Broken

This post contains NSFW Language.

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When you start to climb, you are so into the moment, so into the action, and so into the sport that the consequences are merely under you. We push each other to bolder and bolder places and then when we get on something that we consider ‘easy’ we’re so used to what our bodies can do that we throw caution to the wind and just go for it, as if it’s just another routine wall, or a climb under our grade.

I fell. On a 5.9. On what should have been an easy climb to end the day. How the fuck did this happen?

The route is called Knife In the Toaster it’s a route on the Deception Crag Wall of Exit 38, located in North Bend, just 40 minutes outside of Seattle. I had just come off an exceptional weekend climbing in the North Cascades, which is far more demanding than what I was doing here, and the route, which incorporated slab climbing up a sloped dome, and then a short 30-foot transition to a vertical two-bolted wall which was juggy and easy climbing, with the crux at the very last move.

I was leading, pulling the rope up behind me, and I slotted my hand into a diagonal crack while I pulled enough slack in my rope to reach over and clip the carabiner of the quickdraw. I struggled to find a comfortable position, but if I clipped quickly, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I shuffled my feet up to two small nubs in the rock and they barely took. As I was reaching to my left side, rope firmly pulled away from the safety of my harness, I felt a foot suddenly give way.

And then my hand fell out.

It wasn’t like slow motion. It was over before I had a chance to process what had just happened. It was over before I had yelled the word ‘falling’ to my partner. I tumbled approximately 20-feet and slammed feet-first into the slab. When I tried to push off the wall with my right leg, a searing flash of pain ripped through my entire body, and there was a noticeable bulge in my foot. I yelled down to my partner:

‘I think my ankle is broken.’

‘Oh shit.’ replied Jon, my partner.

I could still bear weight on my left foot. I knew that I had torn something, but it wasn’t as bad. I was gently lowered. Grabbing my last two quickdraws on the way down.

The first thing to do in a situation like this was to maintain calm. When I got to the ground, I was laughing about the absurdity of what had just happened, and I knew that the serious work would come later. If I put my right foot on the ground, it would twist sideways followed by excruciating fiery spasms from my leg to my chest. Jon initially tried to carry me on his back, along with both our backpacks, but it was tiring the both of us, so while he went to leave our bags in the car and come back to get me, another couple found me, put my sideways on their shoulders and carried me back approximately 10-minutes down to the parking lot.

As long as I kept my foot off the ground, I didn’t feel any pain for the hour or so drive back to Tacoma General Hospital. When I was finally admitted for X-Rays, it revealed severe damage to my right ankle, tibia, and fibula, broken in all places. My left ankle had merely a strained muscle. The attending doctor even said: ‘You should not be this calm for how much damage you’ve done.’

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After several tests I was given a room, where I was told I would be having surgery the next day. As per orders, I was not allowed to eat or drink before the operation. Not even water. So from a sleepless night when I finally settled into a room at 2:00 AM, to the next afternoon, when my surgery was called off around circa 3:00 PM, I laid with my wrapped leg elevated on pillows and towels in a near constant state of Level 3 or 4 pain, and not even a drop of water. If it wasn’t for the every-two-hour drops of morphine into my system, I groaned through most of those two and a half days I spent waiting for news.

Surgery was out of the question for the next ten days. My foot was just too swollen and I had several complications, which only left me the option to travel back to Boulder and see a surgeon at home.

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I’m not going to bore you with the details of what the last week has been like. I’m using a walker, my leg is wrapped, I have no surgery date at time of writing, and I’m facing the possibility that I may not climb or run for a year. While I’m trying to remain as upbeat as possible, while I’m treading this situation with all the courage, calmness, and grace that I can muster, the truth is that both my leg and my heart are broken.

This year had started off so promising. I got to go to Moab, I got to go to the North Cascades, I was booking tickets for the Bugaboos and the Grand Tetons and I had finally found some serious alpine partners who I was really looking forward to spending the summer with. In the short time, before I have any kind of recovery plan or timeline, even for rehab, my morale is shot.

The reason I wanted to write this is because I want it to serve as a record, for anyone who might be going through the same struggle. I have the opportunity to record my recovery as a series for anyone else who has ever suffered a severe injury that puts them off what they love for an extended period of time. Recovery isn’t an uphill slope. It’s a battle. There’s going to be great days, and there’s going to be other days which are going to suck.

Slowly, I’m going to come back. I’m going to win this. My climbing season is over, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start thinking towards next year. If you have ever suffered a major injury, don’t feel alone. Don’t feel put off. Don’t feel inadequate. You’re not. You can do this. It’s going to be a struggle, but you can do this.

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11 thoughts on “Broken

  1. Mike – I don’t really know what to say except i’m sorry and I can relate to what you are going through in the sense that an injury takes you out of the “doing what I love” game. You”ll come through this setback stronger for it mentally. I’ve learned to accept that life is just a series of successes and setbacks. The only advice I can give is don’t focus on what you can’t do but instead celebrate every tiny thing that you CAN do (which I am sure you were planning to do). Maybe climbing is over for a bit but perhaps you can get into biking or kayaking later in your recovery.

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