I never expected to test the laws of gravity in such a fashion, plummeting over 30 feet in less than a second from near the summit of Giraud Peak. Mere moments ago, scrambling up third class rock through a scree field, my climbing partner Ron had reminded me to “don’t even touch a rock above you that looks loose.” After I touch more iffy rocks, he reprimands me again. So I try to follow his every move, and just avoid touching any rocks above me at all. Precariously clinging to the mountain and balanced on my fingers and toes, now on exposed fourth class rock, I carefully watch Ron, and shift my body upwards to grasp a hold that Ron used a few seconds ago. I put all of my weight on the hold… then hear a crack. A huge chunk of rock, my hold, comes loose in my hands. Unbalanced, I scrabble futilely at the mountain itself, in search of holds. But, no. I fall.
My comrades run over, stricken with fear. They heard a scream from Ron, climbing above me. They saw a body, mine, falling from the mountain, then tumbling “like a rag doll” across hundreds of feet of snow and rock. They were certain I was dead. Falling, I didn’t even make a sound. I just fell, too quickly to even think, barely registering the earth rising beneath my ungrounded feet, then a fleeting, almost bemused voice in my head, “No way.”
I don’t remember the rest.
I wake to fuzzily see people hovering above me. “What happened?” I ask, confused as to why I am on the ground, thinking only that I should be climbing up, not lying down. They answer, “You fell.” “I fell?” I am incredulous, almost disbelieving… then a memory flash: pawing at unyielding rock, cold snow and jagged rock mawing below me, Ron screaming overhead. Flight.
“Are you okay?” ask my mysterious benefactors, men I’d just met at the beginning of the hike, now saving my life. “My hand hurts,” I answer. The rest of my body just feels numb. As I lie on the ground, waiting for the helicopter, my mind flits over the past few hours of the hike: the beauty, the pain, the happiness, the Zen. I close my eyes, wanting to fall asleep in the warm sun, but my fellow Challengers don’t let me. They keep asking me questions while trying to keep me comfortable. Their minimal conversation floats around me; I zone out in a cloud of sleepy wakefulness.
After four hours, the helicopter arrives, though unable to land where we are, because it’s too dangerously steep. Search and Rescue (SAR) loads me into a C-collar, a conforming body splint, and I’m belayed down to the helicopter, which is a terrifying and painful experience, since I can neither move nor see, and can feel myself sliding down rocks. I’m afraid that I will slide off the mountain again, and am relieved when I come to a stop, then loaded onto the helicopter. We take off. After a few minutes, unaccustomed to being constrained, I try wiggling around in my body bag, to no avail. The SAR folks ask if I’m okay. “I feel claustrophobic,” I gasp out, a slow panic rising in my stomach, “can you loosen the bag, or let me out? Are we almost there?”
I don’t realize the accident’s severity until I visit the toilet. I see an inhuman-looking creature and pause, recoiling, then realize that I am looking into a mirror. “Is that me?” I ask the nurse, knowing the answer, but not wanting to believe it. She nods in silence. I return to my hospital bed and am reattached to my IV tubes. I spend the next few minutes agonizing over how I will operate in civilization: will I scare small children? How will people react to me? How will I work as a photographer, since I can no longer blend in? The questions are endless. I return to the mirror a second time, to more closely examine my face, or lack of it, rather. The left side of my face is almost totally scraped off, but sewn back together in a crisscrossing of blue lines over the fleshy redness of my raw facial meat. “The most difficult part,” my doctor later shares, “was removing all of the rocks and debris that had lodged itself in your face, all over your body actually, but mostly the head.” I visualize my body bloody and rocky, a mountain unto itself. “We think you landed on your head, thus cracking your skull,” explained my doctor, “then somehow tried to stop yourself from rolling down by extending your arms, breaking them.”
With two broken arms, I was quite helpless. I could no longer do things that I used to take for granted, such as taking a shower, eating food, even drawing and writing. What hurt worst was perhaps my inability to make photos, since I’d lost my glasses during the Fall, and my main camera was too heavy to use with my weak hands. My right arm was hurt more than the left arm, so I had to learn to function with my left, flipping the camera upside down to photograph, since the shutter release is on the right side. After surgery, I could barely twist my hands halfway, actions that people usually take with nary a second thought. Physical therapy mostly involved hand exercises that sought to push my hands back to “normal” strength and flexibility.
I reanalyzed my life after the Fall. I just graduated from UCLA in June, and was planning on moving to Utah to work with a wilderness therapy program, pushing my potential photo career to the wayside for a brief respite as I explored an alternate mode of existence. The Fall made me realize that life is short, and can be wrested away at any moment. If you have any goals, dreams, desires, then go all out. Do it. Most importantly, do it now.
So, instead of Utah, I decide to seriously pursue my passion, photography. I find a photo internship with a newspaper in southern Alabama, and go about filling my time until it starts, in January. The next few months fly by in a glittering diversity of excitement, boredom, adventure, stasis, love, depression, deep thoughts, and healing. I live with Jeff, my best friend and lover, in Westwood (UCLA college town), where I feel odd being back at college though finished with school. I visit my physical therapist for weekly check-ups that keep me rooted to southern California. Gripped by wanderlust, I leave often, but stay close: I volunteer at a peach farm in the Los Angeles National Forest, go out on a vision quest in the local Santa Monica mountains, hike Waucoba Peak with a Sierra club outing, volunteer at a date farm, go on a midnight hike up Cactus-to-Clouds (Mt San Jacinto), visit Joshua tree for navigation practice, and more. Three months pass… then it’s all over. No more waiting. I am released of my ties. I visit my physical therapist and surgeon for the final time, and they officially discharge me of their care, amazed at my quick recovery. No more hospitals. I’m free. I can’t believe it.
I kiss Jeff goodbye in the front of the co-op, my backpack loaded with necessities, my mind wrought with complex and dueling thoughts and emotions. “I love you,” Jeff raises his fist to the heavens, our characteristic morning greeting to the sun and new day, “be strong!” With that, I walk off towards new lands, new adventures, and a new horizon, while massaging the long gash on my right arm, the most noticeable scar leftover from the Fall. It will stay with me forever, reminding me of all my post-Fall discoveries, new unanswerable questions and deep-rooted distance-defying love, as I journey out on my life quest for life itself.