearing the story I sat incredulous. The draw twisting open, the certain-death free fall, the epic rope-grab - it all seemed too much. Could someone really be that unlucky and lucky at the same time? I asked Joel how he thought he had pulled it off, whether it was plain luck or something else.

"The thing is, man, you take your average person and put them in that situation and they're done. Dead. Gone. But not me. I'm a different breed. The Monkey's not trying to kill me, I've climbed the thing 275 times without a rope."

He must have seen that I was surprised by his answer, and continued.

"But at the same time, what are the chances? I mean, that the draw opened in the first place, that I was able to grab the fucking rope, and that I stopped myself on the Rodeo line?"

I didn't push the issue further, but asked Joel if he was going to try the Rodeo Swing again.

"Yeah man. You wanna know the first thing I'm gonna do when my hands are healed? Rodeo Swing."

When I saw Joel early the next morning he was getting ready for Jesse to drive him back down to the farm he works on in Bend. I asked how his hands were. He told me that he was trying not to look at them. I sipped my coffee while he drank a Busch Light, the cold aluminum clutched tightly between his shredded fingers. We joked about his fall and how epic and insane the whole thing was. I told him it would make for a good story.

"Yeah," he replied, "But no one's gonna believe you when you tell them what happened."

1 comment:

Chris G said...

Great story, man! Well writen and great detail. Joal is a great guy and good friend. Thanks for sharing the lucky bastards story. My hands are still sweaty just thinking about it!