A good girlfriend and I were in the Bugaboos for Canada long weekend of 2013. As July 1 is still early season for the Bugs, we were the only ones at Applebee campground aside from Matt Segal, who was moving in for that season’s attempt on the Tom Eagan. On our second day, my friend and I went to climb Paddle Flake, a classic 5.10- on Crescent Spire.
Now, I’ve learnt a lot since then, and I hope you won’t judge me too harshly for my stubbornness and stupidity. It had been one hell of a spring, and I seemed to have been working through all my stress by climbing. I was climbing harder than I ever have, before or since, and I was still new enough to this game that I didn’t have the tools to make good choices. I’d gotten away with all of it, until that day.
It took about half of the first pitch for me to start feeling confident, but once it started flowing – well, you know how it is.. I’d brought a single rack to three, which I thought was plenty sufficient, based on the grades I would be climbing with my friend and the grades I was sending at that point. By the beginning of pitch three, I was feeling great. I set the belay on a good ledge, to climbers left of the namesake ‘paddleflake’, and set out up the left hand side of the feature.
Before committing to the squeeze chimney, I confidently glanced back at my partner.
‘I can’t protect this’, I said, looking at the chimney above me, ‘but I’m okay, if you’re okay.’
She responded affirmatively, and I set off. Climbing squeeze chimneys, especially granite ones, is mostly about body tension between the walls. I buried a number three cam shortly after leaving the ledge (wouldn’t want to factor two the belay) and continued to scum my body upwards. I had no more placements fro the remainder of the pitch. It seemed to take hours and require all the tenacity I had to move up micro-inch by micro-inch. I have since heard wide climbing described as ‘move an inch, hyperventilate for 5 minutes, move another inch’, and I really think that’s pretty apt.
Eventually, I reached the top of the pitch, and containing my inner celebration, I placed both hands on the rounded upper edge of the chimney. My relief was palpable, and maybe too great as I relaxed in the final moments thinking it was over. With that momentary relaxation, my body tension released from the rock and I realized, with horror, what was happening.
There is always a brief second when you know that you’ve fallen, but you’re still touching the rock.. My mind whirred, and I remember running through my options:
-ricochet down the chimney and break my legs on the ledge.
-jump and take my chances. It’ll be worse or it’ll be better.
I am told I came hurtling back from the wall, arms still outstretched from shoving off. I am also told that you could hear my scream from Applebee. I recall the entire incident pretty clearly, aside from the impact with the ledge. There’s a small 10 second blank in my memory – maybe it’s my subconscious telling me that I can’t handle it.
It was a 15 metre fall to the ledge, which I hit with the left side of my torso, and I had continued to tumble to below my belayer for another 10 metres or so, in the process acquiring a fair bit of road rash.
I began to orient myself, realizing that I was down and to climbers right of the belay. Through communication with my partner, it became clear that she was panicked. I groggily began to build myself an anchor where I was, and eventually managed to create something I was confident enough in to tie myself off and unweight the rope. I was in too much pain to safely manage my own rappel, so my partner lowered me each time. We began our slow descent after a rescue had been radioed.
As an aside, there is nothing more painful that sitting in a harness on a vertical wall with a broken pelvis. Unless it’s being lowered in the same situation.
Upon reaching the base of the spire, we were met by the other party in the near vicinity, who had come by after hearing my singular scream. I was helped down the steep portion of the glacier to an area in which it would be easy for the helicopter to land.
With some time, I have learnt a lot from this day. The most singular self-reflection I have had relates to my violent desire to live. I was unaware that I had the capacity to so singularly and viciously forge a path. There was no flexibility in my mind, simply an unflinching drive to do everything in my minimal power to survive. There is nothing I wouldn’t have done, or have had someone else do in order to achieve that.
Once the helicopter arrived, I finally let my survival pass from my responsibility to someone else’s. The other climbers were taking care of my partner, who was clearly deeply distressed, and would now be responsible for packing up our camp and getting out by herself. We said our goodbyes before I was loaded into the chopper, and I lapsed into semi-consciousness.
I landed in Invermere, BC and was eventually ground transferred to Cranbrook, BC. As my stretcher was pulled from the heli, my medic leaned over and whispered ‘the pain control that they give you will be based on the pain they think you’re in. Now is a good time to start crying’. Like flipping a switch, the last ounce of control freak was gone and I cried. I cried until I reached Cranbrook and was sedated for my first surgery.
Once I was capable of using the phone in a semi-coherent way, I called my mother and my boss. I promised my boss that, though I wouldn’t make it into the office the next day, I was certain I would be in by at least Thursday.
I woke from my morpheine induced haze to find my mother beside my bed, arm crossed. She made eye contact, leaned in close and whispered ‘You are my stupidest child’. With my pelvis still in tatters, it hurt to laugh, but I couldn’t contain myself that time.
I remained in the hospital for 8 days, until my mother decided that she had had enough of Cranbrook and it was time to take me home. As we drove, my entire body began to swell. I have since learnt that this is a normal physical reaction to trauma, but as first-timer, this was disconcerting.
4 days later, I had yet to take my first shit, and I was getting concerned, not to mention uncomfortable. When that moment finally arrived I was overjoyed like never before about bowel movements.
I had biweekly check ups with my orthopod for the next 3 months. I began climbing on toprope, gently, after about three weeks. It would take until the end of the three months before I was given the all-clear to return to normal life. Until then, I toproped, road biked and drank a lot of cider. I also knit all my christmas presents and learnt to murder simple songs on my banjo.
I’d love to tell you that my return to doing the things I love to do was glorious and easy and enjoyable. But it absolutely wasn’t. It took a lot of energy to go through the rehab process well and responsibly – not my usual.