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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Injury, recovery and death

If you play at this game long enough eventually you'll get hurt. Some will obviously die. But then we all die don't we? I would prefer something besides climbing. But we don't get to make that choice usually. It is the recovery I find interesting.

This is a forum post I made on after a fall in early May of 2008.
What isn't mentioned until now is the many pee bottles my wife emptied, the breakfast and lunches she left at my night stand and the stress she went through watching all this unfold at home or waiting in a hospital room. And now seeing me climb and solo again. You had better pick a tough partner.

"I fell off."
Took me a while to decide to write about this. Still uncomfortable with the format I have chosen but hopefully some will find the comments enlightening. But it is written for me as much as it is for the forum.

I have been climbing awhile and taken many, many falls while leading on trad routes and later on sport routes. The longest a full 70’ onto a 2” swami with no leg loops. Very few falls (actually only a couple) came as a surprise on lead. The 70’ was one of them. But no harm, no foul and no serious injuries. The surprises and really pushing hard I generally saved for top ropes. From the early ‘80s to the mid ‘90s I was fortunate enough to do a number of 1st ascents of trad routes in the .11s to easy .12 range and was able to solo a lot. Solos included multi pitch 5.10 and 5.11 routes.

In all that mileage over the years the few injuries I did sustain in falls have been minor, blistered finger tips on a slab, a tweaked ankle I could walk on after dropping onto a sloping ledge, a grounder that I could at least hobble away from. None of them a surprise. Sore and bruised maybe but never broken. Only one kept me off the rock again that particular day.

So when I have read about rock climbing accidents over the years I have always put them off to bad luck, inexperience or just plain stupidity on the climbers part.

Then I fell off.

How hard was it? 5.6. How high? Maybe 20 feet? Most will know the route, The Fault on Lower Castle Rock. It is a simple chimney pitch, easily climbed inside the chimney until you can get some protection and squirm out of the crack just past the tree. Or you can face climb the chimney wall if you choose till you get to that first piece of pro in.

I have soloed the complete Fault/Catapult line to Logger’s Ledge and finished by climbing one route or another on upper Castle Rock many times.

I can tell you in detail how the fall happened. I remember a good left foot and a great left hand. Right hand was just in casual opposition on the edge of the chimney. It was all I needed to make the right step up. As I stepped up to a small ledge for my right foot I was thinking about how my Carhart pants were just a bit too tight for the high step I was taking. And that I had one more move before my first piece of pro would go in. No worries, casual.

Then my left bicep tore completely off my forearm (old injury my Doc said to rehab, which I did and then ice climbed on all winter) There is more to that story but not really relevant to my point of this post.

As I said I’ve taken enough falls to have a pretty good idea of what is now happening. Wall is just off vertical here. I remember thinking it was bad that I wasn’t falling straight down. In retrospect I suspect that saved me from even more serious injuries. ( like shattered ankles and broken legs) I felt the toe of my right foot hooking on the rock as I went down. Kinda like a crampon would do on ice. That is never a good thing. THANG! goes the right ankle. That ain’t going to be pretty is my last conscious thought. Next thing I am almost horizontal and figure I smacked the shallow scoop on the right wall. I’m out cold and bouncing down the wall now so who knows. Bouncing is another good thing in retrospect.

From the tally of my injuries later I suspect my partner Paul (SOBO here at probably saved my life. Paul actually stood his ground and used his body to break my fall. I suspect I knocked him ass over tea-kettle.

(some of this may or may not have ACTUALLY happened, Paul can add any details I have wrong)

When I came to I can remember being annoyed that someone was yelling and shaking me to wake me up.
I was in a happy place and just wanted to be left alone to enjoy my sleep.

Then I realized I was sucking in dirt through my mouth and nose and was lying horizontal on my side facing the wall. And that I’d fallen off. Didn’t have the wind knocked out of me….although I suspect that all happened while I was unconscious. From just my little “reality check” I figured I was pretty fucked up. I rolled over, sat up and changed my shoes and soxs and took off my harness. At some point I remember saying “Sorry but I am done for today”. Then I tried to stand. That wasn’t going to happen. "Shit, can’t even hobble back to the car…this is embarrassing.”

A couple of other climbers came up the trail and didn’t notice anything special. Paul explained to them what had happened and asked them to use a phone to get an ambulance on the way. One of the guys split to get phone reception farther down the canyon near Leavenworth. I suspect less than 30 minutes later the emergency crews showed up, taped me to a back board and down the hill and off to Wenatchee Valley Hospital I went. I was out of the hospital 6 or 7 hrs later, had my wife and a friend pick up my car and checked us into a hotel in Leavenworth.

It was a rough drive getting home the next day.

For the next 4 weeks I lived with pee bottles, muscle relaxants and pain killers. Surgery on my torn bicep could not be done until the headaches eased from the concussion. (A helmet? Come on it is cragging in Leavenworth for chrimney sake) You have a 14 day window for the surgery before your bicep starts to really atorphy and then shrink into you upper shoulder. 14 days later the surgery would be a mute point. I went 10 days.

My head still felt like someone wanted to get in using a can opener. I wanted a working arm and decided the pain wasn’t that bad…at least not enough to mention again.

4 weeks on serious pain killers will plug up an healthy elephant. At some point I decided taking a shit was more important that being in happy land with no pain. I think it was the night I had to pull a turd out of my own ass and keep from passing out while doing so. Ya it was that grim. The second one wasn’t any better.
Fuck, it hurt.

It was bad and had to change. I decided shitting was more important than lack of pain and advil would have to do from that day forward. Although there were times I broke down and thankfully got another 4 hr fix so I could sleep.

It is now a full 6weeks later. I started spending most of the day out of bed @ 4 weeks. Simply because I couldn’t sleep without the pain killers. I still couldn’t walk. I could move my ankle so started rehab at home. I was actually able to run 2 miles yesterday. The first at 13 minutes and after a couple of minute break the second at 11 min. Up from sub 7s six weeks ago. I have a ways to go but I can walk and run again. There were times in the drug induced haze that I wondered.

Today I did a 10 mile bike ride. Took me 46 minutes on a course I can generally do in mid 30s. But I am mobile again. Things will go faster now. My head still hurts on a daily basis. I have some memory loss. Rehab always hurts but that will diminish in time as well.

When they put me into the ambulance I figured I was pretty messed up. I hurt from my big toe (the nail is totally black now) to my eyebrow (my only cut) on my right side. A torn bicep only hurts when you actually tear it off, them the pain is gone. So the left side was good. I refused any pain meds in the ambulance so I could accurately describe what I though my injuries were to the ER Dr.

After a lifetime of injuries I thought I had a pretty good idea on what I had broken…..again.

Right ankle broken (last shattered in ’93)
Broken hip…new one for me
Internal injuries on my right side… again new
Broken right little finger (’05)
Broken shoulder ( ’75)
Broken back ( ’73)
Broken neck …another new one
Left bicep detached (right bicep ’07)

Thankfully I was way off on my own diagnosis.
But trust me, every one of those areas still hurts 6 weeks later. Enough so that it is distracting.

(the real and misunderstood aftermath was the full year + for all the internal injuries to heal)

The ankle was just a severe sprain. Early rehab and 4 weeks of bed rest made for a quick recovery once I could take body weight on it. Nothing else broken besides the finger which was dislocated in the fall. It finally was realigned correctly this week when I shook hands with a buddy. Brought tears to my eyes but the finger works better now, just one sore nasty bitch at the moment.

Something not quite right with my guts. On the ride today everything between my hips and my armpit felt like they were unglued internally. Pushing hard on the bike just made me puke. I still can’t sleep on my right side. I’m counting on that just “going away”. Gotta make me think again on how lucky I was to have Paul break the fall and not just auger in to the dirt.

My right shoulder feels pretty much like it did after being dislocated. Loss in range of motion and it makes some funny sounds now. Professional rehab, lots of hard work and time for that one.

My neck now makes all sorts of funny noises when I move and gets really sore if I move it wrong or quickly. Head aches come and go. A 2” strip from the back of my neck to the top of my scalp still feels “weird” and itches. Again…if I had hit without Paul breaking the fall…...I suspect I’d now be dead or much more seriously injured.

The bicep surgery went fine. I am well on the way back to full strength on the left arm. Only down side is the top of my left hand and wrist are now numb from nerve damage during surgery…not uncommon.. Won’t be climbing any cracks till I get full feeling back there.

Turns out it was a full year to get the left bicep back to even half the original strength and usable climbing again. Surgery was not a total failure, the surgeon was, in comparison to the same tendon tear on my right arm.

So what did an off day on the rock really cost besides a few extra aches and pains?

To date, 6 weeks out of work and counting. I am just now starting to get a few hours a day in the shop. I work for myself so I can set my own schedule. Down side is if I don’t work there is no cash flow coming in and at the moment lots of it going out. I suspect it will be another 6 weeks before I can physically put in a full 40 hr week. I have a decent insurance plan but will still pay between 2 to $3000 out of pocket by the time I am done.

What really happened was I tried to get to work and working out too early and then spent a another 6 months rehabing when I should have been healing. At 56 it was a big mistake.

Not everything is in yet for billing and the rehab is a conservative estimate from what I have paid on other injuries in the past couple of years. You need to learn to be your own health’s advocate. Remember that our health professionals are still “practicing medicine”. You might as well start now, doing the same. No one knows your body better than you. Ask questions, learn to say no and most importantly listen to your body. And finally, don’t deck out

Considering a trip to the emergency room and only one “real” injury (torn bicep) was treated things add up fast.

The actual bills I have seen so far look something like this:

$1005.00 Ambulance from Castle to Wenatchee
6392.00 Emergency room Wenatchee
456.00 Wenatchee hostpital
2200.00 Orthopedic surgeon
3625.00 Ortho practice/ surgery room
1372.48 Anesthesia
3500.00 Rehab
1600.00 Radiologist CT and MRI

You might want to check out an insurance plan if you don’t already have one. Dropping $20K cash and another six months of wages on one day of climbing in Leavenworth is not my idea of a climbing vacation.

FWIW.. when I fell my right hand was on the white knob across from the horizontal crack in the shadow line of this picture. And yes it is just as easy as it looks. And Paul, "thanks bro" not many guys can hold their mud


Dane said...

Funny I had not read this in a few years. A buddy reminded me and was asking for suggestions on rehab. Since this fall I have had two other minor incidents that have stopped me from climbing for a couple of months each time. Both related back to the original injuries here. I am thankful for the fact that I never really knew just how seriously injured I was or how long the rehab would go on. Now 2 years later I am still trying to rehab the injuries taking on one at a time as they become signifigant and noticable weaknesses. But I am climbing again and really enjoying every minute I am out.

Truthfully I have to say I appreciate my physical well being more now than I ever have and am more careful about protecting it.

This Blog is one of the results of the rehab and that fall.

Sometimes I feel pretty good. Other days it is like someone is adding weight to my pack until finally I just can't get up again let alone move with it on.

I have never felt like quiting or giving up. But it does get tiring.

If you are in a similar space or ever been there you'll know the feeling. It will just takes time. Just give yourself the time is my only suggestion.

Dane said...

April 30 2011...Interesting to reread this a full year later, again. Finally I am healthy and able to work @ 100%. Bt that didn't happen until March of this year and with a lot of concerted effort. Still working on some minor issues from all the surgeries. But better than I have ever been. I'm the lucky one!