Sunday, February 21, 2010

Or How I Broke My Leg

concerning events of Jan 6th, 2010:

Alpine experience is a Catch-22. The only place to build experience is out on the peaks, but you need experience to know what you are getting into. Some climbers have mentors to show them the ropes, or can afford guides and courses. Without these things, tackling summits requires a bit of a leap into the unknown.

“Let's look at the map again!” I rummage into the top of my pack as Buck slogs through deep powder. I already know the map, but I need some way to reconcile the path on paper with the terrain in front of me. We aught to follow a stream along the valley floor. Looking up high, the stream sprays down a rocky gorge and flows into a heap of avalanche debris. Buck arrives and drops his pack without a word. There is no sign of the summer route underneath the snow cover. High and to the right, the snow slope narrows beneath grey cliffs until a thin steep band of white passes over the waterfall. On the left, the slope curves steeply upwards and is broken by jumbles of rock, eventually gaining a ridge line at the top of the gorge. Using my mountaineering ice axe as a pointer, I sight a line on the left which draws a balance between climbing high into the mountains and tackling the steepest section of rock and snow near the gorge. Buck shrugs, and I start pushing a path of switchbacks up to the ridge.

Last summer, my friend, Alex Buck, had been casting about for a partner in adventure. He had two weeks free after Christmas, and wanted to break into winter mountaineering. I was unemployed at the time, and readily signed on. We both knew our way around crags and camping, but living in Ontario, mountain tops were something new to us. We chose the Pyrenees mountains because the peaks are relatively low, and civilization is always nearby. Barcelona was also the cheapest flight around. We spent months preparing gear and routes. We made ambitious plans to hit several of the highest peaks by easy routes, but winter was the factor we underestimated.

“I think I'm past the only hard part!” I yell down from a comfortable stance before continuing up the slippery rock. We are steadily nearing the ridge and the top of the waterfall. A few moves higher, I am caught completely off guard. The solid wall I hold on to with confidence rolls into my lap. In panic, I twist away, and sail into space. Everything occurs in an instant. I yell, “Oh shit!” and crash hard onto the next ledge below me. My free falling body plus sixty pounds of equipment drive down on my right ankle when the crampon slams into stone. I scream, and I know that it is broken. When I lay my leg out, the boot flops over unnaturally and a deep pain stabs up my leg. I yell some expletives and tell Buck that our plans are finished.

I lay back in the snow. My heart is beating fast, and my mind races with scenarios of further disaster. Foremost is the thought of falling again, even further, trying to descend on a bad ankle. I brood over the consequences of that one moment. I could have been more cautious, checked the rock stability or taken the longer route. Today was clear, and I had hoped to finally catch a view of the ranges we had been trekking and climbing. Now I would be happy just to escape.

Angrily, I shove the fallen boulder off of my ledge and get some satisfaction from hearing it clatter down the mountainside. I try dropping my pack down to Buck as well, but it bounces and bounces again and rolls out of sight. No matter, my priority is getting myself down. Hanging from the ice axe, I find a hold for my good foot and begin an awkward descent. When I am forced to shift weight to my bad leg, I grit my teeth and hold my breath. I yell out my actions and thoughts to Buck for reassurance because I feel flustered. Everything is moving too fast. Talking helps. He offers encouragement and false cheerfulness. Eventually I slide down next to him. He has military first aid training, and takes a quick look at my foot. “Hold your breath, this might hurt,” he warns as he cinches my boot laces tight. It's the most he can do for it.

We are still trapped 200 feet up a 70 degree slope. It's a few hours past noon, and the last thing we want is a bivy in the snow. I think we are both calm, sensible people, but the situation adds an edge of tension to the atmosphere. It would be easy to jump into a much worse situation with one wrong choice, and we know it. Buck wants to move fast, and climb down the way we came. I doubt I can manage that now, so we decide to rappel.

“Tink, tink, tink.” The sound of the aluminum pickets bottoming against rock is discouraging. I feel drowsy sitting still in the snow. Spots crowd my vision. I lean forward into my arms, and Buck snaps at me, “Don't pass out!” I want to sleep, but instead dig out a bar of chocolate and a water bottle. Mechanically, I cram chalky squares in my mouth and chew and swallow. The snow is only a foot deep over the rock, but Buck manages to lodge the pickets into something stable. Our rope of course gets tangled, and time drags on. As we agree, I go down first on a single line, ice axe in one hand, rope in the other, not entirely trusting the anchor. At the end of the rope, I start ploughing on hands and knees through soft powder and jumbled blocks.

We aim for a mountain dam with a small hut we had passed at noon. My damaged ankle aches with pain, and my hands and knees begin to freeze as I crawl through the snow. I measure progress in feet and inches. The irregular avalanche debris is the worst. I unexpectedly plunge through hidden pockets in the snow and crawl back out. Buck meets me half way, carrying the rope and both of our packs. The frame on mine is mangled, and the remnants jut out above his shoulders. Our mood becomes less grim now that we are on flat ground, but the sun is still sinking. We rest, eat more chocolate, and make a few jokes about our situation. Buck splints my leg with two ice axes, and I manage to hobble on two feet with an avalanche probe for support.

We reach the dam by dusk, and Buck sets off for help immediately. I settle down for a long night inside the stone hut with our stove and sleeping gear. It is 10 km of easy terrain to the nearest village. I don't expect him to return with help until morning at the earliest. If nobody arrives after tomorrow, I will start walking back alone. I leave the boot and splint on, but my foot quickly goes numb. I try to wiggle my toes as best I can to pass the silent minutes of nighttime. Some hours later, a loud thumping and bright light announces the arrival of a helicopter. “Don't send a helicopter. I can't afford it,” I had told Buck when he left, but I'm still happy to hear it arrive.

The helicopter flew me to the town of Gavarnie (courtesy of the French military), and from there, an ambulance took both of us to the hospital of Lourdes. I spent three nights in the hospital, where the doctors used a plate and six screws to put my fibula back together. Our plans were a failure, even before the accident. Snowstorms had kept us on Aneto for three days, our only summit of the trip. Travel was slower than expected everywhere. The weather slowed everything. But the summits weren't really our goal. We gained some tough experience and learned a few lessons.

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