- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - The drive winds through pine trees on an obscure forest road, bouncing over rocks that jut up like spikes to discourage the faint of heart.

Then comes the hike, angling down, down, down into the cool and shadowy canyon.

At the bottom, on a rugged floor as wide as a bus is long, the walls rise 70 feet on either side like seven-story limestone fronts on a Main Street without end.

There’s not so much a trail as a suggestion, filtering through thickets of young trees, rambling over boulders and veering back and forth across a creek.

Finally, there it is: a series of bolts in the rock face stretching to the heavens.

Foot Fist Way.

One day last month, the climbers lost. The canyon won.

“I started falling,” Jimmy Burckhard recalled, “and I just kept falling and kept falling and kept falling.”

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Burckhard, 31, resides in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1yVWg5H ) reported.

He grew up in North Dakota and began climbing 10 years ago while living in Minnesota. For him, like so many other obsessive climbers, it wasn’t enough to pursue it as a hobby. Climbing combines the thrill of near-death with a spiritual connection to nature, and for some, the taste of climbing success is a drug pushing them to ever-increasing levels of difficulty. Before his fall, Burckhard was climbing three or four days a week and also training indoors.

He has made many trips to the Black Hills. In mid-September, he and some friends took a climbing trip to Victoria Canyon.

It is just outside Rapid City, only four miles southwest of Canyon Lake Park, but the canyon’s publicly accessible entrance requires a trek into the backcountry.

During that mid-September trip, Burckhard and his friends got accustomed to the difficult climbing routes. Pioneering climbers have set bolts into the rock faces throughout the canyon for others to use. Burckhard explored the route of bolts known as Foot Fist Way, an imposing stretch of rock that includes some near-horizontal outcroppings along its vertical stretch.

“I spent that weekend getting each of the sequences kind of dialed, and just working on the route,” Burckhard said. “We came back two weeks later.”

The morning of Sept. 26 dawned beautiful. Burckhard and a friend descended into the canyon.

Burckhard began a warm-up, climbing to a bolt and clipping into it with carabiners. At the bottom, a friend stood with a belay device attached to a belt harness. The rope connecting the two men was threaded through the device, which can exert friction on the rope when the climber falls, thereby arresting the fall.

After climbing past a sequence of bolts, Burckhard yelled “Take!” and his friend exerted pressure on the rope. Burckhard fell until his stretchable climbing rope caught on the last bolt he’d clipped onto. With his friend keeping the rope taut from the bottom, he would hang there until ready to continue the warm-up.

Burckhard took a 12- to 15-foot fall, and his experienced partner belayed him as planned. Burckhard then climbed another 30- to 40-foot section of the route and got near the top.

At that high point, 70 feet above the ground by Burckhard’s estimation, he made a decision that would alter his life. It was instinct, really. He knew his partner would belay him. He didn’t consider any other possibility.

“I literally let go on purpose,” Burckhard said, “just thinking it would be like a 15-foot fall, and then I’d come down and take a half-hour off and send the route,” meaning make the full climb without stopping.

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At times during his climbing career, when he has taken a big fall on an overhanging route, Burckhard’s belaying partner has let out extra slack on the rope to soften the jolt when the rope catches.

In that first second or so of the fall, that’s what Burckhard thought was happening.

“At first I was just like, ‘Wow, this is a super-soft catch. You don’t need to give me this much slack.’”

His climbing instincts kept him in an upright position, ready to absorb with feet and hands the possibility of being swung into the rock face after a fall and catch of about 15 feet.

“Then,” Burckhard said, “I just kept going.”

According to the laws of physics, the fall must have taken only 2 or 3 seconds. In that last millisecond before his feet exploded in pain and his back compressed like a squeezed accordion, he remembers glancing over and seeing his friend frantically working with the rope.

Burckhard landed on his heels, instantly shattering bones in both feet and fracturing three vertebrae in his back. He tipped violently to the left, and the impact on his hand broke his wrist and thumb.

In an adrenaline-fueled moment of bewilderment and anger, a crumpled and broken Burckhard lashed out at his friend.

“I started screaming at him … Then, immediately, all I wanted to do was see my daughter. People die from (falls) like this.”

Burckhard is a single father. His 5-year-old daughter was back in Colorado with her mother.

Though Burckhard didn’t know it, a woman had died only about five months earlier at another Rapid City climbing area known as Falling Rock, not far from Victoria Canyon. That was Michelle Goodgion, 39, who had been climbing with her husband.

In those first seconds after Burckhard’s fall, pain shoved aside the anger and confusion. The hurt in his back emanated through his upper body and neck, making speech difficult.

“I was so scared, I don’t even know how to describe it,” he said. “I went into shock and I just kind of laid there, just hoping to get out.”

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Luckily for Burckhard, local off-duty firefighter and search-and-rescue team member Eric Hansen was in Victoria Canyon with his own group about to start climbing. He heard Burckhard’s chilling scream echo through the canyon.

Hansen and other search-and-rescue personnel had conducted training in Victoria Canyon only three weeks earlier. While Hansen stayed with Burckhard and got him as comfortable as possible, another in Hansen’s party hiked up to a spot with cellphone reception and called 911.

Dispatchers took the call at about 9:40 on the sunny and warm Friday morning. Emergency responders rushed to the accident site and parked an estimated quarter- to half-mile away from where Burckhard lay.

To get him out, a crew of about a dozen emergency responders had to hike in over the rugged terrain, load Burckhard on a stretcher, and then carry the stretcher by hand along the same rugged route back to the ambulance.

The emergency workers emerged from the canyon panting and soaked in sweat. They loaded Burckhard into the ambulance at about 10:45 a.m., roughly an hour after the 911 call.

Burckhard was hospitalized in Rapid City, then Fort Collins, and then Loveland, Colorado, where he was interviewed by phone. He finally went home Thursday.

Along the way, his feet were surgically repaired. The first two days after the operation, he said, brought the worst pain of the ordeal. His back is expected to heal without surgery.

He expects his wrist and back to heal in a few weeks, his feet to heal enough to bear some weight in seven to nine weeks, and his entire body to be healthy enough to return to his job as a commercial banker in about three months.

He plans to train his upper body to be climbing-ready so he can quickly catch up his lower body and be back on a rock face in six months.

In Victoria Canyon this week, the weather was beautiful again, and another Colorado pair was scaling the rock walls.

Jason and Sarah Heath, siblings from the Denver area, were camping in a tent on Forest Service land just above the canyon rim.

As deeply embedded as Burckhard is in the climbing subculture, the Heaths are several steps deeper. Climbing is their main occupation. They roam the country, living out of vehicles and tents and climbing daily, working only when they need to.

As they continued climbing, Sarah and Jason conversed easily about the fall. The thought of a fellow climber’s falling 70 feet to his near-death just yards away from their location prompted little more than a shrug.

“Everything you do is for climbing when it’s your lifestyle,” Sarah said.

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The friend and climbing partner who was with Burckhard during the fall has been at Burckhard’s side for much of the recovery. He stayed with Burckhard all four nights at the hospital in Rapid City and has visited him many days since.

Have they talked about what caused the accident?

“We’ve talked about it once,” Burckhard said.

Suddenly, he was speaking more slowly, clearly wanting to keep much of that earlier, difficult conversation private. The friendly manner he usually wore so easily, in that way of the laid-back climbing subculture, turned abrupt and apprehensive.

“I just asked him, ‘What happened, dude?’ And he just said the (belay) device failed,” Burckhard said.

“That’s his conclusion, and I just have to trust that.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com


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