Taking a Fall at HCR

Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) is where Casey and I first went outdoor rock climbing.

After our first trip I had areas that I felt I needed to work on in order to climb more challenging outdoor routes.  Casey and I were going to our rock climbing gym 2 times a week or more, as well as lifting weights and doing yoga to increase our balance and flexibility.

A couple months after our last trip we made plans to go back to HCR at the end of September with some newly made friends from our rock climbing gym (G-Rock).  We were also excited to try out our new gear.  We bought a 70m bicolor rope, quick draws, PAS (Personal Anchor System), and an extra ATC (belay device).

The plan was to leave right after work on Friday and drive through the night to HCR, in Arkansas.  We would spend all day climbing Saturday, and then a few hours climbing on Sunday before driving home to Louisiana.

We arrived late Friday night, somewhere around midnight.  Luckily there were few people camping, probably due to the colder weather.  We weren’t sure where our friends were camping, since we arrived later than them.  So we pitched tent near our car and decided we could move our tent the next morning near their campsite.

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Ranch horses roam the canyon.  The ones with bells are trouble-makers.

Saturday morning we were up with the sun and ready to climb.  We just needed to find our friends.  They had camped a little further down the hill than us.  We decided we would move our tent once we finished rock climbing for the day.

The campsites are a short walk to the lodge (pictured below).  This is where you need to get your pass for camping and rock climbing.  You can also grab coffee, and purchase clothing or gear.

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After checking in at the lodge, we hiked over to the north forty.  We wanted to be able to explore this area more, since we didn’t get to spend a lot of time climbing here during our last visit.

We began on some easier routes to warm up, but quickly moved on to higher rated routes for some challenging fun.  Casey and I felt that our training was helping.  We were able to power through some harder routes that we would not have looked at doing before.  Our gear was working great too!

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I could feel that my hard work in the rock climbing gym had helped prepare my body for more outdoor routes.  I had built up endurance, which allowed me to power through areas that may have wore me down before.  We also had a good group of people to climb with which makes the whole trip more enjoyable.

We were having so much fun we didn’t even stop for lunch.  Luckily the group had packed a lot of snacks to share.

Later in the afternoon we came to an area in the north forty where the cliffs created a crevasse between a boulder.  The area was cool, providing much shade, and had some interesting routes.

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In this area you can find a wide range of routes from 5.5, 5.6 – 5.10+.  We ate snacks and checked the routes in our book.  Most of us were getting tired and knew we only had a few climbs left for the day.  While the guys started to climb again, I took a brief nap on boulder.  The guys then gave it the name “Nap Rock.”

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Nap Rock (not rated).

After my nap, I was rested and ready to lead a route I had spotted when we first arrived.  Lead climbing is more dangerous, because you have to free climb the start until you can clip your rope into the quick draw.  I had practiced lead climbing at our rock climbing gym in preparation for this.  I had tried to carefully select a route that would be challenging and fun.

The route is called ‘Around the Fur‘ and rated a 5.8.  Near the top is a saddle in the cliff that meets a tree.  I felt confidant, but knew this was going to challenge me as a beginner rock climber.   I was very excited about the saddle near the top that looked fun to climb through; however, I knew it was going to take all my strength to make it to that section.

The route started over a ledge.  I had to work myself on the ledge, and try not to hit my head on the shelf above.  I felt confidant as I ascended the route.  There is some fear after you clip in and begin to ascend, knowing that if you fall you are going to drop below your last clip in.  The higher you go before you clip, the greater the danger and risk of injury.

I was nearing the top when I came to a problem in the route where you have to climb from under a bulge in the cliff.  I rested, and then tried to maneuver through this section for a while.  I knew the next clip was right above the bulge.  I hoped that after I was over it I would have enough ledge to balance and one good hold to clip in.

I manage to use my strength to power up and balance on the edge, my hands unfortunately only found crimps (click here to learn different types of climbing handholds).  I was barely holding on, my arms throbbing.

I was tired and the next clip was in view.  I slowly took my left hand to my harness for a quick draw.  I needed to secure my next clip so I could rest.  As I moved to clip, my right arm was shaking.  I tried to control my breathing, but images of my feet slipping and my arm giving out flashed in my head.  I began to worry about falling over the bulge and slamming into the cliff below.  I would have no control on how I would swing.

I took the quickdraw back to my harness.  My husband was belaying me, and I quickly shouted to him “TAKE” to pull the rope tight.  If I was going to fall, I didn’t want a lot of slack in the rope.

My arms were shaking, and I tried to lower myself over the bulge, but I had no more strength.  I fell.  Legs scrapping the rock.  I managed to keep my torso and head away from the cliff, until my shoulder slammed into the cliff below my last clip.

Trembling I could hear my husband shouting to me.  I looked myself over, focusing on deep breathing.  No open wounds; I would definitely have bruising.  My body was fine, but I felt angry.  I looked up.  The clip I couldn’t make was the last one before reaching the saddle and top.

My arms ached, I was tired.  I shouted to my husband “Descend” – and hung my head as I was lowered to the canyon floor.

Since I did not make it to the top, one of our friends said they would climb and clean the route.  I watched, looking for where I could have improved.  As he came to the spot where I struggled, his hand found an undercling.  I didn’t see if from the angle I was at on the cliff, but it would have given me the stability I needed to clip in safely.

I made a mental note of that hold, and I plan on attempting to lead climb this route once we plan our next climbing trip to HCR.

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Casey lead climbing in the north forty, HCR.

Our hands were sore and muscles were fatiguing, but we weren’t ready just yet to quit.  The group took turns climbing a few more routes in the area.  We started picking lower rated routes just for fun.

As the sun began to set, we made our way back to camp.  Casey and I had to move our tent down the hill to join our friends.  We then built a fire and enjoyed some brews while listening to the sounds of goats off in the distance.   Occasionally you could hear the ringing of a bell.  We were told that some horses would disrupt campsites, and these horses had bells around their necks as punishment.

On Sunday morning we only had a few hours to climb so we were up early to pack up our camp.  We wanted to spend a little time on the east side cliffs.  The section of cliffs we climbed is labeled “Cliffs of Insanity.

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Bryan, our new friend, had planned on climbing a route called Swamp Rat, which was 5.8 route and 70 meters tall!

The route is on the north facing wall, starts on a 90 degree corner of the cliff with a crack in it.  There are 7 bolts, and some ledges to stand and clip in on.

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Route: Swamp Rat

After watching Bryan climb, Casey decided to give it a try.  The top rope was already set, but there was concern that if Casey fell he would swing into the other side of the cliff and get hurt.  So he ended up lead climbing this route as well.

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Casey climbing “Swamp Rat.”

After Casey finished his climb, I planned on doing one myself before we returned home.

I found a route that had a lot of chicken head holds.  I was still a little shook up from my fall the previous day and wanted to take it easy.  I was top roping, not leading, and still had to calm myself when I came to a bulge in the cliff.  With some coaching from my husband below, I was able to overcome my fears.

I took my camera with me on this climb and snapped a photo of the HCR lodge at the bottom of the canyon.  The view at the top is always worth the climb!

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View of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch from the top of the east side cliffs.

Our hands were too raw to do much more climbing.  Our friends felt the same.  We took a group photo before hiking back to our cars.

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Casey and I decided on the drive home that our next gear purchase should be helmets.  As we become stronger climbers, we want to do more challenging routes, and eventually multi-pitch climbs.  This increase in risk also means we need to increase our safety.  Safety is proactive, not reactive.  I was lucky that I didn’t hit my head when I fell lead climbing, and I don’t want to take a risk like that again without proper safety equipment.

This was out last trip to HCR for 2017 before it became too cold.  We are waiting for warmer weather to plan climbing trips with friends.  Keep an eye out for future rock climbing posts!


Fellow climbers, have you ever taken a fall that made you reconsider your safety techniques?  What have you done to ensure your climbs are safe?

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