– A lesson in alpinism, and life, from the school of hard knocks.
– AKA “Why I fell”.
To provide context for this post, a month ago I took a 70metre fall from an alpine route – I have broken my tibia, fibula, shoulder blade and nose; torn my long biceps & subscapularis tendons along with acumulating quite a few cuts and ice burns. Currently I am in a wheelchair and apparently will not be able to “lift more than a glass of water” with my left arm for 8 months. The gory details of this event are here: https://wakoswire.com/2014/10/12/falling-70-metres/
I am always learning, always in training mode, even while doing the hardest thing that I have ever done. Whether climbing, skiing, working, debating family politics or what seems to have become commonplace – rehabilitating an injury, ultimately I feel that I am simply setting myself up and making myself stronger for the next objective. Moving forwards.
Mind you, if I one day ski the north face of L’Aiguille du Midi then my mind isn’t yet capable of seeing what may come beyond that. But that’s it, isn’t it? If I push myself, resolved not to go to the grave quietly, then who knows what I’ll end up experiencing and learning next.
Notably, in the week leading up to my fall I learnt a lot from my own actions –
- Don’t put sun cream on before contact lenses, unless you don’t mind being blind for 10 minutes, crying like a goat and feeling like you have poured formaldehyde into your eyes.
- Always make sure there is a memory card installed in the 2kg DSLR camera that you decide to carry on an alpine acclimatisation route. Took some cracking photos that day on the Triangle du Tacul, as I did on a 2 day wild camping ML training trip a few weeks before where I hadn’t charged the battery. Unfortunately, no photos exist.
- Abseiling over electricity cables with crampons on is actually ok as long as you have rubber boots on. People wanting coffee at the lift station that day or Nick and Dan below me on the abseil may think differently. Strangely, 2 weeks later (and a long time coming, something I had thought of investigating this winter) the abseil station and many of the bolts in the Cunningham couloir were renewed. Allez les guides.
I’d also set myself up with some solid affirmation that, after most of the year off the hill, my extensive training had paid off and I could still climb solidly. This was mainly thanks to Steve House and Scott Johntson’s new book “Training for the New Alpinism”. Note the ridiculous beer can story in “My prognosis & initial thoughts on being this badly injured”. Interestingly and as a side note, their idea of completing most of my training in the 55-75% heart rate zone was a new concept to me and something that seemed to make an instant difference, I will definitely push on like this in the future & my rehab will include a large element of their strength training. That week I felt happy in myself as I lead pitches, some of them in the “fairly hard” bracket. I was confident and quick (well, maybe the youths did have the upper hand on the snow plods but I felt better in myself compared to 6 months ago).Andreas Fransson. April 15, 1983 – September 29, 2014
I was also reminded of the influence of others and not only of how much we learn from their experiences and wisdom, but also how important their affirmation can be to thoughts we develop ourselves. At the start of October a dark cloud loomed over Chamonix and in fact the whole world of Ski Mountaineering. 3 much loved souls were taken from us in two separate incidents – Andreas Fransson , J.P. Auclair & Liz Daley. Andreas, our snow-philosopher, a stranger who had given me so much. I will miss him. As I solo climbed the Cosmiques Arrete (in less than half the guidebook time #chuffed) I took time by myself at the end to think about this loss, how apt that he had affirmed in me that my desire to solo was grounded:
“Fear and darkness are more powerful when alone compared to being shared and it’s usually easier to gain understanding from things powerful than things subtle. When solo I get to fight and yield in my internal reality — when sharing the mountains with others I get to dance with the subtleties in relationships.” Andreas Fransson.
Also now, during my 8 months of testing re-hab before hitting the hill again, Andreas gives me solace in The Necessity for Cycles:
THANK YOU Andreas.
Back then, on that same solo day, I also learned that if you can’t be bothered to wait 15 minutes for the next lift down from the mid-station and just think “I’ll just run down the hill”, that in fact you are signing up to not just running down a hill but covering the equivalent distance from the top of Ben Nevis to sea level. And that just because you know the ski descent, it doesn’t mean you can run down it in summer conditions. I was vey lucky not to snap my arm as I moved over the sun kissed rocks into the shade. It was unexpectedly, instantly, very wet and, challenging myself to run down with my pack on in less than an hour, I was MOVING TOO FAST…Agnieszka Wilkon
22 months ago, on my first ever ice climbing trip, the 5 strangers that I had met on UKC (the national dating website for climbers looking for climbing partners) described me as a puppy dog. So positive, up for anything, excited by the whole affair, my enthusiasm would drive me up pitches that my arms and lack of technique could barely handle. I scowled at them for mocking my positivity. Negativity is my strongest pet hate. Looking back on the week leading up to the fall, I can see that my attitude hadn’t changed much. My experience simply brought the base level up and my enthusiasm was pushing me to a higher level. Never mind twice during that week literally panting like a puppy dog – on the first day out my unacclimatised lungs couldn’t keep pace with my legs as we pushed up the snow arête to try to make the last cable car back down to Chamonix and avoid spending the night in the toilets; the second occasion, having climbed Vente du Dragon with Nick and Dan, I speed soloed the arête overtaking others to hold the last cable car so we could all make it down. “Come to Chamonix, we have the best lift access into the gnarliest mountains in the world…. They just shut at 1630”.
Either way, whether as a result of my attitude or running for cable cars (having tried to squeeze too much into a day possibly) I seemed to be always racing, panting, is this a good thing?NW Gully Pointe de Frebouze – Petit Jorasses. The normal route follows the obvious snow gully direct from the snowfield at the bottom. I lead the first pitch over mixed ground in order to negociate the huge snow plug that was blocking the gully. Our route in red, snow plug in white.
Having said all this, these are not the main reasons that I named this post after the famous Maverick quote. On the morning of the fall, this stupid phrase (after all, we all think Tom Cruise is full of shit now anyway don’t we?) must have gone through my head a few times. We were proper having it that day, in my mind this was the stuff that real adventures were made of. We weren’t sport climbing by following everyone else up the same route with a thousand reports of amazing conditions comforting us. The guides office had told us where the great conditions were, we took that info and made an educated guess on where else might be good. None of the lifts were open so we walked in (for 8 hours the previous day) to an area that none of us had been to before, an area that based on our knowledge no one had climbed in for weeks. We looked up at a wall that none of us knew anything about, saw what looked to be the best line on that day, wondered how we would negotiate the snow plug the size of a house at the bottom of the obvious gully, wondered how hard it would be, stripped our packs down to as light as possible (apart from my now standard 2 kilos of camera) and at 5am the next day we went for it. I felt like a proper alpinist. “The need for speed”? Well, I wanted to make sure I was upholding the pure alpinist style & mantra of “Fast & Light”. On top of this we all had to be back in Chamonix by 7am the next day. I also felt pressure from my partner Mikael who’s youth seemed to make him faster. It may be normal in everyday life to worry what others think of you, but in the mountains it can be dangerous. The mountains expose who you really are, you don’t have a choice on that. Up high in precarious situations I have exposed both good and embarrassing traits in my personality. Hence why I climb.
So specifically, on this day, on this pitch, apart from the pressure I put on myself to speed things up, what other thought processes crept into my mind? When I moved onto difficult ground I didn’t stop and think “maybe I need to downclimb a wee bit more and place a 3rd piece of protection here as the piece before this is 30 odd metres below me”, why? Obviously that would have taken time but did I have too much trust in protection based on my aid climbing antics where I have jumped up and down on gear for fun? This is a dangerous thought process as it suggests that I thought falling was an OK option. Was my general positivity my undoing… “this nut will be enough, I’m not gonna fall”? Was there a subconscious awareness that the PGHM are there to help if things go wrong? Do some of us climb as if we are roadside craggin’ just because they can come and pluck us off in a helicopter? Two PGHM doctors I have spoken to believe this to be subconsciously the case for many climbers. I don’t think this was a factor for me, but I do know that if I was miles from anywhere in Canada or the Himalaya, then alarm bells would have rung louder and I would have stopped to think more, so it seems I am guilty of this too. I know from my soloing antics that without the safety of the rope I would never have made those moves. Was this old belay of pegs and tat the best option to head for? Again it was the option that was quicker than stopping to think of building my own belay.
Ultimately, I can see that the reason for me falling so far with little protection was that my need for speed was warping my mind into a dangerous state and that all of these other thoughts were not able to breathe properly. I can see that my mind was very busy. Busy with conscious thoughts and sub conscious thoughts. I’m not saying that I wasn’t concentrating, far from it, but even the tiniest split second thought adds to the weight of the mind in general & can distract perfect focus from the task at hand. For many this is normal and our minds are busy like this all the time. I’ve climbed and lived with a busy mind for my whole life and I am sure that many others continue to do so too. I’ve often fleetingly questioned my normal mind state, as for starters I’m not the best listener, my mind often picks up on one point that someone is talking about and moves quickly inside itself processing that idea and moving on to the next level. In my head I put this down as a positive and class myself as some kind of visionary I suppose! ;-). It is also a fact of the modern twitter feed; text message; short, sharp information packed cyber world, that our attention spans seem to be being shortened and in fact the world is modeling it’s information delivery based on our weakness towards concentration.
This massive accident has made it plainly obvious to me that slowing my mind down and clearing out unnecessary or unhelpful thought processes would be extremely beneficial both in climbing and ultimately life. A common argument for climbing being such a cleansing sport compared to running or cycling is that when climbing, all we think about is climbing. This may be a Zen like argument for climbing but I know that while climbing many of us still feel sentiments such as pressure and embarrassment, and in fact, as I have said before, our personal characteristics are magnified and some completely exposed in the light of fear, cold and hunger. In life, we must all have experienced the fact that small thoughts of pressure; guilt for being slow or any other back foot mentality, normally only goes to affect our performance in a negative way. So surely I need to find the best way to develop a “comfortableness” where they either pass me by and my mind doesn’t hook them or I don’t create them at all. That quiet space between pain and serenity.
I recently bought Mark Twight’s book “Extreme Alpinism”, he sees great value in meditation. My mum teaches relaxation at the end of her Yoga classes, a time that I normally waste by being weak, losing focus and falling asleep. Friends have recommended the benefits of the smartphone meditation app Headspace. For the past week I have now started this daily meditation program.
It’s not a nice thing to admit but I have come to terms with the fact that this fall was my fault. Everyone I have spoken too says they would probably have lead the pitch in the same way, I’ve lead pitches like that before and watched others do the same too. But if 80% of the valley would also get it wrong like that, I want to be in the remaining 20%.
It’s a hard thing to admit to my loved ones, my partners and their families that scaring them all, putting my friends in danger and nearly dying was ultimately my fault…. But if like any mistake, I admit, accept and learn from it then I shouldn’t be embarrassed.
“In every mistake there is a message, some people miss this message as they are too busy berating themselves for the mistake.” Unknown.
Apart from the actual incident allowing me to reflect on my state of mind in general, one thing these injuries have allowed me to contemplate is how much time I actually have. Not only am I grounded for a long time, but everything I want to do just takes so bloody long. Something as simple as getting a book from the other side of the room takes efficient planning. Being injured also comes with energy sapping frustrations. Stressing about not achieving or trying to push on is just going to add pressure that negatively affects the mind’s functions. Detracting from the healing process, which is a miracle in itself.
I have in the past been called “Un home pressé”, meaning a man that is constantly busying himself, managing to do a lot within his day. I took this as a positive and was quite right to do so according to my friend that named me so. I was proud to always be pushing forwards, achieving a lot with the positive mindset of “yeah, we can do that, all we have to do is apply ourselves”. After all we only have a short time to live don’t we? However, as a result of all these thoughts I am now prepared to also accept that pushing on too fast can very well lead you to come unstuck. I have also pinpointed above that a busy mind is not the healthiest.
Something that proves this case is that I used to rush to get a blog out, keen to exorcise my thoughts as quickly as possible. However, nowadays I write them all down, then mull it all over for a few days. I always come up with new thoughts, often more rewarding than the original ones. Taking time has merits here too.
As un home pressé I kept saying to myself that since learning to climb just over two years ago I haven’t really climbed that many routes. My injuries, one that wiped out a season 2 years ago, and now this one, have made me think that the amount of money I have spent on kit doesn’t really justify the number of routes that I have climbed. However, if I think back, it may not appear like this to others, but inside I feel like a different person to the one that I was 2 years ago. I wouldn’t have the freedom of thought that I have nowadays if I hadn’t given up my old life slaving away in a job that consumed all my mental energy. I wouldn’t have exposed myself to the thoughts that are developing my mind so positively if it wasn’t for the routes that I HAVE climbed. It’s not about running around at full pelt trying to gain climbing experience in order to climb the Eiger before I am 40. If I base my success rate on how much I have learnt about myself, and life, in the past 2 years, rather than the number of routes I have climbed, then I have far from failed. To think that I actually thought that every possible second of this precious season should be spent climbing, is crazy. I was even concerned that when non skiing/climbing friends came to visit, that I would have to give up hill time. Again an embarrassing thought. After all, the time I spent here with my Mum & Anna’s parents recently was so much fun & our time together holds precious value too.
There is plenty of time and it is more rewarding to take it, especially if it leads to settling the mind. Age wise I am also still only 38. Marko Prezelj just stuck up a new route in the Himalaya at 49 and Nick Bullock just pulled off the second ascent of a super hard & remote route in Canada at 49 partnered up with a lad in his early 20s. Now no way am I in their league, but it does prove that physically many more years in the hills are possible.
Steve! Slow down. Ultimately, Maverick is wrong.…. I just have to put it all into practice now.Steve House – “Beyond the Mountain”