Fall From Grace
Silence. Ice and snow are falling around me; air is rushing by. I sense things that should make noise: my body falling backwards, sugary snow shimmering down the slope, my tools flailing in a desperate effort to catch purchase, ice shards skittering beside me. But all I hear is silence. Even the Trans-Canada highway far below has fallen silent.
Maybe my brain has kicked into overdrive, shut down non-vital elements and is flooding my body with the adrenaline it subconsciously knows I’m going to need. I don’t even hear the inevitable crunch of impact as I smash into then bounce off a ledge and continue to ricochet down icy bulges and snow-covered flat spots.
I’m quite certain I look like a rag-doll bouncing down the ice. I don’t know how to describe the experience, but I do remember the uncontrolled, inevitable brutality of acceleration, my powerlessness against the violence of impact and the helplessness of falling. It is as much the very opposite of a soft, sport climbing fall into space as I can imagine.
Jeff is taking in slack and bracing for impact as I fly past the lip of the initial, longer, vertical section of ice. I’d soloed this bit just minutes earlier, comfortably swinging my X-Dreams, sinking the picks to the head in the lightly chandeliered curtain, crampons biting solidly, the constant, familiar, rhythm of ice climbing flowing through my body, one solid blue Petzl screw protecting the bulge that I had just bounced off of. A yellow screw stuck into a beautiful patch of deep blue ice higher up catches my fall. I register that Jeff gets yanked up by the force of impact while I thump to a halt against the ice.
It only takes a split second to do a self-check and I immediately know I’m mostly ok. Eyes, vision, mind, all good. So – head – is ok. Arms, good. Hands, also good. Torso, good. Legs, good. Feet and ankles, well… fuck.
“Lower!” I yell and Jeff slowly lets the ropes out as I gently navigate down the final few metres of ice and come to a stop on the snow slope directly below. I come to rest in a slight depression at the base of the route, my left foot flopping around as if mostly detached from my leg: it settles in the snow at an unnatural angle.
Jeff and I converse about possibly extracting ourselves but as I try moving my left foot the pain is too severe to move me without immobilizing my ankle. We’ve got cell reception so Jeff calls 911 while I start untying, de-racking and taking off my harness. He’s on the phone with dispatch right away and they scramble an ambulance from Golden, as well as a volunteer-staffed ambulance from Field. They’re not sure which one will get here first, which is slightly ironic as we’re barely five minutes outside of Field.
While Jeff was on the phone, I had taken off all my gear and stuffed it into my lead pack to make a seat. Jeff has to help and lift me so I can shove it under my ass — I can push off my right foot a little bit, but the left one is lying uselessly on the ground. Given how warm it is, I’m now immensely grateful that I didn’t leave my belay parka in the car. I had decided that morning to test out Patagonia’s High Alpine Kit, which includes the Grade VII Parka, a super-warm, bivy-ready, belay parka. It seemed overkill at the trailhead but seems just right now as I snuggle into its cozy confines. The high-loft down warms up immediately and the heat radiates back into my chilled, trembling limbs. Shock and adrenaline course through my system, sending shivers down my spine. The pain is unreal. I yell out in agony.
I’m at the very last, or close to last, bulge of the approach ice. A few more metres up the snow slope and I’ll be at the bolted anchor. I hate this bulgy shit. It’s insecure, awkward and easy to slip on. I plant both tools and kick out a comfortable stance. The ice seems off a bit so I’ve been following wet streaks, my theory being that as long as it’s not sopping wet, the moist ice sticks better. I’ve climbed a Polar Circus so wet you could push screws into it, so this surely has to be good! Water is dripping off my tools, frosting onto my gloves and beading up on the latest shells from Patagonia — the Galvanized Jacket and Pants, part of their High Alpine Kit, are ultra-light, stretchy and purportedly waterproof, so I’m doing my best to test their waterproofness by climbing the wettest line I can find. The left tool is planted in a slight depression, sunk in at least an inch into the moist ice. I always ensure both tools are solid and secure before placing a screw, so I raise the right one to find the best placement within reach. As I bring my right arm back for the swing, I sense a sudden weightlessness as my body pitches backwards. I have no idea what happened to my left tool — it seemed so good?! — but I swing the right one with all I have in hopes of catching my balance. It doesn’t stick.
I replay the fall over and over in my head, in between bouts of pain. My numerous ‘fucks’ are shouted as much out of the dull, throbbing ache in my left ankle as out of frustration and disbelief. Most of the time, though, I’m doubled over in agony, waves of pain shooting through my body, tears welling up in my eyes every time I slip a little bit on my makeshift seat and the left ankle shifts in its equally makeshift snow-and-ice-and-jacket cradle. It takes all my will to calm my breathing and retain consciousness: all I want to do is just close my eyes and make the pain go away.
We see the ambulance pass by on the highway, heading towards Field from Golden. Must be for me, we muse. Yet after 20 minutes there is still no sign of anyone coming up the trail, or even the sound of a siren filtering in through the trees from below. Dispatch had asked Jeff to place a marker near the trailhead so the paramedics could find us more easily and so Jeff had taken our ropes and placed them across the road. Another 10 minutes and still nothing. He calls 911 back.
What commences is one of the more frustrating exchanges either of us has ever participated in. Dispatch — out of Vancouver, it turns out — keeps asking for a street address. We keep saying ‘It’s the back road in Field, they’ll know which one.’ Pushed for an address from the dispatcher, we come up with Stephen Ave, which I later find out only served to confuse the paramedics. ‘And how far are we from town?’ Like fuck who knows… we Google Map it and come up with around two, maybe two point five, kilometres from town. Maybe. Seriously, dispatcher, there is only one black BMW parked on the side of the back road and there is only one set of ropes near the Carlsberg trailhead… they’ll fucking find it. Can we talk to the paramedics directly already? So frustrating dealing with those people. If this was a (more real) emergency and I was bleeding out or something, I’d be in a whole shitload of trouble.
The paramedics finally get to me a full 50 minutes after we had seen the ambulance pass by. I get a tank of Entonox (basically nitrous oxide, a fast-acting gas most commonly administered to women in labour) to manage my pain as the first responders work to get my boots off and my ankles and feet stabilized. The gas is great and in no time I’m quite high and mostly pain-free. I keep sucking on the mouthpiece as my right boot gets pulled off. Steve, the paramedic, and I have a quick discussion about trying not to cut my left Phantom Tech while getting my heel out — but even the first gentle tug sends convulsions of pain through me. ‘Fuck it, cut it’ I say as Steve advises me to suck in a lot of Entonox. My left foot comes out and turns out the fibula is broken and poking out the back. The sock has been sucked into the wound and is stuck in between the broken bone.
The paramedics fashion a couple of splints just as Grant Statham from Parks Visitor Safety comes up. He says they’ve got a heli on the way and will sling me down to a staging area instead of bouncing me on a stretcher down the treed slopes. By this point I’m pretty high on the gas so I just nod along happily. With somebody — Grant, Jeff, maybe the firefighter, maybe Steve, I can’t recall who — holding up my legs I scoot onto the stretcher and am strapped into the heli sling.
JP flies with me on the long line as I’m transported off the mountain. It’s not even that windy, and I have enough movement within the sling-bag to pull out my iPhone and snap a few photos. It’s a quick flight and we’re on the way down before I know it. Either I am very high — I am — or the pilot is very good — Grant assured me he is — but the landing onto the stretcher is the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced. A few more heads moving in and out of my field of view, the stretcher moving around underneath me, and I’m strapped and secured into the ambulance. The tank of Entonox is close to hand. We’re off to the Banff hospital.
In Banff, I’m moved onto an operating bed, ready to head to the OR. I’d finished off the whole tank of Entonox during the ambulance ride — Steve tells me the most he’d ever seen someone go though was 600 units, and I sucked down the whole 1200-unit tank— so I am now given a shot of morphine instead.
By this stage, I am quite high on pain meds and so don’t exactly remember what happens, or in which order. The field braces are removed and my ankles examined. At some point I am given a shitload of meds that are supposed to knock me out so the nurses can reset my ankle and lower leg bones. I seem to remember this stuff was supposed to put me to sleep — and I’m pretty certain I was out — but both Jeff and my ex-wife Meg (who drove out from Calgary to see me in the hospital) were in the room and both say I woke up from the pain as my ankle was manipulated and reset. I can only surmise the pain was intense as I don’t really remember it.
At some point X-rays are taken. I think I’m given more pain meds — another shot of morphine, perhaps — and I have a chat with Dr. Mark Heard about the surgery. Heard is arguably the best orthopaedic surgeon in Canada so I’m very glad he’s working this shift. I am wheeled to the operating room and given a couple injections: one to basically knock out the whole nervous system in my legs, the other to put me to sleep.
I remember staring up at the white lights of the OR, and then I wake up a few hours later in a ‘recovery’ room. My left leg is in a cast, the right one just has a tensor bandage wrapped around the foot and ankle. I don’t remember much from the next few hours: I think I talked to people, texted friends, got moved to another room, put into a bed for the five-day stay in hospital. I’m moved onto Percocets every six hours, with extra shots of morphine in between as required.
My shit’s fucked up
Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
“Let me break it to you, son, your shit’s fucked up”
— Warren Zevon
As I’m writing this it’s been just over eight weeks since my fall and surgery.
My right foot suffered a fractured calcaneus (aka heel bone) and mostly soft-tissue injuries. I have been cleared to put weight on it and it can support my full body weight without too much pain. I still can’t move it around very well as all the tendons are quite tender. But, it functions well enough that I can drive and move myself around.
The left ankle was broken about as badly as you can break an ankle. This is technically called a compound pilon fracture, as it involves the breaking of multiple bones. In my case, the fibula snapped (this is the bone that was poking out the back of my ankle) and the talus (the bone between the tibia and fibula — the leg bones — and the calcaneus — the heel bone) shattered into tiny little pieces. In addition to trying to put all my bones into place, Heard had to add a whole bunch of synthetic bone graft to try and give my ankle some extra bone to heal it properly. I also have two steel plates, one for the fibula and another holding my ankle to the tibia. I can currently put some weight on it, but not much. I’ve been told to start using it, but it is still at least a couple weeks away from being ‘walkable.’
The prognosis once everything heals up is pretty good, all things considered. Heard estimates I’ll have about 90-95% of my functionality back and will be able to walk, climb, hike, ski. There is a 100% prognosis of arthritis in my left ankle within five years, and it’ll most likely need to be fused within two years. All that seems a long way in the future still, as I estimate I’ve got at least 6-8 months of physio to restore my soft tissues and muscles.
In addition to the physical bits healing, I am curious to see how this will affect my climbing, ice and otherwise. I feel good, but I am just barely starting to hobble around on my feet. I guess time will tell!
I am still uncertain of what exactly happened that caused me to fall. I am, however, fortunate to be able to call one of the world’s best ice climbers a close friend, and both Will and I have put a lot of time and thought into the possible causes of my tool popping. Once I have had a chance to test out a couple of our theories I’ll publish another article with — hopefully — an answer. Check back in April sometime (which is more or less when I anticipate I’ll be able to hobble myself to the nearest ice climb and replicate the scenario, on a very tight top rope of course!).
Until then, place lots of screws!
And if you haven’t read it yet, check out Will’s post on “How Not To Fall Off Ice Climbing”
As well, check out my interview about this fall on The Sharp End podcast.