i didn’t call my family until christmas day. couldn’t really ignore that one, especially not when my gift box included a downpayment for a house (!!!!!). but i hadn’t yet. in fact, i hadn’t told anyone about it in person. i emailed a few close friends on sunday evening, but that took tremendous effort. even five days later, my hands start shaking when i think about it. but my dad spent much of his professional life acting as a counselor, and he firmly told me to start talking. i’m not quite ready to relive saturday over and over — i almost lost it at a party on christmas eve where everyone wanted john to tell and retell the story — but i get his point, and this is where i’ll start.
saturday morning, john picked me up early to head out to ptarmigan again. being solstice, we aimed to get up to the bottom of the technical climbing early in the daylight hours. he was unusually late, and had no excuse other than feeling like perhaps he was catching his housemate’s cold. he still wanted to go, but he had to blare gypsy punk rock to get his psyche up. he normally just blares gypsy punk rock to express his level of psyched-upness… (which is generally through the roof — a hallmark of any good partner).
we skied out and started up the hill to the bench just below the couloir. the hillside was wind-scoured in spots, and he had stashed his skis somewhere along the way. i didn’t want to put mine anywhere there’d be any question of finding them again, as i was using the skis i use for the winter classic (which i love…enough that they live in my bedroom and not the garage), so i kept them with me until we took a break under a large boulder before booting up to the climb. we drank some hot chocolate and remarked on the warm temps. the couloir wasn’t as wind scoured as we hoped, so we spaced it out and picked our path carefully on our way up to manage the avalanche risk.
at the base of pitch 1, we stomped out a small ledge for our packs and for the belay. john is the more confident climber on ice, so he was leading both pitches. he racked up while i got myself set in my belay parka. the wind was causing spin drifts to cascade over the top of the climb but the warm temperatures made that more of a beautiful inconvenience than anything.
pitch 1 took longer than expected, but it was because john brought the belay to the base of the steepest section of the climb. i followed behind. the ice felt good. it was dinner-plating in a few spots, but the only part i found genuinely hard was where the ice formed only a few-inches-thick veneer over some vertical rock. john had led through it quite well, and it seemed like he was climbing conservatively but also like he was on his game.
at the belay, i clipped myself in, put my belay parka back on, and restacked the rope over my attachment points to the anchor. i had a moment of thinking “i’m being totally OCD about rope management,” but i did it anyway because that’s what you do when multipitch climbing and it felt “wrong” to leave the rope piled up at our feet.
john and i talked about the next pitch. we knew that this was the hard part of the climb, and were aware of being in the backcountry. we agreed that he’d continue to climb conservatively and take at his protection if he had any concerns about getting tired or pushing too hard. and he did. he placed three screws, taking at each.
the spin drifts off the top would come down every now and then. it was like being a kid and getting a “whitewash” every couple minutes (think one kid taking a handful of snow and rubbing another kids face in it…maybe it was a midwest thing; only my friend from michigan seems to know that term) and i was keeping my head down to watch the rope to judge john’s progress, looking up periodically to check on things.
the last time i checked, he had slung a horn of rock as his last piece of protection. alarm bells went off in my head when i looked up and saw that. my experience is that, unless you’re slinging something pretty huge, slings pop off in falls. at least, any fall that’s not straight down. but, he was the leader and could see more of it than i could. second-guessing his gear decisions when he was that high (out of easy verbal contact), knew more of the situation than me, and was almost — if not already — at the easy climbing seemed like it would cause more problems than asking him about it would. plus, he had stopped and i thought he was putting in another screw.
then i heard “falling!” i locked off immediately, and ducked my head to protect myself from anything coming down. then i heard the sickening noise of gear starting to pop. (the sling over the horn had cut, and the screamer on his 3rd screw “screamed,” but all three screws held.) john fell past me to my left. the rope was running through my mittens despite my having locked off and holding on hard. i gripped harder and yelled profanities at the rope to make it stop. john was screaming, but it was in a “that was a huge fall!” kind of scream, but then the tone shifted to a “i’m really hurt!” kind of scream. i couldn’t describe the difference for you…but somehow, you just know. they sound totally different.
my first thought was to calm him down. i hadn’t seen the whole of his fall. all i knew was that he didn’t deck, despite falling ten or fifteen feet below me. and that the catch had been soft (significantly more than i wanted), and that he hadn’t caught his crampons or had an axe hit him anywhere. i was in denial about the tenor of his scream, quite honestly, and wanted him to stop it and say “wowzers! that was huge!” and give a relieved laugh and be normal, happy john. my denial lasted maybe 10, maybe 15 seconds. then i knew we had to get down, and fast. luckily, we had spotted a v-thred below us that other parties had used to rappel the route. i cleaned the anchor, clipped the stacked rope to myself, and rappelled down to john. any movement hurt him, so i tried to move smoothly but quickly.
i got to the v-thred, and rappelled slightly lower than i wanted. rapping on a single line made it hard for me to stop for reals. the rope wanted to keep sliding through ever so slowly. somehow, i got locked off and pulled myself back up so i could clip in. i didn’t like trusting something when i didn’t know the competency of the person who made it, or what shape it was in, but john had been shivering badly when i passed him, and i didn’t feel like i had the time to make a new one. i reasoned anyone on this route would know what they were doing, and decided to trust it.
i lowered john to me, and clipped him in. he was going into shock, and couldn’t really do anything by himself. i gave him a job — look for the mid-line mark of the rope — to give him something to focus on, even though i wasn’t counting on him to actually do it. i pulled the rope, and put him on rappel. i think i told him three or four times not to let go of the brake side as he went down. i didn’t want to send him first (because i wanted to be able to back him up), but he wasn’t able to set himself on rappel because he was so cold. so, i sent him down, constantly telling him to keep his hand on the brake side and ready to yell at him if his right hand moved anywhere. he made it to the base, and i quickly followed. he couldn’t do anything but stand there. finally, i was able to get him to say where it hurt. his lower back. okay, i thought, he must have swung into the wall behind him on his fall and bruised himself. to be honest, a broken back didn’t even occur to me. the catch was so soft, severe bruising was the only thing that crossed my mind. seeing him go into shock also overrode most other concerns. i told him to eat something. he fumbled with his pack, getting nowhere. just a few moments of that told me that he wasn’t doing anything on his own anytime soon. i rifled through my pack and shoved a pancake in his face and made him drink some water. then i pulled off my belay parka and put it on him, one arm at a time. i shoved some extra down layers in underneath for more insulation. zipping that jacket took more time than i wanted, and i filed away “must practice dressing others” as a skill to hone. (i’m actually not kidding. try zipping a jacket on someone else. it’s not easy.)
i emptied everything heavy out of john’s pack and asked if he could walk. he said “slowly.” so i said, “go. i’ll be right behind you.” i coiled the rope, shoved it and all our gear into my pack, and chased after him. slow was right, but he was moving. he was still very cold. once all layers are on, movement seems like the only option for getting warm, so i was glad for it. i passed him to break trail. it had been snowing and blowing enough that our tracks from earlier were gone.
i tried to set a pace that was comfortable for him, and mentally checked how long it would take me to get out of there to the car to call for help, as neither of us had brought our phones. and then i compiled and prioritized the list of people i would call first, cataloging the strongest skiers i knew and wondering who would answer their phone on a saturday night.
i was keenly aware of how things-going-wrong can just start snowballing, and i tried to pick the quickest but safest way down. eventually, we made it to where i had stashed my skis. i took all the gear off him that he didn’t need but that i left on him earlier (in favor of getting him moving): his harness, his backpack, his crampons. i put his headlamp on him, turned it on, set it to a high beam so i could find him more easily in the dark, and told him to find his skis. then i figured out how to strap his pack to mine and get everything into carryable-by-me form.
he had little trouble finding his skis, which was good. i had mentally been chastising him earlier in the day for stashing them somewhere indistinguishable, but had been far enough away — picking my own way up the boulder field — such that when we met up again, it felt silly to make him get them and stash them with mine. really, it was luck that he found them so easily. welcome luck at that point. the skiing was too difficult until we hit the powerline trail, so he kept walking and i followed behind carrying the skis and the rest of the gear, wishing i had put my ski strap in my pocket instead of the back of the car so that i could have strapped at least one pair together.
once at the trail, i got him into his skis (mental note: practice putting someone else’s skis on someone else’s feet), and he was able to slowly shuffle with breaks every ten minutes or so. relieved that we made it to the trail, i started to tell him the story of the time my friend hilary was (is) a total hero. john told me he wasn’t ready for that kind of story. i tried to think of a funny story. but i realized i had told john all my funny stories. so i thought of happy things to tell him. a few weeks earlier, i met someone who said “oh! you’re john’s katie!” what she meant was “oh! you’re john’s adventuring partner!” and that’s true, but i’m not used to being defined by him and felt slightly indignant. when he heard, he had made up a song for me: “you are my katie, my only katie, you make me happy, when the weather’s bad…” that, of course, made me laugh and forget to be annoyed. and, i thought it ironic because my very earliest descriptions of john to my friends were that “he’s like sunshine.” i had never told him because, well, it’s kinda socially awkward to tell a friend, “do you know what you remind me of? sunshine!” but this seemed like a good time, so i told him about that and other random small things i hoped would make him smile and think about something other than the pain.
i stayed with him until the top of the last hill on the way back to the glen alps trailhead. he told me to go ahead and warm up the car. i picked up the pace, passing families pulling little kids in sleds and thought about how people can be physically in the same place and yet be in such different worlds.
when john got to the car, he let me know that there was no way he was going to sit. he slowly crawled into the back on his stomach. anything more serious than bad bruising still hadn’t occurred to me. i got in the front seat and called my friend who’s a doctor and a climber. john was concerned about the cost of going to the ER, and — honestly — given that he could move and was no longer in shock — going or not going both seemed reasonable. we split the difference and took him to urgent care.
urgent care wanted nothing to do with him, except to put him on an ambulance to the ER. john protested. he had gotten himself all the way out. walking back to the car and into the ER seemed like such a minuscule task in comparison. but they would have none of it. the paramedics arrived. we both knew one of them, and that offered a lot of comfort. i didn’t want to let john out of my sight, but surrendering him to jamie anderson was something i was totally okay with.
i got in john’s car to follow them to the hospital, and called my friend who was dog-sitting for the day to let her know i wouldn’t be able to get the dogs anytime soon. that’s when i lost it. i cried. a lot. the only thing that got me to pull it together was not wanting to be far behind john when he arrived at the ER. the paramedic i didn’t know must have told me two or three times to drive slowly, that there was no rush, and to be really careful. i took his advice seriously, knowing that i was shaken up.
i wasn’t too far behind, and made it to his room before the doctor, who turned out to be a former NOLS instructor. that was really comforting: having a doctor who understood what we were saying when we described the fall. they x-rayed and then ct-scanned him. somewhere in the fall, he fractured his sacrum and L1. he was scheduled to fly home for christmas on monday. the doctor assured him that that wasn’t going to be possible. the fractures weren’t “normal,” and the doctor wanted a specialist to take a look, so he had arranged for john to see an orthopedic surgeon in the next couple days. they gave him crutches, and instructions not to drive or “make any serious life decisions” while on the painkillers. we got home around 2am sunday morning.
i fell asleep immediately, but woke four hours later, unable to shake images of john hanging from his harness in so much pain. i rolled out of bed and set to emptying the car of all our gear and then figuring out when a nearby pharmacy would open so i could fill his prescription for more drugs. we spent the day watching bad movies and eating pizza.
i took him to the orthopedic first thing monday morning. the x-rays indicated that the breaks are stable, which i guess is a good thing. he got sent home with more painkillers and directions to come back in three weeks. also a good thing, i think. each day, he’s gotten a bit better. by christmas eve, he was able to sit for short periods. and by christmas morning, he was able to sit long enough to get on a plane to oregon to be with his family for the holidays. that seemed like another really good sign.
for my part, i’ve been trying to process a lot of what happened. physically, i came out unscathed. but mentally, there are a lot of could-of’s and should-of’s rolling around. in the way things played out, my actions are the ones being critiqued and criticized, as i was the decision-maker once shit got real. people have called john, absolutely livid that i moved him at all. it’s true, and that’s fair. he hurt his back, and i didn’t even stop to clear it. i’m a trained wilderness EMT, and i didn’t even think about spinal injuries. what i thought was: “good, he can move. treat for shock. get him moving.” if he couldn’t move, and i had chosen to leave him (or been forced to leave him), it would have been six hours — best case scenario — before i could get help back to him. i was psyched that he was moving. so, did i do the right thing, or did i fuck up royally? who’s to say… i’ve heard people come out on both sides. and then i wonder if i messed up by not taking him straight to the ER, and by having made him exponentially poorer for adding urgent care and an ambulance ride to his already large ER bill. and, more importantly, risked exacerbating his injuries by delaying the kind of care available at a real hospital. but he was talking about just going home and seeing how he felt in the morning. i felt overbearing by deciding to take him to any medical establishment without him affirmatively saying “yes, i think i should go.” and there are other things rattling around for me: “what would have happened if…?,” “should i have done this or that instead…?,” and “i wish i was a stronger partner so i could have [fill in the blank with just about 5 million things]”…
at the end of it all though, i know the best thing is to debrief thoroughly — between each other and with other knowledgeable people — to learn as much from the accident as possible. these are the highlights for me:
1. when energy levels aren’t at least at a normal baseline, it’s a good day to keep things mellow and low-commitment. when john was late picking me up in the morning — he’s usually early — and said he was kinda dragging, it would have been a good morning to get breakfast at middle way and spend the day single-pitch climbing with our friends in eklutna canyon.
2. absolutely be OCD about rope management. we’re all trained to do those things for a reason, and it’s for a more important reason that just keeping things neat. restacking the rope in good multi-pitch climbing fashion saved me minutes in escaping the belay and getting to john. given how badly he was shivering and going into shock, those minutes made a big difference.
3. always, always, always have extra layers and food. when it’s cold out, have food that’s not hard to chew when frozen. i’m not sure john could have gotten down a frozen cliff bar. but a frozen pancake — however not-delicious — was manageable.
4. carry your phone. carrying a phone is annoying. yup, totally agree. and, how often do you even have coverage? not often. but it would have prevented me from having to go all the way back to the car to start getting help if self-rescue wasn’t an option.
5. catching a big lead fall in mittens or gloves is not like catching a big lead fall with bare hands. i wonder if i would have gotten bad rope-burn on my palms catching a fall like that had it been glove-free temperatures, or if i would have prevented him from slamming into whatever he slammed into if i was able to stop him ten seconds sooner. carrying a gri-gri into the mountains is something i’ll be thinking about for the future.
i’m sure there’s more to be learned. it’ll be a while before i can think about all this without having my hands shake. i’m not sure when i’ll be really able to talk about it without crying. i’m okay with that. knowing that i’m not that way when i need to not be that way makes all the subsequent needing-to-curl-up-into-a-little-ball-on-the-dining-room-floor okay…especially since my housemates have been gone this whole time and the only witnesses are the dogs who think it’s a great opportunity to lick my face.
one of the things john made a point of saying to me in the ER was “don’t you dare stop ice climbing.” of course not. we all take risks every time we go into the mountains. heck, every time we get into the car or try to bike across midtown. things go wrong sometimes. the best you can do is to deal with the situation to the best of your ability, and be aware of your choices and the risks you’re taking before you take them. we both knew that a fall on pitch two was possible; falling is always possible. i didn’t think it would happen where it did, with him past the most difficult section. but it did. and it sucked. but he’s going to be okay, and i’m going to be okay. people i’m sure will continue to say i did this wrong, or that wrong, and they may have incredibly valid points, and i’d like to hear them. it’s hard to be criticized, but i want to be as competent in the mountains as possible and getting feedback from others is important. so, besides telling the story for the mental-coping reasons my father was thinking of, i’d also appreciate any constructive feedback people have to offer. please keep it constructive though. i did the best i could at the time, even though now i wonder if i made poor choices. the not-far-away reality of it being worse sunk in hard when i sorted our gear the next day. it’s as close as i ever want to come to sorting a partner’s things who for-reals didn’t make it out okay.