How I broke my back

It’s been two weeks since I got out of the hospital. I’ve spent a night in the emergency and a week and a half in the Major Trauma unit. I’ll have to wear a TLSO brace for another three weeks. I shouldn’t be complaining because that’s the minimum, before the operation the doctors were saying it could be 10 or more weeks until my back is stable enough to go unsupported. Everything went well with the operation and according to the doctor, my recovery is also going excellent for now.

I remember everything from the night of the accident. We were climbing at the Westway. That’s the indoor climbing wall I’m visiting after work every other day. I was with my regular climbing partner Rado, his girlfriend Milena, his nephew Toni and some other people, one of them a guy whom I’ll call Flamen. Milena and Toni are relatively new to climbing, just taking their first steps in leading so together with Rado they’ve dedicated the evening to practice falling. He was belaying and showing them different techniques. While they were resting, he was climbing with me, we were trying some challenging routes.

At some point Rado went to see how his people are doing. It was half past nine and we had another half an hour to call it a day. I decided to do some easy routes in the remaining time. Have you ever heard that most climbing accidents happen in the end of the day, or on the way down from a climb? Flamen was up for belaying me, so we started. I climbed up an easy 6a and then down-climbed it, to start immediately another one. When I got down, I pulled the rope, had a look at Flamen to see if he had put it correctly through his belay device and started the next one. I did this a few times. I was getting tired but that was the idea, to carry on as long as I can. And then it happened.

I was two clips away from the top, something like 30 ft (10m) from the ground. I saw the next move is going to be hard for me in my current state, had a quick look down and saw I’ve got some slack and my belayer is talking to somebody. Instead of shouting “watch me”, or grabbing an easier hold from another route, or a quickdraw, or something else, I tried to do the move. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past training my brain to be able to give everything I have to the route I’m climbing. I was probably subconsciously hoping that although my belayer is not paying attention, he’ll catch my fall because he was using a Trango Cinch (an assisted-braking belay device, similar to Petzl Grigri). “I might pull him off a bit but he’ll catch me.” Wrong! I don’t remember the actual flight after I got off the wall. I lost consciousness when I hit the ground. When I got back from this strange land of mixed rainbow lights and sounds, there was a small group of people around me. My friends, two other regular climbers and a member of the staff. They later told me I wasn’t there for about 40 seconds. I was laying on the floor and someone was holding my head and telling me to not move. I wasn’t feeling any pain, I remember slowly understanding what had happened and telling them everything is OK and that I’m fine. Somebody had already called for an ambulance.

They’ve untied me from the rope and also removed the belay device from the other end. People later told me that the guy from the staff has inspected everything and it was all set up correctly. Nobody had any idea about what exactly had happened. My belayer didn’t know I was falling until I hit the ground next to him. He didn’t have any burns or other traces from the rope on his hands so everyone thought he wasn’t holding the dead end when I fell. He was probably holding the Cinch incorrectly, that’s the most commonly expressed assumption. I guess it’s a combination of that and the fact that he’s not very experienced.

I met Flamen three or four months ago at the wall. He was coming with another guy, they were beginners but visiting regularly and our group is always friendly to strangers, especially when they’re from the same nationality. So we started belaying each other in the gaps when we didn’t have our regular partner around. I’ve had a few falls on hard routes and Flamen didn’t had any problems catching them. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to learn anything from him about the accident. Two days after it happened he visited me in the hospital but wasn’t able to say anything meaningful or answer any of my questions. I wasn’t harsh with him or anything, I only wanted to understand a bit more about what had happened. I haven’t heard from him since then. This speaks a lot about the type of person he is.

Well, we have a saying in Bulgaria that bad things don’t come alone. Something else happened shortly after this. It was emotionally much more painful than breaking some bones. It’s about a girl I was in love with and I’ll keep it off of the internet. Why I’m mentioning it then? Because my point is - when an accident like this happens, you’re forced to learn. For example, you learn to only put your life in the hands of people you truly trust. But more importantly, you learn a lot about the people around you. It’s sad that some people choose the easy way out, but that’s their own problem after all.

On the other hand, my friends, my family, my colleagues were with me all the time, supporting me from the first day in the hospital. They were helping me by any means they could think of. It is a great thing to know that there are people who actually care and it’s inevitable to feel that everything will be all right in the end if you’re surrounded by such a group of colourful and awesome personalities. I am humbled and deeply thankful to each one of them for the responsiveness and sympathy they are giving me every day.

I had a lucky escape! During the surgery they’ve put two rods and 6 screws in my vertebrae, and they didn’t touch the lower fracture, which later turned out to be a good decision, as the doctor observed it’s healing properly on it’s own. Hopefully I’ll be fully recovered soon. But there are people who die because of belayer errors. Don’t trust everyone, just because they’ve got a harness and can put a rope through the belay device properly. Be safe and take care of your partners!

Check out the skills needed to be a better belayer.

Also have a look at the funny video below to see how NOT to belay:

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