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I Was Free Falling 500 Feet. Then Something Strange Happened

Jun 11, 2023

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Josep E. Castellnou is a rabbit doctor in Spain, where rabbit is the third most raised meat species, taking a chair behind pork and beef. From his home in Tivissa, south of Barcelona, Josep drives across Catalonia literally keeping his finger on the pulse of the rabbit industry, administering vaccinations against fevers and viruses that strike suddenly and wipe out entire bunny populations.

Josep is also author of Montserrat Rock Climbs, and thus is one of those peculiar brands of the upwardly mobile who seeks smarmy cobbles and tingling runouts off bolts so ancient they qualify as holy relics.

I met Josep years back at the John Long writing symposium, a hands-on clinic we used to host once a year at the Rock and Ice headquarters in Carbondale, Colorado. Despite English being his third or fourth language, Joseph was adroit with a pen, polishing off a feature about his formative years when he made the mistake of climbing the North Face of Monte Pelmo with Armand, "lean as rawhide and the most accomplished and best all-terrain climber in the Barcelona area," and who could climb with "the ease of a fish swimming up a creek."

Josep had, probably rightly, figured that Armand knew the lay of the land, but when sussing the route Armand had neglected to look on the reverse side of the topo page, thus the 12-hour route they had thought they signed up for was in reality a 27-hour route.

It took Josep 30 years to relive the ordeal on paper, and after the writing symposium concluded he invited me to visit and climb on the glorious stone of his beloved Montserrat, in particular El Cavall Bernat (Bernard The Horse), a seven-pitch tower so beloved that, once you undergo the baptism by balancing atop the head of Mare de Deu de Montserrat, or the Virgin of Montserrat, a steel statue bolted to the Bernard's summit, you are incorporated into Grup Cavall Bernat, an enthusiastic club several hundred strong with the aim of keep climbing's "romantic flame" burning. They meet often in the local watering hole, sipping refreshments and reliving untold near-death experiences. Royal Robbins was a member.

About two years later my wife, our two daughters and I arrived in Tissiva where we were to eat tapas with Josep. He'd give us the scoop on the climbing and help us select the tastiest menu options.

It was on that trip that I was reminded of the "things" going on around us, unseen and unknown.

The sun set over the ancient town as the Raleigh clan drifted along the cobblestones awaiting Josep to wrap up his medical work with the rabbits.

We saw him, about a block away and backlit by streetlights. We hastened toward each other, having not seen each since the symposium, but a few paces apart stopped cold.

Something was oddly wrong with this picture.

Josep was dressed in a black Adidas T-shirt with a mustard and gray jacket over it. Black pants.

I was dressed in a black Adidas T-shirt with a mustard and gray jacket over it. Black pants. (See photo.)

"Woah," said my wife Lisa.

"Weird," said the girls.

Josep was speechless.

"Did you two coordinate outfits?" asked Lisa.

We hadn't. In fact, I'd dressed as I always do, randomly with whatever is in easy reach.

No one could explain the nearly identical outfits.

And that gets me to my point: There are forces that pull us along and mold us and open and close doors. When we experience a glimpse of this power, such as Josep and I did that evening, we chalk it up to coincidence or fate, but what's really going on?


In my 63 years I've had enough of these moments for me to wonder about reality. How many times have you been thinking of someone, then moments later have them call you? Or a song pops into your head and starts playing on the radio. This spring I was passing through Jacksonville, Florida, late at night. I cranked the radio to stay awake and just as I hit the city limit The South's Gonna Do It Again started playing with the lyrics "When ol' Lynyrd Skynrd's pickin' down in Jacksonville."

Weird, right? Five minutes sooner or later and that song wouldn't have synced with that city.

Some people believe we are living in a simulation. The "Simulation Theory" explains the universe in a more graspable package than religion. What's the difference between the idea that we are all identities in a simulation versus creatures created by God, or Gods?

In 2016, before Twitter and before he went off the rails, Elon Musk said there's a "billion to one chance" we're living in base reality, or a physical universe. He notes that 40 years ago we had the arcade game Pong--two rectangles and a dot. "Now, we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year," says Musk. "And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality," says Musk. "If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality."

One theory says that coincidence, deja vu, and even ghosts are the result of bugs or broken coding in the simulation. The Great Gamer got tired and left strings of old code in and it repeated itself or parts of itself, or the code broke and wasn't yet fixed. And the more you believe that this is the case, or at least decide to become aware of it, the more incidences you'll experience, or notice that you experience.

In 1982 I was rolling down I-40 heading east to my home in Oklahoma after nearly a year in Yosemite and various other destinations. In the Valley, I climbed with my buddy Tom Cosgriff, who pulled in from Boulder. We climbed for about a month, then he had to head back to school in Boulder. I stayed on slumming it, and when the weather turned, went to Mammoth Lakes to shovel snow and chop wood at Tamarack Lodge.

I stayed in a derelict cabin with my buddy Walt Shipley. We hated the work and climbing was all we talked about. We especially talked about what looked like an ice route forming on a cliff that faced the main lodge.

"It's in," Walt exclaimed one day, "we should go do it."

It was a work day but we loaded our gear and went to the route anyway, and found that it was nothing more than loose snow on looser rock. Hiking back to our cabin to change and slink back off to work we bumped into our boss, the guy who managed the shovelers and wood choppers.

"Where you boys been?" he asked, "Looking for work?"

We didn't care that we'd been fired on the spot, and actually saw it as an opportunity.

"See you in Joshua Tree," Walt exclaimed, as he peeled out in his van.

We climbed at JT for several months before I'd had enough of onsight soloing with Walt, who only ever wanted to solo. I pointed my VW beetle east and headed home. Picking the day to leave and the time of it was random, but maybe not.

It's 676 miles from JT to Albuquerque and takes about 10 hours in a reliable car. In a VW it takes about 14 hours. After an early morning start I hit the outskirts of Albuquerque at about 10:00 p.m. With nine hours to go I pulled into a McDonalds to get jacked on coffee and push on.

Groggy and wobbly after the long sting in the bug, I got out, pushed through the door at McDonalds and got in line.

I got in line, that is, right behind Tom Cosgriff. I hadn't seen him or communicated with him since he left in late July seven months ago. He was driving from Boulder headed to Houston, and, like me, had stopped to java up.

The odds of the two of us being at that McDonalds at the exact same time are impossible. If we had planned to meet at that designated place at that designated time, some inevitable circumstance would have delayed or prevented one of us from being there. We couldn't have planned it, but something, some other thing could have. Did it?

It would be a kick to write that meeting into a game, wouldn't it? Let's see how these simple human climbers react! And more fun still to dress me and Josep in the same clothes.

As implausible as these events seemed, they would happen exactly that way in the multiverse where there are infinite possibilities occurring simultaneously--we just happened to be in the game that played them out at that precise moment in time, whatever time really is.


The experiences I've noted so far I could excuse as coincidence--out of the nearly infinite moments in your life there should be a few encounters that seem impossible, out of the Twilight Zone. It would actually be impossible for you to live your entire life and never have a strange, unexplainable moment you can't explain.

Still ... I do have a final example that was either a miracle (if you are religious) or clever coding in the Big Game Simulation we all have bit roles in. You decide.

In 1986 Arches National Park had just opened to rock climbing after being closed for over a decade. Arches is spiked with an abundance of sandstone towers, some reaching as high as 500 feet. Most everything was unclimbed back then, except for Dark Angel. Doug Robinson knocked that one off BITD, and I was eager to bag a few FAs myself.

I picked an obvious line on one of the first towers you see as you enter the park, and right off the parking lot. I would take a large right-facing dihedral to a roof, then an exit crack. Simple. The Organ is actually two twin towers that from a distance look like pipe organs, or fanned out hands. I would have called the formation Fanned Hands, but I arrived too late to get naming honors.

I rope soloed a five-pitch line, beginning early morning after coffee, and topping out just as the sun set and a big wind kicked up. I hadn't brought a headlamp to save weight, thinking I'd be up and down long before nightfall. Not a big deal so far, I'd just have to be extra cautious.

I set up the first rappel in the dark, groping with the knots and device, and threading two 165-foot cords through a rap sling. I had with me a 9mm tagline, an extra rope for fixing if needed, and it hung loose, uncoiled, dangling its full length down the wall. The tagline was clipped to a gear sling that I'd sewn on Mom's sewing machine using an old guitar strap and a bit of 1-inch webbing.

An updraft kept blowing the rap ropes over my head when I tried to toss them down. This wasn't a new experience, but was and remains always annoying. I pulled up the wind-twisted mess of ropes back up, straightened them and carefully lowered the ends, a tedious process in the dark and in the wind.

With the rope ends finally down, I hoisted a fully loaded haulbag on my back, checked the anchor all good and leaned back to weight the rope and begin the first of four rappels.

Except when I leaned back the rope didn't catch me. Too late I realized that I hadn't clipped my rap device to the ropes. I pitched backwards into the night, hands snatching for the ropes but missing them.

It was 500 feet straight to the ground and I knew that in a few seconds I'd hit it and be dead.

I fell upright about an arm's length from the wall, my fingers grazing it. I still have that sensation in my fingertips.

I didn't have time to prepare to die, just to wonder what it would be like. I fell past the tails of the ropes, a full 165 feet and kept going, picking up speed in the night air.

And just like that I impacted.

It took a few moments for me to realize that I was still alive, and a bit longer still to figure out why, especially in the dark.

I groped around and felt a taut rope above me. That spare 9mm rope I'd clipped to my guitar-strap gear sling had, as I fell, trailed above me like a kite tail and thanks to the updraft it had kinked itself up, forming a sort of fist knot, and that knot had jammed in a crack and caught me.

The impact had blown the sheath off the rope and in some places over half the core strands were gone. The oval carabiner the rope was clipped to was bent and the gate was sprung. Least damaged was that guitar strap from Mom's sewing machine (I'm taking orders if you want me to sew a magic gear sling for you.)

Carefully, I snapped a pair of jumars onto that ruined rope and jugged up, getting more nervous as I got to the spot where it had jammed. Perhaps it would unjam, I had no idea.

I arrived to where the rope disappeared into the crack, placed three cams and clipped to them. I slipped a hand in the crack and groped around. The rope had melted into the knot I mentioned. Unweighting the rope, I yanked it out of the crack. Much of the rope was fused together, too melted to use. Salvaging what I could of the rope, I made a series of short rappels to the ground, leaving cam anchors.

I touched down safely and without a scratch.

I think about that fall nearly every day, and wonder if it had had to happen that way. That I had to fall, that the rope had to be in that precise spot to catch in that crack. Maybe I was supposed to learn something, quit taking life for granted. Take up prayer. Go back to school.

My glimpse behind the black curtain didn't teach me anything, and I didn't change a thing. I even climbed the tower again by another route the very next day ... just to mess with the big coder in the sky.

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