I had a major reality check this last week.
Maybe reality check is not the correct term for it – perhaps mortality check is. Something happened to me that changed my life in the space of a single second.
I’m writing this propped up in a reclining lawn chair in my living room, with my right ankle sitting upon a stack of pillows, in a cast. I’m down and out for a bit – at least from my usual routine. And I’m beating myself up a little for it.
You see, I broke one of the major rules of fatherhood, and I’m now dealing with the consequences of it and trying to focus on the lesson I’m learning now.
The rule I broke is “Thou shall not expose thyself to unnecessary danger.”
While I’ve flirted with that rule in the past, perhaps even broken it, I’ve never been caught out on it, or had to suffer the consequences yet. Why did I ignore the rule? That’s a damn good question, one that I’ve been asking myself over the last week. I can’t blame it on anything other than myself, but I can see where the weakness is.
I’m a bit of a thrills junkie – not an extreme athlete, or a daredevil, but I do get a kick out of the adrenalin rush from physical activity and flow and success. I’ve had some narrow misses with accidents, but nothing close enough to life-threatening to cause me to change my mind about risky behaviors. Until now.
I must have imagined that I had some sort of immortality or health advantage (or just plain dumb luck) so that I didn’t have to connect my own personal health with my family. But it doesn’t take a hard look now for me to see the interconnection between my actions and their consequences, and the state of my home.
As a father, anything that happens to me also happens to my family.
I’m not free to just risk anything in my life (or my life itself) whenever I wish to, because I’m a family man. My wife and kids depend on me to do my thing for the family – to be the dad, to be the man, to provide the income for all of us. And so I tend to be cautious with some things, such as driving – I drive like an old granny, as I am toting around precious cargo, my family, and want to keep them as safe as I can.
But I don’t usually take my own situation to be as serious as if I was my own kid – I tend to ignore the advice I give to my kids if I feel as if it doesn’t apply to me. And that’s a problem. If I don’t take care of myself, who will? It’s certainly not my wife’s place to take care of me, and I’m now old enough that I’m not coasting on the easy health of youth anymore, so I need to take responsibility for the health of my body. And that starts with not putting it in danger in the first place.
What happened last Friday had its roots in a couple of things, in my mind – one is ‘boys will be boys’, and the second is the intoxication that comes with being in the flow. I think that a combination of the two led to my downfall, and I’m here to testify that I’ve now been properly schooled in bodily risk and the importance of using my mind as well as my heart when faced with a potentially big decision.
Here’s how it went down:
It all started out innocently enough – a couple of guys headed out to the forest to go climbing. A new friend of mine had invited me to go trad climbing with him at Percha Creek, in NM, about an hour away from my house, and we had the correct gear and the skills to climb safely. We headed out of town on an absolutely beautiful January day – sunny and mild, with a hint of clouds. Our spirits were high, as we were both jazzed to get out climbing, and we got to know each other on the drive up.
As we approach one of the passes, my buddy said that his engine lights keep coming on, but everything looks and sounds fine with the car, so we keep going. Two minutes later, it dies and won’t crank over at all – battery is completely toasted. Luckily, it stalled right next to one of the few pull-offs on that road, and we could back it off the road.
Of course, we’re out of cell phone range, so my friend takes the dogs and his phone, and heads up the nearest ravine to try to get to a higher point for a call. I wander around the woods and pick up hippy treasures, such as a javalina skull and some odd stones and a handful of acorns.
My buddy gets back, and says the tow truck is on its way, but that it would be several hours before it could get there. The two of us go on a little walkabout, looking for something interesting to do while waiting, and we come across a mini cliff by the road, a little ways from the car. Most of it is slabby and low angle, easy to walk up, not much fun, but one section is vertical. We decide to grab our shoes and give it a go, to see what happens.
There’s an easy line on the cliff with nice pockets and good foot holds which tops out at a horizontal crack about 18 feet off the ground, and we both go up and down that a few times. It feels good, with no chossy or loose rock up there, so I look at the crack heading off to the right, and start messing about with the holds – the crack starts with fingertips to fingerlock size, opening up to hand jamb size farther on. The entire crack is only 15 feet or so long, with a good stepping off point at the other end.
One issue is – and it’s a big one – that there are no solid places for your feet starting about halfway across, and it looks almost slick at the end. The foot-holds up until then are almost invisible – they’re more like suggestions of foot-holds. Another issue is that we didn’t come to go bouldering, so we didn’t bring a crash pad for down below. If we had, that would have changed the whole outcome right there.
As I face the rock, the sun beats down on my back and I smell the pines and fallen oak leaves on the breeze, and even though we didn’t make it to Percha Creek, I’m feeling happy to be right where I was. It feels like a great day to be out on a little adrenalin adventure, having some guy time.
My body feels warmed up now, and I’m ready for something with a little more challenge to it, so I start working out the moves to cross the face using the crack. I get halfway across several times and get a sketchy feeling, so I come back across and get off the rock for a bit. My buddy gets up there and is starting to work the moves, but the same thing happens to him – at a certain point, there doesn’t appear to be anywhere for either foot to go, and it’s too high to just try to just muscle it, because there’s nowhere to go if your arms get pumped out.
I take a break and just stare at the face, as if I could somehow decipher the moves by looking more closely at it. Unfortunately, it always looks different from below, so anything you see from the ground may not actually look that way when you’re on the rock. There’s another smaller face just to the right of the crack, so I go try that for something different – it’s pretty easy – a few stems, plus a mantel and some balancy footwork, and I’m up. I do that one again, just for the rush of topping out.
While I’m on a high from that one, I decide that I’m going to commit to the crack for the entire route. I climb up to it, and I realize that I can just hustle across, smearing my feet on the face of the rock and moving quickly, rather than trying to find stable foot positions.
Halfway across, I see that crossing my hands over is the trick for getting past a tough point, and once I get there, I notice that I need to do it again, this time just smearing my feet on the face and hanging by a single hand-jamb while I move my hand into position. I focus on my hands, not looking down, and breathe through each move, and all of a sudden I can reach the other side with my foot. Yeehaw! I did it. I take a little break, and do it again, and it feels comfortable.
I’m now feeling a good rush of something in my body – endorphins, I guess – which is one of the reasons I climb. Even a short climb with a top-out gives me a kick, and sometimes just making progress on a climb, not completing it, is enough for a good buzz.
The sticking point:
At this point, I think I should have broken out my lunch and sat under a tree and just enjoyed the day, but I couldn’t leave well enough alone. My friend heads into the forest to go ‘see a man about a dog’, and I study the rock.
Almost subconsciously, I start messing around with different hand positions while I’m on the side of the route and can still reach a good foot hold, and I have no intentions of climbing it again.
But… before I knew it, I’m halfway across, committed to it, and my forearms are on fire. I’m getting a little freaked out now, as I can’t seem to stick the moves I need, and my feet are skating right off the face – I can’t get traction. I glance down, and I get a bad feeling about this. The rock face protrudes a bit about halfway down, so I’ll smash into that if I fall out of control, and my survival instinct doesn’t want to let me jump.
The next instant, one of my hands just lets go – I have no strength at all left in it – so I try to push off away from the rock with my other as I fall. And it in no way resembles any time I’ve bailed out or jumped off of other smaller rocks – then, I have been able to control the landing to some degree, but this time I was just falling.
And the impact:
I hit with my right ankle first, then my left hip, with my back and head hitting last. The shock was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It was so fast, and so intense, that all I could do was to scream – I couldn’t feel my ankle, but I knew that I had done something serious to it. The rest of me was bruised as well, but it didn’t appear that my skull or neck was broken, and I had no bloody gashes on me that I could see.
My buddy hears me screaming, and comes back around the corner and sees me laid out under the cliff and has no idea what just happened. But luckily for me, he’s a Wilderness First Responder and NOLS guy, so he takes charge and checks out all my major points, then gets a bag filled with snow for my ankle.
I’m still in disbelief. I’m in pain, and I can’t put any weight on my ankle, but I also can’t believe that I just fell off that cliff and injured myself. The tow truck arrives, and after an hour, we get to the garage, where another friend picks us up and drives me to my house. My wife is under the impression that I spent the day having fun climbing, so when she sees my buddy carry me into the house and I direct him to the bedroom, she isn’t sure what’s going on – maybe we’re playing a joke on her, she thinks.
After I get settled and tell the story, I see the look on my daughter’s face – she really doesn’t know what to think, and it’s scaring her a bit. Realizing that a parent can be injured, especially when it looks serious, is a hard thing for a kid.
Then it starts to feel real to my wife – that I’m laid up and will need lots of help for some time, plus I’m in pain and I don’t really know what the extent of my injuries are.
The ripples widen:
It begins to strike me now how much my life has changed in this short time, and how it will affect my family, and how fortunate I was.
I’m the wage-earner, so if I was working at a 9 to 5 location-dependent job, especially anything requiring me to move or walk, I would be out of work for quite some time. I’m fortunate to work from home, and can (if I need to) work propped up in a lawn chair, so this doesn’t affect me right now. Otherwise, the financial impact on my family would be severe. As it is, it may still be expensive with medical bills.
We have a crawling baby in the house, and I can’t catch him and pick him up while on crutches, and I can’t drive the family or play at the park with the kids. I’m having a hard time seeing myself propped up at the sink washing dishes, or at the stove, cooking dinner. Plus, I don’t think I’ll be doing any lifting or carrying of such things like groceries or garbage or laundry, so my contribution to the family just dropped by a huge degree. Instead of being a working member of the family, the dad, I’m now having to be cared for, as if I was another kid, and this really changes the dynamic and rhythm of the family.
When I was up on that rock, I didn’t realize how many things would be affected by my actions, and I failed to see how serious the consequences would be for my health. I let myself get caught up in the flow, buoyed up by adrenalin and thinking only of myself and the next minute. And that was a mistake for me. Perhaps I considered the fall, but not the potential impact that the fall would have not only on myself, but on the lives of those around me.
Now I’ve got eight weeks that I have to stay off my ankle, and the possibility of surgery. Plenty of time to meditate on the foolishness of risking my neck for a brief thrill.
[The x rays show that I have a trimalleolar fracture in the ends of my right tibia and fibula, and I’m still waiting to hear the verdict from the MRI – if my soft tissues are stable enough to keep the bones in place as it’s healing or not.]
It’s too bad that it took a serious accident for me to realize how lightly I took my own safety up until now, but I’m of a mind that it’s better late than never.
Do me a favor and learn from my mistake: remember that your health impacts the ones that you love, and think (at least) twice before risking bodily harm.