Upside down and right side up

April 26, 2013

My life turned up side down, but now the right side’s up.

It is time to update. Where do I start? It feels like a lifetime has happened since last time I wrote.

Our lives are full of transformative moments, and April 26th 2012 — exactly one year ago today — was one of them. Nathan and I woke that morning in an idyllic bungalow in a pomegranate orchard in the mountains of Turkey. The rising sun slowly heated our tiny cabin, and small birds began to flitter through the garden. I rolled over and asked him innocently how he thought I was going to die. He pushed me deeper into the covers. “Of old age,” he said. “Why are you wondering this?”

We decided to live large that day and ordered a big meal from the kitchen at the climber’s campground. Turkish cheese, olives, fruit, yogurt. It was spring. Life tasted so fresh. We sat in the cafe by ourselves, thumbing the guidebook and deciding which of the countless classic routes we’d sample that day. Eventually we made it up to the Sarkit Sector, to the original lines that have drawn climbers for a decade from around the world. After a few warm-ups, Nathan climbed an overhung route through a cave, got to the top and lowered down. It was beautiful, aesthetic, technical and athletic. I wanted to protect an old shoulder injury, so I decided to top rope on the end of the rope still running up through the quick draws on the route to the anchor. Two English climbers also wanted to top rope it after us, so we figured that I could tie into the middle of the rope. As I climbed up, I unclipped the rope above me from the draws and then reclipped the dangling tail through the draws as I passed. That way, the line would already be threaded through the quick draws when I lowered. This would allow our friends to climb safely, and I wouldn’t have to struggle with clipping the rope into the quick draws as I lowered down — never easy on an overhung route.

I moved fluidly up the tufas, my feet dancing side to side on micro edges, my hands pinching minute limestone features. I arrived at the anchors and clipped directly into the two bolts at the top. I had to fix a tangle in the rope, so I unclipped it from the anchor, untwisted it, and clipped it back into the anchor. I was on the climb pictured below, and I was at the chains — where the photographer is. (Image © WillDC, Nov 2009 http://www.ukclimbing.com/images/dbpage.html?id=129540)

This is where a subtle, innocuous slip of the mind happened, born from habit, comfort, and too many years of rope work. I looked down and saw the rope going trough the draws, and forgot that this was only a loose end. I’m always leading, always on the sharp end, and I thought the tail was connected to Nathan. So when I clipped the rope back into the anchor, I clipped in so my knot was on the opposite side of the tail, as I would were I leading. “Got me?” I shouted. He leaned back, felt tension, and yelled back at me. I unclipped myself from the chains.

Then I fell.

This is from my husband Nathan’s diary:

I can still see her falling: in a sitting position with outstretched arms that made small clockwise circles, like a bird falling from the nest. I can still feel my intestines knotting up as the rope failed to come taught with each new meter she plunged. She made a surprised noise — the same sound she’d make when she dropped a plate or fumbled with her keys — and I can hear the nauseating thud of impact; the cracks of snapping bones and tearing flesh; the breathless, powerful echo of my voice as I screamed for help into the empty pastures below.

I can still smell her blood as it poured from her head and into my hands, soaking my clothes and flowing down the limestone. I remember slipping it it, unable to steady myself as I tried to stabilize her spine. I remember the feeling of the blood drying on my skin, tugging at my hair every time I moved my arms or legs. I kissed her forehead, and the blood dried in my beard, and I was reminded of it as I cried because my face contorted and it pulled on my whiskers. An eagle circled overhead and the air was still, but I felt like all the world’s chaos and violence had landed on my shoulders. Everything had suddenly become so unbearably loud.

I remember the primal, metallic taste of fear.

 She had bones coming out of her ankles, out of her elbow, and both her feet were grotesquely twisted 90 degrees to the side. She couldn’t move her legs, her hip was broken, her back was broken, her feet were broken, her teeth were broken, and she had a deep bloody gash on her head. She was shrieking into that blazing Turkish sun. “Where am I?” she cried, “What happened?” I told her to breathe in the pain, thankful that she was, at that point, still alive. I didn’t know what to do with so much trauma and I didn’t know if she was bleeding to death on the inside. So I just cradled her head and held her hand. And wondered silently as she screamed if this is how I was going to lose my wife, if this is how it would all end, like a scene in a movie, looking into her big blue eyes as her life slowly ebbed away and they closed for one final time. 

Twelve months have passed since I hit the ground from that 15m free-fall. I broke my pelvis into three pieces and shattered 3 vertebrae and my elbow (compound fracture). I dislocated and fractured both ankles (one was compound), and destroyed a number of bones in my feet and legs.

After two surgeries in Turkey, an air ambulance trip across half of Europe, and additional surgeries in Norway, I spent months confined to a bed and a wheelchair. I lived in a back brace  and couldn’t weight my feet.

The time in hospital and rehab centers was the most difficult of my life. I accepted my situation, but refused to let any negative thoughts get in my way. I knew that if I was going to have any chance to get out of these chains, I had to believe in it, and to do what it would take of me. Nathan caught me lifting weights with my one working limb at week 2, against my doctors’ orders.

Relearning to walk was painful and scary, and for countless of hours I hung weightless in a harness on a treadmill as my physiotherapist placed my feet on the belt, step by step.

It took baby steps.

As the weeks turned to months, I began to regain my fitness, and I realized I felt more disabled walking than climbing. With the adrenalin rushing through my body, and my mind getting sucked into the moves,  it felt like climbing became a place to “rest”.  I began to relish my rehab on the center´s climbing wall, and crutching my way up to the crag. And so began my return to the sport that almost killed me.

Mega thanks to my husband Nathan Welton, to my sponsors Sterling Rope, Wild Country and Red Chili, and to my coach Stian Christophersen for the support through this process.

Dax says:

Don’t toprope ever. It kills you if it doesn’t make you a worse climber than you are. Big respect though for the spirit and recovery!

Vanlu says:

TONS of LOVE from SPAIN!

Shae Biggs says:

Hi Rannveig,
I hope you are fully recovered now. I understand some of what you went through, having fell 15m in the Blue Mountains in Australia. I too broke lots of bones requiring a rod through my femur. and broke my fibular,10 ribs on the left side, left hip, coxxyc, left wrist, punctured both lungs, calf tissue cut off requiring skin grafts and lots of stitches.
My now fiancé was leading the climb and feel too, breaking both legs and his ankle.
I love that you have stayed positive, as it is so hard trying to get back to the climbing level you were at.
I admit I feel shy with how my body looks with skin grafts and big stitches running down my right leg. Do you too feel like this? I know we are both. very lucky to be alive.
I wish you all the best.
Shae

Kristian Oluf Vindvik says:

“Viljen lager av kroppen en pil” sa den store tyrolske fjellmannen Reinhold Messner. Dette er sterk jobbet jente!

Josh says:

I cried when I read your husbands diary entry. My worst fear is watching my wife die. My second worst fear is if I die first and leave her alone.

I am so glad, for both of you, that you made it through this ordeal. Good luck with the rest of your recovery.

ALFONSO says:

MUCHO ANIMO .,ESPERO QUE TE RECUPERES PRONTO…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PAmy0KaAkE UN ABRAZO FON

so glad for you that you made it back to life and back to climbing! i followed your story for quite some time and was and am amazed how strong you have been/are mentally and physically. and i love your story as it shows that not giving in really pays off – that keeps me going in rehab, every day since 6months… – keep on rocking rannveig!

Daniel Mamopulakos says:

Ran,

In just two words, you are a “Super Hero” of life… a live example of mind power mixed with the strength to hold life as hard as you hold the rock. Dreams are the fuel of the body and battery of the heart. You are living a second life, so love the air you breath in the places that we know you love: mountains. God bless you. I hope we can have you climbing here in Venezuela one of these days. Tepuys are waiting for your mighty energies. I´m extremely glad that you are smiling with Nathan today.

Cheers preciosa

Andrew says:

Powerful and inspiration comeback. Thanks for sharing your story.

Lee Cujes says:

Your accident was an easy one to make and could have happened to any of us. I’ve been following your progress and was amazed at your incredible return to form in Thailand recently. You’re inspirational.

Jay says:

Amazing story. Thank you for sharing your journey with the world. It gives me the motivation to grab any challenge by the horns and to never forget the dangers of this beautiful activity.

Nicole-Jade says:

Wow…. This is such an amazing testimony. I’ve only been climbing for 4years and have a deep set fear of falling, so much so that I injured my wrist over-gripping 3 weeks ago an a warm-up route. Thank you for posting this though. If I ever do fall, and if I am injured by it, your story is what will remind me that miracles are possible, even if the Doctors think otherwise.

Chris says:

You’re a climber. Period.

I broke the talus bone in my foot five months ago from a 25′ highball fall..
Within those five months, I rehabbed back to 100%. I owe that to climbing. Managing to do whatever cross-training workouts and one-legged topropes I could find kept not only my physical state in check, it also kept my mental state in check.
Climbing/training kept my spirit and syke on high gear. It pushed me past those grueling rehabbing days of just wanting to give up. My suggestion to anyone who gets seriously hurt while climbing.. Heal up quick and get your butt back on the rock, you won’t regret it!

Thanks for sharing your story. It’s really inspiring to hear you overcoming your injuries. Keep crushing!

anirban says:

Excellent your mental stamina, I have no words.

Aaron says:

I wanted to leave a short story for anyone else going through a hard time. I myself was in a really bad motorcycle accident. Broke both femurs right in half and shattered my left tibia plateau. I successfully broke it completely off of the tibia, broke it in half, and had 8 additional bone fragments floating around in there. I was choppered into UAB where every single orthopedic on staff came in to see me. I was the interesting case.

2 titanium rods, 2 titanium plates, a giant fist full of screws, painful physical therapy, and 2 and a half years later I’m walking perfectly fine AND hopped back on the sport I love, another motorcycle.

I always love reading stories like this as it reaffirms the human spirit to never let a hardship defeat you and over come any and all obstacles. I’m constantly told I’m going to have full knee replacement sooner in life due to this wreck. I won’t let that stop me just as a few broken bones didn’t stop me before.

Keep training, keep climbing, and keep strong mentally and physically!

Quim says:

It’s really amazing see fighters like you..
Last week one great friend of mine felt from 15m doing an easy climbing and today he is at the intensive care unit. It seem he is progressing quite well, he broke both legs, feets, hips, some ribs and three vertebrae, so he is alive by miracle, but docs says that there is no reason to think that he won’t be able to walk again.
He is a fighter, I know him since 18 and your history sure will be inspiring for him and those who love him.
Thanks!

zofia says:

Thank you for sharing this! must have been emotional writing cause it was so emotional to read! congratulations on being really really tough…

Sebastian says:

Respect !!!
I also broke (bad, in several parts) my Tibia and Fibula 2 years ago at skiing, and after 2 years and 4 operationts climbing again at the same level as before the accident.
Also went climbing 2 months after the first operation with a 30 cm metal plate and 18 screws inside, so life doesn’t stop, you must go on and take care at climbing !!!
Greets from Munich :-)

René says:

Vor so viel Lebenswillen und Durchhaltevermögen kann man nur den größten Respekt haben.
Ich wünsche dir alles gute und noch viele schöne Momente am Fels.
Natürlich ohne Stürze in Zukunft !!!!!

Alles gute aus Germany
René

Steve Cadman says:

You’ve got guts!!!

Sarah says:

Your story is absolutely amazing, but still, it’s terrifying. It proves that even the most talented climbers can make mistakes and, well, even if I’m not so talented, I will be more careful the next times I’ll go climbing

I loved reading this post, I recently broke my right ankle very badly and I feel like my whole life has stopped. Your story has helped me today. You can read my story on my blog.

Great to see you are recovered.

Lorenzo says:

I’m amazed. I know, for having had a similar experience (7mt. fall, 2 heels & one vertebra shattered) how painful & hard any little thing becomes from that moment on. Your experience is harder but you are still climbing, and that means being an amazing person and Of course loving climbing. That gives me the inspiration to handle back rope, shoes and ammo and get back “at work”. Thank you very much!!!

Paul says:

Amazing story, well done for not letting the fear of such terrible injuries get in the way of climbing. Absolute hero :0)