Climbing Coach Recovering After Brutal Auto Belay Fall

This article originally appeared on Climbing

A young climbing coach took what could've been a deadly ground fall at Vertical Rock gym in Manassas, Virginia last week. Hector Diffut, 26, fell approximately 30 feet from the top of a 5.11 after he forgot to clip into an auto belay before hopping on the wall.

Diffut, who has flashed up to V10 and led 5.13c, was clipped into an auto belay doing hard burns on his current project, a 5.13b, when he decided to take a breather by running up a 5.11 dihedral route nearby. "I had my headphones on, which is a horrible practice," he told Climbing. "But I just went over to the climb, chalked up, and started moving."

Diffut's girlfriend and a close friend, on the other side of the gym, soon noticed he'd forgotten to clip into the auto belay and tried to yell to him, but he couldn't hear them over the music playing in his headphones. He later reached a no-hands rest midway up the route and out of the corner of his eye he saw the pair waving their arms, trying to get his attention, but he thought they were talking to each other, and ignored them. "I just kept moving, reached the last hold, leaned back, and the next thing you know, I'm on the ground," he said.

For a brief moment it appeared that Diffut had simply landed feet first, and everything was fine. Then he toppled over, tried to stand, and saw that his left leg was utterly shattered. "I reached down and my foot was bent totally backward [to] where my calf is." His tibia and fibula were both splintered, sticking out of his skin. "Fragments of my fibula were scattered around the mats," he said. "It was a horrible image."

Diffut's friend and partner acted quickly, straightening his leg and covering it to prevent infection. EMTs arrived soon after, splinted his leg, and airlifted him to a hospital in Fairfax. "The ride was rough, man," Diffut said. "My bones were still out of my leg, rubbing against each other because of the vibration [from the helicopter]."

The doctors told him he was incredibly lucky, not just to be alive, but to have avoided paralysis. His one leg took all the force of the impact. "I didn't injure my neck, back, I didn't even break the ankle on that same leg," he said. "I could've easily been paraplegic, or died."

The treatment and surgery, however, were still incredibly brutal. "I had three nurses holding my leg and basically hammering the bone because it wasn't going back in." The following day, he underwent surgery. "They opened up my knee, drilled a hole through my shin to my ankle, then put a metal rod down that hole. Where my shin is supposed to be is now a metal rod."

When he spoke with Climbing--a week after the accident--Diffut was already moving around on crutches. He said the doctors told him it would be at least six months until he could walk on his own again.

Diffut said a number of factors likely contributed to the accident. For one, he was climbing while wearing headphones playing music, so he was unable to hear the cries of his friends who saw him climbing up the wall unclipped. "If I didn't have headphones on, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now," he admitted. "Wearing headphones is never a good idea, particularly if you're by yourself, on an auto belay. That's not a mistake I'm going to make twice."

Diffut has been climbing indoors and outside for five years, and coaching for two, but rarely uses the auto belays at his gym, which he says may have also contributed to his lapse. Above all else, though, he said he'd just been complacent. "[This accident] was my stupidity," he clarified. "The gym didn't have anything to do with it."

[Read: Complacency Kills! Here's a Checklist for Staying Safe]

Diffut was laser-focused on his project, worn out, and when he swapped over to the easier route, he just wasn't thinking about anything except lapping it. "Don't get comfortable," he said. "Always double-check your knot, tie-in, whatever. It doesn't matter how many years of experience you have. Always have a second hand, a second pair of eyes to catch something you might not catch."

The nature of auto belays, however, means that users rarely (if ever) have a second hand or pair of eyes. Auto belays are designed for solo climbing. Most users do not have a partner standing by to check if they're clipped in properly. If they did, they wouldn't be using an auto belay in the first place.

Still, Diffut believes auto belays are useful training tools and a worthy component of any rock gym. "As long as you're using them safely, they're great, especially for beginners," Diffut said. "You come to the gym for the first time, you don't know anybody, it's great to have that ability to climb [alone]."

Statistically auto belays are highly unlikely to fail if used properly, but Diffut's experience hammers home the truth that even the safest devices and disciplines in climbing demand respect, and are only as safe as the climbers themselves. "When you get comfortable, cocky, you've been climbing for years, and you're hyper-focused on what you're doing... Man, that's when freak accidents like this happen."

Diffut's girlfriend, Courtney Sarik, has organized a GoFundMe to help cover his extensive medical bills and support the lengthy recovery ahead.

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