I try to stand but only collapse back to the ground. My ears ringing and my vision darkening at the edges, I can barely comprehend frantic screams for help. I’m not sure who it is. It doesn’t really matter.
“Fuck, what happened?”
I do my best to look up, up to where I was, where I should be. Nothing. Everything was on the ground. And so was I.
Fading in and out of consciousness, I remain in what I can only describe as a dream. Awoken only by waves of pain running down my spine.
“Is this how I go? Is this how it ends?”
I awoke in a state of terror; beads of sweat cascading down my face, my head stuck to the pillow. No one had bothered to clean the blood off my head. The systematic beep of the hospital room instruments snapped me back to reality. I was sick of having this dream. I quickly grabbed the control and activated another dose of morphine to try and ease the frustration. It didn’t work.
Five days ago I was flown to a small hospital in Santa Fe with five fractures in my thoracic spine, T3 to T7 to be exact. Lying in the bed of my room, still not able to breathe under my own power, the doctor’s words played over and over again in my head like a bad song stuck on repeat. “You should be dead, kid.”
Death. At least death would be unknown, an easier reality to accept than watching your passion quickly slip through your fingers from the seat of a wheel chair.
I wasn’t sure what to say. We both knew I got lucky. I tried to shift in my back brace until a surge of pain throughout my body forced me to lay motionless in the dented mattress.
That afternoon I left the hospital in a Wheelchair. Walking felt too big a challenge. At home I dug out a picture of the Alaska Range from my desk drawer and pinned it up on my wall. Determined.
The picture was my motivation, my inspiration to never give up. To fight.
Recovery became my world. Day in, day out, I became obsessed. For what seemed like an eternity, I could barely muster the strength to climb onto an exercise bike, my hard shell back brace made achieving any degree of comfort impossible. My only tool for holding on to my motivation: the picture.
I taped the picture to the front of the bike while I pedaled for hours on end. I lost myself in the picture. I imagined the day I would once again swing my tools into deep blue ice or watch the sunrise from an exquisite alpine ridge. Soon.
I snapped on my crampons under a moonlight night beneath the steep snow slope beneath the Moose’s Tooth in the Ruth Gorge of the Central Alaska Range. I took a moment to reflect on the three years and the long fight it took to get here. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
Moving together, we make our way up the initial fifty-degree slow slope toward the couloir proper. The slope dead-ended at the first of the route’s challenges, a short but sweet mixed corner. Rated at YDS 5.6 the corner went smoothly. Switching between hands and tools, I glanced over my shoulder and was treated to a beautiful Alaska sunrise. I picked up the pace, hoping to make it to the belay and snap a photograph of my partner before the soft light disappeared.
“Looks like a piece of cake from here.”
I was wrong. The crux pitch thin and rotten, capped by an overhanging roof that was more than snow. I tested it with my ice tool. It sheared through like warm butter. My anxiety began to build. I looked down, I was 20 feet above my piece of protection, a 10cm long ice screw in questionable ice. There’s no way it would hold. Getting hurt out here was not an option.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted safety. A rusty piton.
With no other options I attached myself to out dated piece of steel and began to scan the sequence above. I had to go for it. There were no other options for aid climbing. I worked in a micro-sized nut of questionable holding strength below the piton. I suppose two mediocre pieces is better than one. At least one was holding my weight.
I took a deep breath, clipped the rope to both pieces of protection and began to delicately move my way upward, using as much rock as possible as to not dislodge the weakening bulge and send it plummeting downward, potentially colliding with Garon below. With a few precise and controlled moves I found myself standing on top of the bulge, and on good ice. A quick sigh of relief and I continued to the anchor above. We didn’t want to waste any time.