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Accident Analysis: Ankle agony at Arapiles

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Everyone enjoys a little voyeurism from time to time, and if it can be combined with a spot of education, then we all come away a little better off - regardless of your proclivities. As such, here goes a brief accident analysis of a climbing fall - replete with (mildly) gory details, some photos, and some lessons from the trenches.

A couple of years ago now (back in the good old days before pangolins put paid to international travel), I was party to one of the many infamous New Zealand Easter expeditions to Arapiles. I'll save from extolling the virtues of how wonderous the Promised Land is, in light of the two-year hiatus most of New Zealand has had from the Best Western crag, but needless to say, back in 2019 the weather was perfect, the days long, gravity low and company exceptional.

Pete Harris on the climb Have a Good Flight (25), Arapiles

The route description for The Wraith begins, "Once a ferocious reputation route,", and it would have served me well to have a little more regard for that. Surprisingly, for someone who can barely remember what they did yesterday, I can still recall exactly how I messed up the crux sequence. While I recall paying a cursory glance at the pre-placed pro, subsequent events clearly show this didn't pass muster. Mid-way through trying to untangle myself in the crux, I had that sinking feeling of sliding off some crimps, and next thing I know, I'm on a downwards trajectory with reasonably good prospects of squishing Jaz on belay in the process.

If you've ever wondered (very specifically) about the holding power of one set of lobes on your Black Diamond X4, 0.4 cam, I can attest to the fact it's less than one Pete falling onto it from a metre or two above (more technically, likely less than 1kN). The 0.4 cam could not get out of the wall fast enough, but the day was somewhat saved by a small wire, which I no doubt welded into the wall for time immemorial. I cratered into a rather unpleasant, uneven landing just like a cat - feet first, before crumbling into an unceremonious heap.

Key takeaways at this point were: thank god for helmets (RIP my beloved pink meteor), force transfer manifests in funny ways - such as very tight Velcro climbing shoes spontaneously ripping off your foot, and why on earth do we still have a tailbone.

Subsequent takeaways in the immediate aftermath included the following pro-tips:

  1. In a busy ED such as the Horsham Hospital, it's handy if you can tell the triage nurse that you just had a fall from about 8 metres up and hit your head - you're almost guaranteed to bypass the queue of people who have been waiting for hours;

  2. Doctors and nurses are much more concerned about your neck/head and cankle following such a fall, than they are about your coccyx - even if you continually tell them that your arse is in fact the thing that hurts the most;

  3. Helmets - wear them kids! No-one thinks you're cool with a head injury.

Pete's swollen ankle in Horsham Hospital

Despite the impact primarily affecting my right ankle, imaging over the next few months showed little, and I was fully weight bearing shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, I had a lengthy history of spraining my right ankle fairly regularly over the previous 10 years (the first, when it got stuck beneath a rock on the Tasman moraine - I went forwards; my ankle did not). In the six months that followed, the ankle continued to plague me, with further serious sprains falling down Lady Mac in Canmore, and like a proper geriatric at the bouldering wall.

Finally, with delays due to some other medical crises, I finally had surgery in late 2020. Largely from the 2019 fall, the impact of the landing on my feet had left me with a tear of my peroneus brevis tendon, severely damaged CF & ATFL ligaments, a crushed deltoid ligament, bone fragments in the joint, and tibial bone lesions (likely from the history of ankle sprains).

Intra-operative images of Pete's ankle

Somewhat surprisingly to me, despite the relatively minor nature of the surgery (cf: this one from the history books from the comeback queen - Rose) recovery has been a lengthy process. Given my reconstructed and intentionally tight ankle, it has been a process to regain both strength and mobility, running and climbing. However, just shy of a year since surgery, having heel-hooked my way across my first roof post-surgery on a recent trip to the Promised Land, it's feeling like we're rounding the bend.


Pete Harris climbing on Watchtower LHS 2021

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