Adapt and Deal

Only 6,500 feet to go. Me feeling a little lighter, a few pitches after dropping part of the rack. Josh Wharton photo

Six years ago this summer, midway up the second pitch of a route, I felt these things hitting my thigh. I looked down to see half our rack sliding off the come-undone gear sling, hitting my leg and bouncing into space. Josh Wharton and I had just started up the unclimbed southwest ridge on Great Trango Tower, in Pakistan, probably the biggest chunk of rock in the world, rising 7,400 vertical feet from base to summit. Uh, shit. What now?

About ten years back Tommy Caldwell, whom I didn’t know at the time but has since become one of my best friends – giving me not only the benefit of osmosis (pretty amazing, really – I can just sit on his porch drinking margs and I get stronger), but a glimpse into his amazingly driven, yet amazingly human, mindset – cut off his finger with a table saw. A rock climber with nine fingers? Right, he’s done.

When our gear sling came open (which was Josh’s fault, I swear…), I reached down and caught a handful of the cams, and the nuts (which I needed in lieu of my own – biggest route I’d been on), and since I had already placed a bunch of gear in the pitch, we lost only five cams or so – about a quarter of our rack. The weather was good so we keep going – what the hell, we were almost there anyway, right? You can do things like that when climbing with someone as good as Josh, I figured.

A recent hangboard session, instructions: "hang on your middle three fingers." For TC, make that middle two.

Tommy has since told me how he’s learned to use his hand in different ways, and how, actually, it forced him to become a better climber because he couldn’t just rely on pure “pulling” all the time.

We all know the stories from there – I’ve sprayed enough about how Josh and I continued and climbed the route, calling it the Azeem Ridge, in four and a half days. It’s hands-down the greatest climb I’ve ever done. Sometimes we needed that missing gear, just like we needed another fuel canister, just like Tommy needed his finger. Or maybe not. You learn things as you go, and most important is the mentality, the willingness to try, and to continually adapt. Without that, you might as well stay on the couch. As for Tommy, we also know that he only got better, becoming the undisputed master of big-wall free-climbing, and pulling off repeated Olympic-caliber performances. Enough to where I get this goofy idea every time I pick up a power tool…

I’ve got to remember the mindset. People do it every day – from inspiring stories about everyday people battling with more than most of us ever have to face, to climbers who remind me to never again make an excuse for myself.

At the BRC yesterday, I saw Chris Klinga – one of the people who recommended me to Dr. Desai, and who was wrecked beyond all imagination, and is now fully back. It got me thinking of his drive. While still in a wheelchair, he rationalized that the pressure he put on his legs when switching from his chair to his bed or whatever was pretty much the same as what you’d put on a foot while riding a bike, so… “Wait, Chris, you mean like a stationary bike?” No, he actually got out and rode a bicycle. “Yeah, you just don’t want to fall,” he said with a chuckle. Hmmm.

A friend in Alaska, who ripped off his foot in a horrific climbing accident, and continues to put-up new routes in the Hayes Range every year, told me that bicycling and cross-country skiing were great recovery activities. You mean like a stationary bike and the Nordic Trak, right? Nope.

“Biking with one leg is actually really easy. The broken leg (as long as the knee is unrestricted) will simply track. … the hard part is getting on and off the bike. Put the seat lower than standard and mount the broken leg side first. Make sure ya ready. Wait why am telling an injured guy how to…oh because it is good for ya, make sure ya are ready to peddle like mad at first — no soft ground or uphill starts.

You can even have someone assist ya, or get on by leaning against a tree or what have you. Oh, and the most critical, when you fall, which you will, fall onto the good leg (duh). Oh, and don’t use bike shoes.

Skiing is more straight-forward. But involves being close to weight bearing. Basically ya put all your weight on one ski, and double pole like a Norwegian.

I’d give it a few weeks if ya can…”

Uh, yeah, I think I’ll give it at least a few weeks. Wackos. But, actually, this reminded me of my own recoveries from past injuries, my absurdly short memory, and that innate human ability to rationalize damn near anything. When I had knee surgery a couple of months after spinal surgery (with the mess that is private health insurance, once you hit that sky-high deductible it’s time for the 60,000-mile full-tune-up), after awhile I was allowed to hike. Well, hiking is pretty much the same thing as scrambling, which is pretty much the same as… One day I found myself a couple hundred feet up the super-easy (5.5) Rock One at Lumpy Ridge, unable to fully flex my knee but reinforcing to myself that I was only hiking, when suddenly struck with the notion that I’m going to feel really stupid if I fall and bite it soloing Rock One.

I’m working on staying smart this time. Still on the stationary bike. No skiing with one leg. But truly, I think a balance exists between what the docs tell you – after all, the average person probably isn’t as driven as most of us are, and not so fit, and the docs don’t want to get sued – and being careful to do no harm. It’s a fine line.

I titled this post “Adapt and Deal,” but a crucial third word comes to mind, one that drives the willingness to adapt, and puts the fire in dealing: determination. An unwillingness to simply fold, to quit.

Marko Prezelj at home.

Another friend, Marko Prezelj, the Slovenian super badass and one of my climbing heroes, surely the greatest living alpinist on the planet (here’s where the 8,000-meter peak-bagging crowd goes “Uh, who? What’s his Sherpa guide’s name?”), wrote me the other day with some encouraging words. Marko’s intense, for sure, but still I don’t know how he does it – 44 years old, been at the cutting edge forever, no signs of slowing, sooo motivated, and with a brilliant eye for art – he sees things with his photography that the rest of us would otherwise miss – has a family, and holds great insights to life. Sorry, I know, enough of the man-crush on Marko already.

So let me just end by saying I love the way the guy signs some of his emails. I think he’s on to something.

Like Marko says: Keep Fighting.

6 thoughts on “Adapt and Deal

  1. Nice, Kelly! Glad to see that, while of course they are the therapeutic drug-of-choice, Margs are being supplemented by exercise.

    Which reminds me of my broken back. The sports-med guy must have forgotten his caution pill the morning a few days after when I checked in at his office. “You can do anything you want,” he said (yes, he was a climber too), “but for the next six weeks you MUST NOT FALL.”

    OK, so a little light bouldering then. Get back on the Buttermilk rocks that threw me.

    And 3 weeks later I taught a telemark course. But hey, it was already scheduled… It was the only time in my life I ever skied for a week without falling. Interesting…

  2. While pedaling up a steep incline that I was the only chick who cleared it, a friend asked me if I worried about going over backwards on something so steep. I looked at her as if I’d never laid eyes on her before and said, “Huh? I never thought about it.” I’ve also never gone over backwards on my bike, ever.

    When I was six months pregnant with kid #3 I was coming down a tight, technical, steep rocky descent and thought, “hmmm… BIG consequences if I wreck. This will have to be my last sketchy descent until baby is born.”

    Sometimes a little forethought is a good thing, and sometimes it’s limiting. Wisdom is knowing the difference and always listening to your inner elf.

  3. Getting healing encouragement from Marko Prezelj has got to be one of the best things ever. after all he only needs two of four hands.

  4. Love the words Kelly real inspiring.. though now I did something to my shoulder….I thought it will get better after 4 weeks but nope..soo off to make the doctors appointment and wait another 4 weeks to get in. Man this growing old sh#t has to stop!!!!

  5. slovenian is a slavic language and if it has to do anything with its slavic language cousins then Marko’s words are even more appropo here. To hazard a guess if there is a relexive involved then the meaning is more like “keep fighting to overcome obstacles within yourself” or something like that. I could also be wrong about translating a translation.

    my two bits.

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