I broke my leg in four places and smashed my nasal cavity eight weeks ago today when a wind gust shoved me violently off my feet and into a rock field on Twin Sisters Peak.
Jim Davidson, SAR teams plus Rangers from RMNP demonstrating the highest levels of knowledge, professionalism and compassion got me to hospitals where after two surgeries, I am now recovering. My last update was four weeks ago so time for another update.
I am physically healing, yet I struggle with dark thoughts. As I fall asleep many nights, I hear the phrase “I don’t want to be in the rocks.”
When I do my professional speaking events, I often use several mantras that I have found helped me on mountains like Everest and K2 to stay focused, to keep going and to maintain perspective.
Today, I use those same phrases to push hard during physical therapy, to maintain a positive attitude and to keep the incident’s impact on my life in perspective.
Hurt or Hurting?
Often on a big climb, there comes a moment when you think you don’t have anything left, you are empty. You can’t go on.
Your legs hurt, your lungs cry out in pain. The very thought of taking one more step higher becomes a major life decision. Not melodramatic, but reality at 8000 meters with temperatures at -20F and the winds gusting to 40 mph.
It is that moment when you turn to your purpose, the reason for being there. And you do an inventory of your situation.
I shifted my weight slightly in a failed attempt to ease the pressure from the multiple rocks that made up my bed that afternoon on Twin Sisters. As I moved, I traded one sharp poke for another and let out a whimper.
I sighed and let my head drop back into the cradle I had created with my arms and my down jacket hood.
Why was I here? What had happened? How would I get out? Many questions, few answers.
As Jim put the water bottle to my lips, I sipped the water. His presence made me feel better. Answers began to develop.
And yes I was hurt, not hurting. I needed help. If I was hurting, I would push thru. But I was deeply hurt and needed help to get me out of the situation.
Hard or Impossible?
Coming down from K2, I was fighting pulmonary oedema, a condition where fluid builds up in your lungs. My teammates were climbing in the area, but out of eyesight and voice contact. I was climbing alone. I was responsible for rigging my belay at each anchor. At 24,000 feet on the steep rocks of the Black Pyramid, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake, but then I did.
I took the loop of rope and put it into my belay device but failed to clip into my carabiner that was attached to my harness. I leaned back to test the rig. Immediately I fell backwards, off my feet and against the black rocks of the wall.
My heart raced as I frantically reached for the ropes. I gasped for air in the already thin atmosphere. And then I stopped.
Operating on what I call “muscle memory”, when I had approached the anchor I had instinctively clipped a different carabiner into the anchor as a safety. This mindless action had now saved my life. The safety caught my fall, albeit after a drop and a jolt.
Could I really get myself down K2 in my condition? I knew it would be hard, but not impossible. I had the skills, the experience and the motivation to keep going.
Now laying in those rocks in Colorado, Amber, the Ranger who had the lead on communicating with me throughout the incident, gave me a blunt warning as they were preparing to put my leg in an inflatable splint. “Alan this is going to hurt like nothing you have ever felt in your life.”
I knew she was right. I had been preparing for this moment for four hours. And she was correct. This was hard but not impossible. After a terrifying few minutes, it was time to begin my evacuation.
1,000 Reasons to Stop, Only 1 to Go On
Lying on the therapist’s table, Jessica said “OK, now lift your left leg and push your hips up while supporting your weight on your right (injured) leg.
I took a breath, got into position and lifted my hips. A searing pain radiated from my repaired tibia. My hips fell to the table. “That hurt didn’t it?” she said with a slight evil grin.” I grinned back and mumbled something. “OK, let’s not do this.” she volunteered.
Without thought, I pushed my hips back up, tolerating the discomfort for a slight moment. This was not the time to stop.
Short Simple Steps
My first trip down the stairs was one of those moments. I put my crutch aside and focused on the step. Both feet were firmly planted then I placed one foot higher, followed by the other. Steeled with confidence, I began to climb normally, one foot per step until I reached my goal, a whopping eight steps. I let out a “whoop”!
As I left the Balcony on Everest, Kami Sherpa seemed to set a blazing pace. Soon I found out why. We caught up with a herd of climbers seemingly stuck in place. Kami glanced at me over his shoulder and nodded. In the relatively flatish area, we passed the stalled climbers but at a cost. My lungs were searing, I gasped for breath at the accelerated pace.
Soon we clipped back into the fixed line and returned to a sustainable pace. I found myself fumbling, a bit out of control, wasting energy. A phrase came into my mind “short, simple steps.” I focused my headlamp onto the path directly ahead. I carefully, and deliberately began to take steps higher up the snow covered flanks of Mt. Everest.
I put my shoes on, the right one tight with my still swollen foot. I set my crutch aside. Short, simple steps.
I keep finding that the first step is the hardest. It is the moment when I feel out of control, I become keenly aware of my injury, it takes all the focus I can muster.
In my mind, I focus on the second step, not the first and begin the move. I did it! The third step is easier as is the fourth.
Walking with a bit of a limp, I make steady progress to the mailbox, sans crutch. I am walking! I’m walking!
Careful to not get carried away, literally and figuratively, I keep my movements in control. I’m oblivious to the birds announcing this beautiful spring day with a chorus of chirps. Or perhaps they were cheering me on?
I reach the mailbox, only to find hospital bills. Oh well, no good deed goes unpunished! But I will not let this ruin my celebration. I went a bit further.
As I walked back inside, I had completed one quarter of a mile, 400 meters, 1,320 feet. I took off my shoes, much to the relief of my foot. As I sat in my chair, I took another deep breath.
Preparation for the Unexpected
Yes, this was a major life event for me. No, I would rather it hadn’t happened and I have no regrets.
I won’t paint too bright a picture however, there are days, and even weeks that are hard. I feel like I’m not making progress and the “discomfort” comes in the middle of the night in my leg and in my dreams. I know it will be months before I can take even the simplest of hikes.
No, this is not easy.
In some strange ways, I feel that all my mountain experiences had prepared me for this moment. Three “non-summits” on Everest, similarly, three efforts on Denali with no tippy top. And a summit of Ama Dablam, Alpamayo, Manaslu, Everest, K2 and more.
Yes, as I lay in the rocks, I knew I could handle this. As I now lie on the PT table, I know I can do this. As I look forward, I am excited about tomorrow and what might come.
I can do this.
Memories are Everything
- Broken Leg: I Don’t Want to be in the Rocks
- Broken Leg Update: One Month Out
- Broken Leg Update: Two Months Out