No not the pretty colors and crisp cool nights. Fall where you’re plummeting through the air and a world of pain is inevitably in your near future.
I hate falling. In 21 years of climbing I have fallen exactly 6 times and every single one of those falls is a vivid memory. Of course I’m conservative with my definition of fall. I don’t count a brief drop down on a bolt or piece of gear, a short slip, or even a even a good winger. I’m talking big air with me screeching like a baby falls.
My first fall was in the summer of 1992. I was climbing at Franklin Rocks in Franklin, West Virginia with my childhood neighbor and climbing partner Toby Beard. It was my first day leading ever and Toby had talked me into leading Blood Sweat and Chalk – a beautiful 5.9 sport route with a roof move at the very end as you go for the chains. I fell at the chains. I hung on one arm and pulled out rope and then dropped it. Then I pulled out more rope and fell. A nice long fall (I screamed like a baby) made worse by the knowledge that I knew I was going to fall. You always remember your first one.
My second fall was at Bridge Buttress. An easy 5.7 called Beginners Only. It was late evening and I was jogging up the route after a long day with not much gear in. Dave West was belaying me when I was off and flying through the air. I fell long enough to yell “Are you going to f**king catch me or what!!” and then snap, the rope came up tight and Dave had a surprised look wondering what just happened.
Number three was at Endless Wall. It was sometime around 1995 and I was on a one-move wonder 11d called The Stick. The only problem with the one-move wonder is that the one move comes after a sizable run out on an arête. On my first try I pulled the crux and went to clip and came off. No big deal. Back up a minute later, pulled the crux, clipped the bolt, went to pull the rope and whip – off quick and swinging down. My foot impacted the wall hard and by the time my belayer had lowered me to the ground it was swollen. I grabbed my stuff and started moving; reaching the car just as the ankle ballooned in pain.
Number four was at Kantellia Falls in Caribou Creek. 1997. We had climbed up to the start of the route but it was unimaginably cold and there was no way were we climbing. As we started down-climbing the easy ice I slipped and cart-wheeled down the slope. Somehow I landed on my feet with nothing broken but the next day my body was covered in bruises and I had trouble walking.
Number 5 was the big one. In 1998 I tumbled 2,000′ down the Orient Express and somehow managed to live. But that’s another story. I went 13 years in-between any falls worth remembering (I don’t count avalanches, crevasse falls and cornice failures) and then came this story- fall number six.
It was a crisp fall day. I left the house late afternoon and drove up to Hatcher. I had my rope, rack, sleeping bag and some food packed. I reached the parking lot at 6:30 and began to jog down the trail hoping to reach the Snowbird Hut before dark. I had plans to meet Paige Brady and her father James and we all hoped to climb Independence Buttress – a long rock route my friends James Dietzman and Anne Gore had climbed some years back and told me about – but the clouds were building and by the time I reached the trail up Glacier creek it was raining.
An hour later it was snowing and two hours later I was at Prospect pass and pushing through the rocks hoping to traverse the Snowbird glacier and reach the hut before darkness overtook me.
I half ran down the glacier in the thick snow and pale light, paranoid of the gigantic moulins that lurk on the glacier and growing more worried that I’d have to spend the night wrapped up in my bivy sack on the glacier if I didn’t find the hut before dark. I had yet to visit the new hut so I was beginning to doubt my abilities to find it when I suddenly popped around the corner and saw it shining in the distance.
Up through the wet rocks and through the door into the dry warm hut. Ahh – Sanctuary.
We spent the evening chatting and listening to the wind buffet the hut. I’ve spent many a night up on the Snowbird and the wind picked up the memories and blew them around in circles in my head. I went to sleep as the storm thickened and past relationships and old friends swirled around pausing briefly for me to catch a glimpse before fading and letting me drift off to sleep.
The Snowbird Hut & Snowbird Glacier on a beautiful September 11th morning.
Morning came with a blanket of fresh wet snow and blue skies. It was too wet for anything steep so we lazily ate and drank coffee and soaked in the view. Finally we decided to give the Southeast face of the Nunatak a try. I had climbed the route in 2000 and recalled that it was quite mellow so off we set.
James signing the hut log. Not a bad view!
Paige approaching the Nunatak.
We reached the base of the route around 11 and had soon scrambled up the steep nasty dirt to the base of the rock. From there we had 3 or so pitches of mellow albeit slick snow-covered rock.
The S. Face of the Nunatak. You can just see Paige below Lower Spire in the btm right.
We tied in and I set off. Up about 8′ to a tiny TCU placement then up further to wet and loose rock. I wasn’t liking it so I traversed up and right in search of better holds. Everything was wet and loose but everything is always wet and loose in the high Talkeetnas so I kept going. Up to a ledge with sharp handholds then foot up to pull over. I didn’t like it. Too loose. Too wet. I pulled back my foot and stepped back down to the knob below me.
And then falling.
My foot popped off and I pinched tight. My weight hit my hands and I held on as hard as possible easing my body into a straight line aiming for the ground below with my feet. Then off came the hands and I dropped. There was no slow motion thought process. Down in a second into the pile of boulders. My left foot impacted first. (Bam!) The rest of my body down a second later but I couldn’t support my weight so down into a crumpled mess.
I rolled over and knew right away that I was injured. I looked down – no blood but my ankle already had a puffy tennis ball sized addition on the side. Off came the shoes and then Paige and James were next to me checking me over. Paige brought over her pack for me to sit on and I quickly dug out a chocolate bar and shoved it down my throat to offset the shock.
No my ankle doesn’t normally look like that. Prospect Pass is to the far left. 1 rap, 6 miles and 3,500′ down to go.
Paige wrapped my foot in snow while James grabbed the ropes and started rigging a rappel. I was doubled over in pain but at least the chocolate was keeping me alert.
I don’t know how long I laid there – maybe 20 minutes. I was too busy concentrating on breathing deeply and gaining control. But after some time I had the pain under control and saw that James had a rap rigged. I then laced my shoe up tight and shuffled over to the rope. I rapped slowly trying not to put too much weight on my foot – but it was unavoidable and I knew the endorphins were my friend if I wanted to get out of there. After the rap I had about 200′ of down climbing on loose boulders and dirt, then I shuffled across the glacier to our packs and dug out the first aid kit. 1800mg of ibuprofen was sucked down right away but I was wishing for some heavier stuff.
Paige took most of my weight and then down the glacier I went. It took 4 hours to get back to the car, the agonizingly slow shuffle manifesting itself as stages of grief with shock and denial building as I traversed the glacier. Shock that I screwed up so badly on such easy ground. A numbed disbelief that my foot was that bad… After-all I was walking across the glacier with relatively little pain. I’ll be better in a week, I rationalized. Down off the Nunatak bump to the lower glacier, across to the pass.
Ascending to the pass erased all belief that my ankle would be alright. The shifting boulders shot spasms of pain up my leg and I gritted my teeth and took deep breaths to steady my nerves. Stage one was replaced with pain and guilt as we pushed up and over the pass and down the rocky trail. I had been lucky but I had also been stupid. Why expose yourself to such a situation? If I had just traversed 20 feet right at the start the climbing would have been super mellow. By pushing up a steep wet section with no gear (in tennis shoes) I had unnecessarily climbed into no-fall terrain and now I was paying the price. Guilt that my stupidity had forced my partners to take care of me flooded my emotions. Remorse coursed through my blood as the pain fully manifested – my foot a swollen club, the flesh around my hurt ankle bulging over my shoes.
The long slow shuffle back to the trailhead.
Anger followed as I pushed on down the trail. There was no oh god if you let me get back bargaining moment. I knew I’d make it…but anger at myself swelled with my ankle. And then depression and loneliness as I slowly worked my way down the steep dirt to the flat trail.
Glacier Creek valley. Please note that this trail was not designed for handicapped hikers. Traversing that boulder field sucked.
But I made it down and back to the truck. And then Paige was driving me home as I made the I’m hurt I need your help call no one ever wants to receive to my wife, Yvonne.
1/2 way there. Ironically Paige sold these shoes to me
earlier this summer. She offered no “these are not
climbing shoes” disclaimer.
Back at the truck. Guess which foot is the bad one.
Once home Yvonne shoved food down my throat and then took me to the doctor. The X-Rays showed no fractures but the doc warned that because of intense swelling he couldn’t be sure. “There may also be ligament damage,” he warned ominously.
“And just how did this happen?” he asked.
I think hard. I couldn’t answer with just a few simple words. One could just say I fell but it is more than that. An event triggers memories and for climbers a good fall is an event we know intimately so it’s hard to separate one fall from another. All falls are a result of past decisions, lessons learned, corners cut, and if you keep on climbing, all falls lead to the next.
Memories of standing at the base untying laughing hysterically as an old partner doubles over laughing, “Oh my god you screamed like a baby!” Memories of how an old partner used to say “You’re over it” when I attempted to bitch him out about not taking up slack. 10 years, 20 years, last week; they all come back when primed. Friends who cajoled me onto a route with old bolts and a 60′ runout. Friends who took the big fall and crossed to the other side. Friends who have given up climbing for a new chapter in life. Non-climbing friends who tell me, “You’re going to kill yourself someday”. Climbing friends who will inevitably laugh and ask if I can score extra vicodin for the next bad fall.
I can’t answer the doctor. I fell is too simple, it’s so much more than that. A fall, a hike out with a trashed foot, ego too great to call for help. But what else can you say? “I fell rock climbing,” I finally said.
He shook his head. “Be careful,” the doctor cautioned.
I nodded thoughtfully. Yes… Careful indeed. Keep going down this path and pain awaits. A slip is inevitable and another fall almost certain. Hopefully not anytime soon; not something really bad. But when it happens grit your teeth, bear the pain and take those painkillers if you have to.
And after the swelling goes down, the bones mend and the mind calms, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again.
6 days later.