Remembering the agony of defeat and injury
They say that completing a goal isn‘t the best part of the experience, but rather it's the journey that counts. Unfortunately, my story is not one of great success. It is of pain, discomfort, and months of a climber's worst nightmare: rest and recovery.
My tale begins with a road trip to California in June 2006 and hope of a new free route in Yosemite National Park. Mike Anderson and I were off to a banging start no problems on the drive from Colorado, no speeding tickets, and a peaceful night camping out under, clear-star filled skies. We were on a mission so we only camped outside beautiful Tonapah in the land of the basin and range, Nevada. The fates had aligned for the perfect trip, and the day we arrived in the valley, we discovered a 2500 foot line on perfect granite that appeared featured to the top. After a few tough days cleaning lichen, tossing loose rock, and working moves, I knew our line would end up free and legendary. We’d even named a few pitches: the low crux is called The Southern Cross, the upper crux The Arcturus, and due to the precarious finger of rock that you have to stand upon in the middle of the route, The Finger. Then with about seven days remaining in the trip, I broke my back. The worst a mid-road-trip injury had happened.
As I was clipping the crux piece on the route, my foot slipped on some lichen; the rope had wrapped behind my right leg, and I was run out sideways on a traverse with my last pro a bit too distant. With 12 feet of rope out, I blew the clip and flipped upside down for a 30-foot headfirst fall, fracturing my right hand and some bone along my spine on impact. Mike quickly yelled, "Are you alright" and after a few minutes of heavy breathing and pasting my head against the cool granite, I replied, "I think so" Still winded from the impact, I remained breathing heavy due to shock and exhaustion. Rattling with shock, I was sure I was OK. My partner thought that I was OK. No blood and no cuts, and no brain damage (the doctors are still debating that one), so decided to try the crux again. Within an instant of pulling on, I knew that by how much pain I was in that the day was over, the trip was over and, as far as I knew, I was over.
After the pain came searing through my lower back, Mike slowly lowered me down to the mostly hanging belay. We were nearly 2000 feet up with three or four spectacular and expsoed pitches to go to the summit. I reached down to remove my climbing shoes and was instantly reminded of the situation. I couldn’t bend over and I couldn’t take off my shoes. The pain was too intense. It was at this point that my eyes began to water and I knew that I was in for a long painful day. Mike silently changed my shoes and with military attention to detail, set me up to jug to the summit. I was lucky that we had the top of the route fixed, otherwise the rappels would have been a nightmare, not to mention the descent hike down the so called "Death Slabs". The jugging was slow and tedious because I was unable to lift my feet more than a few inches due to the connection to my back. So inch-by-inch I eeked my way to the top, all the while visualizing the crux moves, so much that they are forever etched into my head.
At the summit I was alone. I was out of water and out of food, yet the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. We had been on the wall for what seemed an eternity and were heading out that day to rest up and return a few days later to send the route. Since Mike was collecting our gear, all I had to do was hike out. It was slow, it was unbalanced, and I couldn’t sit to rest because I didn’t want to feel the pain. Even though I knew that things didn’t look good, a part of me was still optimistic because after all, I could still walk. How bad could it be? Even though I had to go home, I could still walk. Well, slowly, very slowly and painfully, but I was walking.
You never realize how involved getting into and out of an automobile is until you have severe back pain. My back had certainly felt bad before, after long days of skiing the bumps or after a hockey game that should have been called the Royal Rumble, but this injury topped them all. Tears welled up as I discovered that my back muscles moved subtly, in hundreds of directions, with each bend, twist, or stretch. I could stand straight or lie down with relatively minor discomfort, but sitting was total agony. Clearly this wasnít, as my partner wished, going to heal by the next day.
Since I was able to walk and because I though that I would be able to climb in a couple days, we put off deciding to leave. We would give my back a couple days of chilling at Todd’s place and then see how I felt. It was a good plan, there was still hope. I have recovered quickly before, I can do it again. Neither of us wanted to have to pack up, make the 24 hour push home to the front range of Colorado and walk away from the route. As far as seeing a doctor, my uneducated opinion was to rest for a couple and then see what was up, after all neither Mike nor I had the energy to go back to our high camp to remove all of our gear anyway, we had to rest.
This situation was a bit different because Mike can be very quiet and to himself when he is stressed. It happend once before on the day we freed Touchstone in Zion. He was unable to do the crux moves and continued to fall, he was extremely frustrated and got really quiet, this was one of those times. So as usual, I was left to do all the talking. Again because I did feel a bit better (due to rest and not healing) I was positive that I would feel good enough to at least belay while Mike did the route. It was the least that I could do. Mike without words silently tried to accept my faith.
Getting into and out of the truck proved to be painful, but I devised a system. I had to make sure that the seat back was down, that I swiveled on my butt, and that I stayed as straight as possible when lifting my feet off the ground. The stiffer I remained the fewer shockwaves of pain that shot through my system. After a few attempts, I almost looked normal doing this maneuver other than moving with the speed and agility of a 95-year-old.
After a few days of watching Todd Skinner first ascent movies and eating (we were actually crashing at the legends Yosemite home) On a very sad side note I am extrememly sad to see my hero pass. I was seeing zero improvement, so I made the call to get back to the road: my home, my sanctuary, my friend. The place that even when I was stranded with a broken-down vehicle, felt right. The place where Iíve had the deepest conversations with my best buddies. The place where Iíve shared my thoughts and dreams and secrets.
Now, however, facing a 24-hour marathon back to Colorado with a throbbing back, I feared those endless miles of sun-baked asphalt. Even on a good day this stretch is epic. Highway 6 through the Nevada nothingness taxes me, period. Its vast expanses of dried up wasteland broken up by the occasional dead or dying old mining town can put the finest long haul driver into a peaceful sleeping bliss while behind the wheel. Even though you are occasionally excited by seeing what you know is a virgin rock outcrop that would be a great sport climbing crag, sullenly you come back to the present and realize that no one in their right mind would ever go there. Now I had to do it with a heavy conscience because we were unable to complete the route (I was moving to Europe in a few days), and I was A CRAP travel partner because all I wanted to do was sleep and take pain medication.
Even though I was able to cautiously drive, I only took the easy stretches and nothing in the dark. When I wasn’t driving I found myself struggling to get comfortable in my once throne and found no success eventually turning the seconds to hours. Every attempt to find solace in a new sitting or lying position was in vain, so I tried to groove to the tunes, no success. The only thing that filled my thoughts was the route. When will I return? Will I be able to remember the intracit sequence through the crux? Did I hand drill the pitch poorly? Is it too run out? Will I be fit enough? Will Mike do the route without me? Will someone see the route and climb it before us? Will this whole journey have had no purpose? Will I be alright to teach at a new school, to international students, in a new country and new city in a little over four weeks? What the hell was I thinking not resting enough before this trip? The endless pile of questions allowed for little talking on the dull desert drive home. We rarely stopped and when we did we only realized that we were a long way from home.
As we departed, every twist and turn, acceleration and deceleration through Tuolomine Meadows caused back pain. Even though I was downing the Advil every four hours there was no end to my backache. Eventually we were counting miles on the perfectly surveyed stretches of Highway 50, beelining through Nevada. The state had never seemed so immense. Without finding comfort on the bench seat, I uneasily sat unable to sleep.
My thoughts drifted. I felt bad about having to leave the route, bad that Iíd ruined the trip, bad because the reality of the injury was setting in. I felt bad because the last memories with one of my best friends were of disappointment and failure. In fact, I just felt bad. Stretches of road that had been mere memories en route to the Valley became novels on the drive home. Even though I tried to hide my agony, I felt only despair. The road had become an iron fist.
I kept my thoughts to myself and kept up the positve attitude, I kept saying just give me a few days rest and we can fly back and free the route just before I move to Austria. It will all work out and Yosemite will recieve another class VI bigwall free route. I was like a magnet, two opposite poles without any balance. My insides turned inside out as I hid my agony behind my optomistic banter.
At midnight, after 12 horrible hours on the road, we passed through Ely, Nevada. We wanted a room but found nothing: Ely was entirely booked due to some kind of sports tournament and gambling expo. Disgusted, upset and tired, we pushed on into the dark unforgiving Nevada desert and found refuge on the top of a mountain. Without the use of my back, I couldnít even help unload the tent or the sleeping bags. I might as well have been handicapped. I found myself feeling helpless as an infant and standing next to the truck trying to stay out of the way. The hours on the road had taken their toll. Again Mike took care silently and efficiently.
That night‘s sleep was restless, filled with dreams of how the trip was supposed to be. As thunder cracked in the distance and lightening drew near, morning crept over the Humbolt Toiyable National Forest, awakening us. We had 600+ miles and 12 hours left to go. No breakfast, no real conversation, just a longing to complete the drive as quickly as possible. In the morning I wanted to help take care of camp but was only capable of brushing my teeth and eating some gas station white powdered doughnuts. The morning brought reality back to me and the boredom of a long drive, however there was a light at the end of the tunnel since at the end of the day I would be home. I was drained, tired, and nursing not only the physical pain but the mental anguish of failure and injury. Leave it to the road to bring the best out of every situation. My awareness was heightend to make me truly remember the day. I had 11 days left until I moved to Europe, and I dreaded having to fight through all the logistics while in grievous amounts of pain.
Itís been a few months since the fall. The other day, I was flipping through photos of other road trips and I noticed that I didnít have any of the way home from the Valley: no smiles recorded while peeing on the side of the road, no great laughs from that funny skit on the Chapelle Show. What I did remember was stopping to use the restroom at a close to the border Utah Mcdonalds. We bought some of those tastey hot apple pies when I noticed the red box in the restaurant. What was this I asked myself? It turns out that you can rent for a dollar movies from Mcdonalds. I quickly searched through the selection list and found happiness. When I showed Mike his eyes lit up and I caught a glimmer of hope. We had found something to take away the monotomy of the Utah portion of the drive. Each of us had cross those miles so many times there wasn’t anything new to see except for the movie. Now it didn’t really matter what we rented, but what did matter was that our minds were off the dissapointment and failure and on this hollywood mastepiece. When the movie was over we were just a few miles from Colorado and even though we were still a few hours from home everything was alright. I hate to say it but at our lowest moment on the road, Mcdonalds came through, yeah "I’m lovin it".
I got home late that night and crashed in my bed. No one was home to complain or relate the story too, tomorrow was Sunday and I hoped for a quick emergency room visit. I hoped to discover that I could fight the pain and climb in a few days. After showing me the X-rays the doctor said that I was fine and that he didn’t see any problems in my back. He even said that if I could deal with the pain to go and finish the route. I couldn’t believe it! I have been an athelete my whole life and I can’t bend down or even walk fast and he tells me that nothing was wrong, and to go climbing. Now I remembered why I didn’t go see a doctor in California and why I never go to the doctor, they are full of it.
Another day later a friend said to check out the chiropractor. I knew that chiropractors were just another word for voodoo but because I need closure before the move I went anyway. To my surprise after a full spinal x-ray, he found the damage and assured me that I would be ok. He said that it looked like the bones were already fusing, that I wouldn’t need surgury and that climbing in the near future would be a bad idea, but that I would be fine after resting a few months.
I finished my waning days in the states going to the chiropractor, hanging out with my closest friends, eating like a fool and watching more TV then I care to see again in my life. The move to Europe was pleasant at best and made a bit easier because a great friend Andy Burr joined me for the first couple of weeks. Months have passed, I have healed, trained and am stronger than ever. One road trip had ended while a whole new one has just begun. It seems that no matter what happens to me during my life, whether I like it or not I end up on the road. Even though my last experience with the blacktop sent me its worst, it still calls to me daily, fills my thoughts as my students move between classes and grabs hold of me every weekend. There’s no place like home, theres no place like the road.