Chasing the High: Lucky Charms

Published in The Climber, July 2020

The last memory I have before the accident is of sitting leisurely on a wide ledge, finishing a Clif bar and marvelling at the beauty of a perfect morning in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, California.

The first memory I have afterwards is of waking up on my left side, rolling my achy body over and sitting up, my face numb and blanketed in blood.

My back whimpered in protest at the slightest movement. Enough time had already passed for the blood around my left eye to have caked, fusing it shut.

It was just after noon on a cloudless, July day. I was alone and 300m up the southwest face of Clyde Minaret. Far below was Minaret Lake, from where a trail meandered 12 km through forest and across a river to my van, which was another hour’s drive from civilisation.

It was the latest of many solo mountain missions, the appeal of which understandably eludes most sane people—and many climbers, too—because of the normally fatal consequences of a fall.

Astute readers of The Climber will be aware that I’ve already traversed the ins and outs of free soloing (#108) and why we may choose to do it—so I won’t rehash that here.

The Minarets Traverse crosses the tops of 20-odd granite peaks in a remote area of the Sierras. Climbing legend Peter Croft was the first to do the traverse in under 24 hours, declaring it one of his ‘toughest days in the mountains’, but also one of his most spectacular.

I had decided to start early, carry enough gear—a half rope, a half-set of wires and a bunch of tat—to bail from anywhere, and to trim the enormity of the undertaking by cutting out the first few and possibly the last few peaks.

The day had proceeded as many alpine days before it: a pre-dawn start, a slight stumble finding the trail, reaching Minaret Lake with the first rays of dawn, and the exhilaration of tagging the first peaks.

Somewhere on the south or southwest face of Clyde Minaret, a class 3 or 4 scramble up the crown jewel of the range, I came unstuck and fell some distance, landing on a flat ledge.

My face and shins appeared to have taken the brunt of the initial impact before my body rolled into an unconscious heap. Head trauma amnesia meant I had only a vague recollection of where I had been, or how far I had fallen.

I woke up at some point and realised the strap of my pack had ripped off. I have no memory of this, but I must have repaired it with some cord, taken a blurry selfie, and then passed out again.

The next time I awoke, about an hour had passed. I slowly rolled over. Pushed myself up. A deep exhale. A gingerly hop on each leg. Everything seemed to be working okay.

‘I’m hurt. I should probably go down,’ was literally the extent of my thought process. Is a nightmarish scenario still a nightmare if you’re blissfully unaware of it?

I thought I had escaped serious injury, but scans would later show that a tremendous force struck my left cheek—just below my helmet—collapsing all the bones around my left eye. So heavy was the blow that my brain started bleeding in the left frontal lobe, while the impact reverberated through my skull with such force as to leave my right eye black in the coming days.

Both my shins had deep, bloody gashes. Other abrasions marked where bones were fractured (neck-C7, lumbar spine-L3 and L4) or ligaments torn or completely ruptured (behind the left shoulder, right knee, left wrist).

The injuries on the rest of my body indicated some tumbling. My bloated hands suggested I had held them out to soften the blow. A mark on my chest showed where my right lung was bruised. A cut to my pants left bloody streaks down the right side of my backside.

My movements were far from fluid as I made my way down the nearest col. When it became too steep to down-climb, I pulled out my half-rope and set of wires—and started rappelling. I have a distinct memory of deep frustration as I struggled with my swollen hands and blunt knife to cut and tie cord to use as slings to rappel from.

At one point, I was too exhausted to continue and found somewhere to lie down, immediately falling asleep for who knows how long.

I also had to fight the temptation to down-climb sections that normally would have been easy. At one point, I was trying to stretch my foot to a knob while I had my right hand in a rattly fist jam and was crimping a tiny edge with my left. Instead of just going for it, I gave in to common sense and climbed back up, found another bollard to sling, and rappelled.

It took me about eight hours and five or six abseils before I reached the scree slope. The lack of depth perception from having only one good eye sent me tumbling over frequently, and I soon resigned myself to falling onto my back, thinking it the fastest way down with the least amount of fuss. As soon as I reached snow, I moved onto my butt and slid.

The descent would normally have taken a couple of hours, but it was almost dark by the time I reached Minaret Lake. I stopped to try to eat, only to be stifled by my inability to chew. ‘Just bruising,’ I thought. It didn’t occur to me that my jaw might be broken, which it was.

The glare of my headlamp replaced the evening hues of the sky as I hiked into the forest. My memory of this period is hazy. I seem to have circled around repeatedly, deliriously lost, and covering a distance in six hours that should have taken about one hour.

Eventually I lay down on the forest floor and passed out.

At one point, I distinctly remember discussing strategies to get home with a number of friends beneath the forest canopy. Either I was hallucinating, or having vivid dreams.

At first light, after a few hours of shivery sleep, I awoke to mosquitoes biting exposed skin. I sat up with anchors in my flesh. My hallucination or dream was so fresh in my mind that I expected to see familiar, friendly faces next to me, but there were none.

I had no idea how far from the track I had strayed, and I headed vaguely towards river sounds. To my extreme good fortune, the woods eventually parted to reveal the trail.

Within a few hours, I crossed the river and allowed myself a pinch of satisfaction, knowing that the track ahead was wider and more amicable. This section was also a popular hike, and it wasn’t long before I crossed paths with a couple who were aghast at my blood-covered self. Somehow, I convinced them I was perfectly capable of hiking alone to the start of the track, but the next people I came across were not so easily persuaded.

One guy accompanied me in the final 45 minutes of hiking. We reached the trailhead roughly 24 hours after the accident, and this good soul then drove me in my van to Mammoth Hospital.

Soon I was in the safe bosom of emergency care, slipping in and out of consciousness as a nurse gently dabbed the blood from my face.

My hospital notes show that I told staff I didn’t think I had any broken bones, nor did I consider myself in severe pain. They must have thought me mad, or at least completely incapable of self-diagnosis.

‘Patient covered in blood,’ the hospital report states. ‘Essentially covered head to toe in contusions, abrasions, and lacerations … multiple internal injuries including 1-2cm head bleed … multiple facial fractures … possibly unstable.’

I had also lost about a third of my blood and was so dehydrated that I was in the beginnings of renal failure.

There were no facilities in Mammoth Hospital for traumatic brain injuries, so I was choppered to Renown Medical Centre in Reno.

But I was too out of it to assess what any of that meant.

On too many sedatives to be aware of the gravity of my injuries, my main priority was to message the climbing partner I was meant to meet the following day, as well as the few people who knew about my solo mission. I did so, switched off all devices—I incoherently thought that saving battery would be wise—and then passed out.

But my messages were typical of someone who wasn’t thinking straight. ‘I got hit by something … Now in the hospital’ did nothing to reassure friends.

A flurry of phone calls and hospital drive-bys led to the amazingly pleasant surprise of having two angelic friends, Alaina and Lauren, at my bedside when I awoke in Reno in the Intensive Care Unit.

‘You looked fucked up, covered head to toe in blood and swelling,’ Alaina told me later. ‘You clearly had a brain injury. You kept repeating the same things to us: “So nice of you to come visit,” “What did you climb today?”, “Where are you guys camping?”, “So nice of you to come visit.”’

My left eye was thankfully okay, a fact they discovered after painfully ripping it free from its prison of congealed blood. But the surgeons told my friends they may have to slice open my brain to ease the pressure of the swelling if the bleeding worsened.

The disturbing sight of my injuries was punctuated with moments of comic relief. After I was given a tetanus shot in Mammoth, the staff followed routine practice and placed a bandaid where the needle had punctured me. It was laughable to Lauren and Alaina to see me lying there with bloodied, untreated injuries but with the tiniest of bandaids on my shoulder.

All of this went on without my awareness. I was full of fentanyl—an opioid stronger than heroin—which seemed to embolden my facetious nature. When my delirium was broken up with discussions about facial reconstructive surgery to repair my dented face, I started requesting half a dragon or penguin face to complement my existing human one.

(It’s laughable that my consent for significant surgery can be taken seriously in such conditions.)

Another time, I was given a breathing test and told that my lung capacity was extremely impressive. When I was later asked standard health questions about my alcohol, smoking and drug habits, I dryly answered that I was a heavy whiskey drinker, a daily smoker, and that LSD was awesome and directly responsible for my amazing lungs. The nursing staff thought that my response was a sign that my brain injury might be worsening, but my friends assured them that it was more or less normal banter.

When I came out of surgery, still on fentanyl, my friend Hannah was at my bedside, and in fits of laughter in an effort to convince me to keep my clothes on. Apparently I found the temperature to be unbearably warm and thought the only solution was not only to remove all my clothing, but to announce this with repeated use of the words ‘expose’ and ‘penis’.

It wasn’t until days after my surgery—when I was on less powerful drugs—that the severity of my injuries hit me. It had been almost a week and my face was still all puffed up to resemble some sort of lopsided Frankenstein.

The surgeon had pinned five titanium plates across my shattered, displaced facial bones to hold them in the right position and give them a chance to heal. The area under my eye was also shattered, and a titanium plate was inserted in the base of my eye socket to prevent my eyeball from dropping down.

Damage to my infra-orbital nerve, just under the eye, numbed all sensation from my lips to my left temple.

Taking a shower and feeling nothing on your cheek is a surreal experience.

While my continued coherence meant that the brain bleed had thankfully retreated, the reality of a long recovery with an uncertain outcome remained.

Friends called and came to visit as word of my accident spread. Many went above and beyond, responding to messages when I was unconscious, collecting my van from Mammoth, offering me a place to recover, bringing me milkshakes, burgers and noodles, and generally being the most amazing people in history.

One friend who visited told me intimate details of surviving his own free solo accident. Following what happens in most solo falls, he had shattered his ankles and pelvis, but he happened to be in a spot with mobile coverage and was rescued. I felt comparatively lucky after he told me he’d had no feeling in his genitals for months.

One day, for something different, I requested and was given the opioid oxycodone and spent the day walking laps of the ward, chatting garrulously to patients and staff.

But most of the time, I ate and slept.

Meanwhile my ability to do basic math problems seemed to suggest my brain was doing fine, and after ten days in hospital, I was allowed to leave in a neck brace and be driven to a friend’s place in California.

Energy reserves were low for the first weeks. I would sleep, cook, sleep, walk around the block, then sleep some more. Much of my energy was spent wrestling with my insurance company which, predictably, was reluctant to pay the US$300,000-odd in medical bills.

The other behemoth to negotiate was the American healthcare system. I had to find a doctor and get a note before I could have follow-up x-rays or book a physio appointment.

Getting an indication of the cost of physio—my insurance policy included a $50 payment towards the bill—was exhausting. The clinic I contacted told me to ask my insurance company because that’s where they sent the bill, and it was up to the company how to break down the costs.

The company told me to call the clinic—how would they know what the clinic charged? I went to and fro, and eventually the clinic gave me a $100 estimate.

After one appointment, they sent me a $500 bill—which remains unpaid.

As my recovery slowly ticked on, I learned that a neck brace was extremely good at eliciting offers to skip the queue at the green grocer. I eventually learned the joys of being able to open my jaw wide enough to eat a dumpling in one mouthful—the true yardstick of any culinary joy. My walks around the block became five kilometres, then ten kilometres into the hills above Berkeley.

After six weeks, I had a check-up with the neurosurgeon whose first question was whether I remembered him at all, which of course I didn’t. He then shared our last conversation in which I had apparently become increasingly disheartened at his prognosis of no climbing for several months.

When he said my bones were healing well, I asked if I could stop eating so many sardines. He gave me a puzzled look and, after I told him what the internet had suggested I eat in order to promote bone growth, he said that I could, indeed, stop eating so many sardines.

My brain appeared to be fine, he said. I asked him what his thoughts were about my attending Burning Man. He responded with non-committal hearty laughter, which I took for a full endorsement.

The plastic surgeon who put my face back together was less jovial, and his answers to my questions seemed to depend on his mood. He initially told me a couple of months would be a good base for recovery, which led me to make a mental note of Creeks-giving (November Thanksgiving in Indian Creek). At a subsequent check up, his answer changed to ‘years’ after I told him about a paper I had read showing that serious facial nerve damage was unlikely to recover within a year.

Predictably, over the weeks and months ahead, my bones healed much quicker than the soft tissue damage. My right shin had smashed into the ground in the same way that it might hit the dashboard in a head-on car collision. It was shunted backwards with a force that ruptured the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). Two years on, I still can’t bend it fully.

A tear to a ligament in my left shoulder and left wrist took several months to feel good enough to weight. When I eventually tried to climb again, I couldn’t do anything that demanded much from my left shoulder.

By this time, I had returned to New Zealand to earn dollars while I recovered and to bask in the glory that is ACC (it covers overseas accidents if you spend more than half the year in New Zealand). While I waited for MRIs, x-rays and ultrasounds, I wasn’t allowed any exercise other than walking and cycling.

It was a blessing, really, to diversify into road cycling, and within six months I had cycled the Tour Aotearoa trail from Wellington to Wanaka. When an MRI confirmed that the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my right knee was, in fact, okay, I was allowed to start running. I was never much of a runner, but I came to love the trails around Wellington’s town belt and in the Tararuas.

In between earning coin, I put together the most comprehensive insurance appeal of all time, only to have it rejected. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the grounds for rejection were completely bogus: that I was above the altitude limit for climbing coverage, and that I wasn’t wearing the appropriate head safety equipment.

The altitude limit was 4500m above sea level. There are no parts of California above 4500m. Even if I had been on the Clyde Minaret summit, I would have had to be 800m tall to breach the limit—and most of me would still have been technically covered. And judging by the photo I had sent through of my bloodied face in my climbing helmet, they seem to have expected me to have been wearing a gladiatorial face-guard of epic proportions.

The real crux of my claim—which was not addressed in the rejection letter—was that I needed to show that I was “adequately supervised”. This meant I had to demonstrate that I was skilled and experienced enough to undertake the traverse without any supervision.

I drew up a climbing CV and had half a dozen guides—some I knew and some I didn’t—write testimonials that said, in their professional opinion, that I was more than competent to be where I was on my own. If my case ever went to court, I hoped that their signed statements would hold considerable sway.

In the meantime, I accepted that I was never going to be able to pay those bills, and it seemed likely I would never set foot in the US again.

The next step was to lay a complaint with the state insurance regulator, which I did. I doubt the insurance company even looked at the substance of my claim until I had done that. Days later, they contacted me to say the decision had been overturned and the bills would be paid.

Roughly two years have now passed, and one of the biggest surprises is how much swelling I had in my face, and how it continues to go down. It was noticeably lopsided in the months after returning to New Zealand. The passport office even told me that the photo I had sent in for my application had been taken too close to my face because it was ‘all distorted’. I guffawed to the rafters. ‘That’s just how my face looks now,’ I told the embarrassed caller.

It is still fairly numb, but in a way that feels like I’ve been slapped rather than flattened by a freight train, and not enough for it to be noticeable most of the time.

Last summer, about 18 months after the accident, I spent two and a half months in the South Island climbing as much as possible. It was my first real attempt at climbing since the accident, and I was delighted to be able to climb without feeling stymied by injury.

Giving up climbing altogether has never crossed my mind. The Climbing High has given me so much, and as long as I am able, I plan to continue pursuing it. Perhaps a more pertinent question I’m often asked is whether I would go on a solo alpine mission again, and I already have—though the Remarkables Grand Traverse is certainly much tamer than the Minarets.

Would I do the Minarets Traverse again? That’s a harder question. There are always so many variables in the equation, including the weather forecast, your level of recent experience, and how you are feeling on the day.

One item I didn’t have but should’ve had was a Personal Locator Beacon—though given how oblivious I was to my injuries and the fact that I eventually walked out on my own, I doubt I would have used it.

(Curiously, using one would have left me with a $100,000+ fee; the insurance fine-print said all chopper evacuations had to have prior approval, which would have been impossible as I was outside any mobile coverage.)

I don’t think I was punching above my weight with the traverse, but I’m certainly aware that I could have easily not survived. My general summation of what happened is that it’s one of those things that happen. You can be the most prepared alpinist in the world and be swept away by rockfall, or a complete gumby and return from an adventure unscathed. There is an element of risk and luck in every alpine excursion, and unless you’re willing to avoid them altogether—which I’m not—anything can happen.

My accident could be viewed as bad luck if I had been in the path of random rockfall. The king hit also would have hit my helmet if it had struck me two inches higher, which may have spared me a broken face and a brain injury.

But it’s also immeasurably lucky that I didn’t break a leg, ankle, pelvis, or any other bone that would have made self-extraction a much more doubtful prospect. Nor did I have any seizures—one of the symptoms of a brain bleed—while I was rappelling.

I had also bought insurance only two weeks before the accident. I usually shun insurance unless there is a good reason for it, and I had signed up a day after doing some short-fixing on El Capitan, in Yosemite; I had become suitably unnerved while aid-soloing and staring down at 30m of rope slack blowing ominously in the breeze above 300m of sphincter-pinching exposure.

As far as luck goes, the timing of my insurance purchase is only surpassed by the ledge that I happened to land on. Bouncing all the way to the bottom would have surely been lights out for good.

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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