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Disoriented and Alone With a Traumatic Brain Injury in the Eastern Sierra

A TBI, a climb, and an altered state

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Amber was gone.

When I realized that my partner for a mid-winter attempt on Tumanguya (Mt. Whitney) had disappeared, the horizon seemed to instantly shrink. The peachy glow of first light on the half-mile-wide granite cirque crackled down to a single point; the mile-long expanse of snow snapped closed like an over-extended rubber band. Suddenly, there was just an undefined hum of orange and the glitter of surface hoar.

Where before Tumanguya had stretched into the sky, its tip peeking above Pinnacle Ridge, there was now just a fuzzy, gray void. The crest’s many thousand-foot cliffs around me had become a smudge of rose gold, like something that had been left on a whiteboard too long and now couldn’t be erased.

It was just before 8:00 in the morning. Amber Henshaw and I were on the approach to what would be referred to as the Hiker’s Route in the summer. In the winter, the thousand-foot-tall cirque ices over and becomes a steep snow climb. Amber and I didn’t know whether we could follow the Hiker’s Route the whole waythe Mountaineer’s Route is more standard winter betabut the mountains were parched, so we figured we had a shot.

We were wrong. Water ice in rounded domes overhung the edge of the trail corridor, interspersed with bulges of verglassed rock and sections of vertical 10-foot cliffs.

In the blue shadow of pre-dawn, we had picked our way down a ledge and decided to reapproach the cirque from the far side of Trail Camp, routing around a moraine and straight up the steeper snow directly to Trail Crest. But the visible rock was iced over; the snow had a thick crust that punched through to four feet of unconsolidated ice shards. The terrain was grueling but not dangerous. Or so I thought, until Amber had vanished.

I yelled her name a few times. The silence shattered me.

I yelled in the way that one yells when they want to scream but are too defeated to do more than whisper. I whispered her name again and again until the syllables lost their meaning. The snow had turned to fireworks that erupted out of my pinprick vision into the black edges of my periphery.

Rapid-onset tunnel vision is often caused by extreme “panic, stress, or anger,” resulting in an overproduction of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Was adrenaline also the reason that I suddenly had no idea where I was, or how I had gotten there? Was it responsible for my inability to identify when Amber and I had become separated, or how I might find her? Did the thrill of brain chemistry have any influence over the sudden ache on the left side of my ribcage that felt like the three lower ribs had unlatched from my spine and were now, it seemed, independently wobbling, out of sync?

It wasn’t adrenaline. It was my injured brain, still bruised and aching. In the new terrain of my post-trauma mind, the ground was wont to give out from under me, give way to senseless spectacle. And now it had, at the moment I needed it not to: when I needed to locate my missing partner.

Amber and I had met earlier that season, when a mutual friend had introduced us at a memorial service in the back room of Mammoth Brewing Company. We had immediately clicked over a list of ski objectives we both had our eyes on.

This trip up Tumungaya was our first real objective together (and my first time out in more than seven months), and my brain fog and subsequent delirious excitement at the prospect of getting out made me totally forget to clue into her risk-management style, her first-aid experience.

We weren’t dialed-in partners; we were still acquaintances, really. As the sky rose and fell and expanded and burst around me, I realized I had no way of knowing how she would respond to our separation. I had no clue how well she could actually navigate these iced-over cliffs as she down-climbed the moraine to the base of the bowl.

I closed my eyes. Phosphenes vibrated up in the after image of the neon snow. Geometric patterns expanded and collapsed in on themselves on the backs of my eyelids.

In his novel The Topeka School, Ben Lerner calls phosphenes “tiny fading Rorschachs formed by the inherent electrical charges the retina produces while at rest, an experience of light in the absence of light.” My inkblot explosions announced again and again Amber’s disappearance.

I thought of the shame, grief, and crushing sense of betrayal that I would carry if I had to tell my community about the death of our friend. The thought made my knees buckle. When I landed in a crunch of ice, little fires erupted. Polygons bloomed pink and green and cerulean. I heard a rib pop. Shit, I thought. Not again.

***

My left ribcage had been moving through degrees of achiness for five months. When the surrounding muscles contracted, it felt like a white-knuckled fist overgripping the memory of impact. I was five months into recovery from a bike crash that had left me with a serious concussion, severe whiplash, a pinched cervical nerve, and a bout of post-concussion syndrome from which I’d stopped believing I could recover.

The crash had happened in late August, some 3000 miles and 90-odd days into a bicycle-powered link up of alpine climbs across the Rockies from the Wind Rivers of Wyoming, north to Jasper National Park in British Columbia and, by the end of August, west towards the Coast Mountains, which I had hoped to follow through the Yukon to Alaska.

I was riding a high that had stuck with me since a jaunt into the Bugaboos. I hadn’t climbed, but I had made it to the base of the Bugaboo Spire, which, after two straight weeks of biking and hike-a-biking through blizzards, felt like an indomitable success.

But the weather had, after months of unseasonably nasty storms, cleared. That late-August day was the first truly sunny day I had had in three months.

I was all smiles, late-summer tan, hot-pink lipstick, alone on the road, crushing more than 800 miles of dirt and pavement a week.

I was on the hardest trip of my life, and I was totally winning.

The day was glistening, egg-yolk yellow from the high summer sun. In northern interior British Columbia, the days last for 17 hours even as the leaves begin to turn gold. The road was quiet; the only sound was the whistle of a tailwind and the whir of my chain.

I saw the black metal of the SUV’s chassis arrive in the corner of my eye before I felt the impact. It dragged the fanny pack I wore backwards across my hip (“How is my fanny pack getting pulled around my body?”: the last clear thought I had, for months.) The hot metal of the passenger side door gleamed, first behind and then beside me, as it smushed my shoulder forward. My body lurched to the right. The memory is blurred colors, static, pure sensation: the intersection of adrenaline and panic and pain.

Where it runs along the Fraser River, across a plateau before rejoining the mountains near the last road north to Alaska, the speed limit on the Yellowhead Highway is 100 km/hr. I had been on the white line. I’d had, for once, both hands on the handlebars.

***

On Tumanguya, suddenly, the tunnel obstructing my vision snapped out. Nothing was quite in focus, but the dodgy gray in the periphery had lifted, transformed into smudgy other-colors and almost-shapes. The shock of restored vision made me realize that some time had passed.

Now the blue shadows on the high walls had lifted. The light had a mid-morning crispness. I had no idea how long I had been keeled over, hallucinating in the snow.

Since August, my brain had been unreliable. If the mountains are harsh and indifferent, so, too, was this new headspace. I didn’t know who I was in this unfamiliar brain, this unfamiliar body. But I didn’t know who I was out of the mountains for so long, either.

Inviting Amber had been my idea. She didn’t know me well enough to know that I wasn’t better yet. It wasn’t until we were hours into the hike that I had warned her I didn’t know how far I could push it.

That’s fine. That’s totally normal. Everything’s fine. The freeze-thaw of winter had been so significant and the sharp snow cut my ankles. I took another step. The snow surface held.

I had pushed too far, into the hostile territory of neurological collapse, past the point of being able to be a good partner: past the point of being able to locate Amber.

In the distance, there was a rocky band where the top of the moraine had melted out, looking sturdy and reliable, decidedly like real rock and not at all like a figment of my imagination.

My fingers tingled. My face tingled. I couldn’t feel my left arm, or leg, or either of my feet. When I tried to step, my legs gave out under me.

That’s fine. That’s totally normal. Everything’s fine.

The freeze-thaw had been so significant as winter had dragged on without a single atmospheric-river-type storm, that by now the individual pieces of hoar were inches wide, and sharp enough to cut my ankles. I took another attempt at a step; my foot landed, and the surface of the snow held.

When I made it to the top of the talus rib after a period of time that spanned somewhere between eight minutes and four hours, I was surprised to see that, from the ridge’s summit, the moraine dropped several hundred feet into a valley. At its floor, there was a frozen lake and a tentwhich meant we weren’t alone. Which meant someone was here, that someone could help me find my friend. They could help me rig a sled to carry her body out.

“Astra!”

I gasped. No, I thought: Amber’s gone and the sound of her calling my name is a myth that I’ve just invented. But there she was, just a hundred feet downslope from me on the edge of the moraine. Amber yelled my name again as she scrambled across the talus toward me. When she arrived, we threw our heads back in laughter. I told her what madness my brain had fallen to while we’d been apart. Or, I tried to: I realized after the words left my mouth that there were no words, only syllables and disjointed half-laughs, pent-up language pouring out of my body, all noise and no meaning.

***

By October, 2019, I had spent two months sitting in my favorite south-facing window, watching the light change on the mountains surrounding my home in Mammoth Lakes, California, waiting to heal, drifting in and out of lucidity while the days bled together.

One Friday afternoon, I was reeled out of my stupor by a text from my friend Michelle Xue, describing a climb she had planned with Jen Sheddena dreamy mission that was hinging on their ability to find someone to watch Jen’s pup for the weekend. Michelle texted: my friend jen is looking for a dog sitter for one night in mammoth this weekend / I sent her your number.

Michelle was a solid partner. For years she had been the person I dreamed my bravest ticklists with.

The first time I got out with Michelle, we went for Mt. Lyell (the highest peak in Yosemite, 27 miles roundtrip with some third class and glacier travel). We met at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining, where she bought a large veggie pizza and put the whole thing, box and all, into her paper-thin Hyperlite pack. Just weeks before my bike crash, when we ambled up a line in Montana’s Bridger Range, she brought a greasy paper bag full of chocolate croissants as her only snacks.

The next time we got on something big together in the Bridgers in Montana, just weeks before my bike crash, she brought a bag full of chocolate croissants as her only snacks.

I hadn’t seen Michelle since a few weeks before my accident. As she was wont to do, Michelle had texted me every week that summer. She had an approximation of my bike route memorized, and since she was on the road, too, we had fantasized about potential climbs we could link up for. Every day that I rode into service, I heard from her: Where are you now? I’ll be in Colorado in two days! and Bugaboos in two weeks?

But that autumn, the objectives we had shared were too big for me. I was just weeks out from my accident, still incapable of walking more than a mile at a time.

And yet, Michelle had texted me nearly every weekend since I had returned from my bike trip. She pitched progressively smaller plans: to climb North Peak, to hike to Lake Ediza, to walk to a hot spring, to get coffee. I had turned all of them down, at first because of my glaring concussion, and subsequently because I had spent so much money trying to fix it that I couldn’t afford the gas to drive out and meet her. My 2000 campervan weighed 7000 pounds. It cost $90 to fill the tank, if I could get it started. And even if I could have afforded it, I wasn’t safe behind a wheel.

But dog sitting: I could do that.

I swung by Jen’s house, just up the hill from mine, to pick up her Vizsla on the first fall morning that stung from matinal frost. Michelle showed up late. She had taken a red-eye from D.C. the night before and hopped straight into her car to drive six hours to Mammoth Lakes from Los Angeles.

Now at Jen’s house, I tried to focus as Jen and Michelle pored over the beta for the mixed fourth class North Couloir route up Red Slate. They compared the hourly weather forecasts from three different websites.

Then the headache came. My doctor’s voice chattered in the back of my brain: No social interactions that last longer than 15 minutes or you’ll never heal!

Really, I was just bitter from enduring details about a climb I couldn’t go on, so shortly after Michelle had arrived, I excused myself and wished them a safe climb. Let’s link up for dinner when you’re down tomorrow, Michelle. Within 24 hours, they would both be dead.

***

In a 2015 article, “The Science of Near Death Experiences,” in The Atlantic, Gideon Lichfield wrote that “scientific literature that attempts to explain near death experiences, or NDEs for short, typically categorizes these experiences as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain.” Triggers are unknown. They could be pursuant to any combination of “an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma.” NDEs are often subsequently said to comprise “the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; [or] spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm” (Lichfield). According to the 16-question scale sometimes used to quantify the phenomenon, one may also experience bright lights, a hastened sense of time, omnipotence, or perceive encounters with spiritual beings.

Jen and Michelle told me they would climb pre-dawn on Sunday. Monday morning, when Jen didn’t come back for her dog, I called the county sheriff before coffee, before I had even dragged myself out of bed. I pulled the sheets over my head before I dialed the number. Through my concussed perplexion, I tried to string together details to the dispatcher on the line.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Jen’s friends John and Forrest had driven to the trailhead and were already hours into the eight-mile approach hike. When Jen hadn’t sent her typical “Down safe!” text to John’s partner, Olivia, on Sunday night, the two of them got worried. Jen and Olivia had mutual-location sharing enabled on their iPhones. When Jen’s phone still hadn’t popped back into service by Monday morning, John enlisted a mutual friend to join him hiking in to find the two women.

John would later tell me that he felt buoyant hiking down the trail that morning, expecting at any second to run into the pair. He told me he imagined Jen’s giggly delight at seeing them; that he had also been worried she’d be grumpy with him for not trusting her to get down safe. But Jen never came giddily running down the trail. Instead, they found what looked like Jen’s tent. Eventually, they spotted a smudge of green high up on the white ice that splits the face of Red Slate Mountain down the middle.

By Tuesday morning, more than a dozen of Jen’s and Michelle’s friends and relatives were together, sitting in stiff-backed seats at the Mammoth-Yosemite Regional Airport, waiting for an army helicopter full of Search and Rescue volunteers to get close enough to tell us what we already knew. It wasn’t until Wednesday, after the second attempt at a long-line air rescue had been abandoned, that a ground team made contact.

When the SAR team made it to Jen and Michelle, they were both tied into an undamaged anchor. Their packs were off. Their puffies were on. The SAR coordinator who delivered the news told us that our friends had just finished the crux of the route. They were halfway up the couloir when the rocks hit.

We imagined them having lunch. We imagined them pleased as hell,  celebrating over frozen snacks.

I could picture Michelle under two layers of goose down, eating a whole pizza, sharing croissants like she had done with me in the Bridgers just months before. I imagined them omniscient, in a halo of light, out of their bodies, knowing everything at once.

***

It took months after my bike crash to realize that I should have died. When I take the NDE test, I score a measly four points out of the possible 35. (Seven is the minimum to count as an NDE.) But after Jen and Michelle’s accident, the truth of the matter became unavoidable: I should have died. A 2011 report by B. C. Tefft and published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that, for pedestrians impacted by cars traveling 58 m.p.h., the risk of death is 90 percent. If the car that hit me in August, 2019, was traveling at the speed limit, they would have been going 62 mph.

At the time of my crash, time slowed down, and then it sped up; or, what appears in hindsight as incomprehensible speed is actually just black-spots where my memory has been erased by the trauma of impact. Where I might have felt peace, I felt panic.

I stumbled through the week following my bike crash, conjuring no narrative continuity as the days bled from one into the next. I have no hindsight; the incident, and the weeks both before and after it, got skipped over by the part of my brain where long-term thoughts are stored. I can’t tell you what happened. I don’t know. The driver doesn’t know: she fell asleep at the wheel. (“Did you see what I hit while I was sleeping?” she would ask before promptly speeding off when all I answered was, me.)

Three weeks after the crash, when I was back home in the Eastern Sierra, I woke startled in the middle of the night to the realization that I had no memory of what I had spent my summer doing. My last memory was of leaving my ski boots unbuckled in the back of my van after I’d finished the last turns of the previous ski season, half a year before the accident. The 3600 miles of cycling, the dozen alpine peaks I had attempted, the two peaks I had summitted: those memories were gone.

Gone was the whole summer day in the Wind River Range, chimneying up a bergschrund with a waterfall in it. There hadn’t been room for crampons in my saddlebags, and so the soggy chimney had felt like a more slip-proof bet than the 40-degree ice that punched through to nothing. After 1000 feet of shimmying, totally soaked and with numb hands, I cliffed out just a hundred or so feet from the ridge that led to the summit of Peak 11,034. I then spent a long afternoon shimmying back down with bated breath.

I know now that, when I’d finally made it to the meadow, lush with early-season shooting stars and buttercups, I drank the last of my whiskey and watched a mama moose with a skittish calf in tow skirt around my tent, chomping ramps and willow shoots. But, for that night in September 2019, a month after my accident, all the texture, all the beauty of this trip-of-a-lifetime that had taken up a third of a year was gone.

***

Is an epic adventure worth it if you forget about it after the fact? Is it worth it after you learn that the stakes are your life? After my bike crash, my doctor told me I shouldn’t spend more than 15 minutes focusing on anything until my concussion symptoms had resolved. But after Jen and Michelle’s accident, just six weeks into my brain-injury recovery, staying out of the mountains no longer felt like an option. I needed the splendor and indifference, the “freedom that can only be carried up on your back.”

That freedom had been foundational to the way I organized my life for years as I linked together short seasonal jobs building wilderness trails in the Sierra, running 10 or 15 miles after work to scramble up summits around our base camps. I had built out a tiny Volkswagen hatchback, and later, a van, to facilitate long desert trips in the shoulder seasons, and slept in the dark corners of ski hill parking lots in the winters.

The 19th-century Swiss poet Henri Amiel wrote, “Every landscape is a condition of the spirit.” I still needed wide-open expanses, cold and harsh and unmoving. I still needed steady cliffs, towering vistas too grand to comprehend.

I couldn’t have them.

Just six weeks into my brain injury recovery, staying out of the mountains no longer felt like an option. I needed the splendor, the “freedom that can only be carried up on your back.”

On my first trip out, my heart rate hit 186 bpm within minutes. When I ventured out anyway, nearly everything set me off: the wobble of talus shifting under my feet made my vision cascade neon lights and disjointed interstices. The sound of a far-off lake’s crackling ice made me collapse, lose all motor function, and temporarily forget where I was. On a jaunt to an alpine lake above treeline in November, my partner got ahead of me and out of sight; I spent the next 30 minutes prostrate on a slab, sobbing because I couldn’t figure out where I was or why I was up there, in the cold and wind.

The psychoeducation section of the American Alpine Club’s Grief Fund webpage reads: “Grief is like being dropped into the middle of the wilderness without a map, without provisions, and no compass.” Mountains shifted around me; my spirit had lost its compass. I didn’t know how to exist amidst this unruliness.

The AAC uses the language of stress injuries; my hospital records simply state, “GAD. Panic disorder. Major depressive episode. PTSD (confirmed).”

When I told my therapist about my experience on Tumanguya, she chalked it up to an acute anxiety attack triggered by a trauma response that my body carries. Trauma, she tells me, rewires our neurology: It tricks our bodies into feeling constantly at risk.

A few weeks after my trip out into the Whitney zone with Amber, I had such an acute period of neurological collapse that I spent two days in the emergency room, although left with no real diagnosis. Six head and neck scans found me to suffer from neither tumors nor bleeding nor dissected vertebral arteries.

The next week, at the base of a 5.6 route called Right On in Joshua Tree National Park, I saw the beginning flickers of a hallucination, and had to tell my partner that I couldn’t climb that day, despite our having just driven seven hours in the hopes of sending. Instead, I spent the afternoon dizzy and bleary eyed, wandering around in the sand biting back sobs.

After a year of wading through the unrecognizable wilderness of my altered mind, I came across the aforementioned article from The Atlantic about NDEs. I was sitting at the table in my living room up in Mammoth Lakes, and my roommate Joey and I were sipping IPAs at a mostly reasonable, mid-afternoon hour. I asked Joey whether he thought a mission into the alpine would still be worth it if he couldn’t remember it after the fact. He paused and took a swig from his can.

“Totally. Absolutely.”

“What?” My voice was too-high in the way it gets when I’m caught totally off guard.

“Yeah, definitely,” Joey continued. “It’s always like that when I’m about to drop a big line.”

Joey is an accomplished skier, an October-to-July turn-earner. He said that on his biggest ski days, whenever he reaches the precipice, in the moments between ripping his climbing skins off and dropping in, he more or less blacks out. Maybe it’s because of some combination of fear and the need for courage, or because he’s consumed by the proximity of his mortality. The moments before that committing slide over the brink are uninhabitable. 

“The moment where I’m actually in it, making turns that my life depends on,” he said, “in the middle of the glory run, the part that I actually got out for? I’m never fully lucid for that, I never walk out with any specific memories of what that felt like.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that being in flow is what underpins feelings of happiness in worth. His theory describes flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Flow shepherds a person into such a heightened state of awareness that time seems simultaneously to compress and expand. When one finds the exactly right balance between challenge and skill, a person in flow is said to have their actions and awareness merged. In other words, there’s no thinking about doing; there’s just doing. It’s a reward loop that supercharges the brain’s dopamine reward circuitry.

That search for flow and the loss of self-consciousness, and the juicy dopamine reward that comes with it is, perhaps, the driver of all uproarious, hooting-and-hollering long days out in the mountains.

For the better part of the year (and sometimes still, nearly 19 months out), it was a state I was semi-suspended in: not because I was constantly in flow, but because my injured brain ceded any real capacity for self-awareness.

And in that sun-soaked February afternoon with Amber on the flanks of Tumanguya, after we reunited and carried on trudging up the crunchy snow on our front points, crawling into thinner and thinner air, a truth that snuck into my body, and stayed for a while: that the trip that ended in a crash was worth it. All the trips into the mountains since, even when I stumbled, even when I slid into a concussion relapse-anxiety cocktail: These were worth it, too. There is, perhaps, one mighty task of living: to trust our bodies to carry our minds to the far-away-feeling places.

In that way, climbers’ wisdom held true. The only way out was up.

Astra Lincoln learned how to love the mountains in Payahuunadu [the Eastern Sierra]. For now, she lives in British Columbia, where she researches proglacial ecosystems near the Bugaboos as part of the Mountain Legacy Project. Before this issue went to print, Lincoln began vestibular/oculomotor motor (VOM) rehabilitation. After 19 months of intense symptoms, her post-concussive syndrome has been resolved.