Student Falls, Breaks Back at USA Climbing Gym 

By: Brooke Trochesset | News Editor | and 

Gracie King | Editor in Chief |

Photo by: Michael Dunn | Photographer 

On Thursday, Nov. 3, a student climber fell from the top of the USA Student Recreation Center’s rock wall, injuring their back and requiring surgery. This is the first time an incident of this magnitude has been reported since the wall’s opening in 2010. 

According to sources, the climber, who will remain anonymous for their privacy, was attempting their final climb of the “Everest Challenge,” a promotion wherein students climb the rock wall 324 times in a semester– the equivalent of the distance from base camp to the summit of Mount Everest. The final ascent is meant to be the hardest climb the student has attempted and is generally watched by others as it is a momentous occasion. Furthermore, the USA Climbing Wall website states that a climber’s “last climb [of the Everest Challenge]…must be witnessed by an employee.”

Several sources, who did not want to be named, tell The Vanguard three student workers were in the climbing gym at the time of the accident in addition to the Coordinator of Outdoor Adventures and Rock Wall, Brad Simmons. According to our sources, the incident was video recorded. 

The Vanguard reached out to Simmons to request a statement or interview, but he declined. Additionally, Brian Allred, Director of Campus Recreation and Wellness, did not immediately respond to comment.

According to two student workers who requested their names not be used for this story, prior to the beginning of the climb, the student climber did not connect to the auto belay, the safety device that attaches to a climber’s harness. New climbers at the USA climbing gym receive instruction on using these automatic belay devices which magnetically remove slack from the line as a climber ascends the wall. The auto belay then allows them to descend at a safe speed. Head Rush Technologies, the brand of auto belays used by the USA Student Recreation Center, details on their website the step-by-step process of using this modality of belay system. According to UK Climbing, the combination of fatigue and repetition can cause a climber to be more likely to not clip into an auto belay- a sometimes catastrophic mistake.

The Vanguard reached out to the family of the student climber involved in the incident. A relative of the student responded, “Thank you for reaching out to us, but we are solely focusing on [their] recovery right now.”

A student employee was on the scene as the paramedics were helping the climber. This student told us in an interview, “We’ve had several safety trainings to help prevent this in the future, and I believe that the wall is much safer moving forward. It was very unfortunate that this happened. We definitely will do whatever is necessary to prevent something like this from occurring again.”

A second student worker arrived at the scene after the climber was taken from the Student Recreation Center by ambulance. This student employee told The Vanguard, “Something like this has not ever happened to my knowledge. I promise [the climbing gym] is safe. We are implementing new safety measures.”

Brendan Johnson, a student rock wall employee, began working for the program in May 2022. On Nov. 3, Johnson had left the climbing gym shortly before the incident occurred. When interviewed, he remarked, “The fact that it happened is incredibly frustrating, and I hope to see some major changes in the higher levels because of this.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the University of South Alabama released a statement in regard to the incident:

“We can confirm that an incident occurred, and university staff are reviewing the matter. No additional information is available.”

The University of South Alabama opened the state-of-the-art Student Recreation facility in 2010. The climbing gym was quickly a prominent feature of the new building. The climbing wall is 35-feet tall and 65-feet wide, capturing the attention of students and faculty and all who walk past the wall of windows that capture the magnitude of the climbing gym. 

Since its grand opening, the climbing gym has not reported an accident of this scale. Indoor climbing is, in fact, a low-risk activity according to Go Climb. Most indoor climbing injuries happen while lead climbing or top roping and can be attributed to poor belay technique (or in layman’s terms, user error).

The Vanguard sends its sincerest regards to the injured student and wishes them a full recovery.