Prologue: On a crisp fall evening my friend Dillon and I packed up our climbing gear and drove 10 minutes to the closest climbing area, the Pit. When we arrived, it was too dark to climb, so after hiking the half mile in we left our gear under an overhang and hiked along the cliffs wearing our headlamps. We took a trail to the top of the cliffs and walked along the edge, far enough back to be safe. As we neared the area directly above where we had left our gear, I walked onto a rock wedged into the ground. I stood looking at the view, and as I turned to Dillon to exclaim that I had found the big dipper, the rock dislodged, and my words were lost.
As I was falling in darkness with the stars swirling sickeningly over my head, I did not have any big thoughts. I did not think, “I am going to die” or, “now my atoms return to the cosmos” I thought, “I am falling. I am still falling”. As I started to wonder what my injuries would consist of, I hit. I have hit before, falling off a fence or out of a tree. This was different. This was not a ‘bonk, ow!”, this was a WHAM. I hit that rock harder than a boxer hits his opponent in the championship round. Time slowed. I felt my hip swell and stiffen; I felt my innards fly up as my bones smashed down. I tasted dirt-flecked blood and noted a narrowly avoided cactus. As time resumed its normal speed, I realized that I was sliding off the ledge that had prevented my probable death. It was if I would never be still and would always be falling, trapped on vertical ground. I scrambled, swimming in an avalanche of dirt and rocks. Finally, my desperate searching hands found a small resiliant shrub. I was still, the dirt warm beneath me. Time stopped. Shock slowly took hold and, after an eerily silent fall, I screamed, the sound of my terror echoing through the Pit. The half-second of silence afterward horrified me, and I screamed again. After what seemed like decades but was only milliseconds, I heard an answering cry; “Alyse! Don’t move, I’m coming!” Dillon shouted as he climbed down the cliff face to where I lay precariously close to the edge. I waited like a cat ready to pounce, afraid to breathe or even blink. As I pictured falling off the ledge in a landslide caused by the relentless tremors of my shocked body, a strong hand clamped down on my arm, pulling me to the relative safety of the firm ground near the cliff face.
When you have just fallen off a cliff and you are in excruciating pain unable to move, you are struggling to breathe,and you are on a ledge on the middle of a cliff face with one other person in the dark, you do not feel sorry for yourself. You do not sit and cry, or hold your boo-boo and say, “ow look what happened!” It is strictly business. Your instincts kick in, your senses heighten, and your life in that moment is simply a matter of survival. In my own world of pain, I was aware of everything. I felt the dirt stuck to the roof of my mouth and the copper taste of the blood dripping steadily from my nose. My right hip was as bulging and stiff as the rock it had hit, and my groin muscles protested every move. I noticed that my left shoe had fallen off, and the dirt felt unbearably soft through the thin cotton of my sock. I felt myself fading, and would have passed out if Dillon hadn’t grabbed my shoulders, looked me dead in the eye, and told me that I needed to stay awake. I heard the catch in his voice and knew it was fear and felt a moment of guilt for putting it there. His wide unblinking eyes followed as I struggled up and out of the dark abyss of pain and shock. After a few seconds that felt like hours, I broke through the surface and took a gasping breathe of cold, crisp air. “You need to stay awake. Keep talking to me. Are you awake?” Dillon’s voice was businesslike and questioning, like it was a matter of propriety, but his eyes were frantic and wide, like he had just witnessed a horror beyond belief. As we looked at each other, the pure fact of what had just happened fled, and we shared a single thought: we have to get out of here.
We knew we were above a climb we had done previously, and, sure enough, the anchors to that climb were about twelve feet to our right. And our climbing gear was 40 feet directly below us. At the time, I didn’t think about the risk of Dillon down-climbing a 5.9 in the dark with no protection whatsoever, it was just something that had to be done. And he didn’t hesitate to get going. After making sure I was in a comfortable position and one in which I wouldn’t fall out of, he traversed to the anchors and started down, the beam of his headlamp swinging over the rock face. As he climbed down and retrieved the gear, he yelled up at me constantly, asking if I was awake and ok. I yelled back yes’s and I’m fine’s, almost annoyed with him for his interruptions of my perilous trance-like state. I lay on the soft dirt, glaring at a rock as if I could will it into being something more useful. I watched, fascinated, as my blood spattered bright red on sandy grey stone. A single thought raced through my mind like a broken record: this wasn’t supposed to happen. I heard a twig snap and jolted out of my reverie to see Dillon inching forward, a harness on and a rope through the anchors behind him. The clinking of carabiners brought me back to the present, and to what we still had to do. Sitting on the rock, Dillon eased me into my harness, moving my legs as carefully and tenderly as possible, lifting me up like a sack of rice to finally get it all the way on and tightened. I took one look at what I had to traverse across to get to the anchors and balked. “I can’t do it. I can’t walk across that”, I whispered shakily as fear and hopelessness started to creep up on me. Looking at me in a way that said I really had no choice, Dillon said, “no, you can do it, I'll carry you. We have to get down”. I nodded, resigning myself to the impending pain. Carrying me like a groom carries a bride into a honeymoon suite, he edged his way across the small rocky ledge to the anchors as I pleaded with him to be careful and not to fall. I was petrified that he would trip or that another rock would dislodge, and we would plummet down the rest of the way into the void just inches to our left. When we finally got to the anchors, I realized that I preferred traversing the ledge to being lowered down into the darkness. I pictured my swollen right hip and ankle banging against the rock as I spun, dangling from the rope. It took a few deep breaths and some coaxing from Dillon, but finally I was able to letoff the ledge and let myself go limp against the rock. Dillon lowered me inch by inch, still checking in every minute to see how I was doing. I focused on the task at hand, using my arms to push myself away from the wall so I wouldn’t bump anything. Every time I looked down to see how much further I had to go, past the grotesque sight of my swollen, disfigured hip, it seemed as if I was no closer to the ground then before. So I was unprepared when I finally touched down, sinking slowly into a fetal position, wishing I could just go home and make a pot of tea. I yelled up that I was at the bottom and untied so Dillon could rappel down. I tried making myself comfortable on the rock, but the pain made comfort an impossible luxury. A second later, I saw Dillon’s feet dangling above my head and let out a bleat like a dying sheep so he would see me and not drop down on me. As soon as his feet hit the ground, it was back to business.
Complaining and whining gets you absolutely nowhere. I was doing my best to ignore my pain and assist Dillon in any way I could, but I couldn’t help letting out an occasional whimper. After hiding our gear in a bush, Dillon picked me up again and carefully started down the rocks to get to the actual trail. In order to get up this, you had to half climb, so getting down was a bumpy, terrifying ride. I was amazed that Dillon didn’t lose his balance or his grip on me. He was like a machine, and right now this was what he was programmed to do. Once we were down, I thought the hard part was over, and all we had to do was hike. I was wrong. Dillon’s adrenaline rush had come and gone, and it was getting colder. The trail ahead was dark and foreboding, and I remembered in dismay the unforgiving uphill rocky terrain. Panic threatened to overcome my composure. My eyes darted over my surroundings, my breathing came out as gasps, and my tremors worsened. “We…we’re not going to make it!” I stuttered. Once again, Dillon grabbed my shoulders and looked me dead in the eye. “No. We can do this. I’ll carry you, we’ll rest every now and then; we will get out. You’re going to be ok, I promise”. Determination drenched his words, so much that I started to believe him. We were going to make it out.
At first Dillon carried me as he had before, stopping to rest only every 100 feet or so. As I spaced out in his arms, I pictured me trying to do what he was doing; the thought of trying to even lift him was comic. I quickly banished that thought. I did not want to think of what it would’ve been like if our roles were reversed. Everything was in patterns. Tree, rock, tree, rock, bump around, rest, bump around, rest, despair, confidence, despair, confidence, grit teeth in silence, whimper, grit teeth in silence…. the patterns were occasionally broken by a stumble or an attempt to rig our harnesses together using carabiners and a sling to make it easier for Dillon to carry me. Eventually we figured out that the easiest method consisted of Dillon carrying me over his shoulder sack ‘o’ potatoes style. It was uncomfortable, but I focused on my breathing and the hypnotic swinging of the sling on Dillon’s harness, nicely complimenting the “swish, swish” sound his pants made as he walked. In this way, Dillon was able to walk further with fewer rests, while I clung to him like a baby monkey or a strange, whimpering growth of some sort. When I occasionally looked around, I saw nothing to get excited about. It was the same trees, the same rocks, nothing that looked familiar or told me we were close. So when I saw the switchback that marked three-fourths of the way, relief flooded into me like a hot bath after a day on the arctic tundra. I hate switchbacks when I'm mountain biking, but at that moment that sharp turn was the love of my life. “The switchback! We’re going to make it! Hey Dillon, it’s the switchback!” I exclaimed uselessly. Dillon didn’t answer, just nodded and pushed on. I settled down against his straining back, filled with a new optimism. Now all I had to do was hang on.
Although my tremors were still violently wracking through me, and the pain was a constant reminder that I couldn’t just go back to my dorm and fall asleep, I was filled with hope. Now I scanned the trail, finding familiar areas that brought us, step by step, to the end of the trail. The trees thinned, the ground leveled out. We were at the flat, easy stretch of trail leading to the parking lot, and I was almost passed out from relief, Dillon from exhaustion. I began to yearn for the reclined, low-riding seat of Dillon’s car. As we neared the end of the trail, Dillon lay me down on the ground so that he could run and get the car and I wouldn’t be jostled and jarred more than necessary. He told me to keep my head up so that the beam of my headlamp would tell him about any change in my position. I nodded dumbly; amazed that he could think of things like that after everything we had just gone through. He ran off, and once again I watched my blood drip onto the dirt and pine needles, like an enthusiastic moviegoer returning to the theatre for a second showing. I stared intently at the grass as if the long stalks were prying neighbors. I felt invaded and on the spot. The slender blades bent toward me, whispering secrets in the wind. They were talking about me; I knew it. I stared down the longest blade, the king of blades. If I moved, they would see me. If I looked away, they had me. I crouched and stared. I couldn’t breathe. The warm, welcome rumble of a car engine shattered my delirium. I turned gratefully and Dillon helped me into the car, laying me on my side as I reveled in the man-made features of this safe and sure transportation device. My pain was beyond measure, my tremors seemed bone shattering, and it was still a 15-minute drive to the hospital. But I was safe. And as Dillon slowly peeled out of the lot, we left all the terror of the night in the gravel and dust behind us.
When we arrived at the hospital, Dillon yelled for a stretcher. They wheeled me in, asking me for information as I gripped the side of the stretcher and held on to Dillon’s hand for dear life. After receiving ten doses of morphine and being put on oxygen, my tremors finally ceased. My pain lessened, and I was as coherent as a two year old. X-rays and CT scans were taken, all a blur of white sheets and metal instruments to me. The results came later, informing me that I had a shattered pelvis, a snapped tailbone, a fractured ankle, broken ribs, two fractured vertebrae, a partially collapsed lung, a smashed kidney, a sprained neck and multiple bruises and lacerations. I was lucky. I spent three days in intensive care and over two weeks in the hospital, only taken off oxygen only three days before I was discharged. I ended up having to withdraw from my first semester of college, which I had only completed two weeks of before my fall. When the doctor told me I would likely never walk again, I burst into tears. I had been at the peak of my climbing and had competed nationally for the past eight years. Now I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. I had to go home to recover, and when I got home I set a goal for myself. Six months. Those six months were absolute hell. I had nightmares every night about falling and turned into an insomniac, for fear of my dreams. I was in pain constantly and hated how dopey the painkillers made me. I pushed myself every day in and out of physical therapy, using all my free time to just try to wiggle one toe. Those six months were a waking nightmare, but I did it. At five months and a week, I stood. Three weeks later I was dragging myself around on crutches. I practiced walking around just outside my house, looking very much like a confused elderly person. It took me five minutes just to step off the curb. The following week, I went to my local climbing gym and did the easiest climb there. It didn’t even have a grade, just the label “5.fun”. It took me over an hour. I had never been more proud of myself in my life.
This September, on the 19th, will be exactly 6 years since my fall. You can come find me at the local climbing gym or even at the Pit, climbing harder than before, getting stronger everyday, and occasionally kneading a rib back into place. People ask me all the time why on earth I still climb. I tell them because I need to. It’s what I do. Climbing has pushed me away from the wheelchair and towards adventure, and I don't plan on pushing back any time soon.
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