His sequin jumpsuit reflected the flickering casino lights. The ice skates cut smooth lines in the ice, sounding like helicopter blades as he delivers my dinner of crackers.
It was two weeks after the fall before I realized the ice skater wasn’t real. I woke from my coma dreams to a numbing morphine drip, prone in the ICU at Desert Springs Memorial Hospital near Joshua Tree. I wanted to return to the coma. My dreams were better than the reality of the pain and failure. The doctors spoke stoically when they discussed the eight hours of operations thus far -- the damage to my occipital lobe, the spinal fusion, the compound fracture of my ulna. I couldn’t quite understand what they had done. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I was Frankenstein’s monster, confused, angry, and sewn back together wrong. I tore the IV out of my arms -- I wanted to pull on my jeans and crawl to El Cap. My identical twin, Matt, held me down while a nurse sedated me.
Eventually, I calmed. The thick calluses of my hand were peeling away, I had shed 20 pounds. Long rods held my back together, plates supported my sad, destroyed left ankle, and pins cemented my elbow. Falling 100 feet had taken its toll. My body hurt.
The Stonemaster and writer John Long has described Joshua Tree as “a poor man's Patagonia.” It’s a raw, windy place, but also a winter sanctuary for dirtbag climbers, the old school-rock jocks who’d drop acid on Wednesday nights and run wide-eyed through the yuccas. I never liked the coarse quartz monzonite, the blob formations, or the wind, but the park had hardened the Stonemasters, and I wanted to emulate my heroes.
During my 2004 winter break from college in Santa Cruz, I ran around the busy Hidden Valley Campground, soloing a half-dozen moderates as I warmed up to redpoint
I moved fluidly up through a hand crack to a four-foot roof -- the crux. I reached out cautiously, felt the jams, sunk my hand around the roof’s lip, and pulled over. I neared the summit. I felt secure knowing I’d sent the crux, 100 feet of space swimming below me. Then I repositioned my feet, moving them underneath my body, a slight miscalculation. I started to barndoor, my balance suddenly gone.
I didn’t want to scream. I had too much pride. Death, however, was imminent, and there would never be a more appropriate time to cry for help. So I yelled. Seventy feet of air rushed by. A second later I hit a ledge. I was ecstatic and felt invincible. I started to sit up and promptly rolled off, striking the ground 30 feet below.
Trying to walk it off, I stumbled to my feet. But then a seizure bolted through me and I convulsed, crumpling to the ground. Nearby climbers ran to help, the crater I’d made beginning to fill with blood. I heard the faint thud of helicopter blades as I blacked out.
Imagine a world where others fulfill all your desires. They feed you. They dress you. They even wipe your ass. I was there and let me tell you, it was miserable. This was my world for 25 days at the ICU in Desert Springs, and then another 50 days after that, at a stroke and rehabilitation center near Santa Cruz.
John was a stroke victim and my first rehab roommate. He was a 60-year-old man who’d become helpless overnight. John’s family struggled with his transformation more than he did. He wore a diaper, and the room often smelled. One night, John left his bed and began to wander the room, mumbling about the bathroom and edging close to my bed.
“John, the bathroom’s in the corner,” I said. He ignored me.
I stabbed the callbox button, desperately beckoning the nurse. I was paralyzed, unable to leave the bed, and now John was going to crap on me. Eventually, the nurse responded. I was helpless; I was a 23 year old baby.
There was nothing inspirational about learning to walk again. It was painful, even though I stood during my first physical-therapy session. Seven seconds passed. I sat, rested, and then tried again. My legs wobbled precariously at five seconds. I felt uncertain at six. Would I fall? I fought through, watching the clock tick till 15 seconds. Later, I tried to spray to Matt about how walking made me feel excited, like I was climbing again. Sitting in my hospital room playing Fable on my Xbox -- a gift from my oldest brother, Chris -- Matt looked at me and asked, “How do I get the combat multiplier up for my hero?”
I progressed from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane. I hobbled back to school and began the spring quarter. A few more surgeries, and 381 days after the accident, I climbed again.
December 2005: A half-dozen Monkeys, climbers I knew from Yosemite, sat slandering by the fire in Joshua Tree. It was my first climbing trip since my accident. Even falling off routes I’d onsight-soloed, I was happy to be on rock again, to share J-Tree’s cold desert winds with friends. A couple of sloggers -- a pair of old Cascade climbers -- ambled up with a bottle of whiskey.
“You guys hear the story about the kid who fell off the North Overhang?” asked one, a 50-year-old pharmacist from Seattle.
My Monkey friends cackled, and then stabbed their fingers at me and screamed, “That's the guy!”
“What the f--k’s the matter with you? You get hit in the head with a hammer or something?” the pharmacist asked.
From my tent the next morning, I heard the pharmacist going off in his campsite. “What an idiot,” he said of me. “The Old Dads used to get that stuff wired before they soloed it.”
I felt a knife stab my heart. His words touched on a belief I’d long held: that I was a failure. Soloing had forced me to step into the void, to confront my insecurities and become confident. Now, I only had the notoriety of my failure to keep me company… and the $500,000 in hospital bills, the surgeries, the pain, and my slow return to climbing. Still, my fall had not crushed me. I decided to invent something better for myself.
Over the months that followed, I ignored the nerve damage -- the loss of movement in my foot, the stunted left arm -- and the trepidation. I obsessed over climbing and convinced myself I’d been rebuilt harder, better, faster, stronger. In the spring, I moved into a tent in the woods behind UC Santa Cruz, funneling my rent money (from student loans) to climbing trips. I spent more time at the crag than in the classroom. During breaks, I went to Smith Rock, Indian Creek, Zion, Squamish Tuolumne, Red Rock, and Hueco Tanks. I stacked my classes two consecutive days a week, enduring marathon days of economics and accounting principles that then left me four uninterrupted days in the Valley. I wanted to be a real rock climber: I imagined it and I became it.
March 2009: I drive into Joshua Tree by night, sleeping restlessly. I am a better climber than when I fell. I have the physical ability, but wonder about the emotional control.
I finish chalking my hands, inhale once, and then swing out above the void. At North Overang’s crux, I rock onto my foot, jam my hand, and pull through. The climbing is over quickly --. I wonder how I ever fell. Standing on the summit, I can imagine I’ve undone my failure -- that I never took that fall.
For a moment, I forget about the haunting dreams, the lingering pain, and the scars. I am normal again. This is what I worked so hard for. The desert wind blows, chilling the titanium rods in my back and the metal plate in my ankle. My fingers trace the foot-long scar that runs down my spine. I realize the scars will never fade. And then the moment is gone.
Published in Climbing Dec 2009