The Devil Tree and Me

There is a climb in Ferguson Canyon named Devil Tree. It clocks in at 5.10a although Kurt Ottmann, one of the first ascent team, told me that while not sandbagged at that rating, some might find it particularly challenging for that rating. Stuart and Bret Ruckman describe it in their guidebook Rock Climbing the Wasatch Front as “deceptively difficult”. There is a tree that grows from the base of the climb and it follows the contour of the overhanging climb in its quest for sunlight. It is the Devil Tree. My first and only attempt of Devil Tree resulted in another first for me, my first Life-Flight.

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In my youth, rock climbing was one of my two loves, the other being skiing. I wanted to climb constantly and I was finally cracking into the realm of leading 5.10 traditional climbs, as bolted routes were rare in the Wasatch then. The guidebook at the time was the Les Ellison and Brian Smoot Wasatch Rock Climbs. We called it the blue bible for its compact size, but probably more for its life altering possibilities. My rack consisted of stoppers and hexes, a few tricams, a lot of oval carabiners and some slings. I had just bought by first spring-loaded protection – a solid stemmed Wild Country Friend.

 

In the era before email, texts and cell phones it was a relentless battle to find climbing partners and coordinate. Many of my climbing friends simply had no phone number – a drive-by was required. I met my friend Greg at the Ferguson Canyon trailhead on that hot, sunny day. We were excited to climb in Ferguson with its north facing routes and shady trees. The area around the trailhead was in the early stages of suburban blight and it still had many empty lots. The looming castle-like house on the promontory overlooking the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon had been abandoned in a half-constructed state of desolation for years.

 

 

We spent the morning doing some short, pumpy climbs typical of Ferguson Canyon. We pulled up to the Devil Tree and racked up. I began to lead the overhanging route and got some protection in, moved up and protected it more. It was imperative to move quickly. I got a few feet out from my last piece and was barely hanging onto a sloping handhold with one hand. There was a textbook tapered crack in front of me, perfect for a stopper that could hold an elephant. My first attempt at placing protection was a stopper too small and it pulled through the crack almost jettisoning me off the route. I grabbed the next size and slotted it. It was a thing of beauty, a harbor during a storm. I clipped a quickdraw, or rather a variation as no companies back then made actual quickdraws like we think of now. I pulled some slack in my 11.5 mm rope (thick was good) and just as I went to hook the rope through the quickdraw my hand on the sloping hold finally succumbed to the pull of gravity and the slime of sweat.

 

I flew through the air 10 feet and hit the trunk of the Devil Tree, which is almost horizontal at that point as it grows away from the base of the overhanging rock wall. I bounced off the trunk and fell a couple more feet until I pulled all the slack out. I immediately felt extreme pain in my right thigh and was lowered to the ground. There was a sharp bump in my groin near the head of the femur bone. My right leg seemed stuck in a flexed position and I assumed that my femur was broken. I admit that my memory of the details is lacking due to shock. Fred Henion walked up just in time to see me fall and graciously retrieved my gear off the route, coiled my rope and packed it neatly into my rucksack. Somebody ran the mile to the trailhead and called Search and Rescue from the 7-11.

 

I didn’t move from where I was lowered. I had a strong urge not to close my eyes. I was certain that they would never reopen if I did. After a while two guys from EMS appeared. They were overweight, hot and pissed that I made them hike up a sweltering trail on a 100-degree day. And better yet they took one look at me and knew that they were going to have to carry me back down in a litter. And the trail is narrow and lined with stout scrub oak trees that claw at clothing and skin.

 

Eventually I found myself strapped in the litter being ferried by several burly fellows wearing climbing helmets to the trailhead. A Life-Flight helicopter was a welcome sight. There were several TV cameras and photographers taking pictures of the rock climber who got what he surely deserved. We flew off towards LDS Hospital but I was coherent enough to suggest we land instead at the University Hospital, as I knew my health insurance was valid there. They wheeled me into the ER on a stretcher and immediately cut off my shorts and undies so I was naked as a baby.

 

A couple of shots of morphine worked some magic on my mood. My leg was still killing. We got some X-rays but they showed nothing, no broken bones. It vexed the medical team that my leg was stuck at a 45-degree angle pointing toward the ceiling as I lay on my back (still naked). Doctor Jeffrey Saffle, the surgeon on trauma call that day, could feel the sharp bump by my groin too. He quizzed me on what happened. What I couldn’t see was a puncture wound about half way between the back of my knee and my butt cheek. I distinctly remember him stick his finger into the wound and smile knowingly and say “Get this patient prepared for surgery”.

 

I woke up in the burn unit where Dr. Saffle was in charge. My risk of infection was high so he wanted me in a sterile environment. He told me they pulled a branch out of my leg that was over 10 inches long. It was sharp on one end and grew thick toward the other end with a knot in the middle and the stems of some leaves still attached. That explained the sharp bump in my groin. The branch acted as a plug to minimize bleeding. He said I was lucky that it missed my femur, femoral artery and sciatic nerve as it passed all the way through the thickest part of my leg, from hamstring to groin. He said I should plan on staying for a while and I said I had nowhere to be. Just keep the morphine flowing I requested because I was flayed wide open. They closed the incision a few days later.

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I was released a week later with some very large stitches in my backside and a Z shaped incision scar. I was riding a bike two months later, fortunate that the damage had been to soft tissue, which recovers quickly. I started climbing again not long afterward and got on the sharp end of the rope. But the zeal was gone. I never did lead routes again that required complete commitment and faith like before my accident. Despite a slow withdrawal from climbing, it did free up lots of time to get acquainted with my new mountain bike and the fabulous biking trails of the Wasatch.

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