Upside down and right side up
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/
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.