Nature's Bakery

A Rock Climber’s Worst Nightmare- Part One

Our lives are full of transformative moments, and April 26, 2012 was one of them. It was the day I took a groundfall that shattered my back, pelvis, arm and both ankles, and changed my life forever.

My husband Nathan and I awoke that morning in an idyllic bungalow in a pomegranate orchard in the mountains of Turkey. The rising sun slowly heated our tiny cabin, and I rolled over and asked him innocently how he thought I was going to die. He pushed me deeper into the covers -- "Of old age," he said. "Why are you even asking?"

It was spring, and life tasted fresh. We sat in the cafe alone, feasting on a breakfast of fresh cheeses and yogurts, and brainstorming which of the countless classic routes we’d sample that day. Eventually we made it up to the Sarkit Sector, to the original lines that have drawn climbers for a decade to Geyikbayiri.

After a few warm-ups, Nathan led an athletic, overhung route through a cave. I wanted to protect an old shoulder injury, so I decided to toprope it. Two Welsh climbers also wanted to toprope it afterward, so we decided that I could tie into the middle of the rope and climb. As I climbed up, I could unclip the rope from the draws above me and then reclip the dangling tail through them as I passed. The line would then already be threaded through when I lowered so our friends could climb safely and I wouldn’t have to struggle with clipping in directionals on my way down.

I moved fluidly, my feet dancing side to side on micro edges, my hands pinching the limestone tufas. I arrived at the anchors and clipped in direct. I had to fix a tangle in the rope, so I unclipped it from the anchor, untwisted it, and clipped it back into the anchor.

This is where a subtle slip of the mind happened, born from habit and comfort. I looked down and saw the rope going through the draws, and forgot that this was only a loose end. I was not leading, and Nathan wasn’t holding me on belay from that end. So when I clipped the rope back into the anchor, I clipped in as I would were I leading, and in doing so I took myself completely off belay. “Got me?” I shouted. He leaned back, felt tension because I was still clipped in direct, and yelled back at me. I unclipped from the chains, but nothing was holding me.

This is from my Nathan’s diary:

I can still see her falling: in a sitting position with outstretched arms that made small clockwise circles, like a bird falling from the nest. I can still feel my intestines knotting up as the rope failed to come taught with each new meter she plunged. She made a surprised noise — the same sound she’d make when she dropped a plate or fumbled with her keys — and I can hear the nauseating thud of impact; the cracks of snapping bones and tearing flesh; the breathless, powerful echo of my voice as I screamed for help into the empty pastures below.

I can still smell her blood as it poured from her head and into my hands, soaking my clothes and flowing down the limestone. I remember slipping it it, unable to steady myself as I tried to stabilize her spine. I remember the feeling of the blood drying on my skin, tugging at my hair every time I moved my arms or legs.

She had bones coming out of her ankles, out of her elbow, and both her feet were grotesquely twisted 90 degrees to the side. She was paralyzed from the waist down and she was shrieking into that blazing Turkish sun. 

I didn’t know what to do with so much trauma and I didn’t know if she was bleeding to death on the inside. So I just cradled her head and held her hand and wondered silently as she screamed if this is how I was going to lose my wife, if this is how it would all end, like a scene in a movie, looking into her big blue eyes as her life slowly ebbed away and they closed for one final time.

To be continued...