Monday, October 25, 2010

Life Goes On

(Photo:  X-Ray showing my broken ankle.  Diagnosis:  fracture- ankle, medial malleolus, closed.)

One year ago today, I broke my ankle rock climbing. 

In part, I started this little blog in order to force myself to write about it. But I've been struggling with what to say about it for a year now, and I'm afraid that struggle isn't over.

My accident happened on a Gunks climb called Insuhlation (5.9). I fell just after the final crux roof. I pulled over the roof with no problems, but there was a wet hold above the roof that I suppose I failed to use well. Or maybe my foot popped, I'm not sure. Truthfully, I don't know exactly why I fell. I had my right hand on the semi-jug above the wet hold. I was looking around for pro; my last piece was a green Alien a few feet below the roof. And then I was off. 

I recall with vivid clarity the sensation of falling. Time slowed to a crawl, and I saw my half ropes in a parabolic arc above me as I flew back outward from the rock. It seemed as if I had a good long time in midair to consider that this might not end well. I remember thinking "this is it!"  ...but I'm not sure what I had "it" in mind to be. I yelled out "falling," and then things sped up considerably. I flipped upside-down and then the rope came tight on the green Alien, which held, and I came to a stop, hanging in the air with my head where my feet should have been. 

As I righted myself, I realized I was injured. I couldn't understand why I'd flipped over. The rope wasn't behind my leg. And I hadn't felt a thing. There was no impact at all that I had sensed. So why was my ankle tender and starting to swell? I asked my partner Nani to lower me to the ledge. The climbers next to us on Obstacle Delusion retrieved my gear on rappel and filled us in on what had happened. "You flipped over when your ankle hit the rock," one of them said. So it seemed there was an impact, but in the adrenaline-pumped moment I hadn't felt it. At least it all made sense now, even if the explanation didn't jibe with what my mind had allowed me to experience. 

Thinking it was just a sprain, I hobbled the whole way from the High Exposure access trail back to the steel bridge, refusing numerous offers of assistance from concerned strangers. The best and the worst of the Trapps in autumn were on display. People were kind and supportive, but there were far too many of them. At one point I stopped to rest in the Uberfall area and counted over thirty climbers in my immediate field of vision, all of them looking at me in a pitying way that made me very uncomfortable. Nani thought we should summon the rangers, but I insisted that if I could evacuate myself we shouldn't initiate a rescue. I now recognize that this was a stupid mistake. I really don't think it made my ankle any worse, but if I'd listened to Nani, we would have had the benefit of the advice of first responders, and I would likely have been taken to a hospital for an x-ray right away instead of waiting 24 hours and only then finding out the ankle was broken and required surgery. It also would have put much less pressure on Nani, who ended up having the sole responsibility of babying me all the way back to Brooklyn. 

In the aftermath of the accident I was overwhelmed with guilty feelings. The source of these feelings was hard to pin down. I felt guilty about inconveniencing my wife. She'd have to pick up the kids every day and do all the cooking for months to come. I also felt guilty that I'd made whatever climbing mistake I must have made to get into this mess. I blamed myself for the accident, although I had a hard time deciding what it was I'd done wrong. I also felt a lot of guilt about imposing my injury on Nani. I entertained totally unfounded fears that she'd never climb with me again, and that all my other climbing partners might desert me as well. 

Amidst all this I wondered if I really was feeling most guilty about climbing in the first place. Was I taking pains to find fault with my climbing on that fateful day because I needed to avoid confronting something harder to deal with? Was my accident really a reminder that even if you do everything right when you climb, even if you place gear liberally and it holds, you can still get hurt? Was it a sign that I should quit, that climbing is unacceptably dangerous? Certainly a number of people, from my doctor to my mother to my wife's colleagues, assumed that my broken ankle would be the wake-up call I needed to make me come to my senses and stop this climbing nonsense, as any responsible husband and father would. 

I did not want to quit. Although I didn't know how I'd feel getting out there on the rock again, I was sure, as I sat around recovering and gaining twenty pounds, that I would miss climbing terribly if I stopped doing it. But I didn't want to be a bad husband and father. I had to ask myself if climbing could be done reasonably, or whether the dangers were such that no amount of rock climbing could be considered sane.   

I read numerous classics of mountaineering literature searching for the answer, to no avail. Many great mountaineers have wrestled with the question of why we are drawn to climbing, and whether the dangers are worth it. Some embrace the risk, declaring danger to be at the very core of the climbing experience. Others focus instead on the many other wonderful aspects of the sport-- the scenery, the adventure, the physical and mental challenge, the connection with nature-- but throw up their hands at the death toll and ultimately leave the question of whether it is all worthwhile to a higher power. 

Of course, these writers are considering a different sport than the one in which I participate. They are writing about climbing real mountains and pushing the very limits of the possible. They choose to face objective hazards that cannot be managed, such as altitude sickness, avalanches, and sudden deadly changes in the weather. And in order to expand the boundaries of what can be climbed, they deliberately go without reasonable protection on climbs that are incredibly risky, forging ahead on blank, smooth rock faces and through rotten bands of ice. These writers would think nothing of the climbing I do in the Gunks-- a two hundred foot cliff that has been fully explored, with every route to the top exhaustively indexed by its difficulty and protection rating. To them the risks taken by a weekend warrior like me would hardly qualify as risks at all. 

And yet there are real risks in any climbing environment, no matter how tame that environment is. In the Gunks, for instance, there have been very few fatalities over the years, but less-than-fatal accidents occur with appalling frequency. Lapses in judgment lead climbers to forget crucial steps in the climbing process. They rappel off the ends of their ropes or drop their partners. Objective hazards exist: rocks fall down. And no matter how much difficulty and protection grades may sanitize a climb, it is still easy to wander off route, to miss a crucial gear placement, or otherwise to find oneself in territory where a fall could be disastrous. Gear that seems solid may pull out; it is hard even for experienced climbers to dependably judge placements of climbing gear. And finally, as my accident demonstrates, even if the gear is solid you can get hurt in any fall.

It is often pointed out by climbers that many sports carry dangers, and that climbing is actually less dangerous than common daily activities like driving a car. This may be true, but we are not forced to choose a dangerous sport in which to participate. We don't have to choose climbing just because it isn't as crazy as BASE jumping. We can shun all sports involving danger if it is the right thing to do. And while driving a car may well be more dangerous than climbing, we live in a world in which we can't escape the car. We have no choice about it. Climbing is different. It is a luxury we can well afford to drop.

But I couldn't bear to drop it. After my accident I was desperate to find a rationale for continuing to climb, a way to go forward but to feel I was being reasonable and safe about it. 

I wish I could tell you that I figured out the answer to this problem. I wish I could say that I developed a calculus to determine how much danger is acceptable. I wish I could offer you a climbing plan that is 100 percent risk-free, or tell you that I located the perfect spot on the climbing-danger continuum at which adventure is maximized but life-threatening hazards are minimized. But obviously I did none of these things.

Instead I decided to wade back into climbing slowly and to take it easy, minimizing risk by minimizing difficulty. Even this simple plan was a difficult one for me to execute, because I like to challenge myself. But aside from a few lapses I mostly stuck with it, avoiding leading harder climbs all year, being willing to follow other folks' desires and ambitions more than my own, and repeating a bunch of favorite climbs instead of always seeking out new ones. 

At first, I found that my accident had wreaked havoc with my lead head. I was tentative on the lead, becoming paralyzed at crux moments I never would have worried about in the past. On more than one occasion this year I fell or took a hang because I simply couldn't commit to the move at the crucial moment of a climb. The irony of this situation wasn't lost on me-- before the accident I pretty much never fell while climbing, but afterward, while trying to go easy and safe, I found myself falling or hanging on gear with some frequency. This seemed like madness, and made me wonder what the hell I was doing out there at all.

But I'm happy to report that over time my head improved (although not completely). I lost a good bit of the weight I gained and I also tried through the year to become a better technical climber with a better awareness of balance and footwork than I had in the past. I see increased proficiency as a path towards feeling confident enough to progress back up the grades in the future. At some point this year I gave up on having any big climbing achievements in 2010. It has been a rebuilding year. I haven't led a single pitch of trad 5.9 all year, and I'm fine with that. I recently followed a few, and they felt laughably easy. I take that as a good sign, and I plan to put that good feeling in my pocket for the winter, work really hard in the gym through the cold months, and emerge in the spring with confidence that I can soon begin leading harder climbs again, breaking back into 5.9 and maybe even 5.10. And I hope that when I do so the climbs will feel secure, and not beyond my limits. 

So I have continued to climb, and life goes on. I can't assure anyone that I have made the right decision. But I can promise I'm more careful than I used to be, with the unfortunate side effect that I'm also more tentative. I am more willing to back off, and I will be much slower about working up the grades, more conscious of my limits. On the whole I believe I'm moving in the right direction. And that's the best balance I think I can achieve. 


  1. Love the insight in this piece. Your internal dialog--as a climber, husband and father--is fascinating. Why don't you submit this to a climbing magazine?

  2. Wendy, thank you, that means a lot coming from someone like you, an actual writer! I don't know if a climbing magazine would be interested in my ramblings, though.

  3. I agree with Wendy, this would make for an interesting and valuable article in any climbing magazine. I'm sure that most climbers experience this sort of mental battle, especially after an injury sustaining fall.
    The scientific explanation is that your brain has had it's adrenalin calibration messed up by this incident. Your head is finding it harder to regain your previous risk assessment levels mainly because you were unsure why your fall occured.
    I think that sticking with easier grades until your confidence returns is the correct way forward. Come springtime you'll be finding those 5.10s a breeze. ;)

  4. @Electric Fly, I think you're missing the point. It's very rationally arguable that Seth's (and all of us climber's) risk assessment mechanism may be entirely messed up. How do you justify willfully putting yourself if a position to potentially widow your wife and leave your children fatherless in exchange for some weekend enjoyment? As a husband, father and climber I still haven't come to terms with this. I just keep kicking the can down the road because I'm unwilling to give up the big chunk of my life which is climbing. I always try to be careful, but in the end it's just a continuum between abstaining entirely and having a death wish. When the gradient is so gradual, at what point have you become unreasonable? Like I said, I don't know. I've been dodging the question.

  5. Well put, AnthonyB. I think you and ElectricFly both make good points. ElectricFly I think was speaking to the issue of a skittish "lead head," as opposed to the moral question of whether it makes sense to climb in the first place. Both subjects are legitimate topics of discussion.

    I appreciate both of your comments.

  6. In response to Anthony, I chose not to comment on the moral questions raised in Seth's post, not because I missed his point, but because they are personal to each individual.
    I fully appreciate the emotional turmoil that must accompany any climber with a dependant family, and Seth has my admiration for writing about it so openly and eloquently.

  7. Just went for Insulation this weekend and got (what felt like) way above that green alien placement that you mention (in the long horizontal?) and wimped out at the thought of breaking my ankle after having read this, ha. Down climbed, took on the placement (I had a fancy new X4 in there, instead of the alien), backed it up with a grey .4 to the left in the same horizontal and after a rest just raced up to the ledge. Def a spicy lead with gear well beneath your feet before the business is finished with!

    1. Hmmmm, this doesn't exactly make me want to run up and try it again. Thanks for your comment, glad it worked out for you!

  8. Can deal with this article. Fell 10 meters on a climb in Peru Ankle broken 3 places and dissociated index finger. I debate with myself not for me but with my family and what they have had to deal with