"TAKE" - 4 letters, 1 one, 1 syllabus. It's amazing how such a simple word could change everything. It was the day after my 40th birthday. I like to call it "The Event"… a nod to one of my favorite sketches on HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show. It's the day every climber dreads, the day of your first significant injury. The day you realize climbing won't be the same but you equally realize how much you will always love it.
It was probably two years after falling in love with bouldering that I decided all future birthdays would be spent climbing. Year one, I climbed Mt. Washington and explored Rumney Rocks with my mom. I didn't boulder much because I wasn't going to try to teach her how to "spot" me. Year two, it was COVID-19. So I decided to stay local and climb with a small group of friends. It was one day of guided rope climbing and one day of bouldering. Year three, 2021...I wanted to avoid the drama that comes with a larger group and decided to only invite my two closest climbing friends to West Virginia. None of us had ever been to The New River Gorge, one of us was moving west and all of us wanted an adventure.
The plan was (and I am the epitome of a planner) to sport climb one day, boulder another and try deep water soloing the last. The first day of sport climbing was incredible, we got out early and found a great parking spot. The only real con was the insanely long and confusing hike to the crag. Once we made it, we had access to almost everything we wanted to climb, except for those requiring a 70m rope because despite my outstanding planning skills, I left it at home. There was a weird vibe that day, it felt like something bad was going to happen...we were watching a guy try to teach (from the ground) a young lady how to clean the sport anchor. We were terrified that something would go wrong. One of my friends even suggested to the guy that she learn from the ground. He ignored her suggestion and they proceeded. And fortunately, nothing bad happened. After that, we explored some bouldering on the AAC campground where we were staying. That was the best day and in retrospect, I wish we would've just bouldered. Stick with what you know, right?
Day two was pretty much a rainout, so we decided to go to Summersville Lake and just explore the area. We planned to return the following day to try out the sport climbing in that area and then go bouldering nearby. Again, we put bouldering on the back burner even though it's my preferred discipline. I'd only been sport climbing for around a year, never in a gym and never in West Virginia. So we hiked the lake and plotted all the routes we'd try the next day. We got a little lost but we were excited to climb there the following day.
This was my 40th birthday. I didn't want it to be a big deal so it was nice to be out of the city and away from everyone. I think there's a reason we didn't climb on my birthday, like the universe didn't want to leave the mark of an injury on my birthday. Because despite the rain earlier in the day, the rock was dry and climbers were out. We ended the night with a virtual surprise birthday party courtesy of my mom, a campside dinner and a rousing game of dominoes. We slept excited about a rain-free last day at the New River Gorge.
I'm sure everyone who gets injured climbing wonders, WHY ME? But for real, why me? It's been almost 11 weeks since "The Event" and I'm just now realizing how much of an impact it had on my life. Yes, I'll recuperate but climbing is therapy and the lack of climbing is now wearing on me. This is why I felt it was important to share my story. On my own platform. In my own time.
On August 2nd, we woke up early to head to Summersville Lake. It was a Monday and the parking lot was nearly empty. The weather was perfect. We tried a classic that was rated low but felt sketchy and harder than it's grade but everyone enjoyed the climb. I can't recall if we tried another climb after that but by the time all three of us finished that climb, I remember wanting to try something harder. I was just in Colorado earlier in the year and had followed a 5.11b route so I was feeling confident. Maybe a little cocky if I'm honest.
"Chunko Goes Bowling," this 5.9+ seemed like it would be the perfect challenge. The guidebook made it sound like it would be a breeze. At the time I had “canceled” Mountain Project so I didn’t read any reviews on the route. 8 bolts, 80 feet let me know the bolts would be spaced far apart, something I was told is a thing in this area. After spending the majority of my sport climbing time in the very well bolted Staunton State Park, I didn’t realize how good I had it. The first four or five bolts weren't too bad. They were challenging but just the challenge I was looking for. When I got to around the 6th bolt, I began to struggle. I could no longer see my two friends on the ground but I was determined to get the clip. I was right there. Also, I didn't feel like returning to the previous clip was even an option. I saw the bolt and somehow managed to get the quickdraw in. I actually hung on the quickdraw for a bit because I couldn't find a good enough hold to feel secure. I continued to struggle and again, I didn't communicate my struggles with my belayer. I wanted this clip. I was convinced I could get it. I decided to move from the left side of the bolt to the right side of it. I'm left-handed and figured I could hold the sloper and reach down with my stronger left hard to clip in quickly. Out of nowhere it became a boulder problem and I just went for it. I didn't yell TAKE or FALLING when I realized I missed it, I just embraced the fall and braced for impact. I put my feet out to catch my fall the way I'd always done but instead of a a slabby fall, it was a full swing into a bit of a ledge. When I hit, I didn't think it was a big deal. No scrapes, didn’t hit my head and I wasn’t in pain. I looked down at my left foot and saw a white puss-like substance, I thought I scraped my ankle because there wasn't any real pain. But then I looked closer and realized that white thing was bone and immediately told my belayer, "it's bad" and to lower me.
As soon as I was on the ground and saw the reaction of others, pain and fear set it. From there all I could focus on was breathing. What felt like an empty crag quickly became crowded and people came over to help. I saw the fear on my friends faces and the blood on the wall and couldn’t believed this happened to me. All I could think, why didn’t we just go bouldering.
The pain began to set in and the climbing shoe on my left foot felt like it was choking me to death. A guy who I barely noticed reading on a hammock came over to calm me down. He let me squeeze his hand and helped me focus on breathing. Others found someone who had wilderness first aid training and he tied my cordelette around my leg and someone else card emergency services. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only around 30 minutes (fast for climbing rescues I found out later), the EMS arrived and loaded me onto a boat. After a short, bumpy and painful ride, we arrived to an ambulance. The ambulance took me to a helicopter where I was airlifted to Charleston Medical Center.
So here we are 11 weeks later…two surgeries, one to remove the fixed device and I’m learning to walk again. I found out I was really lucky because it was just a dislocation and not a fracture, which is what I assumed happened. I learned a lot from that accident and while I’m not ready to sport climb again physically or mentally, I don’t believe this will happen again. I strongly recommend really researching the risk factors of the area, especially if it’s new to you. Use resources that are crowd-sourced, even if you don’t like the crowd. Mountain Project is like the Facebook of climbing social networks. You hate it but it’s effective. And lastly, over communicate. Don’t let your confidence keep you from telling people you are struggling. Have you ever been injured climbing, how did you overcome it?