It’s hard to believe that one year ago today on February 10, 2017, that a rogue wind gust blew me into a field of rocks breaking my leg in three places and crushing my nasal cavity. Thanks to Jim Davidson, Rocky Mountain National Park Rangers, Boulder Mountain Rescue and Larimer County Search and Rescue, I survived – full stop.
Now, after three surgeries, I continue to be filled with gratitude and determined to learn and grow from the experience. And it has not been easy.
For several months after the initial event, my life shifted from regular climbs in Colorado and plans of more 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal and Pakistan to one of healing. My days became a disciplined routine of exercises that gradually shifted to walks before taking a big jump to hiking back in the mountains. Then it all fell apart.
I was pleased with my progress in the middle of last year with some simple, but big steps.
- I got up Horsetooth on my 61st birthday on July 27.
- On August 16, I completed a 10-mile hike to Mt. Ida, 12,865’ to honor Ida Arnette, my mom, who died from Alzheimer’s in 2009.
- Then on September 15, I returned to Twin Sisters with my wife Diane.
- Plus multiple short hikes around my Northern Colorado town
On October 24, 2017 while hiking up a simple 14er, Mt. Bierstadt, my leg gave me clear feedback that it was not ready, and more importantly, something else was wrong. On consultation with my orthopedic Doc, Riley Hale, we took all the screws and plates out of my leg but left the titanium rod in place. The fractures had healed but the screws were impacting my ankle mobility and touching a nerve creating significant feedback and preventing me from even walking. The procedure was a total success with the feedback instantly disappearing. However, it took longer to achieve progress than I had anticipated.
This week, as I have for a month now, I walked three miles each day at 3 mph. The feedback is low and getting lower. Remember I don’t use words like pain, accident or recovery; rather feedback, event, and progress. A mind game to be sure, but one that works for me.
Dr. Hale told me when we first met that given the severity of my fractures and that “degloving” occured it would take one year to reach my first milestone of basic functions and two years for full progress, but he also added that I would be close but not 100% of the pre-incident condition. He appears to be correct on the first part.
So what have I learned in the last year? First, don’t break a bone. 🙂 I have torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders but never had a process like this. Second, follow orders. As I have said before I have full confidence and gratitude for Dr. Hale. He has addressed my concerns and encouraged my goals. Also, I have benefited greatly from working with my physical therapist, Nina Patterson.
As for lessons from the incident itself, there are many. Never climb alone in dangerous or uncertain conditions. Respect the wind 😮 . Be prepared for the unknown and worse case scenarios. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, but don’t be foolish. I still believe Jim and I acted responsibly that day given our respective objectives of climbing Everest and Dhaulagiri a few months later. The wind gust was unique in my 20 plus years of climbing all around the world. But it happened.
Looking back at my progress, I am glad I pushed myself hard – perhaps a bit too hard at times – but that is part of my make-up. To do less would not be who I am. That said, I did back off after the Bierstadt and re-evaluated then took actions to fix the problems. Therein lies the lesson for me – listen to your body, take care of it and it will take care of you.
Be positive is a lesson I linked to the incident half an hour into that cold windy afternoon. As I said, I wasn’t going to be a martyr, a victim and not defined by a broken leg but rather to use it for good. It is an attitude and a choice that I had full control over. By surrounding myself with positive and supportive people like Diane, Jim, Gloria, Barry, Rodney, Robert, Ryan, Patrick and more, I fed off their positive energy to make me a better person.
Let me add to the lesson list to support your local Search and Rescue organizations. What they do is simply remarkable. if you climb, hike, hunt, fish, picnic by a running stream or boat in a lake – they are your safety net. Support them with your donations annually.
I still don’t know. At one point I hoped to attempt another 8000er this Spring, but that won’t happen. Candidly, I am woefully out of shape after being mostly inactive, as compared to my previous level of fitness, for a year. I am addressing that. My Project 8000 where I wanted to summit all of the 8000-meters peaks I hadn’t is on hold and most likely will not happen unless a sponsor emerges. I have summited Everest, K2, and Manaslu and had good attempts on Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Broad Peak and Shishapangma so I know I could give it a go, but … now at age 61, I’m mindful of the saying “There are old climbers and bold climbers, but not old bold climbers.” Someone once told me that Reinhold Messner is the greatest climber of all time – just because he is still alive.
My goal since 2009, when Ida Arnette was killed by Alzheimer’s Disease, was to use my climbing to raise awareness and funds for research. I’m proud of my results thus far and will never give up on that life purpose. The question is if climbing is still my best way.
Climbing continues to be my passion and I miss it terribly. I hope to get back out on a 14er soon. I miss the feeling of snowshoes crunching on the trail, the wind on my cheeks, the struggle to breathe at altitude. I miss the quiet of a snow covered forest, the sound of a squirrel chirping away high in a pine tree, the bluest of blue skies on a perfect day. I miss my passion, especially on the highest mountains. The expedition life, creating a cozy bed in my tent, building that special bond with my teammates, to see if I can do what I set out to do, to see if I am who I think I am.
Maybe there is one more 8000er in me, or a smaller one around 20,000 feet in Peru or Ecuador. Or perhaps I will adjust my expectations and celebrate climbing new routes or wandering aimlessly here in the Colorado Rocky Mountains until I can no more. I am incredibly grateful to have climbed what I have. Over 35 major expeditions, those big summits, those “non-summits”. Each has been a lifetime experience full of joy and lessons. My life is full today with many friends, and of course Diane and Cory. Covering the climbing world for my blog keeps me in the community. My Summit Coach consulting business has taken off and is extremely fulfilling. And yet …
I always said I need five areas to align in order to go on a big climb:
- Support from my family
- Physical capacity
- Deep personal desire
As I evaluate my next step, I will use this trusted list that has served me well.
On Everest in 2002 as I approached the Balcony, I fell to my knees, retching, coughing, struggling to take one more step higher. Then I remembered what a good friend had told me, “When you know the right thing to do, do it.” With that notion, I turned around only to return nine years later to summit. On K2 in 2014, once again I found myself at my limits. I stood in the dark at 27,000 feet, my arms limp by my side, the very life force leaving my body. This time my mind connected with all the people who care and love me in the world. I fed off that energy to keep going. I went to the summit but also to a place within me I never knew existed.
This is why I climb. To take those journeys, to give back, to honor. It is a part of me that is hard to let go.
Memories are Everything
On February 10, 2017 while training for the 8000 meter peak, Dhaulagiri, a sudden wind gust estimated near 100 mph swept me off my feet and into a talus field on a simple walk up mountain of Twin Sisters Peak, 11,4327′, in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado.
I described the entire incident in my post Broken Leg: I don’t want to be in the Rocks.
When I was slammed into the rocks near 11,000 feet that Friday afternoon, my lower right leg was broken in multiple places.
The tiba had an angular fracture and the fibula was also broken. My left leg had a puncture wound. My nasal cavity was broken as well. The injuries required two operations under full anesthesia and a five day stay in the hospital.
Jim cared for me over four hours as I lie in the rocks and it took another five hours for SARs to evacuate me off the mountain.
- Broken Leg: I Don’t Want to be in the Rocks
- Broken Leg Update: One Month Out
- Broken Leg Update: Two Months Out
- Broken Leg Update: Three Months Out
- Broken Leg Update: Five Months Out
- Broken Leg: Return to Twin Sisters
- Broken Leg Update: Eight Months Out