Let’s be honest, we all thought that if I was ever going to need a helicopter ride off a mountain it was going to be because one of my injuries or disabilities caused me to fall, or I was pushing too hard and trying to pull a move or route that was way too hard for me. Or I was simply doing something stupid enough to put in an application for a Climber’s Darwin Award. Let’s not discount any of that for the future, but, on October 29th on Martha’s Couloir, something happened to me that can happen to any climber out there.
Martha’s is a mixed rock, snow, and ice route on the 13,000ft peak Mount Lady Washington, which is located in the Long’s Peak cirque. The most common time to climb it is during spring conditions, but with some good storms in the fall, the ice will form well enough then, too. My goal was to let my partner lead, as he had been on it before, and that way familiarize myself with the route so I could come back in the spring and lead it. We also discussed simul-climbing some of the midsections depending on conditions. Given that I’m the most dreadfully slow person to ever step foot in the outdoors, we got a ripe start of around 1:00 am on Sunday morning to ensure we could hit the route before the sun baked it.
The approach up to the lake was uneventful but did offer a patch of very easy ice that while avoidable, as proved by some Chasm Lake hikers, was fun. It was a good warm-up for my brand new tools since I had left my tried and true Nomics at home in favor of trying out new Quarks on the snow. The thought crossed my mind that I must be a very strange kind of person to start climbing in the middle of the night and that most people my age were probably enjoying a beer in a costume at a bar or party, while I was traipsing through the cold
snow and ice with weight on my back. But then the sunrise crested over the alpine vista with serene reds, oranges, and yellows hitting the tops of the peaks like sparkling gems, and I remembered the fun, climbing part was still ahead. I knew I’d never chose to be anywhere else.
With the morning light glowing around us, we roped up, and Aaron made short and easy work of the first pitch. Given the time of year, the ice was a little thinner than I tend to prefer since due to my knee injury I’ve avoided climbing much mixed.Plus, I wasn’t super keen on dulling out my new tools right out of the gate.
But, with stowing away the tools in favor of some crack climbing and some delicate feet, it ended up being a simple and enjoyable pitch. Next up was a section of steep snow, but the snow was in bomber condition. We decided to simul-climb to save time, given that the sun would be hitting our aspect soon enough. The snow was great and made for some easy 50° climbing, and I was enjoying my new tools quite a bit.
I admit I’m still shocked that an accident wasn’t caused by my handicapped ass falling off something, but I can say I’m absolutely sure it wasn’t. I was feeling great and the terrain was relaxed no-brainer stuff. I always say injuries remove all pride when climbing, thus I have no problems turning around if I’m not feeling well enough. Especially when a partner could be at risk if I hadn’t been feeling well-rested and strong; I certainly wouldn’t have agreed to be on the bottom of a simul-climb if I had even thought for a second the terrain would prove difficult to climb – the physics of that type of climbing means that it’s incredibly dangerous for the follower/bottom person to fall.
Another team of two passed by us soloing, but details start to get a little fuzzy for me beyond that. Aaron has told me that he saw the rock falling, started yelling at me, and when he didn’t hear me yell back he (very smartly, may I add) grabbed onto a piece of gear he had in, right before the rope went taught. Which was when I got hit.
A Survivor’s Story
When my Jerry Bruckheimer directed movie biography comes out, the intense, 8-hour rescue off the mountain will undoubtedly be the highlight of the film. It will be better than Cliffhanger but obviously won’t beat out Vertical Limit, even though I had multiple helicopters up there and died three times on the flight out and once more upon arrival to the hospital. All joking aside, even though this is a huge part of what happened to me that day, taking into consideration that my head had just been bashed in and probably had some cognitive issues occurring, I don’t feel this is my part of the story to tell. What I can offer is the everlasting gratitude to my partner and everyone involved in saving me, and write now with the voice and unique perspective of the survivor.
Even though I was climbing on Halloween, it seems I still wanted to celebrate the holiday. So, this year I went as a hobo, and wore the costume a full two weeks: missing teeth, random area of shaved hair, huge black eyes, bruises and cuts everywhere that were only slightly covered by clothes that weren’t mine, and enough track marks from needles to get me into NA in a heartbeat. “Waking up” in the hospital like that, after so long being in the ICU and having no idea why I was there or what had happened to me, was the most surreal thing I’ve ever experienced. I had vague, lucid-dream “memories” that I’ve only been able to process now, weeks later, but at that time I truly did not know anything that had occurred or what medical procedures had been done to me.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining – I’m incredibly happy to have woken up at all given the size of the rock that hit me and how fast it was apparently going. Given the places my helmet is broken and the types of injuries I sustained, we figure that I was either climbing and didn’t see the rock, or did see it and dove into the wall. If I had been looking up, I wouldn’t have a face left. Or probably much of a head. It’s still a mystery how my teeth got sheered in half.
I’m genuinely very lucky only to have ended up with the injuries and wounds I did because the probability of waking up paralyzed was high. Along with the head trauma, I broke my neck and had spinal surgery to have it fused at three levels, fractured my clavicle, had a lung collapse, and suffered from hyperthermia which was probably what stopped my heart four times. It sounds like a lot but really isn’t considering how much more could have gone wrong. It turns out if you’ve got the right people on the mountain with you and access to modern medicine, you’ll wake up okay.
Now, six weeks out from the accident, I’m just taking it easy on the road to rehabilitation. Aside from some numbness in my left hand that makes things like typing impossible, I won’t have any longterm damage – and I’m still not sure if that numbness is due to the broken neck or MS and may yet go away. As MS is a disease that is highly affected by stress and traumatic events (ironically what my thesis research is on), the disease has flared up again in conjunction with the brain injury. The new cognitive issues have taken some getting used to – disclaimer here: it literally took me weeks to write this post and I’m sure I’ll look back someday and be aghast at the grammar and syntax issues – but I’m figuring things out, and looking to the bright side. For instance, now that I can’t taste or smell much of anything, I have no excuse not to eat more vegetables, right? And let’s all be honest here, I was a hairstylist for six years for a reason, and I’m much more concerned about my missing hair than my broken neck.
Will I Climb Again?
One of the people from the rescue team I spoke with remarked what a fighter I am, and I joked that all I had to do was lay there bleeding and let someone else haul me off the mountain. It’s an epithet I’ve heard a number of times before, usually, in regards to my chronic health problems, I think. I’m not sure I necessarily understand it because everyone goes through struggle. Mine is perhaps just more visible sometimes. But, if I want to be active again, be able to hike, sit on a mountaintop, climb up a rock or ice route ever again, I suppose there is a battle I need to fight, and it’s one I know well. When I first moved to Colorado, I decided that despite having asthma and fibromyalgia and a newly blown-up knee, I was going to complete the list of fourteeners and become a technical climber. I think I did a reasonably good job at that for four years considering my limitations, but then Multiple Sclerosis hit me like a semi. Once again I put my mind to figuring out how to manage my symptoms and learn what my body needed to be able to function and to continue climbing. It was a long two years of trial and error, disheartening disappointments and setbacks that eventually led to confidence and strength in myself and my body. I’m certainly not thrilled to have a broken neck and busted head, but if this is my fight, at least it’s one I know I can win. I will never be a strong or fast climber, but I can get back from this.
Even with the notion that I can climb again, I haven’t answered why I will climb again, which certainly needs to be addressed after an event like this. One of the wisest people I’ve ever met recently said to me: “Suffering comes when you wish things to be as they aren’t.” The Buddhist sentiment couldn’t have hit home more powerfully on a chronically ill person staring down the barrel of yet another medical nightmare. It would be easy for me to think how unfair it was that I happened to get hit by that rock. And then it would be even easier to wake up every morning and be mad at my MS symptoms for hampering my life and wish I didn’t have the disease. It’s a slippery slope, and before long I’d end up angry at myself and everything around me, with nothing to do about it. Instead, I choose hope. For me, that comes in the form of climbing. It gives me something to work toward – a goal, a pursuit, a dream that I can still do even though I’m disabled. It offers both short and long-term rewards: I may have a failure of a day out but know that even though I didn’t accomplish the peak or route, I still learned something new about how my body relates to climbing, and to life. The long-term goals keep me sustained and working toward something through the pain and the letdowns: not two days after I finished the 14ers I had formed a new multi-year goal on mountains to push myself further and keep myself going. That may seem like a lot to put into one pursuit or aspect of your life, but when you wake up every day in pain, hope is essential so you grab onto it whenever you can.
The second reason why I’ll still climb is an existential one and can be harder to discuss. Now is an appropriate time to bring up risk tolerance: climbing, especially the type of climbing I seek in the mountainous, alpine environments, brings an amount of risk with it. It isn’t that I am a risk taker, on the contrary, I’m a researcher with a very analytical and calculated mind. All of us who are out there have considered and accepted potential risks – you can do everything right and still get buried in an avalanche, get smushed by a serac, get hit in the head by some random rock. Hell, the first time I went ice climbing I got pelted three times and ended up with a melon-sized bruise, but last spring I decided to go back and close out my 4th season on ice by leading that very route I’d started on – we just get used to objective hazards. And given those risks of things entirely out of our control and now having been hugely affected by one, why is my goal not to switch sports and become a great golfer?
Put simply: climbing is more than a sport to me. Sure, it’s a way for me to regulate and maintain my health, but it’s something else, too. There’s obviously something that drives people to take incredible risks in climbing – I often hear commentaries on people who climb 8k meter peaks in the Himalayas but leave families at home – so what is that driving force? If someone dies climbing, it’s often said: “they died doing what they loved.” I hate that cliche and don’t think it really encompasses the point here because it’s more than that. I love eating steak, but hope no one would say that phrase if I choked on it. There are times when I get to the top of a route and mountain and the realization that because of my accomplishment, I’m seeing and experiencing something that few if any, other humans ever will. In the solitude, I can look out at the jagged pinnacles of rock on peaks in the distance, of the wind rustling the leaves of a tree far below, the flashing spots of a butterfly floating by, the twinkling of a snowflake as it falls into my hand and reflects the sunshine. And I realize that it is all connected because we are all stardust. Those few moments of meditative transcendence and peace are worth the risk to me, as I’ve been unable to find the type of experience that climbing offers anywhere else in life. I’m not a spiritual person, but I suppose some could jokingly say this is as close to religion as I’ll ever get. Martha’s was a bit too close of a call, and I’m really glad I survived. I don’t want to or plan to die next year or in ten years on a mountain. But, should it happen someday, I will consider my life well spent in pursuit of what brings me peace.
Some Thanks Are In Order
I don’t talk about gear much on here, but I think it’s warranted at this time. I want to note that neither I nor this blog is sponsored by any brands, I just want to recognize a few that I feel have earned it. A big shout out goes to Petzl, who’s ice tools I obviously love, but even more important, thank you for making a good helmet.
Rab, the Neutrino Endurance jacket is the best puffy I’ve ever come across and was a great thing to have on so that I didn’t die of the hypothermia. And of course, the rest of me from head to toe was protected by Arc’teryx – shout out to the awesome Denver store. And, as with anything I do outdoors, my feet were adorned by Scarpa. I’ve always been a proponent of getting gear and brands for the alpine that I trust because, as this accident proved shit can get real very fast up there, and your choice in gear will literally mean the difference between life and death. A huge thanks to the brands that know their stuff.
I’ve expressed gratitude and thanks as much as I’ve been able in person, but I feel there is public recognition due to many that I will at least attempt a start to here. First and foremost, Aaron, not only for your clear thinking and good training that kept me alive but for everything you gave and did to take care of me and keep my consciousness present. I cannot possibly imagine ever wanting anyone else on the other end of that rope. To my parents and sister, who all had to go through a dreadful call which they thought was to tell them I was dead, and all dropped everything to show up and be there for me, for weeks. And never once did any of you guilt me or try to convince me to stop climbing, but respected and supported me in any way you could. I am so lucky to have such an awesome family. To all my awesome friends and amazing people in my life, I wish I could name you all here, who came to the hospital, who supported me and my family in so many ways and still do, who reached out online with so much positivity, it fills my heart to know I have you all in my life. To my school, and the entire community there, who has been so kind in their support of not only helping me figure out my classes and coursework but for holding tonglen and compassion meditations for me – I am so thankful to have Naropa in my life! And to everyone who sent help via online and across distances for the GoFundMe that was set up, it was so heartfelt and overwhelming to wake up to such compassion and generosity, and I truly have not the words to express thanks for such gifts. And finally, to Aaron M., Trevor, Rocky Mountain Rescue, everyone involved in my rescue, and the staff at St Anthony’s (those nurses in the ICU should get a pay raise after putting up with me for that long) – THANK YOU!!!!!!