Our climbing escapades this past weekend were a little different than most. We headed north to Pilot Mountain, with the intention of getting on some lesser travelled routes for guidebook research, but most importantly to support a good friend celebrating a physical and mental comeback from injury. So instead of a typical trip report I decided to post an interview instead.
Although today’s interview is not about a fellow Cragmama, keep reading and I promise you won’t be disappointed. I first met Bennett Harris in January on a day trip excursion to the Asheboro boulderfield in central NC. Of course I knew who he was before that though…the NC climbing community can be a pretty tight knit group, and when it comes to accidents, word usually travels fast. I had heard about Bennett’s accident on facebook only hours after it had happened, and there was a shocked and somber buzz in the climbing gym the very next day as the explanations, hypotheses, and worst-case scenarios were reenacted throughout the community. His accident was such a freakishly random event that it had a big impact even on those who did not know him personally.
Now, a year later, I am happy to say that Bennett is not only someone that I would consider to be an excellent candidate for “Determination Poster-Child,” but also someone whom I consider a close family friend. He is a staple member of our regular climbing posse – his good-natured trash-talking (emphasis on the talking), impromptu musical outbursts, and beat-boxing lessons for Cragbaby make him a perfect fit in our motley crew.
This past weekend marked one year to the day of Bennett’s accident. He wanted all of his closest climbing peeps to meet him out at Pilot Mountain to support him so that he could tick a post-injury redpoint of the very route he had fallen on a year prior. Bennett graciously agreed to talk candidly with me about his “comeback. Here’s what he had to say –
When/how did you get started climbing? I decided to drop out of grad school in 2009 due to burn out. My best friend lived in Salt Lake City (where he still resides) and I had been there before, so I figured a new start was in order and what better place than SLC. Well, I started waiting tables out there and met a guy with a trad rack; the rest is history. So, in essence, I started as a trad climber though I’m now more of a sport weinie.
What attracted you to the sport? The pure aesthetically pleasing movement of the human form on the rock is what initially attracted me. Discovering how mentally and physically demanding it can be is what got me hooked. I haven’t found another sport to date that requires such holistic effort.
Give us some basic details about your accident back in 2010. So my accident happened September 25th of 2010. It was a pretty routine lead fall on a sport route at Pilot Mountain. I felt a thud and something warm running down my arm. I looked at my hand once and that’s the only time I ever saw it until after the cast came off months later. Apparently a carabiner somehow caught my forearm and ripped it open through my palm all the way to the base of my pinkie. [Edited to add: Though it will be impossible to ever know for sure, the most likely explanation is that Bennett’s hand got pinched taut between two carabiners, one from his highest clipped bolt that was slung long to prevent drag, and the other from the bolt below that that was clipped with a normal quickdraw. He could take the same fall on the same set up 100 more times and never have the same result – a gruesome instance of a body part being in the wrong place at the wrong time]. I lost most of the sensation in the lateral aspect of my hand. My pinkie was amputated due to catastrophic damage. My ring finger really doesn’t work much but my index and middle finger on my right hand are still semi functional – I can’t straighten them fully nor can I contract them into my hand fully, but I sure can crimp!
What physical setbacks have you had to deal with in your recovery? As far as setbacks and recovery, there’s a dichotomy between the climbing setback/recovery and daily use setback/recovery. For instance, I can climb fairly well, yet I can’t take the top off of Coke bottle or a pickle jar (and I love pickles); go figure. I am actually climbing a little harder now than when i was before the accident. Crazy huh?
What mental setbacks have you had to deal since the accident? The mental setbacks were short lived but significant for sure. I still have flashbacks about what happened and every now and then I’ll get a little hestitant on a route, but other than that I’m pretty much back to normal as far as the head game goes. Definitely took a while before I was ready to lead again.
No one would have blamed you if you’d decided to stop climbing and take up shuffleboard. What motivated you to get back on the rock? The primary motivation to return to rock climbing was my friends. After I got injured I made the keen observation that my friends are all climbers and that the Summer of 2010 was maybe the best time I had ever had in my life. I had such great memories of being with everyone at the crag and I didn’t want that photo album to end. That and keeping up with (good friend) Rob Fogle lol, that guy’s an animal.
Has the accident change your perspective/attitude with regards to climbing? If so, how? My attitude towards climbing has definitely shifted from “myopic results-oriented send fest” to “cherish quality time spent with good people” and, if I send a hard route, that’s nice too.
Tell us about your “Comeback Day” this past weekend, and why it was so important to you. I wanted to do a get together because I feel it’s important to share the best times with the ones you care about. I have to imagine sending a long time project with no one around to share it with has to be an empty feeling.
Can you put into words what it was like to finally send Arms Control? I actually onsigted it the day before my accident, but a red point after the accident was definitely special. I feel like I can move forward now, on to bigger and better things hopefully. I was able to get the draws in on the initial burn but wet holds thwarted my first try. When I finally sent it, the emotions flooded in and I had a hard time composing myself. When I lowered, Tom Drewes [the belayer on “accident day” a year prior] gave me a bear hug and I nearly lost it again. I mean, even nine fingered climbers cry once in a while.
Anything else you’d like to add...I would like to say thanks to you, Erica as well as Steve for allowing me to be a part of your climbing crew. I have enjoyed every trip and I hope there are many more to come!
Ok I promise I didn’t pay Bennett to say that last part…however something I would like to add (because Bennett was being too humble in his interview) is that he’s not exaggerating when he says he can still climb “fairly well.” Here’s a list of some of his recent ticks over the last few months, most of which I saw firsthand –
Pilot Mountain – Blind Prophet 5.12b/c, Arms Control 5.11c
New River Gorge – Pockets of Resistance 5.12a (yes, my nemesis – at least somebody sent it), Aesthetica 5.11c, S’more Energy 5.11c, Stim-o-stam 5.11c
Obed Scenic River – Heresy 5.11c
Moore’s Wall – Reckless Abandon 5.11a
Crowder’s Mountain – Slabster’s Lament 5.12b, The Whining 5.11d
Mucho thanks to Bennett for being a good sport and letting me share his story. If you found it to be motivating, be sure to leave him some comment love! Oh yeah, and ladies…he’s single…