- Associated Press - Saturday, June 30, 2018

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - When the sun momentarily blinded Jimmy Burckhard as he strained to finish the last few feet of a 70-foot-tall rock climb on June 2, he was stricken by a thought.

“I’m gonna fall again.”

But he continued to feel around blindly until he found a pocket in the limestone, which he used to complete his first successful ascent of the Black Hills climbing route known as Foot Fist Way.

It was not his first try.

Nearly four years ago, on Sept. 26, 2014, Burckhard climbed to the same spot near the top of the route before plummeting 70 feet to his near-death on the narrow floor of Victoria Canyon, just west of Rapid City.

The impact of the fall shattered his heels, fractured several of his vertebrae, and broke bones in a foot, a thumb and a wrist, the Rapid City Journal reported. He had to be carried out of the roadless, boulder-strewn canyon on a stretcher by rescuers on foot.

For several months afterward, he was an invalid at his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he required help with basic daily activities from a brother who temporarily moved in with him. Through multiple surgeries and dogged devotion to physical therapy, Burckhard gradually progressed from a wheelchair to walking boots and a walker.

All the while, he thought about climbing. He had built his whole life around it, and outside of his job as a commercial lender at a bank, all of his friends were climbers. It was all they did and all they talked about.

“I’m either going to have to change my whole life, and completely find a new set of friends,” Burckhard said he realized, “or I’m going to overcome this and do everything I can to come back.”

So, by February 2015, around the time he began walking and returned to work - and only about five months after the accident - he resumed climbing.

At first, he had to wear over-sized climbing shoes to accommodate the surgically inserted plates in his heels, which were removed later during another surgery. The months wore on, and eventually he was climbing so frequently and so well that he wanted another shot at Foot Fist Way.

“It had been kind of looming in my brain, the thought of going back and taking care of unfinished business,” he said.

He made a failed attempt to climb the route during the Memorial Day weekend of 2016, and another failed attempt during the same weekend this year.

The failures were not physical. Although the 35-year-old Burckhard said he will probably always have daily pain from the lingering effects of his injuries, his rehabilitation as a climber is so complete that he has climbed more difficult routes since the accident than he did before.

Yet, when he returned to Foot Fist Way, it was clear that his mental and emotional rehabilitation was incomplete. It was particularly jarring, he said, to see large rocks that had washed up near the base of Foot Fist Way, and to realize that if those rocks had been there on the day of his fall, he would have landed on them instead of bare dirt.

After the second of his failed redemption climbs, he grew obsessed with trying again.

“I went home, and all I could think of was that route, every hour of every day for the next few days,” he said.

He planned another trip to Victoria Canyon for the weekend of June 2, and this time, the climbing partner who had been with Burckhard the day of the 2014 accident - Dan Yager, known to television viewers as a competitor on “American Ninja Warrior” - agreed to come along.

Their friendship had been temporarily strained by unanswered questions about the accident, but they had since mended their relationship and even resumed climbing together.

Yet questions about the cause of the accident have lingered, because the fall was not strictly accidental; in fact, Burckhard let go of the rock face intentionally, fully expecting his fall to be arrested.

It was part of a warm-up routine. Burckhard was harnessed to a climbing rope, which was strung through a series of carabiners attached to bolts in the rock face below him; the rope was also threaded through an apparatus known as a belay device, which was harnessed to Yager as he stood on the ground.

The belay device was supposed to exert enough friction on the rope to stop Burckhard’s fall, so that he could descend, rest awhile, and then “send” the route - which is climbing lingo for ascending a route from bottom to top without any falls, planned or otherwise.

But the device did not arrest Burckhard’s fall. To this day, Burckhard said, “I don’t know if we’ll ever know exactly what happened, because it happened so fast.”

He suspects that the culprits were a faulty belay device, a too-thin rope and “maybe some distractions.” He said the belay device model that he and Yager used during the accident has since been discontinued.

In a separate phone interview, Yager described the accident as “100 percent a belay device error.”

Both said the accident revolutionized their approach to safety and their choice of equipment. With that renewed focus, they returned to Foot Fist Way earlier this month for Yager’s first time back since the accident, and Burckhard’s third. Yager’s young son, who witnessed the accident as a 3-year-old, also came along to fill out the original trio.

Burckhard thinks fate may have intended for him to fail in his two attempts to climb the route without Yager.

“It was almost like it was meant to be for Dan and I to go back there,” Burckhard said.

During the week prior, Burckhard visualized every move of the climb hundreds of times, by his estimation. The preparation made for a smooth ascent, until those final moments when the sun shone in Burckhard’s eyes and his thoughts strayed toward falling.

After he pushed through that fleeting bout of fear and completed the route, Burckhard savored an emotional release.

“Let’s just say I screamed pretty loud and just hung out up there for a couple of minutes and just kind of took it all in.”

And then?

“I came down,” he said, “and gave Dan a big hug.”


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

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