Jim Collins, featured in the October 2013 SUCCESS cover story, admits that he has made many climbing mistakes—“most climbers do over time”—but one life-threatening moment as a teen during a summer day on Eldorado Canyon’s towering sandstone cliffs remains “etched in my brain.”
Every once in a while as he is drifting to sleep, Collins allows that his legs will jolt and he will shoot wide awake, scared thinking about a climb up the fourth pitch of T2, a wall of rock rising about 400 feet in Boulder’s backyard canyon.
“There’s this amazingly beautiful finger crack,” he explains. “It’s a vertical wall, which means that the fingers don’t lock as solid as you might ideally like. So you get more pumped and your forearms start to get pumped. I was high on this pitch—10, 15 feet below the anchor ledge where the pitch would end. I was aware of the fact that my forearms were starting to become engorged with lactic acid and would soon lose their gripping capacity. But I figured I would be OK because it’s a crack, and I’ve got gear in the crack that will catch me if I fall so it shouldn’t be a particularly risky situation.
“To this day I still don’t know why I looked down at my knot at that moment, and noticed it had come untied,” he says. “So, at this moment I know I’m going to die if I fall off.”
Collins had tied into his harness with a bowline rather than a figure-eight knot. The advantage of bowline is that it’s easy to untie if you weight it; the disadvantage to a bowline is it’s easy to untie. “As I was doing this pitch and moving sideways a lot, it was moving the rope a lot and it gradually loosened and came untied. The rope was just barely sitting in my harness untied and I’m about to fall off.”
He called down to his belayer, but there was nothing the belayer could do but hope that the young Collins would not momentarily be crumpled at his feet. Collins recalls running though his options like a clock was ticking, knowing that his forearms were on the verge of giving out.
“I noticed an old soft iron piton in the crack that had been there from the first descent, and I quickly clipped a runner piece of webbing into that and into my harness just as I was about to run out of strength. I vividly remember to this day, it was a No. 4 Hexentric white webbing with orange speckles, the size of a nut that would go in the crack.”
The old piton and impromptu backup held as his arms gave out. “My heart rate started settling. I grabbed the rope, retied it, caught my breath, and then continued on to the ledge.”
Collins recalls being very task-focused, really aware of the situation. “I was just, ‘Breathe, focus, task, breathe, task, breathe, task.’ Now I’m OK, ‘Finish the pitch.’ ” When he arrived on the ledge, the moment caught up with him. “I had an uncontrollable shiver for I don’t know how long, although it probably didn’t last that long. I was sick to my stomach, the queasiness you experience waking up from general anesthesia—that sort of cold sick and shakiness in the hands and kind of goose bumps. I realized I almost died. Then we finished the climb.”
The whole crisis sequence probably lasted three minutes total, although it seemed much longer than that, Collins says.
“My mistake was using the bowline, and not being aware of my knot as I was going all the way across, not having a double-back system, and so forth. The good part was that somehow I was calm and was able to make some reasonably decent decisions, and I had the good luck of that piton there.”