Our lives are full of transformative moments, and April 26, 2012 was one of them. It was the day I took a groundfall that shattered my back, pelvis, arm and both ankles, and changed my life forever. This is my story.
My husband Nathan and I awoke that morning in an idyllic bungalow in a pomegranate orchard in the mountains of Turkey. The rising sun slowly heated our tiny cabin, and I rolled over and asked him innocently how he thought I was going to die. He pushed me deeper into the covers -- "Of old age," he said. "Why are you even asking?"
It was spring, and life tasted so fresh. We sat in the cafe by ourselves, feasting on a breakfast of fresh cheeses and yogurts, and brainstorming which of the countless classic routes we’d sample that day. Eventually we made it up to the Sarkit Sector, to the original lines that have drawn climbers for a decade to Geyikbayiri.
After a few warm-ups, Nathan led a beautiful, athletic, overhung route through a cave. I wanted to protect an old shoulder injury, so I decided to toprope it. Two Welsh climbers also wanted to toprope it afterward, so we decided that I could tie into the middle of the rope and climb. As I climbed up, I could unclip the rope from the draws above me and then reclip the dangling tail through them as I passed. The line would then already be threaded through when I lowered so our friends could climb safely and I wouldn’t have to struggle with clipping in directionals on my way down.
I moved fluidly up the tufas, my feet dancing side to side on micro edges, my hands pinching minute limestone features. I arrived at the anchors and clipped in direct. I had to fix a tangle in the rope, so I unclipped it from the anchor, untwisted it, and clipped it back into the anchor.
This is where a subtle slip of the mind happened, born from habit and comfort.
I looked down and saw the rope going through the draws, and forgot that this was only a loose end. I was not leading, and Nathan wasn’t holding me on belay from that end. So when I clipped the rope back into the anchor, I clipped in as I would were I leading, and in doing so I took myself completely off belay.
“Got me?” I shouted. He leaned back, felt tension because I was still clipped in direct, and yelled back at me. I unclipped from the chains, but nothing was holding me.
This is from my Nathan’s diary:
I can still see her falling: in a sitting position with outstretched arms that made small clockwise circles, like a bird falling from the nest. I can still feel my intestines knotting up as the rope failed to come taught with each new meter she plunged. She made a surprised noise — the same sound she’d make when she dropped a plate or fumbled with her keys — and I can hear the nauseating thud of impact; the cracks of snapping bones and tearing flesh; the breathless, powerful echo of my voice as I screamed for help into the empty pastures below.
I can still smell her blood as it poured from her head and into my hands, soaking my clothes and flowing down the limestone. I remember slipping it it, unable to steady myself as I tried to stabilize her spine. I remember the feeling of the blood drying on my skin, tugging at my hair every time I moved my arms or legs. I kissed her forehead, and the blood dried in my beard, and I was reminded of it as I cried because my face contorted and it pulled on my whiskers.
An eagle circled overhead and the air was still, but I felt like all the world’s chaos and violence had landed on my shoulders. Everything had suddenly become so unbearably loud.
I remember the primal, metallic taste of fear.
She had bones coming out of her ankles, out of her elbow, and both her feet were grotesquely twisted 90 degrees to the side. She was paralyzed from the waist down, her hip was broken, her back was broken, her feet were broken, her teeth were broken, and she had a deep bloody gash on her head. She was shrieking into that blazing Turkish sun.
“Where am I?” she cried, “What happened?” I told her to breathe in the pain, thankful that she was, at that point, still alive.
I didn’t know what to do with so much trauma and I didn’t know if she was bleeding to death on the inside. So I just cradled her head and held her hand and wondered silently as she screamed if this is how I was going to lose my wife, if this is how it would all end, like a scene in a movie, looking into her big blue eyes as her life slowly ebbed away and they closed for one final time.
I woke up in what I can only describe as a bubble of light: I was confused, but I had a vague idea what had happened. "This is it, I´m dying. There is no more,” I thought to myself. But then: “No, it’s too early." I felt a heinous pain shoot up through my feet and legs and back, and I realized I was conscious, but barely. I remember Nathan holding my bloody head in his lap asking me a ton of questions. I could hear myself screaming, and I remember drifting in and out of reality. When I was alive, I felt intense pain in my feet and back and legs. When I drifted, I barely screamed at all.
The rescue lasted about an an hour and a half, and along the way, someone forced Nathan away so he could regain composure for a few minutes. He told me later he was worried he wouldn’t be by my side if I died. I wasn't in good shape.
I woke up after surgery and looked down over my mummified body, and then, just barely, I was able to move my little toes. I heard a loud relief from Nathan and nurses in the room who had feared that I had been paralyzed. I still didn’t quite know what was going on inside my body because with the exception of one of the doctors, nobody spoke English. Nathan started using Google Translate to help learn about my condition.
I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 - L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.
For days I laid there, hovering in a weird state between sleep and awake. It was mostly a blur, but some things I remember very clearly. I remember a nurse coming in after work with a home cooked meal of bone soup that was supposed to help heal all my factures. She sat on the bed with me and fed me, and despite not speaking the same language, I felt so connected to her.
At one point, I came to consciousness and was super thirsty. Nathan grabbed a bottle from the back table thinking it was water. I took a huge gulp and suddenly began gasping for air, for it was actually filled with disinfectant. I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I'm still here.
I was a healthy and strong athlete, and had spent the last few years climbing around the world. Before that, I had spent an entire winter hiking across Norway on cross country skis. Yet there I was, bound in by a body that didn’t work, and in tremendous pain. I couldn’t go to the bathroom alone, I couldn't wash myself, I couldn't even roll over. I’m right handed, so I couldn’t do much of anything with my left.
Even still, I had an enormous sense of gratitude that overshadowed everything. Every small thing that I normally would take for granted became a huge gift —to have my back scratched, to have my hair washed, just to lie on my stomach. To bathe, to feel water over my body, to eat food. It was like all the colors were slightly stronger and all emotions were more intense. Joy and sorrow went hand in hand and could change from one breath to the next. It felt like I was taking a journey to my very core.
The pain made it impossible to sleep more than an hour at a time, so I had a lot of time to think. If I ever did climb again, would I get back to the level I was at beforehand? Could I continue as a professional climber? Would I ever want to climb anyway? I asked again and again. And why climbing?
What I got back was a confirmation: that climbing is something I do for myself, because I love it, because it challenges me at every level. Climbing is a tool to trigger my own potential, a place where I can strive to be my best. And I can always do that, no matter what level I climb at.
I also realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I'm not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.
All this clarity created an awareness, which created an inner calm and confidence amidst the fear and uncertainty. I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”
I asked for a weight so I could start training the one hand that was still working. Some laughed - but for me it was gold. I got some blood circulating and kept some of my muscle tone. Most importantly, however, it helped me to remember who I was.
I made small goals for myself. The first was to get a spoon into my mouth. Then it was to touch my nose. Then it was to scratch my ear. Then it was to put my hair into a pony tail. And so on.
I had additional surgeries in Norway and then and spent months in hospitals and rehab centers confined to a back brace and a wheel chair. I gradually started the rehab process, but in the beginninI couldn’t weight my legs, so training took place in slings and with passive stretching.
I slowly began to regain my independence. My brother brought me some volleyball kneepads so I could crawl around on the floor, and I did that a lot.
And after about 10 weeks it was time to start bearing weight, so I moved to Cato Rehab Center near Oslo. I began in the pool, and for the first time in months I was able to get my heart rate up while floating in the water running intervals. As time passed, I began to weight my feet while hanging in a harness over a treadmill. I trained weights, rode a spinning bike and stretched between 6-8 hours a day. Every step of the way I realized that I was getting paid back for whatever I had done beforehand. All that crawling on the volleyball pads? It gave me the strength to get upright sooner.
The biggest challenge was and still is the pain. I used to use pain as a reference point for when I worked out too hard, but the pain is now constant. It's always there, and I know I have to charge through it for it to get better, but I also need to know when to rest. Over time, I've also grown to understand that pain can cause a lot of fear, and if you listen to that fear it begins to limit everything in life.
A great example was the day in Cato when my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn't want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you'll realize that your limits are far higher than you ever thought.
Toward the end of my stay in Cato, in August 2012, about 18 weeks after the accident, I still spent most of the time in a wheelchair, but I was able to crutch around for short hikes. At that point, I began to take mini climbing trips outside again. My friends carried everything while I slowly made my way to the crag, and I was overwhelmed. I would ho and cry, and walk and cry.
When I finally got out of rehab, I began to work with the coach of the Norwegian climbing team: Stian Christophersen. He helped me with a fresh approach to training for climbing. Finally I had someone who I trusted who encouraged me to take my foot off the brakes. He knew what I wanted, and he helped me to find the way to attack it.
In late October, 2012, we were back in the USA, and Nathan and I headed to Utah to celebrate the 6 month anniversary of the fall. What did we do? We went climbing!
Our plan was to spend a couple of days on Moonlight Buttress, a big wall that goes free at 5.12+. This is a route we both have been dreaming about forever, and I wanted to scope it out. Work distribution was simple: Nathan did pretty much everything. I had enough to manage with just myself. Walking was still the hardest part, and I couldn’t carry any weight because of the pain in my ankles. I took the job as the master chef, photographer and the happy face.
The whole trip, I felt like I was dreaming, and at the same time, I was totally aware that I was as alive and as awake that I could possibly be. I tried to toprope every pitch, and despite hanging here and there, I realized that freeing the whole thing on lead after the accident is very possible.
After another month of rehab in Oslo, I headed to Thailand to spend the winter in a warm climate, which helped for the arthrosis in my ankles. It was there that I got all my payback for the endless-hour day training days I’d been putting in for months. On my 8 month anniversary I climbed my first 8a, and went on to finish the trip having climbed two 8a+’s, 3 8a’s, and a 7c. Here are some of my favorite climbs of the trip.
After I returned from Thailand, I decided to have all the metal removed from my ankles and elbow. There were dozens of pins and plates and screws, and I had them all removed at once. It was heartbreaking to wake up from surgery because it reminded me of laying in that bed in Turkey, delirious with pain and having no idea what to expect. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to make a movie.
Having four of these ankle scars and one of these elbow scars doesn't exactly inspire confidence. But the negative feelings passed once I reminded myself: I know that I can do it. I know what to do. I know what it takes.
I could hobble again after a week, so I headed to Flatanger Cave in Norway to help Adam Ondra bolt some of his new lines. I couldn't do much other than spend time figuring out what I could do -- and what I could do was jumar. So jumar I did. Here's a shot of me dangling on Adam's monstrous static line overlooking the Norwegian coast.
And here I am today. The rehabilitation process has been more challenging than anything I’ve experienced. I have found that the key to handling whatever I'm struggling with is to accept the situation and find a game plan to attack it. You need patience and the flexibility to change your strategy if it doesn't work. You need to somehow get in touch with that inner motivation and willpower. And the way to find that is to find what triggers happiness.
If you're happy with yourself, it's easier to spread good vibes and be inspiring and have compassion for people around you, and a very positive circle begins to form. I was wrapped up in this circle all autumn, which I spent climbing some of the world's best sandstone in the Red River Gorge. I met great people and fell in love with the place -- can't wait to go back this spring.
These days, the continuous pain is tiring. Sometimes climbing and hiking takes more that it gives, and it makes me question what I’m doing. I have to dig deep, and find ways to handle it. I have to remind myself to be grateful. I try to remember situations in the past, when I would hurt after an epic day in the mountains. That sort of pain was deeply satisfying. So now I try to relate pain with satisfaction and accomplishment.
It's been a long journey and it's far from over, but it's reinforced the fact that you have to get after it and chase your goals and your passions. Be sure you create your definition of success, not what someone else made up for you. Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places -- not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine.