Earlier that year, while I walked with a friend in the August heat below Settlers’ Park, a distraught woman flagged us down, telling us that help was needed on a nearby trail. We raced toward a panicked kid. In an amphitheater of rock, just above the bustle of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I just stood and stared. The kid paced back and forth, asking, “Is he dead?” I mistakenly thought that I was going to be a first responder, but there was nothing to be done. The man’s skin had gone blue, starkly contrasting with the bright red cone of blood suspended from his nose and mouth. The flies had already found him. I visualized him crawling there to die and thought maybe he’d fallen from the rocks above, or that maybe he’d been attacked. I thought of his family; the last thoughts he might have had. Something cold and soulless settled within me like dark ash. There was nothing we could do for him.
The paramedics carried me out over the February snow, and in the ambulance my left big toe felt as if someone had just cut it with a scalpel. I couldn’t see it because my neck was braced and my forehead was taped to the board beneath me. I thought of my wife, Monica. I wanted to call her and reassure her that I would be OK. I wanted to see her face. I wanted to hold my children’s hands. The paramedics kept asking if I wanted anything for the pain, but I felt that without the drugs I could keep an eye on my toe, and on the hollow nauseating feeling in my back. A cold hand had crept under the back of my skull.
I kept wiggling my toes and fingers, and tried to remember the paramedics’ names. I was in pain. I was afraid. And that same sick, helpless feeling I had staring at the dead man months before crept back in.
In the emergency room the doctors and nurses kept repeating that I was lucky to be alive. I probably would have been paralyzed had it not been for the thick padding on the gym floor. My wife arrived at the hospital between the CAT scan and the MRI, and when I saw her I finally gave in to the fear I’d kept rigidly in check. We were told that I had fractured my back at T12, broken a transverse process, herniated three discs, and, “rung [my] bell pretty good.” I would need to spend a few nights upstairs to get checked out by a neurologist. The doctors also needed to figure out the sensation in my toe to see if the nerves connected to T12 were in any way affected, which could result in lifelong incontinence and impotence. Months later I realized that I’d also cracked a molar and ripped up the cartilage in both knees.
The first night in the hospital I woke up three times soaked through with sweat, my heart thundering and my chest heaving. Every time I dozed off, the suddenness of the fall returned. I clicked for another drip of morphine. I clicked it all night long, staring at the clock, waiting for the next 15-minute window when the machine would release the clear liquid through the line and into my arm. The ticking and breathing of the machinery above me kept me from sleep, as did the haunting image of the swarthy stranger who had approached me, looking for a climbing partner. I saw the thick shadow of his beard, his quiet watery eyes, and heard the way words formed in the back of his mouth, half swallowed.
I didn’t feel any particular ill will toward him—mistakes happen—but he hadn’t called. He hadn’t come to the hospital. He hadn’t contacted the gym to see if I was OK. For all I knew, once I was back-boarded and loaded onto the ambulance, and the clamor of the accident subsided, he shoved his gear in his pack and vanished. As I lay there ruminating, the injustice began to eat away at me. It did not seem right that my family should suffer the cost of his mistake. Also, it sure as shit felt like a hit-and-run. I became hell-bent on tracking him down.
I dozed off and woke to my phone buzzing with a message from Monica:
hi babe. thought abt you all night. barely slept. I miss you so much. r u up? woke up missing u. love u. 3:44am
As I lay there immobilized and hooked up to a tangle of wires, I tried to make sense of my mistake. I never climbed with strangers. I only trusted a handful of old friends as my partners. Of course, there were exceptions—I once hooked up with Jimmy Chin to climb Half Dome. But primarily, I climbed with people I felt deeply connected to, otherwise preferring to climb alone. But I had just returned from the Deep South with my students to study the civil-rights movement and had been struck by the warmth with which we were received. There had been hugs and handshakes like those from family. I came home intent on opening myself up more to others. So I had accepted the stranger’s offer to climb. Now I couldn’t even remember his name.
Before becoming a teacher, I worked as the Outward Bound Wilderness safety and training director, looking critically at incidents to determine the root causes, then implement policies and procedures to avoid future accidents. So I knew what had happened. I had no misconceptions. I had mis-assessed. He answered yes to all of my questions. Told me he knew how to belay. But there were signs. He had “forgotten” his belay device. His harness was too new. He was short-roping me at some of the clips, and each time I looked down he was standing farther from the wall. I remembered that when I let go from the top of the climb, there was a brief hiccup in the fall, which must’ve been the Grigri auto-locking before releasing. He must have thought the lever on the Grigri was the brake, and so yarded on it to try and stop my fall.
By the time the light faded from my hospital-room window on the second day, our community had rallied. Friends from different sides of my life started overlapping at the edge of my bed. Without hesitation they had put the brakes on their lives in order to be with us. Their response made me feel ashamed by all the time I’d spent pursuing adventure or training to get stronger. It all seemed like a pathetic waste. I should have been showing up more for my friends. In that moment my tireless pursuit of climbing seemed so self-indulgent and devoid of meaning, and I was disgusted by my gluttony.
The second night the panic attacks continued. I couldn’t sleep without the fall returning. The doctors prescribed Xanax and my wife encouraged therapy. I thought of other falls I had taken. The reality of this fall, in a gym, no less, was harsh and irreverently defiant of my previous 20 years of climbing. Back in 1996 on El Capitan, a micro-cam levered out when I weighted my etriers, and immediately, with the flat pop of a gun, all of the brass nuts below it simultaneously blew out of the rock. A tiny RP—the width of a nickel—stopped my fall after 40 feet. Dangling unscathed, I was face to face with my belayer, nervously laughing and inhaling the acrid smell like gunpowder that engulfed our perch 2,000 feet up the Muir Wall.
Then while attempting a first clean ascent of Swoop Gimp in Zion in 1998, I ripped a hook from the soft sandstone and fell to within four inches of the ledge that would have rammed my hips up into my armpits. Not to mention the thousand-foot, 45-degree snow slope in the Olympic Mountains, where as a teenager I lost my footing. Without an ice axe, I slid while digging my fingers into the late-summer snow. I hit the black boulder field at a mad speed, and somersaulted through the air to land flat on my back—and my father’s external-frame pack. Stunned and helmet-less, I stared up at the blue August sky and inventoried my body, exhaling when I found nothing more than blood on my fingers, elbows and knees.
And then there were all of the moments that went right, but could have easily gone wrong. On Astroman in 2009 I found myself run-out, pumped, and looking down at the last piece of gear far below and to my right. I knew if I fell I would drop 30 feet and then pendulum harshly to the right, dragging the rope across a sharp flake. If the rope cut, I would have fallen 700 feet into the manzanita bushes and talus. To escape my predicament I had to ease up onto a high tiny edge with my left toe, a move I could probably not reverse, while pulling on sloping edges with my fingers and then, what? Eventually I just plowed into the ugly heart of my fear, high-stepped, and shifted my weight up over my foot before spanning far to my right to regain the flake. My body barn-doored recklessly. I pulled back against the flake with sweaty hands, pasted my feet, and then gunned for the anchors.
After three days, when I could get out of bed, sit in a chair without throwing up, and shuffle to the bathroom, I was released and wheeled out of the hospital. My back brace, designed to create traction, pressed firmly into my sternum and pubic bone in the front and just above the break in the back. Before we returned home I demanded that Monica take me to see a personal-injury lawyer to sue the guy who had been belaying me. He had failed to call, visit or send any signal that he had done anything other than tuck his tail and run.
I could barely walk, but with my hand on my wife’s shoulder, shuffled through the lobby to meet with two lawyers, who assured us that we had a powerful case against the man who had dropped me. We just had to find him. So my wife and friends harassed the gym to get his information. After much effort we were given his name, Nir, an Israeli address, an international phone number, and a local cell number to a phone that rang and rang until a message mechanically stated, “This phone has not been set up for voicemail.”
In my absence, my two young daughters had decorated a bed for me in our family room, piling on it every pillow in the house, the book I’d been reading, my toothbrush and a stack of plastic bags because they had heard I’d been throwing up. With Monica’s help, I stiffly levered into the bed and lay rigid and exhausted, staring at the ceiling and inhaling the smell of our home. I hadn’t seen my girls yet. Monica didn’t want them to see me in the hospital like that. When a friend dropped them off, they came quietly in the door and I could see Stella, my 4-year-old, studying me, looking for something, blood maybe. River, our 2-year-old, gently crawled up beside me, and rubbed my head with her tiny hand. Then, without a word, she cautiously put her head on my chest and rested her arm on my stomach. Later, on the way upstairs, after we’d eaten ice cream and read books together, I heard Stella ask my wife, “Mama, is this a dream?” In her 4-year-old brain I think she had convinced herself that accident + hospital + absence = death.
I continued to have nightmares, seeing Nir’s 5 o’clock shadow and clueless expression as he stared up at me. The love I felt for our community as they rallied to support us felt incongruous with my smoldering anger, which grew hotter as each day passed. I couldn’t walk more than 20 feet without excruciating pain. The first time I tried to sit and eat dinner with my girls, I drank my water too fast and coughed and then screamed and slammed my fist on the table from a sudden shot of pain in my back. In those moments my anger towards him raged.
As the days passed and my wife continued to sponge bathe me and bring my drugs, and my girls kept easing up into my bed to read books, I softened. I didn’t have the energy or desire to pursue an international personal-injury claim. I just wanted to heal. But my wife kept saying, “Call him.” Reluctantly, I would again dial the number and get the same message. Then one morning, the screen of my phone showed an incoming call and the local number I’d been dialing relentlessly for the last week. I answered.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“The guy you were climbing with on Saturday,” I said.
There was an eerie silence, and I just knew he was going to hang up. But instead he asked how I was. Asked if I could walk. He asked if I needed anything. I told him I wanted to meet with him. He said that he was leaving the country soon to return to Israel and asked if we could meet in the next half hour.
He entered our house silently, shook my wife’s hand, and then came to the bedside and sat next to me. I didn’t speak, nor did he. It was quiet except for the plastic ticking of my back brace that came with each inhalation. He couldn’t look at my wife or me and so continued staring into his lap. My wife got him a glass of water. With great effort he looked at each of us and said he was sorry. He couldn’t speak without his eyes welling and his words becoming constricted. Eventually he explained that he wanted to pay our medical bills but that he could not do it in one payment. He would have to make several payments over the course of the next year. We decided to meet again, and then watched from the window by my bed as he crossed our street and walked toward town. Monica said, “I think he might be worse off than you.”
I called the lawyers and told them to void our contract.
A few days later Nir showed up with a contract that he had drafted and a wallet bulging with hundred-dollar bills. He had withdrawn all that he could from his bank account and was going to pay the rest in monthly installments over the next 18 months. Monica informed Nir that upon reviewing our insurance policy we had a more clear understanding of what the accident was going to cost—at least $4,000. We showed him the paperwork, and he said he could not give us what we were asking for and insisted that we accept his original offer. It was spiraling into a shrewd business deal and all of the humanity that had been infused before was leaking out. All that remained were two men negotiating soullessly. He left the room to make some calls and returned with a small concession toward our request.
“This is all I can do,” he said without looking up. “This alone is going to be very hard for me.”
“I know it will be hard,” I said, “but it’s hard not being able to be the husband I want to be, and not being able to pick up my daughters.”
Nir looked at his lap and said quietly, “My grandfather lived through three concentration camps. He lived so that I could live. I aim to live a good life. I am sorry. I will give you what you are asking for.” Then he stood and shook my hand for the last time.
Weeks went by with no word from him. Meanwhile, I practiced walking, leaning on ski poles and trying to make it to the end of our lane, but fearing that I might not be able to make it back if the pain set in too strongly. Once I had to lie down and wait for my wife to come find me. I stared up at the sky, knowing that I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. The pain was unrelenting.
The helicopter lifted off and sent tumbleweeds flying. I didn’t know if he was going to live or die. A woman took the injured man’s wife in her arms. I walked slowly back up the trail to where my family was waiting, and Stella asked if she could put “makeup” on my face. I sat her on my lap, and she held the side of my head with her hand before I felt her cool index finger spreading the fine powder on my lips.
“Close your eyes, Dada.”
Then I felt her finger gently anointing my eyelids.
And there she was: my precious daughter with her radiant blue eyes so innocent of the world around us. There we were, in the desert, alive, gazing up at the autumn sky. I held her, feeling the ephemeral nature of a child’s weight.
This feature appeared in Rock and Ice issue 206 (December 2012).
Feature Image: Will Hummel