Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Interview: Celebrating a Comeback

Post-accident Bennett cranking at the New this past summer.

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 –

B with Cragbaby on a hot day at Crowder's Mountain

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!

The Blue Man Group chillin after a morning beat-boxing session back at camp.

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.

Bennett fighting a physical and emotional battle on Arms Control 5.11c (Photo: Lloyd Ramsey)

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!

In unrelated news...I was super proud of the hubster for getting up his first 5.11 on lead (Overhanging Hangover 5.11b - and with only one quick hang at the crux!)

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…



18 Responses to “Interview: Celebrating a Comeback”

  1. Beth Lineberry

    A great interview. It sounds like his accomplishment last weekend had a few sacred moments for everyone.

    Bennett, how awesome that one of the ways you grew due to the accident was to focus more on enjoying the wonderful relationships in your life.


  2. This is a very inspiring story and I am so impressed with your comeback. Injuries are an all too real aspect of life, (whether one is an athlete or not), and I’m really glad you decided to focus on what you still can do, rather than what you can’t. Besides, you’ll meet better looking gals on the rock-climbing circuit than you ever will at shuffleboard tournaments! 🙂


  3. Lisa Bistreich-Wolfe

    Great interview Erica! Bennett you totally inspire us all! So glad you’ve kept with it:) It was great seeing you this weekend and awesome seeing you send that route!


    • Sue Watson

      So glad you guys were all there to support him!

  4. Brandy Walters

    This was a wonderful interview Erica. Thank you so much for sharing this – I will definitely be passing it on to my climbing friends. I have a friend whose arm was surgically reattached after a ziplining accident and he is climbing again. Bennett, thank you for doing this interview. I can’t imagine going through what you did and coming back to lead even harder!


  5. Sue Watson

    Thanks for posting Erica! I did not get to attend this awesome event at Pilot, so it was really nice to read about it. Bennett is a true example that if you really want something and work hard and smart for it, you will get it! I am sorry that I missed seeing him crush this past weekend. Love ya Bennett!


  6. Outstanding article about the triumphant return of an injured climber. A job well done!


  7. Angela

    Great article, Erica. Bennett was an inspiration to me before his accident. His “holistic” approach and commitment as he calls it is more refined than any climber I’ve seen. After witnessing the horrific accident and seeing it crush the spirits of such an uplifting person, it has been an honor to see him recover. The same tenacity he applied to climbing in the first place was applied to his healing and he always brought up something positive to say. Although I knew Bennett could send Arms Control again, watching his comeback was surreal and just plain awesome. I’m so happy for his accomplishment and can’t wait to see how much more he can do.


  8. Interview: Celebrating a Comeback via @cragmama


  9. bennett harris

    Thanks to everyone for the kind words, Angela Giles may be the sweetest girl I know!


  10. Tonya

    Erica — this was such an inspirational story … Having only met Bennett recently (and watching him working on a couple of those routes Erica lists above), I can say that it takes a while to recognize that he has any physical limitations … you would never know it by the way he carries himself and the way he climbs. Thank you for sharing!


  11. Great piece! RT @Cragmama: inspiring interview as #climb er Bennett Harris celebrates a remarkable comeback from injury


  12. Mike Grimm

    Bennett is a true inspiration to climb with and always super positive. Thanks Erica for letting everybody else know how awesome he is.


  13. christie

    way to go Bennet! so much you have given the community and im sure there will be more to come. Thank you for being an inspiration to us all.


  14. Ryan Williams

    I met Bennett just a week before the accident at the Cirque at the New River Gorge. He was SO psyched to be climbing and was encouraging everyone around. I was tying in for an attempt at Hour Glass when I heard Bennett let out a loud scream. He had just stuck the crux dyno on Graffiti.

    I had only been on Hour Glass once before and had told my belayer that I would probably fall off just before the chains. But Bennett’s excitement was infectious, and when I stuck the deadpoint at the top I let out a scream of my own. I never scream when I climb, but that day I couldn’t help myself!

    I was still at the New on the day of his accident, and needless to say, the news traveled up there pretty fast. I was devastated to hear that it was Bennett. It sucks when anyone gets hurt, but when someone with such a positive attitude sustains a serious injury like that, it is hard to accept.

    I met Bennett again a month or so after the accident and he was already climbing again. I had kept up with his progress through our mutual friend Rob, and was happy to see him out. He was being his usual self – smiling, having a good time, encouraging people. Bennett is just one of those guys that causes everyone around to have a good time… climbing needs more people like that.

    It is just AMAZING that he is climbing again, and climbing hard! What a comeback! Keep it up Bennett. Hope to see you soon!


  15. Great post, Erica! Bennett, you’re simply amazing!


  16. Dave Parks are such a great friend, awesome climber, and just all in all a good person. We love you man!


  17. Erica, I met Bennett this weekend at Hawksbill and he was cranking out Hard Rock (5.12c) up until the last bolt–he’s a try or two away from sending it seems. It’s awesome to see he’s still psyched and cranking hard after such a crazy and random accident. Thanks for sharing his story.


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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN