Footwork Fireworks

Posted on: July 1, 2008

Melissa Alcorn

Stephen and I worked hard to physically prepare for a trekking vacation high in the Swiss Alps. I couldn’t wait to roll in meadows of edelweiss and dip crusty bread into fondue. But first we had to survive July in Oklahoma. Early summer rains had given way to an unusually colorful carpet of wildflowers and it was particularly enjoyable to be climbing with friends on the 4th of July, sprawled out on a granite deck. During the morning we lounged between climbs like lizards in the hazy sun, but as the heat bore down and the haze burned off we crept between boulders for shade.

The Echo Dome climbs in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge are moderate and easily protected. A week prior we’d opted to top-rope Little Sherman Creature Crack. The crux move was interesting -- a two-step traverse to a narrower, yet generous second vertical crack. We enjoyed the route and looked forward to returning with gear.

That’s what started the Echo Dome July 4th fireworks. After catching up on crag gossip, we claimed Frosted Flakes, a sport route with some interesting friction moves to tenuously attached flakes. We each took a turn. It felt good to be leading. We moved to Ladybugs and Gentlemen with its crimpy start. After Stephen led it, making crimping on ladybug-sized holds look easy, he set up an anchor for those that had let their lead-heads melt.

We took a break from climbing and relaxed with our friends, discussing ropes, gear and climbing ambitions. The group voted to abandon the dome, but Stephen stood there studying Little Sherman. I knew he wanted me to do it, but I didn’t feel it. Undaunted by my lack of courage, he quietly racked up. While most activity was focused on packing up, Stephen was heading up a granite fin.

I was on belay. My hands cautiously let out enough rope, fearful of giving too much above that fin. Stephen climbed confidently, setting his first and second pieces of gear in the lower crack, arriving at the crux with ease. Everyone paused to watch. Someone tore down the anchor on Ladybugs and jokingly shouted to Stephen that his anchor sucked -- a thoughtless taunt that caused a noticeable shift in demeanor. Now Stephen was hesitating. He fumbled with gear and then decided to run it out to find a higher spot for gear. His shimmying legs displayed doubt. I was about to call someone over to anchor me when I realized it was too late. With only one way to take up enough slack quickly, I dove backwards off the slab as Stephen went airborne.

It was a textbook lead fall. Initially people were concerned that I was injured, with a seriously rope-burned neck, and might let go of the rope. I was grateful to see Stephen dangling midair and calmly asked if he was ready to lower. Once grounded, he inspected his feet and facial expressions showed rare signs of extreme pain, fear, and heartbreak. He was met by two of the guys, who immediately went into rescue mode. Stephen attempted to stand but neither foot functioned.

As I overloaded my pack to prevent burdening friends, Stephen and I exchanged a knowing look, both aware the Alps dissolved in that instant of gravitational fury, but our focus was on getting out. Stephen was heroically carried down slippery granite boulders and across muddy meadows. At the stream we removed Stephen’s muiras hoping the cool water would provide some momentary relief and wanting to prevent their wanton destruction by an ER nurse in Oklahoma City. Loading him into the car, our friends wished us well with shell-shocked looks. Then we were left to ourselves and our fears.

We asked the ER doctor the question but we knew the answer. Wondering if I’d been strangled in a holiday domestic dispute instead of a “climbing accident,” he said the only way we were hiking was if I could carry Stephen. X-rays revealed a shattered calcaneous. Two days later an orthopedic surgeon repaired the damage, restructuring bones with three long screws. We wondered if the heel would ever be comfortable in a climbing shoe again.

Stephen was determined this was a small set-back. After weeks of slowly adding weight to the foot, he’d built tolerance for 100 lbs of pressure. Tired of being my belay slave and eager to see if his foot would function, he tied into a rope on a juggy gym route. With a tight belay he made the long slog doing pull-ups and quick hops onto his stronger foot. As he gently landed, we both felt hope that normalcy was creeping back into our life.

Not long after Stephen was given a green light to resume normal activities. I doubt the orthopedic surgeon contemplated what “normal” meant for a mountaineer. The next day Stephen was climbing in the gym at full throttle and training for Christmas ice climbing.

We were ready to reemerge into the outdoor climbing scene and sought sandstone therapy. Neither of us had led since July 4th. I was unreasonably squeamish despite easy and familiar terrain, quashing demons to finish the route. Then Stephen announced his idea to lead a 5.6. I went first, leaving quickdraws hung to lessen his stress, and back-clipping the rope at the first bolt to reduce mine. He was confident tying in and eagerly jumped on the wall. With the second bolt clipped I let myself breathe. He grew hesitant partway then regained confidence and finished with style. He didn’t yelp or slap the rock at the anchor, he just grinned. The doctor said he wouldn’t walk for twelve weeks. He was on the sharp-end at ten.

We didn’t trek the Alps that summer. We did learn to cherish friends and the tremendous capacity of climbers to have each other’s back. One of us learned to walk again. Life is fragile and arbitrary, so get out there and play.