“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong” – Yvon Chouinard (rock climber, environmentalist, and founder of Patagonia).
I think it’s safe to say that the sport of rock climbing is dangerous. There’s an unpredictability to the sport which, I believe, is partly the reason most climbers take it up in the first place. We’re dare devils defying gravity. With every climb completed, we push ourselves to do harder climbs than the previous one. We stare danger in the face, spit at it, and then go climb the rock that towers behind it. To sum it up, we think we’re immune to danger. Like most climbers, I believed I was superhuman.
Until one day, I took a fall while bouldering which quickly humbled my ego and took me on an emotional rollercoaster for days, weeks, and months. The following is my recollection of the hour that made me realize that climbing meant more to me than I had let myself believe. This hour is what turned a regular climbing trip into my personal adventure, the hour something went wrong.
It was a good day. My group of climber friends and I had been bouldering (a form of climbing that doesn’t involve ropes but only requires that you go 12-15 feet up) for three days straight, giving it our all, motivating each other with phrases like “you got it!” and “c’mon!”
It was our last day before we had to say goodbye to the beautiful scenery of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas and go back to our hometown of Dallas, Texas. It was September and the heat from the summer was still lingering in the air. The mornings were cool, but by midday, it would get hot enough for our group to seek shelter in the shade of the trees.
Most climbers choose not to climb in such hot temperatures, with cooler temps favoring the friction between the hands and the rock. But with limited time off from school and work, our group decided that September was a good time to go bouldering.
And it was, except for the fact that the rock felt “sweaty” – a climber’s term to describe hot, damp rock that doesn’t cling to your skin. For climbers, this means the difference between finishing out your climb or failing to hold on.
But I digress. As I said, it was a good day. I had completed (or “sent” in climbing jargon) some climbs that were challenging. I felt great and ready to tackle a project I had from a previous trip that I wasn’t able to complete.
With a determination to finish it before leaving, our group of climbers hiked to the area of my project and settled in. At this time in the day, we were tired. Our muscles ached, our hands were torn up; we were physically and mentally exhausted.
Despite this, I chose to climb some more. So, I hopped on the project I had in mind, a sand-bagged V3 called Crescent.
Crescent is a boulder problem that relies heavily on your feet. The footholds are tiny and you basically smear the wall with your feet the whole way up. The hand holds on the rock are limited and, unless you’re taller than 5’6”, are really far apart. It wasn’t a difficult climb, but you had to be precise.
On my previous trip, the same boulder problem proved to be more challenging than I thought. Maybe I was weaker or maybe I had less confidence in my climbing abilities back then, but I failed (over and over again) while reaching for the third move – a crescent shaped sloped hold.
Hence the name: Crescent.
This year though, I felt more confident, I felt stronger, I had more conviction to tick the problem from my list of projects.
After having tried the start a couple of times, I found a way to reach the move that had spit me off many times, the crescent-shaped hold, and move past it. Easily, I must say.
It felt great to make progress on the problem and I thought “This is it! I’m going to send this!” and I did, essentially.
I was holding on to the top of the boulder, the only thing left was to pull my body over the top and stand up and celebrate my victory of conquering the rock. So I shuffled my feet to the right (on tiny little footholds that one could deem as non-existent) and slapped my hands on the sloped top-out in the same direction.
Then I fell.
The time was, roughly, 4:15pm.
You know how people say time slows down when they have near death experiences? In my case, I was far from dying, but I can recall how slowly time passed as I fell towards the crashpad.
First my right foot landed on the pad, then my left (for what seemed like several seconds later), then came the searing pain in my left ankle as it instantly swelled to the size of a grapefruit.
I had hit the crashpad with uneven footing and the impact of my fall was too much for my left foot and ankle to handle. Something had to give. In my case, it was my ankle which resulted in a grade III sprain (the worst kind).
In the moments that followed the shock of pain that shot through my leg, I cried out and then began to sob in a fetal position while clutching my ankle. I wasn’t crying because the pain was too much to handle, I was crying because I thought “I’m done! I won’t be able to climb after this.
I’ve screwed up the rest of my climbing future because of this stupid problem! Curse you, Crescent!”
While that was running through my head, I was muttering to myself and to my friends who had rushed to my aid “Please don’t be broken, please don’t be broken!” I said this repeatedly, as though saying it would will my ankle to be better again.
I didn’t have the will power to stop climbing, to take off time and let an injury heal, and it was at this moment that I realized how much climbing meant to me. In the past, I hadn’t let myself believe that I was truly, undeniably, obsessed with the sport. But sitting there on the crashpad, clutching my severely swollen ankle, I gave into the feeling. Climbing was like breathing, I needed it to live.
In that hour, I became a climber with an adventure story who was honest with her feelings about her love for the sport.
Although it’s not part of today’s narrative, what happened after the fall makes for a good story as well – the story of how my husband carried me on his back as he tried to hike down steep terrain for (I’m guessing) more than a mile; how I discovered that my husband’s iPhone had accidentally recorded 20 minutes of audio from the whole ordeal; how I deleted the 20 minutes of audio from my husband’s iPhone because it was too painful to listen to (you could hear my heart breaking with every “please don’t be broken!” said); how I hobbled around the Ranch house because we were too far out in the country to make it to a hospital right away; how it took me weeks to be able to walk without an aircast and another year before I felt confident enough to climb higher than 10 feet without the fear of falling on my ankle and injuring it again.
But all of that is a story for another time…