This is part one of The Indestructibles. a five-part series profiling climbers who came back from serious illness or climbing accidents to climb harder than ever. New editions will be posted weekly. This story originally ran in the May 2018 issue of our print edition—subscribe here.
In 2012, Norwegian climber Rannveig Aamodt and her husband, Nathan Welton, arrived in Geyikbayiri, a Turkish destination famed for its drippy tufas. On their first day, Welton picked the 5.11b Retsa at the Sarkit sector as a warm-up. The overhanging 45-foot route would be an amuse bouche to all the stellar tufas they’d be soon crawling up. Coming off a finicky shoulder, Aamodt decided to toprope. She clipped into the middle of the rope with a locking biner and started up, unclipping her side as she went and reclipping the free end below her so two other climbers could toprope through the draws. However, when she got to the anchors, she confused her toprope with the free end.
“I remember being at the anchor, unclipping, and feeling like I’m falling,” says Aamodt. “I thought Nathan gave me a couple of meters of slack, but then I was accelerating.”
What followed was a 45-foot groundfall onto a rock balcony.
Aamodt drifted in and out of consciousness, and after a rescue effort was airlifted to Antalya, the nearest city with a big hospital. Aamodt had 13 fractures, including bones in her back, pelvis, right elbow, and both ankles. She’d also sustained a concussion and knocked out her front teeth. Doctors surgically stabilized her joints and put her bones back together in a temporary patchwork. “They had these chopsticks through my ankles that were sticking out,” says Aamodt. After a week, she was flown back to her native Norway and sent to a hospital in Trondheim for more extensive surgical interventions.
Over the next four months, Aamodt passed through yet another hospital in her hometown of Molde, Norway, and two live-in rehab centers—one in Aure and the second in Oslo.
“[There] wasn’t this motivation of if I was going to go back to climbing. I didn’t know if I was going to have too much pain or if it was even going to be fun,” says Aamodt. “But I had so much time to think and see what climbing was to me. I knew that if I didn’t do everything I could, I couldn’t live with myself.”
There were small successes, such as regaining the strength and mobility to touch her hair, and then put in a hair band. At first, she could barely move or sit up on her own. Only after a month, with the help of a back brace, did she achieve this. By five weeks, she could crawl around in volleyball kneepads. By eight weeks, she had progressed to running in water and light chair yoga. As soon as she was able to weight her feet again, three months post-accident, she wheeled herself to the 20-foot climbing wall at the clinic. Grimacing, she pulled on a pair of climbing shoes that were four sizes too big.
“Since it was so painful to walk, [climbing] was almost easier,” says Aamodt, “and it had the victory of feeling that I could actually climb again.” After rehab, she started training with the physiotherapist Stian Christophersen in Oslo. “I blindly trusted him,” says Aamodt. “He opened my mind … and really pushed me. When you’re not scared of pain, then you can deal with more of it.” As Christophersen coached her on which type of pain she needed to heed versus which type she could ignore, Aamodt worked on incorporating basic strength exercises, bouldering, roped climbing intervals, core exercises, and workouts with TRX bands. Within eight months, she was climbing 5.13c, two letter grades harder than her best pre-accident sends. Now based in Boulder, Colorado, she climbs professionally.
“Being so close to losing [climbing], I got really focused. I realized how important it is to me,” says Aamodt. “I climb because I love it, and everything else comes because I do what I love. Everything I do is related to being outside.”
In January 2018, Aamodt returned to Turkey. On her second day in Geyikbayiri, she and a friend wound their way up steep goat trails toward Sarkit. Then Aamodt hit the cliffline and the memories flooded back in; she wanted to reclimb the route she’d almost died on.
“I was scared out of my mind; I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t take control of the fear [while] climbing it,” says Aamodt. When she reached the anchor, she had a moment of reliving the fall and then, surprisingly, she felt a sense that she could right her wrong.
“I felt this insane sense of forgiveness toward that girl,” she says. “I got this sense of who I was back then; I’d put all this pressure on myself. It felt like giving myself back then a hug … it felt really peaceful. Like a puzzle piece fitting in.”
Read more from our The Indestructables series:
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