My son Miles yelled up from the belay “Everything okay up there?” “I think my ankle is broken,” I said. “Should I come up?” he asked. I looked around from where I lay, but the only cracks for an anchor required standing. There were some shouts from another team at the base of the climb asking if something was wrong. “Miles, tell them my ankle is broken and we need help. You should stay put.”
Peering down from the ledge I saw people running down the nature trail to the parking lot. The sun was setting and, while I was warm from the climb, I knew the T-shirt and fleece pullover wouldn’t protect me against freezing December night temperatures. While I pictured being rescued from above, in the middle of a cold starry night, Mr. Competence arrived down below, in the form of a Joshua Tree climbing guide. Steve yelled up that he would help me as it might take the Park Service time to respond and it was getting dark. He had a large haul bag stuffed with equipment on his back, which he dumped after learning we had a 70-meter rope, and plenty of gear. I thought Steve might hike around to the top, and lower down to me, but I could not place his movements. Noise from below now indicated that he was coming up the route instead. Fairly quickly he came into view, having free soloed the route in his “5.10” sneakers. I said “Don’t take any chances on my account.” “I feel comfortable on this route,” he said. Now this is embarrassing, but the route, “Fote Hog”, is rated 5.6 (Sentinel – East Face, Real Hidden Valley). I’ve seen some discussion that it should be rated 5.7. For me, the route was much more of a challenge than I had anticipated, with an exposed overhanging traverse. We were well above this problem however, and near the end of the second pitch.
Steve had with him his harness, an ATC belay device, and a cordellette for constructing an anchor. “We’ve got to move quickly to get off before dark.” Steve said. He built the anchor with gear from my harness and his cordellette. “Miles, you are on belay. Take your anchor apart and climb up.” A few minutes passed, “Miles, not to pressure you, but time is of the essence. If the protection doesn’t come out on the first tug, leave it,” Steve said. I confirmed that all the gear was expendable. Horizontal sunrays momentarily illuminated the white granite formations against dark skies. Miles surmounted an “iron cross” type boulder problem and joined us at the new anchor, where Steve secured him with a clove hitch knot. I felt safe under Steve’s care and didn’t regret not waiting for park personnel.
“I’m going to lower you directly off my harness”, Steve said, as he adjusted his distance from the anchor. “These things happen all the time” Steve assured me, “usually to someone else though. Now comes the hard part: you need to swing around me to get your weight on the rope and then hold yourself off the face, with your two arms and good leg, as I lower. You can grab onto anything: harness, carabiner, arm, shoulder; it’s all part of the anchor.”
I understood the instructions; essentially it was like starting a rappel, but in this case a lower. I swung around Steve clawing at his harness while making unpleasant noises, given my ribs, and a nice shriek, when I tapped my toe. Then I was in position, mastering the three-point stance. Soon I hung free of the face and continued this way almost to the bottom. A crew of concerned climbers on the ground called for Steve to stop lowering when it became apparent that I was headed toward some nasty looking vegetation. With coordination, they were able to swing me quite a distance, to a sandy clearing, where I came to rest.
Jesse introduced himself to me as an EMT, which I readily accepted, despite his somewhat Haight Asbury appearance. At this point I realized I was in climbing-accident heaven. Miles rappelled on the single rope with a fireman’s belay backup provided by one of the many people aiding. Steve had talked earlier of rappelling the rope as well, and abandoning it overnight, but given how fast he had cleared us off the rock, he must have changed his mind as we shortly received a shouted “rope” warning followed by the snaking rope. Steve retrieved the rest of my gear, free climbed where I had fouled up, and met us at the base of the formation via an easier route.
Jesse assessed my condition and organized the people waiting to help. He and Steve conferred and formally transferred leadership to Jesse, given his EMT training. A rope carry moved me from the base of the climb through some underbrush to the nature trail. It was dusk now but the climb had an approach time of less than ten minutes. Strategy changed to having alternating climbers on either side of me acting as crutches; I put a hundred pounds on each of their shoulders each time I moved my good leg forward. With nightfall, numerous headlamps illuminated the way. Closer to the parking lot, the trail narrowed through a series of steps, which I hadn’t recalled, given my earlier intact condition.
An ambulance followed by a fire engine pulled into the lot at roughly the same time as my rescuers and I emerged from the trail. There was some discussion as to whether or not I should accept assistance. I wasn’t sure what the concern was; I guessed that not everyone around me had insurance, and given a similar situation, might make their own way to the emergency room, or elsewhere. The Fire and Rescue Captain mentioned a form to sign for “refusal of care.” Figuring he was looking after my best interests, and counting on my insurance carrier, I said: “I think I’ll play it safe and go in the ambulance.” There was a cheer and congratulations for having made a wise decision.
I rode in one of those Rube Goldberg gurneys, where the bed collapses from four feet to six inches, on the last of the path, and into the back of the well lit ambulance. My son Miles took my climbing shoes and helmet off. Chuck, the ambulance medic examined the helmet and found some scraping, but no cracks. A Park Service Ranger hat popped in the passenger door and gave me some comforting words, which I only vaguely recall, but reflected the professionalism of the rescue. Chuck asked, “is your son studying medicine?” I responded negatively. “Well he gave me a complete assessment of your condition.” I realized Chuck had confused my son Miles with Jesse the EMT. “Oh you must have been talking with Jesse. He told me he is an EMT.” “He sure talked like one” Chuck said. While Chuck treated missing elbow skin, the driver made up a full-length leg splint. The driver was happy because he hadn’t seen a closed ankle injury within memory and the open ones are pretty disgusting.
In the twenty minutes it took to get to the Joshua Tree hospital I learned that Chuck and I were born three months apart in 1959 and we both weigh 190 pounds. He had broken 26 bones however so we agreed I had some catching up to do. When cellular phone service resumed, near the park entrance, Chuck requested medication on my behalf. A moment later he informed me, “We got the good stuff”, and prepared a syringe. The morphine went through my body like a shock wave. I realized that I had lost track of Miles, but through a methodical process involving color, year, make and model of the car, and license plate number, we determined that Miles was directly in tow.
I was wheeled into the ER where I was treated to a remarkable discussion of a spider bite wound oozing pus for two weeks. I was hoping now that the ribs were broken and the ankle only sprained. The x-ray technicians were dedicated: one said to the other, “you won’t be shooting that much, so I’ll just hold his leg in position,” which she did while the other ducked around the lead wall. With the lights off, in my imagination, she glowed.
I was asked to choose “upright” or “prone” on the gurney on my return to the ER. “I’m finding it pretty entertaining here so I’ll go with ‘upright’ for the view,” I said. It was an interesting puzzle to try to pick the doctor out. Eventually my attention correctly focused on Dr. Paul wearing blue pajamas, a Fu Manchu moustache, and a three-day beard. This attire, I determined over the next couple of days, is the current operating room fashion statement. I learned their “Orthopod” was off and unreachable. The next “Orthopod” was in Palm Springs, but appeared to be in a grumpy mood. Palm Springs over the Christmas holidays was bustling with accident-prone tourists and devoid of “Orthopods.”
The x-rays revealed to Dr. Paul that I had an unusual and severe ankle fracture. He could manually reduce the fracture, but I would probably need general anesthesia for that. Further calls to Palm Springs resulted in anecdotal evidence, from a nurse’s recollection, of the need for a “surgical” reduction. Paul was concerned that he could make the situation worse, and together we started working towards securing the help of a specialist. I’m indebted to Paul’s sound judgment. Bone necrosis was the immediate issue. Dr. Paul advised that if someone offered screws, I should take them up on it. Twenty-four hours later, my ankle was successfully surgically reduced, with bone grafts, and three metal screws.
So I am “someone else.” The ledge I landed on was ideal in that it sloped back into the face and I could lie there visualizing what had gone wrong. Obviously my technique sucked. I thought of other factors, and remembered a year earlier when rope drag pinned me on a route at Lover’s Leap; I couldn’t move. (Since then, I’d methodically place shoulder length slings on every piece.) Looking up, I could see that if I just hadn’t put that last sling in, if instead I’d directly clipped the carabiner attached to the end of the cam, shortening the fall potential by four feet, then the rope would have become tight before I decked. In essence, this was a leader fall with improper protection. Miles was out of sight on this section, and I hadn’t communicated how much slack to maintain. I was close to the end of the route; instead of climbing, I started to “will” myself up. I was hurrying to get off before dark, but in the end, I took far more time and added enormous costs. This was our last outing after a full day before a big dinner party at a rental. Earlier we had hiked up Ryan Mountain and then to Lost Horse Mine.
The day before, we climbed “The Swift,” rated 5.7, on “Lost Horse Wall.” This route is straightforward, until about midway up the wall, where hidden handholds allow access to an exposed fin. Progress up the fin is possible via difficult hand-jams. I got a cam in a crack and had to resort to stepping in an attached sling. The hand-jam section changed the climb dramatically for me. My wife Laura was discussing our progress with someone down below who told her that we were doing it “right.” Recently a party did it “wrong” and ended up with two broken ankles, and if that wasn’t enough, managed to spill blood all over the rocks. I hadn’t met “someone else” before, but now I know there are two of us.
1 Comment Add a Comment
i am glad u are ok
and ankle breaks are common in j.t
i was not a vitim, but the rope partner in something similar
wow i have never been slammed
oh yes once onto my back from 13-15 feet
the belayer let the rope go when i was dead-poointing and missed my point of holds
bammmm i hit and now i have still to this day a hard time climbing
but hey what the f*********
i still go for it