Monday, February 27, 2012

Insult of Injury Pt 1: The Fall

February 26 marked a year since my accident.

I work with Unmanned Airplanes (UAVs), and the job takes me all over the place for training, testing, and more training. Early last year I was in Arizona to get a new qualification, and I don't often get the chance to be around mountains. The area where I was training had some mountains, but they were small, remote, and the few climbable rock faces were very chossy (not a safe situation). So one weekend a friend/co-worker (Scott*) and I headed 4 hours away to Tucson, which held the promise of taller, cleaner, and more established routes. We woke up early, crammed our gear into the rental car, and drove to Tucson. We made a stop at a little climbing shop and bought the requisite guide book, Squeezing the Lemon II. We also picked up some good beta from the shop guy, who recommended starting at the lower end of the Mt Lemmon highway and working our way up.

It turned out the highway had an entrance fee, but there was a parking lot outside the ranger station, with a trailhead to the first climbing area. We parked the car and started walking. It was an intense hike- a 45-degree hill with a gravelly trail and lots of cactus. Plus the 4000-foot altitude was killing us. I'm a Colorado boy, but I've been away for a while. It took about 45 minutes to hike and scramble our way to the cliff with the good climbing, and man it was tiring. But we had an awesome view of Tucson and and whole valley, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and there was awesome climbing to be done.

We picked an easy-ish 5.9 grade climb to warm up on. We had both been out of practice for about a year and a half, so it took a lot of hangdogging and thrutching just to get to the top and say we did it. Once we finished that route, we took a quick break and picked out our next climb: a 40-foot 5.10b-R with a slightly overhanging crux. The R rating came from the placement of the second bolt: about 10 feet off the ground, and the wall sloped inward, then back out for another 15 feet to the 3rd bolt. Translation: if I fell between the 2nd and 3rd bolts, it would be possible for me to fall further than my gear could protect me (a prospective ground fall situation). I got my climb on, with Scott on the belay. The first moves went well, and I got to the second bolt in just a few seconds, mostly because I was pretty freaked out at the prospect of cratering. Good motivation, no?

I got to the overhang, spent a few seconds looking over the rock, and continued on. Left foot up, tiny toe hold. Reach for a right hand crimp, balance with right foot, and stretch high for a left hand jug. I was pretty pumped by that point, and glad I made it to the 3rd bolt. I clipped in, took a deep breath, and kept going. After that 3rd bolt, just above the overhang, I seemingly ran out of either A) anything to grab with my hands or B) the creativity to find it. I got a sketchy hold with my right hand, stepped up, and ran out of anything to grab with my left. I yelled "TAKE" to get Scott to take the slack out of the rope and watch me fall. I swung out to my left like a barn door, and released my right hand. It was a completely natural movement for me- I knew to lean back and take the fall, keeping my feet out, knees slightly bent until I reached the end of the slack in the rope and swung back towards the wall. Entirely safe, and a relatively normal action in sport climbing.

I fell about a foot past the bolt I had just clipped into, and my weight was just hitting the rope, and I was bracing for impact with the wall. But then I heard the sound that would change everything and rip away all feeling of control: PINGGGGGGG. I yelled "UUNGHHHHH" as my stomach lept into my throat, and the brief feeling of weightlessness entered my conscious mind. In the space of a split second, I processed what must have happened: the bolt that was drilled 6 inches into the solid rock and glued for safety just a few weeks before must have somehow come loose. I didn't have much time to figure it out, because I could almost feel the ground behind me, coming up to meet me as I flailed in slow motion. The thought must have been too much to bear, because I don't remember anything after that- just blackness.

I came to in my harness, looking at the ground just two feet from my face. I was confused because I expected to be crumpled on the ground looking at the sky as everything faded away. It happened the opposite way though, and light and sound eventually came back as everything became more clear. I was upside down. That was confusing. I looked to my right, and I saw the bottom of Scott's shoes as he hung from the wall. That confused me too. But then the pain started coming in waves.

Scott had heard my yell to take the slack out of the rope, and cinched down on his belay device. He heard the "ping" too, and preemptively took out another 2 feet of slack in split seconds. The force of me falling to the point where the 2nd bolt caught me pulled him off his feet and yanked him straight to the wall.

I gingerly made my way to the ground, almost afraid to touch it for what could have happened. I felt an incredible pain my my ankle, but it wasn't much more than the feeling of hitting your knee hard against something and catching the nerve just right- I used to do it when pushing my brothers down a hill on a sled. I figured I just slammed the side of my ankle against the wall somehow, and the pain would leave after a few minutes. I sat there trembling, doing the "ssssssss... aaaaahhhh.... sssss..... aaaahhhh..... sssssss..... aaaahhhhh" thing for a few minutes. I tried to put weight on my ankle, but immediately felt a grinding sensation that both answered my question and confirmed my fears.

I was no longer invincible in my youth. I was no longer symmetric. I was no longer physically qualified to pursue my dreams and partake of my active hobbies. I pushed all of those thoughts out of my mind as I focused on just getting back to the car. Scott was able to find a sturdy branch from a low scrub brush, and we fashioned a splint to keep my ankle from moving.

It was rough going. Scott gathered our backpacks and gear, and would run 20-30 yards down the trail while I sat and watched. Occasionally, the trail was level enough for me to hop on one foot. Most of the time though, it was covered in granite pebbles that served as ball bearings. A slip would take me either down the hill or into the many clumps of cactus bordering the trail. I would have to gingerly slide down on my rear end with my bad foot sticking out in front of me, or stand on my good foot while leaning on Scott for support while we heaved a step at a time down the hill.

The trip took us about 2 hours, but it was the longest 2 hours I've ever had to endure.

Next stop: Doctors.

*not his real name, courtesy's sake.

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