In Defense of a Friend: Response to “Climber Fined For Obstructing Rescue” by Rock & Ice

This is a straight re-post of a piece my buddy Wes wrote in response to the one sided article Rock & Ice wrote about the climbing accident Wes assisted in.  Here is a link to R&I’s article: “Accident Report: Climber Fined for Obstructing Rescue


I am writing this after reading about myself in Rock and Ice magazine this week. I had chosen to remain anonymous because this story was not about me. It was about the successful rescue, regardless of who should have gotten “credit” for the success. However, when this article was published with so many missing facts, I felt it was now time for me to come forward. I must tell my story in three parts.

Part I. I helped save my friend.

As with any emergency, when adrenaline, stress, and physical exertion are irrepressible, ten people can experience the same event and perceive it completely differently. I say this, because I know that my perspective is simply one of many. But, it seems to me, I don’t think anyone can accurately tell this story without hearing from me. An attempt to tell this story without my perspective is shortsighted at best, defensive and insidious at its worst. Here is how I remember it:

The day was going pretty well when Dylan Johnston and I received a call from our friends Jackson and Zach. Zach described how Jackson had fallen and was unable to self-rescue. Dylan and I rushed to their aid.

Because I am intimately acquainted with Shortoff Mountain, because I have climbed, guided, and scouted the Maginot Line (Grade III, 5.7) at least 15 times, because I am an AMGA Certified Rock Instructor, Single Pitch Instructor and full time climbing guide, because I know how to read a map, consult a climbing guidebook, and recognize my position at any time in mountainous technical terrain, I knew exactly where my friends were. Without a need for pause, deliberation, or consult I went straight to the top of their climb.

When I arrived at the top of Maginot Line, there were 3 Burke County Search and Rescue personnel on scene. My first interaction with these gentlemen that day, unfortunately, conformed to every other interaction I have ever had with them. You see, this day was not the first time I have interacted with Burke County Search and Rescue. At their best, they are honorable, well-intentioned volunteers who do not spend much time in 5th class rock terrain. At their worst, they are prideful, out-of-shape, and a danger to themselves and others. They are a bit of everything: some good, some bad, some bored, some effective, none of them have ever navigated this terrain before. For Jackson’s sake, I was hoping for the best in each of them.

I immediately inquired as to who was in charge. Their response was incoherent. They did not know who was in charge, they did not have a plan, and they did not offer me any plan or directive. Fearing for my friend and unsure what these three gentlemen could possibly do for him, I proceeded to set up a rappel to go down to Jackson. At no time did they direct me to not descend to the victim.

I attached my climbing rope to a tree with a bowline and rappelled on a single line with a grigri down about 100 feet. At this point I built a midpoint anchor for the rappel line and continued another 60 feet to Jackson. Dylan also descended down the line and positioned himself about 20 feet above Jackson.

Jackson was a mess He was on a ledge 200 off the ground laying on his side in a somewhat fetal position. I could immediately tell that he was in a lot of pain. Thanks to my training in technical rescue and wilderness first aid, I did not need a whole lot of time to decide what to do. I began to work. First, I made Jackson safe from falling any further. I took some trad gear from his harness; I made an anchor about 20 feet above him in a crack system (the closest available anchor). I secured Jackson to the anchor with his climbing rope. I began assessing and monitoring his condition. I knew that I would not be able to extricate Jackson from the cliff on my own, I knew from his condition that time was a factor and we needed to get him to advanced medical care as quickly as possible. And I knew that the terrain above would not allow for an efficient raising system. I know all of this in seconds, because that is what I have trained for years, and hours, and miles of terrain to know. I don’t need a committee to know this. I need help; Jackson needs help.

I made cell phone contact with people on top of the cliff as well as incident command for the rescue. I gave patient assessments. I guided the rescuers about where to place their ropes to reach the victim (my rope was a good landmark). I tried to be as precise and as helpful as possible, because I knew that Jackson’s life depended upon their assistance.

Inside my heart, my head, and my anxiety however, I know who is up there. I know that these well-intentioned volunteers would have difficulties pulling this off. They may allow us to sit here all night like they have on other interventions. Jackson may die here on this ledge right in front me. I begin to get scared, as I calm Jackson; his groans are only muted by spells of unconsciousness.

To keep busy, I shout instructions up to Dylan. Poor Zach has been down there belaying for hours. I then direct Dylan to bring Zach up on the original climbing rope and get him off the cliff. Seemed to me, it would be good to get Dylan and Zach off the cliff now. Zach must be exhausted and there is nothing else for Dylan to do. Plus, I knew that I needed to get off this cliff eventually, so I also told Dylan to be ready to belay me up once the rescuers had taken over. That was our plan, and Dylan and Zach got to work on that. I busied myself with Jackson, knowing that I had a belay out of here no matter what the rescuers upstairs did or did not do.

I made several phone calls upstairs to communicate Jackson’s progress, so it is difficult to remember when I was first instructed to leave the scene by incident command. It doesn’t really matter to me because no one seemed to have a problem with my response. I responded by saying that I would leave the ledge as soon as someone from the rescue squad arrived on the side of the cliff to care for Jackson. It never occurred to me that they actually wanted me to abandon Jackson without handing him off to a rescuer. I deduced that the incident commander was not on scene, because I could not fathom a directive that instructed me to leave an injured person to die by themselves. I don’t think I would have obeyed such a directive even if they had been more emphatic. But, no one was emphatic. No one seemed to have a problem with my plan, and the communication never seemed remarkable to me until later.

When the first rescuer finally arrived, the rope that they were rappelling on was too short to reach the victim, I saw two strands of rope ascending from his harness and deduced that he on some sort of belayed rappel rig, rappelling on one single strand backed up by another rope. This would have been great, but our would-be rescuers had not made the rappel line long enough. It dangled 20 feet above out heads.

Now, I know the caliber of the rescuers upstairs, so I can forgive those folks for this slight miscalculation. But Jackson is dying at my feet, so what we do now is important. Time is a factor. The rescuer doesn’t know how to communicate his predicament to the people upstairs. He doesn’t know how to say: “the rap line is too short, just lower me the last 20 feet.” Or: “tie off the belay, extend the rap line 20 feet, and allow me to continue rappelling once you’re done.” Or: “hey, I’m going to transfer my rappel to the rope the victim and the first responder are using. He seems to have a good rope and a good anchor here.”

I am sympathetic to his ignorance. He is doing the best he can, and I see that. So, I carefully directed him on how to use my climbing rope to rappel the remaining at a distance to reach Jackson. Once I had him there on the ledge, once he whipped out that massive first aid kit, once I saw him reach down, and touch Jackson, I didn’t feel anything but gratitude, and admiration, and relief. Thank God, I thought.

From this point forward, I remember communicating with the rescuer right beside me, primarily. The first thing he told me, as he was beginning care was that incident command wanted me to leave the scene. Jackson moaned some feeble protests, but I responded by saying that definitive care had arrived and that I needed to leave to let the rescuers take over.

But, the rescuer had transferred on to my climbing rope in his descent, and Jackson was still tied to it as well, and both of them were anchored to the crack system that was 20ft above their heads, and I honestly didn’t think the rescuer understood any of this very well. With the rescuer occupying my preferred ascent method, I wasn’t sure how or when he expected me to vacate the premises. It sounded like more of them were on the way, and a helicopter too. It never occurred to me to prussik up the line, and the imperative need for my immediate and hasty departure was never relayed to me. So, I told him that I was planning to climb out as soon as they could free up my climbing rope. But they never did.

Now, I know a million and one ways under the sun to get up a cliff. I could rope solo, I could climb dual prussiks, I could use my plaquette, I could cut the rope above the anchor and tie in there. Heck, if it was a really big deal, I could just free solo, but no suggestions, instructions, or specific imperatives were ever relayed to me. So I simply attached myself to the anchor that was 20 feet away. At the time, I felt like this was that safest thing for me to do. I felt safer attaching myself to the anchor I put in the wall and waiting it out, so that’s what I did.

The helicopter came to the cliff to assess the situation. then ascended above the cliff and lowered a rescuer with basket to the ledge where the victim was. I saw no delay in this action but then again I don’t have a trained eye for what delays in helicopters look like. The 2 rescuers then began packing the victim for extraction. After this occurred another paramedic was lowered out of the helicopter and attached the hook to the basket and lifted Jackson away to even more definitive care. Then, the helicopter lifted away the other 2 rescuers and I was all alone. Jackson was safe, at last.

I pulled up the now empty rope end, unceremoniously tied in, called up to confirm my belay from Dylan, cleaned all the gear, and climbed with Jackson’s rack, my rack. After all that, and carrying all that gear, the climbing was exhausting.

When I arrived at the top, I was not greeted by rescue personnel, I was not thanked, I was not cared for or supported. Instead, I was arrested by a forest ranger named Jason Crisp. He was visibly upset with me and my partner over the situation. I didn’t really understand what had happened. The right thing had happened. The victim was safe and alive. I had played a critical role in the success of the rescue. I had given continuous reports on the victim’s condition. I had guided and assisted the descent to Jackson.

I was angry, emotional, and more than slightly irritated. The ranger instructed me to begin hiking down with him, that I was being detained. I began a second rescue operation at this point. At this point, for reasons I could not fathom, I now had to rescue myself from going to prison.

In that effort, I was also successful. In the two mile hike down from Shortoff, I managed to explain the entire afternoon to Ranger Crisp, and I won his immediate sympathies. He agreed that something did not sound right, that he had been called on scene to detain a belligerent civilian who was interfering in a professional rescue. I felt betrayed, disgusted, and alone.

The silent indifferent eyes of all the rescuers in the cul de sac helped me understand what had happened. Ranger Crisp understood it too when he saw their skulking faces. My actions, my critical thinking, my decisiveness, had humiliated the Burke County Search and Rescue members. I had inadvertently robbed them of their glory, and they fully hoped to have me spend the night in jail in order to abjure their injured pride and coveted heroism.

I was despondent, heartbroken, and incredulous. I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Ranger Crisp pulled me aside, and he said, “Look, I admire what you did up there, but I have to do something here, because they are expecting me to arrest you. I’m going to write you a citation for disorderly conduct, and you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not a criminal citation, it’s just a fine. If you pay it, it virtually disappears.”

Believe it or not, I was grateful to the Ranger. If he had just believed everything the rescuers said, I would have been in jail. As it was, I was free to get in my car and leave, a gesture for which I am immensely grateful. I believe Ranger Crisp probably understood Burke County Search and Rescue just as well as I do, because he was under no obligation to take my word for it.

In an odd twist of the story, Ranger Crisp was murdered 2 days later apprehending a real fugitive in the national forest. I felt an immediate loss and sadness, not only for senseless loss of a good public servant, but for losing the only witness to the operation that seemed to defend me. I was sad for a dozen reasons in the 48 hours after the rescue, but that part was just incomprehensible. The world felt really small, and sad, and senseless.

Part II. Aftermath.

I didn’t start to get really angry until later. The evening after the rescue, on the news, there was a dramatic account of a heroic intervention on Shortoff Mountain by the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. There was helicopter footage, interviews with the very rescuers I had assisted, and an explanation that the rescuers had done their duty despite the “interference” and “delays” cause by a civilian bystander. I thought about the faces in the parking lot at the base of Shortoff, I thought about my reputation as a community member and a guide, I thought about how unfair and unjust my treatment had been.

It’s hard to describe, but each ounce of despair and betrayal that I had felt the night before was replaced by anger. I called the television station and explained that their assertion of my “interference” was just bad reporting. But, I was having to piece together the other half of the story from what Ranger Crisp had told me the day before, what I had seen on the news, and what Dylan and Zach had overheard while they were on top of the cliff. So, it was hard to know what to do, or say, or how to do it or say it. So I just went to my family’s house for TLC.

Once I got home, the more I learned about Burke County’s version of the story, the angrier I got. I might have really raged on the internet and news and public forums, but a few things helped me get it together. First, I visited Jackson in the hospital and returned all of his gear. Seeing his smiling face, all his bandages and stitches, meeting his Dad, feeling the firm grip of his handshake and embrace, despite his injuries, I put the whole thing in perspective. Despite what Burke County had done to me, my friends life and health and happiness sat before me, on the mend. I knew, despite all the slander and obfuscation, how and why that happened. He would not have survived without Burke County calling the helicopter, and their EMTs, and their infrastructure. But all those systems and tools and personnel would not have done them a bit of good if I had not been there. I knew it as soon I looked at Jackson; he knew it; his dad knew it too. That was redemptive.

Second, I tuned in to Facebook and watched as the climbing community sprang to my defense. Many of my defenders did not even know that the responder mentioned in the news stories was me. They defended me on principle. Climbers in Linville Gorge have seen the Burke County Search and Rescue Team in action. They have also seen me in action, a fixture of the crag, a helping hand, a cheerful compatriot. I think most of them just called the whole thing like they saw it: “Thank God, Wes was there!”

Lastly, I went home to Washington. My girlfriend, my family, an enterprising and bustling city, it helped the whole fiasco seem far away and trivial and worthy of being forgotten. And that is what I did. It was easy to forget, because no one from the Forest Service, the Rescue Team, or the press ever contacted me again. I knew that people back in NC were still talking about, but I was happy to let it go. In fact, I was anxious to let it go.

Part III. What now?

The only reason I am telling my side now is because an incomprehensible version of this story recently appeared in Rock and Ice. I’m not sure who concocted that narrative but sounds a lot like the script I heard on the news that evening after the rescue. It doesn’t sound like the day I remember at all.

The thing about a news cycle or a rash of Facebook posts is that they will be forgotten relatively quickly. But, I think I’m calm enough and comfortable enough to set the record straight. I don’t want to be remembered that way. In my defense, I have a community and a surviving friend who knows who all the key players were that day. I had an experience that will resonate with every climber that has ever interacted with the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. Volunteer rescuers in Western North Carolina have a track record of mishap and blunder that is almost always averted by someone like me.

Lastly, the evidence against me is entirely manufactured. If there are recordings out there that document my “disorderly conduct”, they have never been produced for my hearing, for anyone I know, or any law enforcement authority that I am aware of. Video and photo evidence of the rescue however, clearly demonstrate the use my rope and anchor to assist in the rescue, my position on the cliff when I was asked to vacate the ledge, and the mishandled technical systems that the rescuers were attempting to use to access the cliff.

If there is a silver lining to this whole story, it is simply to have the climbing community understand the following:

Professional Rescuers, Professional Climbers, and recreational climbers have vastly different skill sets, procedures, cultural norms, and communication styles. In some parts of the country (like Burke Co), these groups have not yet learned to talk to each other, to be a resource to each other, or to support each other. I am glad the CCC and the guiding community are working hard to open up channels of communication so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
Narrative has a powerful effect on the climbing community. In local news, that narrative will be sensational and sexy, even if entirely inaccurate. Every climber involved in a rescue should consider not only the efficacy of their action, but how they will perceived and portrayed in news media. For me, I’d help no matter what they say. I’d do the same thing again if I had the chance. But, if you can’t take that kind of heat and vilification, stick to the sidelines.
Become proficient in improvised rescue techniques. I would not have been effective or efficient, and I might actually have been danger to Jackson, myself, and others, if I had not known exactly what I was doing out there.

One thought on “In Defense of a Friend: Response to “Climber Fined For Obstructing Rescue” by Rock & Ice

  1. Pingback: The other side of the story… | BigPig Blog

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