Anika: Rock Climbing Catastrophe
!! Read to the end for a plot twist !!
Some background for the fateful day: It was December, 2019. I was a junior in college and just beginning to flourish. I had just spent the past few months familiarizing myself with popular outdoor pursuits, such as backpacking and climbing, via group outings with my university’s student-led outdoors club. I was reveling in the excitement of finally actualizing my interest in these activities and of making awesome new friends.
As is common with amateur recreationists, most of us were loosely aware of the risks associated with wilderness activities. The solution in our minds back then was to throw a travel-sized first aid kit in the bottom of someone’s bag and forget about it. Maybe add an extra pair of wool socks and a few pop-tarts for good measure. It’s easy to tell yourself (especially when you’re full of youthful vigor!) that the stories you hear only happen to “other people”. What can really go wrong?
Well, it turns out, a lot. Really quickly and without warning.
I’ll keep the events leading up to the accident brief. I was invited to go on a bouldering trip in the American Southwest (undisclosed location for my own privacy). Although I was a novice climber, I felt reassured by the fact that I would be with friends who were (relatively) more experienced/skilled than I was.
We make the long drive through the night and arrive without a hitch. The next day, we begin climbing. Fast forward….
I have an unexpected fall on the crash-pad that results in a compound, open (read as: bone sticking out through skin) tib-fib fracture and a severely dislocated ankle, all on my left leg. I take one look at the damage and instinctively know it is in my best interest to avoid looking any longer. While one friend stays with me, the other leaves the scene to find cell service and call 911. A group of climbers in the area come over after hearing a commotion (a euphemistic way of saying that I was screaming in agony because my leg was in half).
Side note: They tell me later the reason they didn’t come to my aid right away was because they first assumed someone was Adam Ondre-ing their way up a challenging boulder problem.
My memory of events after this point are a bit foggy, as is expected when one’s mind and body are experiencing the effects of adrenaline and shock and trauma, but here is what I do recall. The other climbers quickly assess the situation and start administering medical aid. I feel immensely more at ease upon finding out that one of my impromptu rescuers is an EMT (the irony being he had completed his 1 training literally a couple days prior) and a few others are WFR certified. They have me lie down and improvise a C-collar in case I also sustained damage to my head, neck, or spine in the fall. At one point I scream out, “I can’t take this pain anymore”, to which I am offered Advil. I appreciate the gesture and take the Advil, but find it unsurprisingly does little to mitigate the paramount suffering I am having to endure.
As I start violently shivering and begin to go into shock, my caretakers keep me warm by wrapping me in several down jackets. My fractured leg is wrapped in another jacket and secured with medical tape. The entire time, everyone attending to my needs maintains a calm and confident demeanor, which allows me
to instill trust in their medical aptitude.
Then, the harsh reality: I’ve suffered a serious, potentially life-threatening injury that requires immediate evacuation. A deep, open wound like mine is high-risk for an infection. We are in an incredibly remote area. Waiting for medical assistance at the scene would take hours and is collectively deemed not a sensible option. They devise a plan to carry me out, six people at a time and swapping out with the remaining climbers when needed (see attached photo). One person is responsible for stabilizing my barely attached foot (thanks, Eli!)
The only way back to civilization, and thus a hospital, involves navigating down one side and up the other of a rocky canyon. This is no small feat. The terrain is very rocky and the footing is unstable. I do my best to remain calm and jovial to make everyone’s lives slightly easier. The whole operation takes roughly two hours. From there, I’m loaded into the back of a truck and driven to the nearest service road where we are intercepted by an ambulance. I’m told that the nearest medical facility is not equipped with a trauma unit and because of the time-sensitive nature of my injury, I must be transported by helicopter to the nearest regional hospital. By the time I arrive at the hospital, I’m floating in and out of consciousness (thanks, morphine!)
After a series of full-body scans, I underwent emergency surgery to set my tibia and ankle joint back into place with external fixators. I then had a second surgery the following day which involved installing long-term surgical hardware (and then a third surgery a couple weeks later to repair my shattered fibula and then a fourth surgery a couple years later to have all that hardware and scar tissue build-up removed woo!).
While I do suffer from chronic pain and limited joint mobility, my doctors have said that considering the severity of the injury, I’ve healed surprisingly well. I slowly returned to climbing (sport, not bouldering) about a year after the date of my injury.
Now for the lessons learned…
After a few years of physical recovery and mental processing, I’m now able to fully comprehend how lucky I am that my predicament worked out the way that it did. I feel incredibly fortunate that the kindness, courage, quick thinking, and preparedness of the original response team turned a dangerous situation into a relatively manageable one. Wilderness first aid training is more than just a notch in your belt; it’s a critical skill-set that allows us to experience the outdoors in the most responsible way. It saves lives.
Dealing with a milieu of medical trauma has been tough. Studying wilderness medicine is one way I’m able to heal. Since the accident, I’ve received my Wilderness First Aid certification and in 2024, I plan to get my WFR certification with the long-term goal of volunteering for my local Search and Rescue crew.
Now having learned WFA, I’m much more confident and at ease in the outdoors. Knowing that I can provide swift, knowledgeable, reassuring care to others in need is cathartic. By practicing wilderness preparedness, we’re doing a service to ourselves and to all members of the outdoor community. It is my belief that sharing this knowledge with others is not only beneficial, but a necessary, ethical duty.
Wilderness medical knowledge is not reserved for the most rugged or hardcore outdoor enthusiasts. It’s for everyone! The way to make this sentiment felt is by working to ensure the outdoor community is a safe and welcome space for people of all identities, backgrounds, and skill levels. Instead of gatekeeping and passing judgment on those less knowledgeable than us, we should endeavor to compassionately educate and continuously learn.
Remember my unfounded belief that life-threatening wilderness situations only happen to “other people”?
Well, since my accident, I have met so many people with similar stories! Hypothermia, sprains & broken bones, dehydration; these things can and do happen, and not always in the way people expect. It is infinitely better to have the knowledge and never need to use it than to need and not have.
The plot twist: after I was admitted to the hospital, a CT scan was performed to check for potential head trauma. While I did not sustain one from my fall, the medical staff did incidentally discover a massive, unstable, congenital brain aneurysm. After a week in the hospital, I returned to my home state and underwent surgery to stabilize the aneurysm with a stent.
If it weren’t for the fall, my aneurysm likely would not have been discovered before rupturing and then I would be dead 🙁 hurray for silver linings!
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