Best laid plans…
I had lots of ideas how the last weekend of September and first day of October would be. I had signed up months ago to do a “two-fer” mountain peak summit trip with my outdoor group, the Chemeketans. The plan was to climb Mt. Thielsen one day and Mt. Bailey (the less technical one) on the next day, weather pending. I was excited by the challenge, the chance to adventure with friends, and to see some beautiful views. It was going to be a rewarding end to what has been a great climbing season (despite quite a few weather related changes).
Weather found me again on this trip, like many others this summer. The weekend prior, snow fell early in the central cascades, and I was unsure about the conditions for the next weekend. However, from an online group, I learned that in our warm week the peak had also warmed and was snow free. But, on Wednesday evening, 2 days before we were set to leave, the forecast was calling for possible rain, snow, high winds and generally poor conditions. I had to make the decision on Thursday whether or not to go. I weighed the pros and cons. I had the right gear to make conditions bearable, but was that summit experience one I was willing to have a potential sufferfest for? I was also just getting over a cold, had a really stressful day at work, and just couldn’t imagine going home that night to pack all my cold/wet weather gear up. So, I bailed on the trip, and the majority of the group ended up going, summiting both mountains (Thielsen on a nice clear cold day and Bailey in some crazy snow). I normally try to live life by always saying ‘yes’ to things, which makes regrets easy to handle. But, saying ‘yes’ can sometimes also lead to misery which could have been avoided. Who is to say which is going to be the better choice in any given situation with so many things beyond control?
Meanwhile, when I had made the choice to not go on the summit trip that Thursday, I texted a friend to see if she wanted to head to Smith Rock on Sunday to rock climb instead. The forecast was for cool and dry temps in the 50’s and seemed like a great way to get in at least one more Smith day (and maybe work up my nerve to lead a route again). She said yes and we made arrangements to meet outside of Corvallis Sunday morning to have me drive us there for the day.
My father sent me a letter that I read that Thursday evening saying he “worried about me” after reading of some of my summer climbing adventures, saying “you are almost 40 now, and if you break something, it takes longer to heal.” I know parents are supposed to worry about their children, but I couldn’t help at being annoyed at his comments. There had been plenty of times in my life my father probably actually needed to worry about me and hadn’t, and while climbing and mountaineering are inherently risky and dangerous, I also am cautious and have a healthy (and sometimes too much) amount of fear. Risks I take when I am outdoors are calculated and for me, absolutely worth it to feel challenged, alive, and happy.
So this is the part in the story for the dramatic pause for foreshadowing.
My friend and I headed out on time in the darkness of Sunday morning, through rain in the valley until we crossed Santiam Pass and found clear skies and some gorgeous fall colors on the lower lying forest beds. We stopped at Sister’s bakery for my favorite weakness (donuts!) and talked about how we wanted to start training inside again this winter at the climbing gym and how we wanted to motivate each other to get out and hike this winter, despite the rain or conditions. We got to Smith around 8:30 a.m., and it was clear, sunny, and cold but a perfect autumn day.
At that moment, even though I had seen the happy summit group’s post the day before on social media and had felt a bit envious, I felt really glad I had made the decision to come to climb. Since it was just the two of us, I felt like we would get a lot of climbing in, and I would do a few climbs on toprope and build confidence to try a few lead climbs.
We hiked down to Rope-de-dope, figuring we could lead the easier stuff and maybe top rope the 5.9s and 5.10s. The hike down is only about ¾ of a mile, and there were already lots of climbers over across the river climbing in the sun. There was a group of about 5-6 young women from northern Washington climbing at Rope-de-dope and two climbers on the 5.5 climb. Next to that was a 5.7 and a 5.8 (which at some point was also rated a 5.9) Shamu that my friend had climbed on toprope before and was eager to try on lead, especially since the first bolt is not far from the ground.
We got ready and setup and she reached the first bolt easily, slipped a bit, and asked to be lowered down. She tried a few more times, noting that the rock was not only sharp but still very cold. One of the two women who were done with their 5.5 climb offered to climb and spot my friend as she prepared cautiously to get above the first bolt and on to the second. I kept her on a tight belay, but had to give her slack as she got a few inches above the bolt. She then suddenly fell, only about 5 feet, but awkwardly and hard enough to slam her left foot hard into the rock. She screamed out in pain and as I lowered her, she yelled that her foot was broken.
For a minute, I realized I had no idea what to do. I had done first aid maybe 15 years ago, but in the moment, certainly didn’t know what our first steps should be. Fortunately, the two women who had been on the 5.5 climb were both trained (one in search and rescue and as a physical therapist, and the other in wilderness first responder) and hurried over to help and take charge of the situation. A splint was made from my Thermarest Z-Lite pad and tape from my first aid kit. Smith has a set of crutches and a stretcher at several spots in the park, and my friend was determined that despite the pain, she could get out without the stretcher. The two women helped her up with the aid of a crutch and their shoulders, while I carried my pack, the rope and my friend’s pack up the trail. Almost everyone coming down offered to help, and one strong guy carried her up a flight of stairs. This reaffirms my love for the (almost all) of the people in the outdoor community. I think everyone recognizes it might be them one day.
After about an hour, my friend had made it to the parking lot and I drove over with the car to help her into the back seat. She was a bit in shock but was joking and trying to keep a positive attitude, thanking the two women profusely and saying they were heroes. It was indeed super awesome that the rescue group was entirely strong capable women.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Redmond Emergency Room, as my friend had x-rays and a CT scan. Her ankle was indeed shattered in 3 places and she would have to have surgery to have pins inserted within the next few days. The staff were efficient and kind. My friend joked that she was sad it might ruin her favorite tattoo on her ankle, which holds the quote, “Not all that wander are lost” from the Lord of the Rings books.
Ironically, just as the tech started to splint and wrap her foot in a temporary cast, the Lord of the Rings movie started on the t.v. in the emergency room.
Of course, I don’t believe the universe had a plan to play Lord of the Rings on cable t.v. just as my friend was getting a cast to cover up a tattoo that was based on a book that turned into a movie. I also don’t think my mentioning the “breaking a leg” had anything to do with it. However, it is a strange set of coincidences.
To those who know me, or those who have read any of this blog, are well aware of, I tend to overthink and over analyze most everything in my life. What if I had gone to Thielsen instead? What if I had offered to lead the first pitch that day on a different route? Was I supposed to be the one to break my leg? Was the universe offering me a warning that my gut should have listened to?
Either way, my friend’s leg is broken and she will heal, and if I know her, she will be leading and climbing again by next summer. Unfortunately, our winter training plans will have to change. I will still get back to leading stuff, although this did awaken a reality of how quickly things happen and how, I shouldn’t be relying on strangers to be there to help in emergencies.
Lessons learned: I should sign up for Wilderness First Aid or responder training this winter. I need to have more items in my first aid kit, like an ace bandage. Even if you do all the right things on your adventure, sometimes accidents happen. I’m just glad it wasn’t any worse. And there will be climbs for another day.