I grew up riding horses, and I’ve always believed that the only way to move on from an epic, an injury, a jolt, is to get off the ground as soon as you catch your breath, get back on the damn horse that threw you off, and show it you’re the boss. But when I fell hard last year (climbing, not riding) and it took several months to stand up again, I had no choice but to walk away from that horse for a little while. My goal here is not to tell my poor-me-I-got-hurt-story, but to share so that, maybe, other climbers can learn from my mistakes and to hear some feedback from other athletes that have gotten hurt, have come back from it, and are going strong again …without any mental blocks.
Here’s how it all went down: almost exactly a year ago I was on my first trip to Yosemite with some great partners and some not so great weather (Yosemite in early April??? I know. Now I know). We camped for the first two days in sleet and rain, albeit a pretty quiet Camp 4. Day three cleared enough for us to climb some easy two-pitch routes in our puffy jackets. Day four was beautiful.
I was swapping leads with a much stronger climber than myself on The Surprise, having a seemingly perfect day. Then, just yards from the top on the last pitch, my foot slipped while I was adjusting what would’ve been my last piece of pro. I tumbled sideways, banging my hip on low-grade slab and breaking my tib-fib on a protruding ledge. A tiny blue alien stopped my fall just above the wide belay ledge, inches from my partner’s head. I cannot remember thinking anything besides what the f*ck–my ankle feels like it is on fire and I need to puke. Then I leaned over and dry-heaved.
Looking back, I definitely could have prevented it. Part of me is even embarrassed at how it all happened. First of all, I unclipped from my piece of pro to put a sling on it. I could have stayed clipped in and simultaneously changed over to a sling. Second, I knew the rock was damp on one of the lower pitches, and I shouldn’t have trusted my shoes to stem on practically blank slab. Third…I’m pretty sure I was blabbing to my partner, feeling invincible. That’s never good.
The broken tib-fib was only the half of it. My first orthopaedist–a man I’d love to defame here but won’t–made the intelligent decision to not do surgery on the fracture in my tibia. Seven weeks later one side of my tibia was hinging out, making its way into my leg as if it had some business being its own separate entity. Needless to say, surgery was inevitable: a bone graft to rebuild the runaway piece of bone, a plate to patch it all together, four screws, and a pin. By the time I had surgery, my leg had already atrophied and my bone density had decreased in the absence of weight-bearing. Besides the blood-thinner shots I had to give myself in my stomach every day for a month to counter-balance the prolonged amount of time I was spending immobilized; besides the back pain from standing on one leg to shower, to cook, to do anything for four months; besides the thousands of dollars that went into surgery and PT and casts and not being able to work…is the fact that the horse that bucked me off happened to be my thing–as in the thing I would do every day if I could–and my lead head went from pretty strong to practically non-existent.
And so, it is spring again. Everyone is climbing again. I have the same itch to go to the desert and crack climb that I’ve had since I moved West…but I’ll admit it: I’m scared. I’ve been on a few weekend trips to Lander, Wyoming this spring, and just recently I backed off leading a 5.8 sport route. I got two bolts up, looked down at the sloping slab below me, had a flashback from the slab I fell on in Yosemite, and told my partner to take and lower.
It’s been a year. The doctor says my tibia has finally completely healed around the bone graft. The scar tissue is still painful, but my joint is clicking and popping through it every day and my range of motion is coming back.
Is it worth it to get back on that damn horse?