Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Clint McHale Memorial

Chelsey McHale met with me a few months ago at Solo Cafe and talked about the memorial sign she wants to put on Camelback about her brother.

Clint McHale died on May 4 after he slipped and fell while climbing a rock face with his friend. He had no experience at climbing and didn't own a pair of rock shoes, much less a rope. He was a frequent Camelback hiker who acted on a sudden impulse to climb. Can't say I blame him.

Chelsey contacted me by way of commenting on the blog post I wrote here last year about Clint.

We talked for a good hour and a half about life, death, the dangers of hiking and climbing, and her efforts to get the memorial sign put up on the mountain. I decided to write a short blog post for New Times about the sign. Although a Phoenix official told me the sign is likely to go up, the fund-raising seems to be going slowly, judging by the donation Web site. Last I checked, she's not yet to half her goal of $2,500. I hope she makes it.

I also added a safety blurb to the rail of this blog, just for posterity's sake. After almost 30 years of hiking and climbing at Camelback Mountain, I'm well aware of the need for caution. To name just one calamity I've seen there that didn't involve me, I once saw a guy running down the trail trip and break his arm. I'd been bouldering nearby when it happened and felt the ground shake from his impact. His screams were awful.

One of the running themes you'll find on this blog, though, is that risk equals fun. That being said, the risks need to be understood and respected. Going home at the end of a good day on the crag is the ultimate goal.

Chelsey and I discussed at length the possible reasons why Clint decided to climb a near-vertical face that day, and why he slipped. Those are two questions to which we'll never know the answers, apparently.

According to news stories, Clint's buddy suggested they climb and Clint went along with it. From my point of view, Clint decided he was going to have some extra fun while out for his routine hike. Climbing, he knew, is fun and exciting.

The decision to climb was a good one, but it was followed by wildly bad judgment. Had he climbed up five or ten feet, then down-climbed or done some traversing, it would have been a perfect introduction to the joys of bouldering. Depending on the type of climbing, no gear is necessary. Just common sense.

Clint didn't stop climbing when he got to unsafe height.

That's not to say he was lacking in common sense. Chelsey tells me he was a very bright, logical person. But sometimes -- and I know this feeling well -- you just want to go for it.

Without rock shoes, the ability to negotiate vertical terrain is diminished severely. I've likened it to climbing with rollerskates on. Clint was wearing light hikers or running shoes, neither of which are good for edging. True, the soft neoprene of the edge of a running shoe's sole molds to edges on a rock face -- but far too much, like marshmallows. The rubber of rock shoes is harder and conforms to the rock on a more micro level, retaining most of its shape in order to cling to the barest of fractures. I'm not sure of the physics involved. Security while edging can be found with some stiff-soled boots, too. My Danner Mountain Lites are an example of a hiking shoe that holds up very well on class three-to-four ground, especially when the soles are new. That sort of shoe could be used for fifth-class climbing -- anything could be used for climbing, you could climb barefoot -- but it would be far from ideal. While climbing, the foot shifts around too much inside bulky boots and running shoes -- most any shoes, really. There's no feel for the rock. (Barefoot climbing has excessive feel.) I've been told by running-store "experts" to choose jogging shoes that are a half-size too large. Whatever that does for running, the extra size makes climbing more difficult. Climbing shoes are typically tight, but not overly tight. Some climbers seem to take the ancient practice of foot-binding as a helpful guide to sizing shoes, but I prefer to give up some of the advantages of ultra-tight shoes for comfort. Especially on multi-pitch climbs, painful shoes can be a misery.

All this comes down to is that the type of footwear chosen by a climber may be better or worse for climbing. Had Clint McHale been wearing rock shoes, he still could have slipped. Shoe-ing up for a climb, (putting rock shoes on), implies a more thoughtful approach to the process. It would likely mean experience, at least in a climbing gym or the bouldering areas around Camelback. Falling is always a possibility in climbing, so a climber with experience develops criteria to make the judgment calls required for the activity.

The lack of experience was a much larger contributor to the fall than the choice of footwear. A more experienced climber gauges the problems of the terrain in way that adjust for whatever happens to be on his or her feet at the time. If the climbing becomes sketchy, you either back down or accept the greater state of risk and go on.

I know from past screw-ups that it's easy to push well into that heightened state of risk without fully understanding how crazy things are getting. At that point, it can be too late to turn back. Worse, a few neutrinos of good or bad luck can tip the scale, perhaps so drastically as to mean life or death. Chelsey and I talked about this. We swapped a couple of stories about close calls we've each had.

Chelsey also told me she wouldn't think of hiking Camelback, at least for now, or going to other mountains.

I believe that walking in the hills is good for the soul. Not just good, but great. The mountains are a source of a higher quality of life. Looking at mountains or the ocean, things that are so much bigger than us but are still things, is humbling and awe-inspiring. And, of course, vertical relief offers a challenging and interesting workout for hikers, a world of adventure for climbers, platforms for hang-gliding and BASE jumping, slopes for skiers and often a relatively undeveloped habitat for plants and animals. Mountains, like parks or lakes, are the antidote for the concrete beehive of modern civilization.

At least some of the satisfaction comes from risk. Even standing in a level, vast plain, you are exposed. The statistics of how, or whether, risk of bodily injury increases once you step outside your home -- that's just not something I want to Google right now. But I'm sure that hiking Camelback is riskier than sitting on one's couch. Deciding to climb a rock face pushes up the risk factor considerably.

Young men are most likely to engage in behavior like recklessly climbing a rock face. I've heard of several cases similar to Clint's over the past 25 years or so, a few of which also resulted in fatalities. Typically, the inexperienced impulse climber finds a spot to rest and waits for a rescue. In one case from the late 80s or early 90s, a teenager free-soloed up Suicide Direct, pushing into the second pitch before becoming scared out of his mind at what the old Phoenix Rock book calls the "difficult overhang." That section, about a hundred and fifty feet or more off the deck, has a few bolts with hangers on them, and the teen managed to pull his T-shirt through one of the hangers and tied one end to his wrist to prevent himself from falling. He was rescued.

Clint was 24. Chelsey doesn't know why her brother decided to climb a cliff face with his friend, when all he had done before at Camelback was hike.

Perhaps Clint was looking for a quick thrill. Maybe his friend was looking for the thrill, and Clint only reluctantly followed along. Either way, he made the choice to climb high enough to hurt himself. Which, by the way, is about six feet high or less. Finding the beginning easy enough, he went up to the point at which you're likely to get hurt massively if you fall -- about 15 feet.

These are arbitrary numbers I'm throwing out here, based on my own gut feelings as I've free-soloed. At about 15 feet, it would be obvious to a climber of any experience level that things are getting zany. The ground appears noticeably diminished at that height, and you instinctively know it's too high to jump down from. There's no way to land "right" from a jump of that high; a severe sprain, blown ligament or broken leg are all likely under the best of circumstances. Exceptions exist for particularly talented fallers. In one article I read in Climbing a few years ago about tall boulder problems, some climbers were said to have taken falls of 20-25 feet onto the deck, but not gotten hurt. These stories make less sense to me than how 747s stay in the sky, and don't apply to the average or even above-average person.

But I could see how Clint might have been lulled into a false security during the first 25 feet because the slab he was climbing wasn't that vertical. He could have perceived a fall as involving a rough slide during which he would have caught himself. That feeling could have stuck with him up to the fifty-foot point, where he lost his footing.

Details from reports of the accident makes it seem as though Clint had gotten himself into a precipitous spot that, with his experience level and lack of gear, left him open to a strike of bad luck. Clint had climbed into an exposed area forty to fifty off the ground in which he could find no good holds for his hands or feet.

As long as you know you can downclimb something, you can climb up it with little worry. But downclimbing is trickier than climbing up, and so the tendency for beginners is to continue climbing up, thinking they'll reach an easier spot. Classic mistake. If you don't reach that easier spot, you're in worse shape.

Clint's friend reached down as Clint yelled that he was slipping.

Clint slipped out of his hand.

The Police Report

Below is a map of the accident area, borrowed from Google Maps. I've noted several landmarks, like the Praying Monk and August Canyon. And I've labeled the accident site (the red drop-in pin points to the GPS coordinates given in the police report.

The next two shots are from a Channel 10 News broadcast on May 5, 2011, the day after the accident. In the video clip, the reporter and pilot take you on a flight out to the scene in the station's helicopter and point out the spot (in the red box) where they say the two had been climbing just before Clint's slip.

The pictures show that this site is just around the corner from the class 4/5.1 that I free-soloed in 2008 as part of my quest to find the spot where two guys needed a mountain rescue. This is a fantastic climb that takes you all the way to August Canyon, as my 2008 blog post describes in detail.

The discussion between reporter Britt Moreno and Rick Crabbs about "rotten rock" is somewhat aggravating, since neither really know what they're talking about. The rock quality is generally poor, but in fact there are many spots on the Head with beautiful, solid holds. In places with mixed choss and solid stuff, it's often possible to see bad holds before you put weight on them. Low-angle, rolling sandstone slabs, fractured areas and boulders of all sizes allow stemming, smearing and other climbing moves that don't always resemble "holds" but are quite safe for upward movement, if you know what you're doing. Crabbs misidentifies the geology of the Head, calling it "decomposed granite." It's sandstone with embedded chunks of other kinds of rock, like granite.

What really bugs me, though, is the constant reference to this area as being "off-trail."

"(McHale) reportedly had walked off the marked trail," remarks this April 6 article in the Arizona Republic about a new trail rating system. The police report states the area is "well off the established trail."

"Marked trail," yes. But he wasn't exactly "off-trail," as Channel 10 says. A well-trodden trail does indeed take you out to where McHale fell, the near-vertical ramp to August Canyon and around to spots south of the Head. Google's satellite photo shows how the main trail comes out just past the Head -- from there, you head south over a rocky hill and hug the wall. Because the area is slightly more rugged than Echo Canyon trail and most people think it's "off-trail," it's isolated and peaceful. It's a terrific place to find solace in the city. As I discussed in my previous blog post about the ramp, it's also possible to envision how a solo climber might lie in that area for a long time after a fall without anyone hearing his or her cries.

The problem with the constant reference to "off-trail" is that it inadvertently conditions people to believe no one should go there. When they put up the fence, fewer people will complain. I don't think this is anyone's plan, but the litigious and risk-averse nature of greater society could give rise to ban on hiking and climbing in some area, and that would mean a great treasure will be lost for those who venture off the main trail. Better to put up a small memorial/sign like the one for McHale to warn people of the potential danger, yet leave them freedom to wander. So far, thankfully, there's been no talk of closing anything off. The Yosemite-like policy continues.

Officer Vincent Navarro interviewed Gustafson after firefighters took him off the mountain. According to Navarro's portion of the report:

"Jonathan stated that every Wednesday, he and Clint got together to do something. They had decided to hike Camelback Mountain to meditate. They did this often. They hiked to a location where they had to do some 'basic' rock climbing. As they were climbing, Clint became agitated and started yelling at Jonathan, saying he couldn't find a place to put his hand. He began to panic and told Jonathan, 'Grab me, I'm falling.'

"Jonathan stated he grabbed Clint's hand, but didn't have good footing and lost hold of Clint. Clint then fell approximately 40 feet. Jonathan climbed down to Clint and got there within five or six seconds."

Officer Laura Kaliszak also interviewed Gustafson:

"Both of them brought water or sports drinks but neither of the men brought climbing equipment because they were going to 'free climb.' (Jonathan) described this type of climbing as maintaining contact with the rocks with three points of contact at all times. Two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot at all times.

"Clint and Jonathan had hiked around this area on previous occasions but had not taken this exact route before. Jonathan and Clint decided on a flat cliff surface approximately 50 feet above the ground below.

"Both men agreed and began to hike and climb to this area. Jonathan described this area as a steep incline hike on one side with a flat wall face on the other side.

"Jonathan was climbing above Clint on the wall when Clint became upset because he could not find a place for his hand."

The exact route is unclear from these narratives. The portion of the crag they were on when Clint fell was apparently much more vertical. Officer Kaliszak says Jonathan told her that one point he was "slightly bent at the waist and reaching down between his legs holding onto Clint." Jonathan was able to reach Clint so quickly because he took the "incline side" down.

By comparison, from 40 or 50 feet up the 5.1 that's just north of accident hike, it would take me at least a couple of minutes to climb down, if not five or more minutes.

Did Clint and Jonathan's climb start off mellow, then get very serious? Or did they utilize the webbing "attached to the incline" about eight feet high to advance up the first section, then climb the whole way on the steeper wall next to the slab? I'm not sure. This makes me want to go out there and check it out, which I will do and report back.

Clearly, Camelback visitors can learn something from Clint's mistakes -- and his love for life and adventure.

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