A Falling Rock
And the story of my life as a new amputee
The rock never knew I was there. For millions of years it sat, compacted on that ledge. Minute shifts in the mountain’s shape allowed small droplets of water to slide behind the rock. It began when mammoth and mastodon grazed. A droplet each year for fifty thousand years. Fifty thousand droplets freezing and thawing over and over again. On its top were two distinct chalked holds and the ledge below stood out against the surrounding lichencovered granite. The last droplet slipped behind the rock after the other climbers had pulled on it, but before I did.
It’s the little things that irk you as a new amputee. I am awoken by pain most mornings. I turn sideways and roll to the bottom of the bed where my walker stands, mocking. A few measures of the familiar melody: slide…thunk, slide…thunk, and I am at the toilet. I turn the walker, careful not to slip on the bath mat, and sit down to pee. It’s not the sitting that bothers me but rather that there is no comfortable way to elevate my stump. When I finish, I lay back down and wait for the throbbing to subside. I’ll have a prosthetic soon; I’ll be able to walk, run, climb and live. After I shower and dress, I’ll be able to put on my leg and become whole. But there will always be that time in the morning when I am not.
There are two types of climbs: the ones you do because you know they will be fun, and the ones you do because you know they won’t. Although most of my climbing falls into the latter category, Mount Stuart was supposed to be entirely enjoyable. My wife, Mia, and I set out for Ingalls Lake at a leisurely pace, climbed the lower West Ridge to Long John’s Tower and settled in for a perfect alpine bivy. We sipped whiskey from my weathered flask and watched the sun set behind the Snoqualmie Range to the west.
A goat had been following us since the middle of the previous day. When we awoke, he was still there, mulling around a few feet from our sleeping bags. He continued after us that morning. The last thing I remember seeing was his silhouette while I dangled, slowly spinning as a drowned worm spins on a fishing line, wholly incapable. I don’t remember being pulled into the helicopter. I do remember the sound of the door slamming shut. When I awoke in the hospital, I was told a rock crushed my foot and they had to amputate my leg below my knee.
It’s 300 kilometres from the Seattle hospital to my home near Portland. You can’t fully appreciate Interstate 5’s current state of disrepair until you’ve ridden in the backseat for three hours a couple days after an amputation. The splint supporting the cast broke, allowing the hard plaster to bounce against the incision, rhythmically, as the car’s suspension dealt with the runnels carved into the asphalt by drops of water. I cried.
Fatherhood can be measured in two parts: what happens before you cry in front of your kids and then everything after. Lyra was a little too young to have been affected. Estella rushed to throw her arms around me and has waited on me hand and foot for weeks. Rigel has never been quite the same, but she’s slowly warming up to the idea that her dad is not invincible. You’re not supposed to learn that at four.
We all balance our need to climb against the risks we take doing it. We tell ourselves that through wisdom and skill we can mitigate those risks to something acceptable. For every time I ran it out, for every time I climbed above terrible gear, for every pitch I soloed, for all the hard climbing on uncharted ground and maybe for all my sins, I’ve learned that’s not the case. And I mean I learned it. Not in my head, but in my guts.
I don’t know if I will ever climb alpine walls again. I think about the sadness in Rigel’s eyes. I think about my wife’s hands gently cradling my bleeding stump, tears sliding down her face as I screamed in agony through a bad night. I think about my father sitting alone at a table with his head in his hands, taking a break from being cheery for me. For now, there is a whole lifetime of rock and ice climbing down low for me to focus on. Then maybe back to a big wall or two where I can keep the risk manageable. Or can I? Or can I live knowing I’ll never crack my window and breathe in the stillness of Yosemite Valley before dawn, stomach twisted in anticipation.
I had planned to leave for Queen Bess in the Coast Mountains, B.C., two weeks after the accident, but that trip will have to be filed away. Mia thinks I would have died had I gone. I don’t know, but I do know that when she stakes out a position, she is rarely wrong. I changed my desktop background from Queen Bess to a photo of the Dihedrals at Smith Rock. There’s a beautiful Alan Watts 5.12 there called Heinous Cling. The lower half is the hardest rock pitch I had ever led before I got hurt. I’m going to go back and climb it again next spring. I am not sure how yet, but I will.