Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Angels were watching over me: Surviving a 100 foot ground fall

This post is dedicated to all the people who helped put Humpty Dumpty back together.  I'd like to thank all the folks who helped on scene and kept me calm while we waited for the rangers to arrive, many thanks to Ranger Bob and his team from the Mohonk Preserve, the Town of Gardiner Emergency Medical Team, the helicopter team, and all the folks at St. Francis Hospital.  I especially want to thank all the people who helped carry me down to the carriage road inch by inch.  It was a painful journey, but I appreciate the effort.  I've been on the carrying side a few times, but this was my first trip in the litter.  Many thanks to all the friends and family who have provided love, support, gifts, cards, and most of all - prayers.  Most of all I want to thank Charlotte, Kevin (a.k.a. - The Goat), and my girls, Tara and Jamie.  You all pulled through when I needed it most.  I pride myself on being self-sufficient, and I am now humbled by the support you have each provided.  It's been a tough 2 weeks, and everyone of you provided me strength.  I am so lucky and so blessed to have you in my life.

OK, on to the long awaited story...

It was supposed to be a fun, easy weekend climbing in the Gunks (short for Shawangunk Mountains) with my girlfriend, Charlotte, her son, Chris, and my friends from the CT Climbers and Mountaineers (CCM).  It started off that way anyway...

I grew up near the Gunks and started climbing here over 30 years ago before I knew about sticky rubber or how to tie a figure eight knot.  We'd ride our bikes up the hill, climb (free solo) whatever we dared, go swimming at Lake Minnewaska, and lay in the sun thinking of the future.  I consider it home and feel my attitude improve every time I come back and drive past the hairpin turn.

As a founding member of the CCM, I volunteered to host a Gunks Fall weekend several years ago.  The event was very popular and became one of our keystone activities.  At one point, we rented the Ulster County Fairgrounds and had over 100 people attend.  It was a blast!  Organizing the event became too much for me a few years ago, so I passed it on to others.  The event has shrunk in size as has the CCM, but  the core group remains.  The event this year was planned for Oct. 2-4, and I was really looking forward to getting out on the rock.

Work, running, and other activities have taken priority over climbing this year, and I had only climbed a handful of times all year.  Ultrarunning and climbing are my two passions.  My best friend, the Goat, was planning to run the Vermont 100 this year, and I agreed to pace him.  This required a considerable amount of time for both of us, so climbing took a backseat until after the race in July.

I've climbed a lot and with many different partners.  I believe I am a very safe and experienced climber.  I tend to be a bold leader, but always feel that I protect a route well and climb within my ability.  I've climbed rock and ice and done some mountaineering.  For anyone who reads this blog regularly, you've read about ascents of classic climbs such as the Northeast Face of Pingora and Warbonnet in the Wind Rivers, Le Petit Gripon and other classics in Rocky Mountain National Park,  Ice climbing in the DAKS and Whites, ski mountaineering in B.C. and other remote places, and even an ascent of Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.  I have led 5.10 during big climbing years and consider an on-site alpine ascent to be the ultimate in climbing purity.  I'm not the best or most experienced climber, but I've been around enough to know how to play the game in good form.

On this weekend, it wasn't about MY climbing.  It was about introducing my girlfriend and her son to the sport.  They had each tried it a couple times.  Charlotte climbed a couple routes with me in the Gunks a few weeks earlier and was anxious for more.  Chris had never been to the Gunks and was cautious yet excited.  The Goat was along for the ride.  He recently went through a significant life transition, and he needed some company.  Although Charlotte was capable of belaying me, I felt more confident with the Goat along in case we got into a difficult situation.

We started on Jackie, a classic beginner route.  I led the first pitch and set up a toprope.  The others had fun, but it was a bit much for Chris.  I ran into some friends, Scotty, Maria, and Scotty's daughter Nicky. I saw some of our CCM crew, and it felt like a homecoming of sorts.  Life was good!

After another climb Chris was done for the day, so I looked for something that Charlotte and Goat might enjoy and was pleasantly surprised to see Middle Earth free.  The first pitch is rated 5.5 easy and fun!  I racked up and started leading the pith while Goat belayed and chatted with Charlotte and Chris.  The climbing was easy and I was having a ball.  I thought about how much I missed being on the rock, and how we needed to plan more of these weekends.  I made a few nice moves, placed good gear, and set up a toprope anchor on the big tree at the top.  Unfortunately, I had only brought up 1 cordalette for the anchor and really wanted to add another for security.  I yelled down to the Goat that he would climb second and to make sure to bring something to add to the anchor.  I figured he would cruise the route, but Charlotte might have trouble with it, so wanted the extra protection for her.

This is where everything went very wrong!  Having said that to Goat, I checked the anchor one more time and then leaned back to lower saying "OK, On you" to Goat.  Within a millisecond, I started to fall quickly and wondered why Goat wasn't taking in the slack.  I saw the rope whizzing by and realized I was no longer on belay.  My first instinct was to figure out how to survive the fall.  I thought about Lynn Hill surviving a similar fall and quickly threw out my arms and legs in an attempt to hit anything possible to slow my fall.  While I was doing this, I screamed...I always wondered if I would scream in that type of situation.  It happens all the time in my dreams and it was the same in real life.  I had to really force the scream and did it in an attempt to alert those on the ground.  It wasn't a scream of fear.  In fact, I wasn't even sure anyone could hear it.  Nevertheless, I did my best, "Ayyyyyyy!!!! and hoped it would somehow help.

All of this is happening in microseconds.  Now that my survival plan is in action though, I took a millisecond to think how unfair this was that Charlotte and I had only met 3 months earlier, and how I had so much living left to do.  I always wondered if your life really flashes before your eyes, and I am here to say that it did not happen for me.  No instant replay, no major regrets, etc.  Just the feeling that I had so much living left to do...

At this point, I hit a tree branch and skipped off a ledge and realized the ground was near.  I was in the process of righting myself when I hit Mother Earth.  Insert your favorite sound effect, but I don't think there was any loud impact sound.  More like a thud.  I landed in almost a sitting position , but with my left leg wrapped underneath me.

Once I hit, I did a quick inventory and realized I was alive and intact for the most part.  No damage to head, neck, or back.  Not paralyzed as far as I could tell...Charlotte put her arms around me and I implored her, "Please don't let me die!"  I was terrified of the potential for internal bleeding, etc.  While she held me in her arms, I quickly realized my left femur was fractured and the bone was nearly sticking through my thigh.  The leg was twisted badly.  I quickly asked people to call 911 and asked Kevin to call my parents.  Within seconds, a crowd gathered and everyone started doing what they could to provide comfort and support.  My left side ribs and both ankles and heels were very painful and I assumed there were some breaks involved there as well.

Ranger Bob came up to assess the situation and asked how far I had fallen.  I said, "The first pitch".  He incredulously replied, "The WHOLE first pitch?" to which I almost proudly said, "Yes!"  It was quite amazing to me that I had survived and I was, indeed, grateful, humbled, and blessed to be laying there talking about it.  The pain in the left leg was intense and Charlotte worked with me to "Turn down the volume on the pain dial" while the rangers did their work.

The carryout was the most painful and extended part of the rescue (at least in my mind).  I kept my eyes closed for most of it and tightly gripped an offered hand from some kind soul.  I have no idea who this man is or what he looks like, but we were connected for the journey down the talus slope.  Thank you Sir!  He kept saying, "Hang in there Steve".  Thank you!

While this story is in many ways a tragedy, I prefer to think of it otherwise.  The feeling of intense human spirit and love during this rescue was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life.  There were people there giving from their hearts to a complete stranger with nothing expected in return.  They took care of me and I could feel the love in every word and gesture.

The ride out on the carriage road was painful, slow, and bumpy, and the ambulance was waiting at Camp Slime across the metal bridge when we arrived.  I've been there in the past to load people in the ambulance and now it was my turn.  Never thought this day would come.  They lifted me from the backboard to place me on the stretcher, and I screamed, "Stop!!!!"  They had left one of the straps across my mid-section connected and my ribs were screaming in pain.  Second attempt was a success.  They cut off my pants and shirt, and proceeded to try to straighten my leg.  The pain was intense and there was no progress.  Someone realized my quad muscles were fiercely clenched and told me to relax.  This seemed to help some and they seemed satisfied with the results.

Into the ambulance and around the corner to the helicopter.  There was some discussion about which hospital: Poughkeepsie or Westchester.  My brain thought, "If it's only the leg, go for Westchester", but I did not feel like I was in a position to make the call.  I trusted in the people there and God to take good care of me.

Into the hospital and straight to Catscan, then into the ER trauma area to wait for the results.  I lay there in pain with my family by my side waiting.  They could not give me any painkillers until we knew the complete damage report.

After a short while, the trauma Dr. told my parents that I had remarkably survived the fall with only a broken femur and that they would turn me over to the Orthopedic doctors.  Good news!

Morphine was administered while I waited for a surgeon to be located.

The next morning, a rod and screws were inserted to re-marry my bisected femur, and my foot looked like it was generally pointing in the right direction (although at a slightly different angle).  The epic was thought to be over, but the healing was only beginning.

I'm going to end this entry here in the interest of taking this in bite size chunks.

The one thing I want to point out to all involved is that this accident was no one's fault except mine.  In the end, I am responsible for my personal safety.  It was my choice to weight the rope, and I should have checked to ensure I was on belay and my belayer was prepared to lower me.  I thought about this for a long time.  I understand why my belayer may have misinterpreted my instructions, and I committed to lower based on my trust in a standard language and protocol.  I told my partner and friend that it takes 2 to tango, we miscommunicated, and I should have checked before committing my weight to the rope.

I have so much more to say about the steps in my recovery over the past 2 weeks, but will end it here for now.  Once again, I want to thank everyone involved in the rescue.  My faith in human kindness has been reinforced, and I feel blessed to be here to embrace it.  THANK YOU ALL!!!!




Anonymous said...

I hope you have a very speedy recovery. I have been thinking about you for days.

A gunks climber...

mitchal said...

Best of luck in your recovry Steve.All the years i have climbed in the gunks and all the sirens and calls for the rangers i have heard in those years shows us how fragile a line we walk in our sport.Thank you for posting your accident online. I hope it inspire us all to communicae better and always double/triple check whatever we do while we are up there.The "BIG GUY " must really like you!

SethG said...

May your good luck continue into your recovery, Steve. Many climbers have you in their thoughts.

D. Tyner said...

Here is to a speedy recovery.

Steve Wolfe said...

You have a fantastic outlook on life. Not a shred of negativity to be found in anything you write. We can all learn a lesson from you. Good luck in your recovery. Hope to see you on the trails again.

Bob Buckingham said...

Wow, I don't know what to say. You obviously have used up a major portion of your life's luck. How is the prognosis for running? With all the extra time on your hands, you should have everything done to put on the 2nd annual Traprock, which I am looking forward to as I would like to run it this year. Good luck in your healing and keep that attitude. It is a good one.