I suppose, if you climb long enough, this will happen to you at one point or another.
Like many of us, my outdoor climbing reality consists of attempts to coordinate with any number of people interested in getting out on real rock; with the times we actually make it out there resulting in a ratio of 20:1. With these kinds of odds, any time an opportunity presents itself, I try to make the most of it.
Natalia, a fellow ER nurse, and I had been trying to climb together since we first met. I was giving her a patient report when I recognized her Kate Rutherford necklace and we began to geek out on cams and hand jams and made plans to have excellent adventures. A tall, thin, quietly athletic commuter from Truckee with a moderate Russian accent and a streak of hair that is, at press time, purple—Natalia is one of the most laid back people I’ve ever met. We climbed in the gym once, and then life happens the way it always does and we couldn’t connect before the Tahoe snow set in.
Then, finally came an invitation to join her and a friend, Matt, at Donner—providing a chance to squeeze in some morning pitches before my boyfriend Bee’s family arrived from the east coast for the weekend. This plan was casual, a makeup for a missed gym session, and I was invited to join her and a friend at Snowshed Wall. I didn’t even have to bring a rope! A quick perusal of Mountain Project showed pristine stone, blue lake waters, and a variety of 5.8-5.12 sport, trad, and top rope options running the length of the crag. Hell yeah!
I woke up early, slugged the coffee, leashed up the dingo and headed out.
We quickly get down to business when we arrive. The regular warm up is gang banged, so we hop on a less than ideal warm up: a deep recessed corner crack. Matt racks up, helmet on, and leads up slowly but surely, every hand jam in its place, foot smears precise, and gear at regular intervals.
I suspect this climb will be hard for me and have Natalia go next, afraid that in the midst of pump I will drop a cam while cleaning (a faux pas I committed once before as a broke nursing student and, as I watched a friend’s yellow #2 plummet to the earth, I swear I saw the dollar signs trailing after it).
I haven’t climbed outside in like, a year,
she says, and then hops on, no helmet, long arms reaching deep in the crack, her lithe body staying out. She makes it look easy and only slips off at the top, an awkward section of laid back smearing, the crux.
Matt and I make small talk; he’s taking measure of how much of a gumbie I really am, and I mostly confirm. I find out this “warm-up” is a 10.b/c and feel a bit in over my head. I resign myself to gumbie tag along and resolve to carry the gear out as payment for the rope-gun services. My turn comes and I ask Matt to review cleaning and rapping off because it had been awhile, and he patiently walks me through the steps.
Helmet on, personal gear in place, I hop on. I do my own thing and get to the top, falling several times at the same crux spot, but ultimately figuring it out. I’m pumped, and Matt calls up that he wants to climb it again, saving me from trying to clean the route with jelly arms. I can tell he knows this is the case, and I am grateful. This time I belay him, and he insists I use a GriGri.
I’ve only used one once before, and am nervous of overthinking the mechanism and accidentally dropping him. I’m still nervous, but he gives me a good review session. When it’s time to lower, I ask Natalia to stand near me and watch, ready to grab the rope if I do something stupid. She laughs, but does it. I don’t drop him, and I feel a little giddy for learning a new skill.
I consider the warm-up, realizing I’ll be climbing at my limit for the day, and get a little giddy at the opportunity to test my limits from the (relative) safety of top rope. We move down the wall to another crack, a face climb and make quick work of it. I’m enjoying myself—the sunlight and quiet, the soft clinks of carabiners and gear in the background.
A fourth person joins us; Theresa, another ER nurse from Reno that Matt knows. She goes over to another area on the wall to set up and wait for us to finish. I check my watch: it’s 1:30, and I’m feeling like I accomplished something and can leave without my tail totally between my legs. But the climbing is good so I decide to stick around for one more climb.
Natalia jumps on to clean another route with no helmet, and Matt and I chat again. He mentions he’s a safety nut, and sews up every climb he leads. He often butts heads with Natalia: she a faster climber, who is strong and confident enough to not place a ton of pro, “… or wear her helmet” he shouts up at her, as she cleans the anchors, hair blowing in the breeze before she lowers.
We hike over, Theresa racks up, Matt puts her on belay, and I sit down to watch. I hear them discussing thoughts on another climb.
Theresa: “I’ve only fallen at the crux and the gear was fine,”
Matt: “I mean, it’s a plus, so you gotta be careful, but yeah … ”
Natalia: “Thanks guys, really good pep talk here. I’ve done it before.”
Natalie walks about twenty feet away and drops the rope at the wall. Ooh, she’s going to lead too … I offer to flake and set up but she declines, stating she is being lazy and is going to take her time.
Theresa starts off up her crack and shouts out,
Russian, put your helmet on!
Natalia laughs and tells me,
“I’m probably going to take a lot on this. I’ve climbed it before though.”
“Girl, you do whatever you want. I gotcha,” I confirm.
She scrambles up a flat slabby boulder, and from her perch on the top sticks in a cam, and steps onto the wall. She places another cam another foot or so above it. I can’t tell where the route goes, I don’t even know the grade. I’m watching, but also not watching, an observation I can only make in hindsight because I can’t recall the time between her starting up the boulder and this next moment.
The moment when I see her resting in a stance and—assuming she must be about to place pro—I get ready to pay out slack, while simultaneously realizing she hasn’t placed any pro since the first two. She’s pretty runout … but she’s going to place gear so it’s okay …
It’s … it’s not okay.
I can see now that her single balancing stretched out leg is shaking, and her arms are bent at tight angles that happen when your muscles are about to give. She isn’t placing gear, she is fighting to stay on. And she is run out, over her pro, and directly over the start boulder. A total no-fall zone.
I panic a little, but remember the last thing she needs is my panic voice. I watch and try to plan how to catch her, but it’s useless. She’ll deck before the gear can catch her. Everything becomes still, quiet, sharper.
“Watch your foot, Russian.”
Her shaky leg is behind the rope. She’ll flip and land skull first.
I’m going to fall.
She moves left into a pod and gets her leg out from behind the rope, her whole body shaking. She edges onto new holds and I breathe, believing that she will stay on.
She comes off the wall and I move backward trying to take in any slack. She lands directly onto the boulder top, sitting straight up, all of her impact going up through her butt.
Pelvic fractures. Spinal injury.
She bounces off the rock and into the air yelling, reaching backwards. I catch her in the air.
Awake, moving her arms.
She hangs in the air for a moment and suddenly I see it, the image fried into my brain that I can’t unsee for days. From the seat of her pants, a pouring out stream of blood. Not drops trickling down her leg, a fucking rain gutter spout during an afternoon thunderstorm.
She split her rectum, holy shit.
I lower her onto the slab and unclip, pulling off my shirt. Matt is calling 911.
I run to Natalia, wadding it up and stuffing it to where I think the blood is coming from. I support her with my arms and thighs as Theresa unties her from the rope. I’m leaning against the rock, and I notice the blood is rippling up the rock against gravity.
Arterial? One liter lost? Two?
Her face is grey, still as she moans, fine tremors all over, not moving her legs.
“… fell 15 feet onto rock, awake alert. Again, we are at Snowshed Wall, off Donner Pass Road…”
We get her harness off and laying flat. I know I should hold her neck still, but I don’t. She’s laying on the shirt now, and I hope it tamponades the bleeding. We cut her jeans off.
“Cat … I’m sorry I ruined our day. I’m so dumb …”
“Girl, you are not dumb. It’s going to be okay.”
It’s not going to be okay. If she doesn’t stop bleeding, or they don’t get here quick, I don’t know that she’ll make it.
We roll her onto her side to try to see the wound—she cries out—a golf ball sized hole in her buttcheek. It’s no longer bleeding, and I’m reassured. We roll her back, and I hold her hand. Matt has a first aid kit. Another local climber appears. He knows Natalia, looks her over, feels a pelvic deformity. He tells me to hold her neck, Matt checks her pulse.
The next forty-five minutes speed by. Two medics huff and puff up the trail with a backboard and IV supplies. Matt regularly checks a pulse, and I crouch, half in a dead shrub, holding her head still, knowing my face and the sky are the only things she can see, and concentrate on making only calm and optimistic expressions.
She gets an IV and meds. She keeps her eyes closed, and says little. The extraction helicopter is on its way. We backboard her, and I suggest binding her pelvis with my flannel shirt. They do, and it helps her pain. Matt lays down next to her to keep her warm. The chopper buzzes the crag, dropping patient haul gear.
They get her ready to be lifted out, and I step back. Someone has coiled her rope and I begin shoving things into packs the best I can. I pick up Natalia’s harness and pause. A blue #1 covered in blood from lobe to stem.
They move her out away from the wall, bundled into a red haul bag with just her face showing. The chopper circles back and I put on my helmet to avoid rock fall from turbinate winds. They reel her in, as onlookers hold up their phones filming. And then they are gone.
I call her boyfriend, and tell him what happened. Her sneakers are lined up at the base of the crack still waiting for her successful send and eager kicking-off of climbing shoes as she lowers. I wear her sneakers on for the hike out. Matt walks just ahead of me, I don’t bother taking my helmet off, realizing I am just trying to get away from that boulder, stained dark red from top to bottom, as fast as I can.
I catch up to Matt,
I’m sorry to ask, but I have to know, was there anything I could have done differently?
“There was nothing you could have done, you took in slack, she didn’t have enough gear in. You saw her, she won’t even wear a helmet. She was climbing at her limit,” he replies.
I head out, stop for gas, the needle beyond empty. My face is blank, everything feels heavy. Inside, I ask the attendant where the bathroom is. He just stares at me and points. In the bathroom, I see what he sees. I am covered in blood, dried rivulets down my arms, blots stark on my white shirt, the thighs of my black yoga pants a scarlet hue from the soaking. I rinse off my arms and legs and get back in the car.
I drive home in silence. I become aware of the assault on my senses. I keep seeing her in the air and the blood pouring down; I become nauseous and gag a little each time. It cycles through my brain on repeat. I hear the noise of bones crunching when she lands on the rock. With each replaying, I have a sympathy sensation, my butt aches and tingles, and I lean forward to unweight it and shift myself around until it passes. My hands hold onto the sensation of the impact that I felt come across the rope; the pain telegraphed to me on a string telephone. I clench and unclench the steering wheel. I become acutely aware that I am running away. I start to feel ashamed for not going to the hospital.
I get home, peel off my clothes, and sit in my armchair for two hours staring at the blank wall. The summer sun starts to fade, I watch reflections of cars as they pass. I shower. I sit. I shift my weight around. I clench and unclench my hands.
Matt and her boyfriend keep me updated with texts through the evening. It’s not as bad as it could have been. She is home in two days.
Exactly one week later, I drive up to visit her between shifts. I’m exhausted and barely awake. I bring lunch, and she meets me in the driveway—not the gimp I was expecting. We sit and talk, she frequently gets up to walk around and change position.
“I haven’t looked yet to see which cam broke my ass.”
“I’m walking four or five miles each day.”
“I didn’t take the right sizes up with me, I forgot to bring small gear.”
“Are you going to climb with me again? My ass isn’t ready for the harness just yet …”
We chat some more, I munch on my sandwich, and she shows me the online news piece about the accident and the extraction video the helicopter took. From the aerial view, I barely recognize it as this thing I’ve been wrestling with all week.
I leave feeling much lighter, her positivity both unexpected, but obvious now that I know her a little bit better. I’m embarrassed to (seemingly) be more traumatized about climbing than she is.
I go to the gym and top rope, and any slip I make sending a direct line of fear to my heart. A friend wants to lead, we walk over, he sizes up a climb. My anxiety starts to rise, slowly inflating, my hands shaking a little, my heart beginning to race.
Not today, dude, I’m so sorry.
I then go boulder on a slab wall and halfway up I slip, but stay on, narrowly avoid cheese grating. I immediately bail, walk in a circle, and sit, willing my heart to slow down and scrunch my face in disdain at my stupid feelings. The tears can’t come out when your face is scrunched.
My mind has betrayed me a little, and my body is listening. A friend reaches out to go to an easy small local crag and I respond excitedly. Twenty-four hours later I back out, apologizing. As yet another plan to go outside falls apart, secretly I am happy.
To get back out there, it is not enough just to climb again, I think. I want to climb with the people I know and trust with my life. I didn’t speak up at all at Donner, the Expert Halo Effect in full force. Should I have paid attention more? Yes. Suggested placing pro earlier? Or reviewed the route with her? Asked where the crux was? Checked the gear on her harness, too?
I’m embarrassed that much of this story is focused on me. I wasn’t the one to fall and break my ass, who cares what I feel. The next time we go outside, I will probably cry before, during, and after the climb. I’ll shudder and dry heave. I’ll breath hard and over grip.
For now, I’ll just keep pulling plastic, clenching and unclenching in my hands, shaking out the palpitations, and breathing deeply with each slip and fall along the away.
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