A Fall­ing Rock

And the story of my life as a new am­putee

Gripped - - CONTENTS - by Mike Getlin

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.

Mount Stuart

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.