It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters - Epictetus
Laying flat on my back, looking up at the helicopter hovering above me and the cable swinging below it, I wondered, what does this mean for me? How will I come back from this?
I overhead one of the search and rescue team members counting off the hazards to the pilot: “...trees, blowing debris, rock fall...”
“Do you have sunglasses?” the EMT asked me.
I understood and put my sunglasses on. The helicopter slowly lowered until it was forty feet above us. Confident it could hover that close, it re-gained altitude and flew away.
I started climbing in 1983. Since then I’ve never had a serious accident. At the time of writing, I’d been climb- ing in Zion thirty years. I knew the mountains well. On this trip I had the best partner I could ask for. He was in his twenties, strong, and got out on a regular basis. We carried 600 feet of special, lightweight rope. The plan was to climb all of the Beehives, a series of peaks on the tops of mountains, some which had never been climbed, and finish by going down the canyons between them, something that had not been done before.
The day before, things had looked great. We had been climbing for three days and had been successful in climbing all of the beehives. We were going down the last canyon, and were only 400 feet to reach the ground. When Mike, my partner, commented on how precarious things seemed, I said there was no way that anything bad could happen to us. I smiled and said, “I’ll go first.”
I should have gone down straight, but the cliff below looked blank. So I descended diagonally, on terrain littered with bushes. My logic was, if I came to the end of my rope, I could use one of the bushes for an anchor. Suddenly I heard a branch snap. The rope, unknown to me, had been running over a bush. I found myself swinging like a pendulum. I tried to keep my feet moving cross the face of the rock to prevent twisting an ankle. I felt a G-force, and thought, wow, I’m moving pretty fast. I swung around a corner just in time to see a wall facing my left side. I came to an immediate and complete stop, as the side of my hip slammed into the wall.
Fortunately I found myself at a small ledge. I unclipped from the rope and slumped onto it. I felt sharp pains from nerves and ligaments. My foot felt tingly, and didn’t move in the direction I wished it. I didn’t yet know that I had broken the ball in my hip bone in half, and a piece had lowered. It was going to be difficult to get to the ground. We had to get to the ground.
You have to stand up, I thought.
I imagined myself as a foot- ball player, injured on the field, willing himself to get up. I imagined getting up, and then by some miracle, running around the stadium, dancing as the crowd cheered.
I was unsuccessful.
I replayed the movie in my head. Got to stand up Dan. You have to do it.
I used our trekking poles like crutches, to get on my feet, and making sure my bad leg did not touch any- thing. Mike then lowered me, inch by inch, to the bottom of the mountain. I got lucky. I landed in a small patch of sand in the otherwise rocky moat.
When Mike got down I said, “Just leave me. Go for help.”
It was late in the day and I assumed it would be tomorrow before I was rescued. I was surprised there- fore, when, an hour before dark, I head voices. It was Mike, followed by two members of the search and rescue (SAR) team.
The team assessed it was too dangerous to move me, since the femur artery is close to the hip. If I cut an artery, I’d bleed to death. They decided to have a helicopter extract me in the morning. They said if I didn’t think I could make it until morning, they could call a Black Hawk helicopter and get me out that night. I told them I could wait. I tossed and turned all night long, try- ing to find a position that lessened the pain. I didn’t get any sleep.
The helicopter returned, this time, hauling a man on a cable through the air. It slowly lowered itself until the man was standing next to me. He unclipped from the cable and the helicopter flew away. He had brought with him an inflatable litter. I rolled on to the litter and got into a comfortable position with my knees bent. I found it hurt more if my legs were straight. Once I was in position, the team used a hand pump to blow it so I was “packaged,” then called for the helicopter to come back.
I hadn’t taken any medication for pain, and wondered what would happen if, when the helicopter lifted me into the air, my leg started hurting. What choice did I have? I was clipped to it, lifted into the air, and whisked away. Fortunately, I was comfortable. Thee parking lot of a nearby hotel had been cleared for my landing. The copter gently lowered me to waiting hands. After being unclipped from the cable and removed from the litter packaging, with the help from two shoulders to lean on, I hobbled to Mike’s van and he drove me to the hospital. I waived taking an ambulance. I didn’t have insurance.
The surgeon decided it was better to fix my bones with screws, than give me a new hip. The surgery went well. The day after surgery I left the hospital with a walker. I still had pains running down my thigh, and black-and- blue marks behind my knee, as if I’d stretched and torn strings and muscles, ones not fixed by surgery.
I wasn’t worried. I was grateful.
Two weeks later, I returned to see my surgeon. I stayed in a hotel near the mountains. My morning ritual was eating pancakes at the restaurant next door. I had trouble sleeping, so I was up early. One morning, as I went to get breakfast I found the restaurant was burning down.
No one was hurt. I took this as a sign to move forward. The restaurant would be rebuilt, better than before, and so would I.
This is an opportunity for a fresh start, I thought. It will be months before I can climb. What can I do to make good use of this time?
I have the deepest gratitude for the members of the SAR team. It was a world-class, professional rescue of the highest standard.