“If I’d only stuck the hold,” the thought finds its way into my consciousness more often than I’d like. The events replay themselves inside my head like low budget short film. I move my feet up, eye the hold, and lunge towards it. I grab the edge, but then I start to fall. Time slows down and I feel like I am floating through the air. I know this is bad. I land off of the pads but my leg doesn’t stop the fall it just crumples. After I roll down a small hillside I look at my leg and realize the foot is turned about 30 degrees to the right and that my fibula is protruding. My deep breaths aren’t nearly powerful enough to fight away the blanket of nausea creeping in. Somehow I come back to. My skin is pale, my heart rate pounding, and I’m suddenly faced with the reality that will soon change everything in my life. These words are desperately hard to write as they bring me back into the moment which fuels the dark fire of depression I have been fighting.
I’d secretly felt like my luck had been running out for quite some time so when I looked at my leg I was alarmingly unsurprised. After a brief and adrenaline filled inspection I found no further damage. I sat and looked up at the sky through the tree’s shaking in the wind trying to breathe. I checked my capillary refill, how much blood goes into my feet, and saw that the dislocation was cutting off the bloodstream to my foot. With this horrifying realization I realized I had to get out, and quick.
It all started last spring break with one foot slip. I was feeling strong and decided to get on an end of the day finger crack to warm down. After cruising through 40 feet of perfect fingers and feeling quite solid my foot popped off of a smear, my cam pulled, my belayer tripped, and I ended up back on the ground with the loud thump. I walked away from this, and after a few months of pain and chiropractic appointments it was back to climbing. Looking back now I did not properly reflect on this situation. I just kept going. I narrowly escaped a large refrigerator sized death block ready to fall in Sedona, in desperation rapped off of a bad piton in the middle of nowhere Utah, and took numerous bouldering falls that should have left me in much worse shape.
My confidence never fully came back after this string of incidents, nor did my judgment. Most climbers know the feeling of being completely solid and fluid in their movement and losing track of time. I did not have it anymore. This is the mental state that has always drawn me to climbing, and in the past year it has been increasingly hard to drift into. This should have been my first big red flag. I should have listened.
The bouldering accident happened about two miles in and 500 feet up a scree field in the Kachina wilderness. After a few quick phone calls to friends more medically inclined we realize there would be no reduction of the ankle, and getting to the ER as fast as possible was the only answer. I start scooting down the scree on my butt. I occasionally catch my foot on a tree branch or plant, and an excruciating scream follows. Even with the adrenaline the pain still rules. Eventually we make it to the trail. Jason quickly says he will carry me. The going is quick this way, but with every step the leg bounces and the pain is too much. We alternate between him carrying me and crawling. This exchange seems to go on forever until eventually we see the road. Jason makes a great decision, tells me to crawl to it, and runs to go get the car at the parking area.
There have been many moments where I have searched for that feeling of mental freedom and exhilaration that come from climbing where instead my mind drifted into worse case scenarios. In retrospect I think that I didn’t ever fully recover from my ground fall and that instead of re-building my confidence slowly I just jumped back in full speed. At the time it seemed like a great idea, but I think I’ve been half present for quite some time.
In fact the only time I can remember being truly present was on the 2,500 foot N. Ridge of Mt. Stuart. It seemed as if everything but alpine failed to draw me into the addictive state I was so desperately yearning. The curse of an addict is seeking what destroys him/her the most and that is exactly what I was stuck in.
I ended up breaking my ankle in three places and the fibula in one. I fight everyday with depression and the temptation to sink into alcohol for comfort. I'm proud to be winning this battle and to be staying as positive as possible. I know it could be worse, but alas everything is relative. The experience has been hard, and has forced me to think real hard about the question we often take so simply: Why do I climb? Right after the accident I thought about selling my climbing gear, I wanted nothing to do with the activity that threw me into the darkness. Luckily I’m slowly creeping closer to a far off light, and my motivation is coming back. It has made me think about why I do any of this. I ended up with the following unorganized ramble.
I climb because...
The clarity… of the air, the mind, and the focus
The view from the top of a desert tower, an alpine ridge, into a canyon, or a over a meadow
The smile of my partner after a hard lead or a great pitch
The high fives and hugs
The feeling of being absolutely wrecked while drinking a victory beer at the trail head
Only hearing my heartbeat as I slowly move upwards
The calculation of placing gear and moving towards the next piece
The overwhelming sense of accomplishment and purpose
The overwhelming sense of accomplishment and purpose
The beautiful places that climbing takes me
The humility of getting shut down
The morning espresso, so strong you can feel it creep into your veins
The sunsets and sunrises that so many don’t ever bother to see
Being runout, but knowing I have the experience to be okay
Drinking water from a glacier
The smell of the desert at night.
Bailing off in a storm than eating pizza and drinking beer
The sharp contrast to the rest of life in society
Hands that have so many scabs from crack climbing they stick to my sleeping bag at night
Days so long my brain is that of a 5 year old by the end and my muscles filled with lactic acid
The teaching and the learning
The campfires and stories
There are simply too many reasons to write…
These are the things I keep close to my heart, the things that keep me fighting and motivated, and the things that bring balance to my normal life. These are things that once one has had; they could never go without.
I don't know how yet, but I feel as if this experience has entirely shifted my perspective, renewed my psyche, made more thankful, and will ultimately change the way I climb into something much more sustainable than it's ever been before.
I can only hope that is is anew begining for me. A re-birth of my climb aspirations, and the start to just simply being more happy in day to day life.