Hanging From A Cliff

What the hell was I doing here?

I’m an experienced mountain climber. But now I was hanging from a cliff at about 4,000 feet, in the Nantahala Gorge in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. With nothing below me but air. And I realized I never should have ignored my gut feelings.

All morning long I’d been fighting those feelings. It was nearly winter in the Smokies. The hurricane season had deluged western North Carolina, and climbing conditions were horrible…thick muck everywhere, and slippery wet rock.

But I’ve climbed in the Alps and the Rockies – and the Smokies - many times. So, despite those nagging feelings, I began my ascent up to the highest spot atop the Nantahala Gorge.

About an hour into the climb, I came upon a brook running downhill, on a ledge overlooking a huge drop. The brook was filled with wet rocks and slippery algae. I forded it successfully. But all the way up after that, I kept thinking I’d have to cross that brook again going down.

I reached a hut at the summit where climbers sign their “trail names” in a tattered journal. So I signed and started back down.

Soon it was raining. After an hour, my boots were sinking into the muck. And after another hour, it was raining so hard I could barely make out the landmarks by which I’d marked my trail on the ascent.

Then I came again to that rushing brook…

Climbers will tell you the descent is often more dangerous than the ascent. You’re starting to get very tired. And your concentration – which has been tightly focused for some hours – can sometimes wander.

But I was focused. I used my poles to poke for stable spots in the rushing brook. And I didn’t put any weight on my lead foot until I was sure I wouldn’t slip.

I got halfway across the brook, trying to figure out my next step. But I never got to take it.

All of a sudden, up was down and down was up. I felt things bang against my head, and against my body. I had no control. A few seconds later, I was hanging on to the muck on the side of the  mountain - with a very deep drop below me.

I tried not to panic, and to take stock of the situation.

I had fallen about 12-13 feet below the rushing brook. I was flat against the side of the mountain, my fingers digging into the muck. Below me was a fall, it seemed, of a couple of thousand feet.

I couldn’t reach my cell phone, because I dared not take one arm out of the muck. I tried to calm down; just do what you always do as an experienced climber, I told myself. Break down your objective (the top of the cliff a dozen feet above) into smaller steps.

Plan A was to call out to see if anyone could hear me. But I, apparently, was the only one foolish enough to be out there.

Plan B was to push myself up with my legs. But each time I tried to wedge my boots into the mud, I slid down another inch or two.

Plan C was to pull myself up by the branches hanging in front of me. But each branch I grabbed either broke off or wouldn’t support me.

Plan D? Some serious praying. My backpack felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. My arms were getting exhausted. I realized I’d be dead as soon as I lost my grip. I said goodbyes to my children.

Just then, it occurred to me that, maybe if I burrowed with one hand into the mud in front of me, I could find some tree roots to help lift myself up.

I remember feeling a root of a branch inside the muck, and wrapping my hand around it. I remember using it to propel myself up, maybe 8-10 inches. And I remember thinking, “OK, that’s the first one. You’ve got about twelve more feet to go.”

Next thing I knew I was standing up in that slippery brook above. And I still have no idea of how I got there.

An hour later, I was down at the ranger station, where they told me I had a cracked rib.

What had I learned from the experience? That’s an easy one. If my gut is screaming “No!” about a mountain…trust it!