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At the End of My Rope: Facing Death, Facing Life

This past Saturday I climbed Moore’s Wall with my friends Michael and Tanner.  Because we only had enough gear for two and because Michael and I had a little more experience with climbing and with ropes, we went up first while Tanner waited at the bottom.

Making my ascent

The ascent was strenuous, but fairly straightforward.  Only a few tricky spots.  The toughest thing about it was the cold.  The rock face was not in the sun and was icy to the touch.  I had to pause every now and then to breathe on my fingers just to be able to feel the handholds.  Still, it took us only a little over an hour to make the first pitch, and about the same amount of time to reach the summit.

When we reached the top, Michael set up the rig from which I would rappel down.  The plan was for me to rappel to the first pitch, which was about 100 feet below, where I would belay Michael down and then from which I would rappel down to the ground, about another 100 feet below.  There we would get Tanner set up for his ascent.

It didn’t quite work out that way.  In short, between some miscommunication at the top, the lines running slightly off-course down the rock face, me being unfamiliar with this climb, and a few other things, I missed the first pitch and missed it pretty badly–without even realizing it.  I jumped off an overhang, thinking that I still had a little ways to go, and found myself at the end of my rope about 70 feet above the ground.

When I saw the end of the rope my heart sank.  I knew I was in trouble.  I tried to yell up to Michael, but the rock overhang above me deflected my voice.  Fortunately, Tanner was just below me, and could see and hear me.  Michael could hear Tanner, but he couldn’t really hear me.

“What’s wrong, man?”

“Uh, Tanner, I’m at the end of the green rope.”

“You’re what?”

I’m at the end of the green rope!

Moore's Wall

At that point I had about four feet of green rope left and I was resolutely keeping my hand locked into the small of my back until we figured out what to do.  I had two ropes, one blue and one green, running through my figure-eight, and I wasn’t familiar with this sort of rig or how these two worked together.  I’d only ever rappelled on one rope before.  Over the course of about five minutes of me shouting messages down to Tanner for him to relay to Michael and Michael shouting messages for Tanner to relay to me, we assessed the situation.

Tanner, ask Michael if I can just keep going down the blue rope.

The blue rope ended about 20 to 25 feet above the ground, but there was a ledge below me that I was pretty sure I could make my way over to before reaching the end of the blue.  I was plotting that course when I heard Michael’s voice from the top, so loud and clear it was almost like he had shouted right through the rock:

NO!  If you get off of the green rope the blue rope will fall!  You will FALL!”

…OK, Dave, stay calm.  Don’t panic.  If you panic, you’re through.  Don’t do anything stupid…

Tanner, call 911!

I can’t say that I experienced any sort of adrenaline rush, or even much in the way of fear.  Instead, I just set about the work of surviving; doing what I could to make sure I could hold on until help arrived.  I found two toeholds on the rock face that allowed me to stabilize myself and to take a little weight off of my right hand.

I still had four…

…crap

…two feet of rope left.

I guess between all the shouting, and my hands being tired from the ascent and cold from the wind, I had been hemorrhaging inches without even realizing it.  I tried to redouble my efforts to keep the rope from slipping.  How does one grip more tightly than as tightly as one can?  My knuckles were alternately white from gripping and purple from the cold.  Some of the scrapes on my knuckles from the ascent began to bleed again.

Dave, they’re coming!  They said it might be a while!  Can you hold on?”

…How long is “a while“?  “Can you hold on?”  Are you kidding me?  I guess we’re going to find out…

I decided that I needed to prepare myself for whatever was next and so I prayed the prayer of confession.  “Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone….”

I don’t think I prayed for more than just a few minutes.  I confessed my sins, prayed for my family, and that was it.  I thought about praying to be rescued, but I didn’t.  I don’t know.  I sort of resented the idea of spending my last moments begging for my life.  And what if I fell?  I couldn’t stand the thought of falling, falling, falling, knowing that my very last prayer–like so many before it–had gone unanswered.  I didn’t want to spend my last moment disappointed.  So I didn’t ask.

I didn’t have anything left to say to God, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether He had anything left to say to me.

So I finished praying and tried to soak up what little life I knew I had left.  How does one carpe diem while hanging, motionless, from a rock?  I could see for miles and miles.  The leaves were turning–yellow, and orange, and brown, and red as far as the eye can see.  The best I knew to do was just to take it all in and to enjoy the only thing I had left: the view.

It would be hard to describe the beauty of the scene, and, even if it were possible, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to do it justice anyways.  But it was really something else.

I watched the sun set over Pilot Mountain

The rolling hills and the autumn colors were disarming, and I found myself reflecting on my life.  I was surprised to find that, though I wasn’t afraid of the end, I was overwhelmed with sorrow that this might be the end.  I was filled with a deep sadness for things I had done and for things I had left undone.  I hung there grieving over a life I felt I hadn’t lived up to, mourning over the ways and the people I had failed.  I wondered if I had missed my calling and wasted my life.  I regretted that I hadn’t known more of love than I had, and that I hadn’t taken better care of the love that I had known.  I had wanted to do so much more.  I thought about how I wasn’t going to see my parents get old, or my nephew become a man, or my nieces walk the aisle.  I thought about my family’s grief over losing a son, a brother, an uncle.

…I think I hear sirens…Yes…those are definitely sirens!…justholdon

They’re coming, Dave!  I can hear them!  Just hold on!

I had been hanging there for about an hour and a half at that point.  It felt like an eternity.  My hand was tired, cramping, numb.  The harness was cutting off circulation to my legs and my right leg was completely asleep.  I couldn’t feel my toes.

I slipped.

I now only had a few inches of rope left.   Maybe three or four.

Tanner, I’m slipping!

@%#&!  Dave, just hold on!

I groaned–not giving up the ghost but inarticulately roaring at the heavens, as if to say, “Just give me five more minutes!

I stopped slipping, muttered some expletives under my breath, and, with my heart racing, gathered my thoughts.

Tanner, tell my parents that I love them.

C’mon, Dave, you’re gonna be fine.  Just hang on…

Yeah, whatever, Tanner…Look…just…please…just listen to me.  Tell my family that I love them.  Mom and Dad…and my sister…and tell the kids….”

I asked him to give my love to my family and friends, and to tell one person I was sorry for the way things had gone with us.  And that was it.  I didn’t have anything else to say.

November 5, 2011, 7:05 PM

Somehow I held on.  I was hanging there for more than four hours before it was all over and they got my feet on the ground.  Dangling there, hanging on for dear life, I watched the sun set over Pilot Mountain.  I managed to tie-off what little rope I had so that I couldn’t slip any further.  The rescue team dropped another rope from the top of the mountain and got a flashlight to me so that I could see to get unhooked from my ropes and hooked into theirs.  And at 7:05 PM, Saturday, I touched down.

It’s not at all easy to know what to make of it all.

I sat there for hours facing death and what I saw was not so much death but a life inadequately lived.  Things done and things left undone.  I don’t know what to make of it all exactly, but I know that when I face death again, I do not want my last thoughts to be wasted on regrets and on sorrow for what might have been.

I had been reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation before climbing up that mountain.  Palmer talks about our vocations and our identities being intimately bound up with one another, and of our identities as including both our strengths and our weaknesses, our potentials and our liabilities.  You learn who you are and what you’re called to, says Palmer, through both your successes and failures–the things in your life that you rejoice over and the things you grieve over.

Landfall

Being forced to sit and think about one’s life at what is quite possibly life’s end is an immeasurably great gift.  I’m doing my best not to waste it.  I wish I could say that I “hit the ground running,” seizing the day and having a whole new outlook on life, but that’s not really the case.  I am still working through it all: what happened, how I reacted to it, and what my reaction says about me.  I don’t think I’ve ever approached life frivolously, but I don’t know if I have approached life all that seriously either.

While looking death in the eye I began hearing my life, letting my life speak.  If it is speaking in what sounds like a foreign tongue, that is because I am unaccustomed to listening.  In any case, Life now has my full attention.

While I was up there I wasn’t sure whether God had anything left to say to me.  I know now that while I was up there He was saying more to me than I will ever fully understand.

Amen.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “At the End of My Rope: Facing Death, Facing Life

  1. 1 – I didn’t know you had a blog.
    2 – I didn’t know you rock climbed.
    3 – Thank you for hanging out – I would miss you dearly.
    That is a scary, amazing, well written story. I am thankful that you are safe, and I am thankful for you.
    – Megan Heathcote

    Posted by Megan Heathcote | November 9, 2011, 8:22 pm
  2. “on”, not out.

    Posted by Megan Heathcote | November 9, 2011, 8:23 pm
    • Yes to all three, though, before Saturday I hadn’t done any climbing in a long while.

      Hey, I love you, too! Thanks for being part of my life.

      And to all the KFC, I love you guys, too.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | November 9, 2011, 8:34 pm
  3. David-
    Great post! What an amazing story this is and all glory to God for allowing you to hang on. The strength and courage to get through this is a testament that God has more in store for your life. Know that me and Emily are always here for you.

    Andy

    Posted by Andy Arledge | November 11, 2011, 12:05 am
  4. Are you kidding me with this? That is crazy!! You clearly need to get married and have kids. You won’t have the energy for this kind of thing anymore. Stop climbing over cliff faces. Immediately. We need you.

    Posted by Jesse Grant Scharff | November 11, 2011, 1:13 am
  5. Thanks for sharing this David – I had no idea.. it’s one thing to go through it and another to share it in such a descriptive and powerful narrative. I’m giving thanks for your safety and also for the work God is clearly doing in and through you. See you soon brother –

    Posted by Rob Phillips | November 11, 2011, 4:32 am
  6. God is clearly not through with you, David! Much love to you!
    Debbie

    Posted by Debbie Willias | November 11, 2011, 1:39 pm
  7. Wow…that is quite powerful. God Bless you!

    Posted by Brock | November 11, 2011, 2:08 pm
  8. Wonder Dave –
    Well, I guess the “Wonder” WILL not cease for now! What an amazing story! As I was reading this, tears were rolling down my face as I thought of the possibility of losing yet another family member that I wish I had spent more time with, spent more time letting know how proud I am of and how much I really do love you! I am so grateful to our God for giving you the strength to hold on, and for the very strong impact it had on your life. Near death experiences will do that, just ask Thomas! Thanks for who you are, and really…we want you to come see us soon! Love you! Krista

    Posted by Krista | November 11, 2011, 10:34 pm
  9. Thanks, and much love to you all!

    Posted by dmwilliams83 | November 11, 2011, 10:59 pm
  10. The lengths people will go to just to able to tell a good story! But as I read (with hands sweating), I kept thinking: Dave will be OK. Even if he falls, Tanner will catch him …
    To state the obvious, I’m very glad you survived.

    Posted by Doug Green | November 12, 2011, 1:54 pm
    • Thankfully, Tanner did not have to catch me. But ask him: he was definitely thinking about trying to!

      Thanks for everything, Doug. I have always looked up to you.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | November 22, 2011, 7:58 pm
  11. David, this story was really inspiring to me. That’s awesome that you were able to hang on!!! Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’m excited about the possibility that our intervarsity group may get to profit from some of the lessons you learned. I’m glad you’re (still) a part of our group.

    Posted by Erich | November 22, 2011, 7:50 pm
    • Thanks, Erich. I am still wrapping my head and my heart around it all. It is pretty surreal to look back on it. But I feel like the Lord is using it to clarify my vision for next steps.

      I am so blessed to be on this journey with this group. Thank you for your support and friendship.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | November 22, 2011, 8:29 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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