Senior falls 20 feet in Moab climbing accident

Around 1:15 a.m. ET, Alexia Duker awoke to a phone call from her son’s cell phone number. Confused as to why Peter was calling so late, she answered the phone but was surprised to hear another voice on the other line.

Senior Zac Chapman drove all night from Moab, Utah to Grand Junction, Col., shaken up from a daylong horror story.

“What I experienced on that day, it was terrifying,” Chapman said. “It kept me up for nights…it was terrifying.”

What Chapman was calling to tell Alexia was that her son, CC senior Peter Duker, had fallen 20 feet around Castleton Tower, Utah and was flown by helicopter to a trauma hospital in Grand Junction. After a moment of utter shock, Mrs. Duker learned that Peter had suffered a major head injury along with other face trauma.

Peter Duker, three weeks after his climbing accident in Moab, Utah. Photo by Veronica Spann

Peter’s father, Richard Duker, describes feeling “a combination of shock, nausea, dread, concern, and helplessness.”

After confirming with the hospital that Peter had arrived and was doing okay, the Dukers sat by the phone for the rest of the night and into the morning as the hospital called every hour with updates.

CC students are always doing crazy outdoor activities, from slacklining over canyons to rafting through level five rapids, and there is no end to the extreme levels these adrenaline junkies will go to.

Even though students sometimes feel indestructible, it is always important to recognize the great risks inherent in these activities.

Over second block break, a large group of CC students set off to Utah to go camping, hiking, and climbing. Amongst the group was Peter, an Environmental Science Major who is well known within CC’s climbing community.

On Oct. 27, Duker and Chapman drove from their campsite near Moab to Castleton Tower—a 400-foot sandstone formation that stands on a thousand-foot talus cone near Castle Valley.

This spot presents a daylong adventure with multiple pitches of crack as well as face climbing. Duker and Chapman decided to take the most popular route—the Kor-Ingalls—which has a difficulty rating of 5.9.

Duker had climbed the exact route during 7th block break of last year.

“The route is funky, but it’s very much within my climbing ability,” Duker said. “What makes this sandstone so weird is that it’s covered in calcite, which is really slick. I remember when I climbed it last year I kept putting foot placements in and then I would just fall out of them. I think that’s why my gear pulled out.”

After the drive into the Castle Valley area, Duker and Chapman began the one-hour hike to the tower. Once at the tower, Chapman led the first climb to the first ledge.

After the first ledge, “there was about 30 feet of scramble climbing to another ledge where the next pitch technically began with a crack,” said Chapman.

The plan was that Chapman would stay on the first ledge to belay Duker up the scramble to the second ledge and up through the crack to the third ledge. They waited for the two climbers that were on the second ledge to begin climbing when out of nowhere a BASE jumper flew down from the heavens, which startled the two because “he took his damn time to open his chute,” explained Chapman.

Five minutes later, the party in front of them yelled, “Look out!” One of the climbers had accidentally pulled a torso-sized piece of rock, which exploded about 10 feet above Duker and Chapman.

The chunk of rock had also cut part of the other climbers’ rope, so the other party couldn’t climb. While the other party was trying to figure out how they could continue to climb, Duker started climbing up to the second ledge.

Around 2:30 p.m., Duker headed up past two climbers, not knowing that they would both play an integral role in his eventual rescue.

Brendan Leonard, an avid rock climber and writer of the blog “Semi Rad,” was perched on a ledge and exchanged a few words with Duker as he ascended.

Duker was the lead climber—meaning that he was climbing up with the rope trailing behind him as Chapman belayed him from the ledge below.

According to Leonard, Duker clipped the rope to the cams he placed in a vertical crack. After Peter placed his fourth cam, everything changed.

“He put his weight on the rope and it somehow came out of the crack,” Leonard said. “Because it came out, there was then enough slack in the rope that when he fell, he hit the ledge I was standing on. If the ledge was four or five feet lower or not there at all, he might have been fine.”

In Leonard’s blog post, “A Climbing Accident,” he describes Duker’s fall: “He hit sideways, face-first, a slapping thud, a sound you’re not suppose to hear.  Unconscious, one eye open, his body slowly recoiled from the impact, curling against the sandstone… Blood started to run out of his mouth onto the ledge.”

Leonard and his climbing partner Chris immediately attached Duker’s harness to their anchor before Duker had a short seizure. After about two minutes Duker was conscious and somewhat coherent again.

Both climbers were not entirely sure what to do, but two other climbers descended from a higher pitch once they heard the commotion of the fall. Leonard says that one was a Wilderness EMT (Micah) and the other was WFR certified (Hilary). The two certified climbers rolled Peter over and tried to get him comfortable.

The WEMT palpated Duker’s limbs and asked him a series of questions to determine how serious the situation was and what needed to be done. After the evaluation, Leonard called 911 and asked for a rescue.

Leonard admits that he has never seen a fall where somewhere has hit something that hard.

From the moment Duker hit the ledge to when the helicopter airlifted him to a hospital in Grand Junction, Leonard “never realized he was going to be OK. I’m not very familiar with head injuries, and I just hoped he would be OK the entire time, but I didn’t know.”

According to Chapman, “Peter was so concussed that during the five hours he was on the ledge, every 10 minutes he would ask, ‘What happened to me?’ It was like clockwork.”

Around 6 p.m., the local EMTs showed up and began preparations to get Duker into the helicopter.

The helicopter airlifted Duker out of the Castleton Tower area around 8 or 9 p.m. and then flew him directly to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado.

The first thing that Duker remembers was “being rolled into a hospital room [in Grand Junction] and someone asking me if I even knew where I was.  And I responded, ‘Yeah, I’m in Grand Junction,’ but I have no idea how I knew that.”

In the end, Duker sustained a fractured scaphoid bone in his wrist, a fractured mandible, and a shattered right cheekbone.

Duker had major reconstructive face surgery that lasted around five hours; the surgeon told him that his check bone was significantly more shattered than he imagined.

One of the most shocking aspects of the accident was that Duker was not necessarily on a difficult part of the climb.

“I didn’t see that situation as being a huge risk,” Duker said. “I was climbing low to the ground and climbing something within my ability so I was not expecting it at all.”

Duker realized the importance of being prepared and suggests that other climbers “make sure that you and your partner are on the same page.  For example, I had a first aid kit in my bag, but Chapman had no idea.”

Chapman also took away the importance of being prepared: “I’m going to be way more cautious, and after this I’m definitely getting certified before I do any more multi-pitch climbs.”

After the accident, Duker re-evaluated the dangers of climbing. “I already knew that the route was dangerous—I had climbed it before—so I knew all the risks going in.  But I went for it; you don’t think that something like this would happen.”

“Part of you wants to say it’s just a freak thing but I honestly think that there is a part of us that think we’re invincible,” said Chapman. “You think that when you’re so young, it’s not going to happen to you and that’s just not true.”

For Brendan Leonard’s account of Duker’s accident first hand, go to: http://semi-rad.com/2012/11/a-climbing-accident/.

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  1. […] climbing the North Chimney.  Here is a post from the blog Semi-Rad describing the incident and an article by our school newspaper. Castleton […]

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