Giving Up Excuses

I reached for the edge, a full pad crimp. The pumpy, overhanging basalt of the Fugitive Extension weighed down my crooked left arm.  The anchors taunted me.   I failed in slow motion.  20 seconds later and 20 feet below, I hung dejected at the end of the rope.  I wanted to scream at Jailhouse, the steep sport crag in the Sierra foothills. The move was impossible.  I immediately made excuses for myself.  I settled on one quickly. I was handicapped.

Seven years ago, I fell from the top of Intersection Rock in Joshua Tree.  I was onsight free soloing the North Overhang (5.9) when I made a grievous error.  I passed the crux of the climbed.  I stared at the summit, a few meters away.  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 fell.After 70 feet I hit a ledge.  I was ecstatic.  I had stuck it.  I was still alive.  Then I fell off the ledge and went another 30 feet to the ground.  
A few minutes before I fell in Joshua Tree

Other climbers, out for a mid December weekend at the National Park, saw my fall and helped facilitate a rescue. I had a stroke shortly after I hit.  My brain swelled inside my cracked skull, threatening to kill me.  A helicopter flew me to the ICU in Palm Springs. I barely made it to the hospital.    Spinal and ankle fusion, pin and rods in my elbow, a vana cavity filter to stop a blood clot from entering my heart, brain damage from hitting my head, a broken clavicle, nerve damage.  I spent 3 weeks in the ICU and 81 days in the hospital that year.  I laid prone in a hospital bed for over 2 months before I fought to sit up.  There’s nothing inspirational about learning how to walk again.  It’s a painful process.  To facilitate my recovery, I fixated on climbing.  I took the steps to get back to the crag.
In the hospital trying to figure it out
After the ICU, I went to a spine and physical rehabilitation center in Los Gatos, California, near where I was attending school at UC Santa Cruz.  I learned to stand, then to stumble, and finally to walk.  I focused on recovering, and returning to climbing.  Every step brought me closer to the crag.  I wanted to climb more than ever.

“Maybe you should take up something safer, like cycling,” Paul Dossick, a South Bay area orthopedist, told me in his office. Dossick tore through the scar tissue that had healed from my last surgery. “Or take up bowling.”

The geriatrics waiting outside for their knee and hip replacements heard my yell through the small office.  I nearly fainted from the pain.  
More painful than Dossick’s wrenching through the tender scars of my elbow was his bowling suggestion.  It was a recurring theme in my recovery.  Doctors and physical therapists told me that climbing led to injury.  I pretended not to notice.  I just wanted to climb again, it was crucial to my recovery.

Dossick removed two screws and a plate from my elbow during a second surgery on my elbow.  The orthopedist increased the range of motion in my arm.  He could do nothing about the metal in my ankle or the rods in my back. The bottom of my tricep would never return and I lost an inch of my reach. I went to physical therapy and worked the muscle out.   I push harder with my triceps when I mantle,  I stand harder on my feet, I open my hip to crack climb on my fused ankle, I smear my knee to make up for the rods in my back,  I learned to compensate for my various injuries.

“Super Pete” Chasse reached for the edge on the Fugitive extension. He grabbed the crimp, wavered a little hitting the undercling, and then clipped the anchors. Solid. The 40 year old sport climber lowered 30 meters down the overhanging 5.13b sport climb.  He hobbled to the base of the route on the right side of Jailhouse.  He unscrewed his urethane foam foot, replacing his custom fabricated climbing shoe with the foot he used to walk in.
Pete on Father's Day. John Vallejo Photo

Pete worked as a steel fabricator for a pier building company in Lake Tahoe and he often moved large dirt-sifting equipment. A week after sending a 5.14b at Jailhouse, Pete was lowering an enormous piece of machinery.  One of the hooks attached to the chains holding the equipment fell off. 6000 pounds of metal fell onto Pete and pinned his leg. The doctors gave Pete two choices: a dozen surgeries and maybe partial function of his leg or cut off the limb.  Pete didn’t give the options much thought, he let go of the dead limb. Pete bought two prosthetic feet to attach to his new “leg.”  The first foot he walked in.  The second he ground down into a little shoe, he made a stiff edge on it, pointed the toe a little, glued sticky rubber onto it, and created a climbing shoe.  Pete’s returned to the rocks four months after his accident.   

“I never see the use in making excuses,” Pete told me over the phone as he drove back from Bishop this spring.  Over the weekend he climbed High Plains Drifter, a high V7 at the Buttermilks that he had broken his heel on earlier that season.  “There are certain things you can’t do but there’s other things you can do to make up it for it.”  Because of the prosthetic, Pete is unable to kneebar but he can stand on his prosthetic forever; his artificial foot never gets pumped on slabby terrain.  For Pete the loss of his leg didn’t handicap his climbing, it just changed it.
Pete and his wife Lidija in the Red.

“Grab the sidepull and reach straight for that crimp.” Pete told me at the crag.  He had just hiked the route and I desperately wanted to do it too. I started to show Pete my arm, to give an excuse of why I couldn’t reach straight with a crooked arm.  I wanted to tell him about my handicap.  I looked at his prosthetic leg, and remembered how he didn’t use any of the dozen of kneebar rests that I used on the route. I could only nod in response.

This spring at Jailhouse, I pantomimed the beta to Jake Whittaker, a tall bespectacled Yosemite friend, as we sat at the pillar start of the Fugitive Extension. 

Jake, a master slab climber, once forgot his blown out shoes on his way to the Camp 4 boulders.  He climbed anyway, trying the notoriously difficult V5 slab Blue Suede Shoes.  Jake crimped his way up the problem barefoot, ignoring the extra difficulty. 
Jake Whittaker
I jumped in the air showing the dyno after the crux. I wobbled slightly showing the delicate traverse move.  I flapped my arms wildly pretending to fall going to the anchor.  I pointed to my elbow, indicating my six-year-old injury.
Jake smiled. “So, if you’d sent that 5.9, you could have sent this 13b?”
For a year, I thought the move was impossible.  I tried and I fell. I had a good excuse for not being able to do the route but Pete had a better excuse.  There are thousands of hard climbers who, like Pete, fight through adversity.  American aphorist Mason Cooley, wrote “Excuses change nothing, but make everyone feel better.”   As Jake suggested, if I had sent the North Overhang of Intersection Rock, it wouldn’t change whether or not I could climb my current sport project.  I decided to crimp harder on the side pull to compensate for my crooked elbow.  I fell.  But I was closer. 

Climbing on the Fugitive

This spring, my raw hands grated across the basalt for the third time of the day. As I approached the crux of the Fugitive Extension, I didn’t fixate on my broken elbow and I didn’t think about the moves ahead.    I breathed.  I stepped into the move, reached for the crimp, and latched it.  I fought a few more feet and clipped the anchors.