Former resident recovering from fall off a mountain

A former Kamsack resident is recovering at home with broken bones and fractures after having fallen while rock climbing near Cranmore, Alta. late last month.

Travis Smutt, 38, was climbing with a partner at the Grassy Lakes climbing crags on August 26 when he fell to the ground about 40 feet below breaking his T12 vertebrae, fracturing his pelvis, dislocating an ankle and sustaining an open compound fracture of an ankle bone. He was released from the Calgary Foothills Hospital Trauma Centre on September 2.

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“When I hit the ground and bounced off a ledge, I stood up and said ‘this is going to be a bad day,’” he said recently as he talked to the Times, about the accident.

“I can walk,” he said, explaining that he was wearing a temporary cast on a leg to allow for swelling. “It looks like a club, like a medieval swinging tool.”

Smutt said that having wanted to “go out and do some climbing,” he was at the Grassi Lakes climbing crags which is a collection of slabs of wall where sport climbing paths of varying difficulty are used by climbers. He had climbed the crags before and this time he was with Macey Lovelle, a climbing partner.

“Many climbers go to the crags to train, the access is easy,” he said, explaining that like in other physical activities, one begins with an easier route to warm up, and then moves on to harder grades, before cooling down at an easier climb.

“We did a few warm-ups on Gardener’s Wall, where the difficulty increases,” he said, adding that he was the first lead, with his partner following. He was fastening his rope to a permanent eye bolt attached to the rock.

‘You clip on with the rope as protection so that if you fall, it prevents you from hitting the ground. I had clipped the last bolt and I could see the anchor, but I was getting tired because of the routes we did just before.

“I was about six feet from the anchor and realized I wouldn’t make it. I called Macey below me to say that I was going to fall so she could be prepared to help stop the fall.

“She didn’t hear me. I started to free fall, pulling the rope off her hand. She tried to grab the rope with her free hand, but I was heavier and it was more force on her.

“It happened in a blink of an eye. I fell 40 feet to hit the ground and Macey got pulled into a wall and then was yanked up as I was going down. She received third degree burns to her hand and is now in rehabilitation with a plastic surgeon.

“Macey slowed down my fall enough for me to survive it.”

Because the area is a popular spot for climbing it has good cell service. Because the terrain is too rocky to carry someone out, Smutt was air lifted to a nearby ambulance operated by Kananaskis Public Safety where he was stabilized and then rushed by ambulance to the Calgary Foothills Hospital about 45 minutes away.

“I’m on heavy painkillers,” he said. “Imagine trying to move around with a broken back and pelvis, it’s very, very uncomfortable.”

He said he expects to be laid up from six to eight weeks for his back to mend and a bit longer for his ankle to heal because of the pins and plates that were needed.

“I expect it’ll be six months before I’m considered recovered.”

This month Smutt is celebrating his 16th year as a firefighter and EMT with the Airdrie Fire Department. Although he has been climbing “off and on, bits and pieces here and there,” for 10 years, he says he has been a “dedicated climber” for about two years.

The weekend before his fall, Smutt had been climbing with a partner and “free soloed” Mount Assiniboine in the southern Rockies.

Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of technical ice or rock climbing where the climbers (or free soloists) climb alone without ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, forcing them to rely entirely on their own individual strength and skill, says an item on Wikipedia. Mount Assiniboine is a pyramidal peak mountain located on the Great Divide, on the British Columbia/Alberta border. At 3,618 metres, it is the highest peak in the Southern Continental Ranges of the Canadian Rockies.

Asked how his fall will affect his mountain climbing in the future, Smutt said that “this is just a slow down. I have bigger peaks in my sights.”

He said that he has often climbed with Macey and her boyfriend, who normally live out of a van while climbing. Together they climbed Canada’s second highest waterfall, Takakkaw Falls, a waterfall located in Yoho National Park, near Field, B.C. The falls have a total height of 373 metres, making it the second tallest waterfall in Canada. The main drop of the waterfall has a height of 254 metres.

The son of Percy and Diane Smutt of Kamsack, Travis is a 2000 graduate of the Kamsack Comprehensive Institute. He attended the University of Saskatchewan for three years and then took medical training as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in Fort McMurray, Alta. He joined the Fort McMurray fire department in 2004 and then the Airdrie fire department in 2011.

What does it take to be a mountain climber?

“You have to be a little bit of crazy and have a lack of fear,” he said. “You have to want to get to places few people get to go.”

Smutt referred fondly to the group of people called the eight-thousanders. The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) recognises eight-thousanders as the 14 mountains that are more than 8,000 metres (26,247 feet) in height above sea level, and are considered to be sufficiently independent from neighbouring peaks.

“Every climber dreams of them,” he said, adding that so many of them are dangerous. “You know that there have been more people in outer space than have climbed to the summit of K2, a mountain in a range in Pakistan.”

To date, Smutt has confined his mountain climbing to peaks in Canada, the USA and Acatenango, a volcano in Guatemala, which is over 4,000 metres high.

There are a lot of schools and guiding operations for people interested in climbing, he said, adding that one falls into a circle of friends who climb. He said Marcy’s boyfriend is currently in the process of obtaining his guiding qualifications.

“You typically learn from friends.”

Before his fall in August, Smutt said that although he’s had many close calls, “in the mountains, we do everything to mitigate the risks.

“Last year I fell 40 feet while ice climbing, but I stopped when I was caught six inches off the ground. At Takakkaw Falls, a rock let go and cut a rope as we were mid-way down the mountain. If the rope had let go, I’d have fallen 700 or 800 feet and that could have been fatal.

 “My sister Chantel Smutt, who is a registered psychiatric nurse, drove out from Saskatchewan so that I wouldn’t be alone during my stay in the hospital. She is still with me, helping me with day-to-day life now that I’m at home.

“Without her, this journey would have been and would be much more difficult than it has been.”

Smutt says he has been in the habit of returning to Kamsack a couple times a year, typically in the fall to go hunting with his father, and he tries to return for Christmas. 

“When playing in the mountains, you have to understand there is significant risk,” he said. “You have to know your own skill level. The mountains don’t care. You have to play by the rules or there is catastrophe.”