One moment, I was comfortably scrambling up the side of a mountain in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. The next, I was knocked down by falling rock and lost consciousness.
I awoke hours later with blood blanketing my face and soaking through my right trouser leg. As I sat up gingerly, my back whimpering in protest, I realised there was so much blood around my left eye that it was fused shut.
It was just after noon on a cloudless, July day. I was alone and 300m up the northwest face of Clyde Minaret, about 16km from the trail head and an hour’s drive from civilisation.
It was the latest of many solo mountain missions, the appeal of which understandably eludes most sane people because of the inherent risks of loose rock, exposure to the elements, and being completely out of mobile coverage.
But there is very little that compares with covering an enormous amount of mountain terrain in much less time than it would take in a team. The joy of moving from peak to peak, across different terrain, at your own pace and however you please. The lack of any city smog, or any work hassles, or thoughts about what to do or wear to be socially accepted. The exquisite solitude.
That appeal must always be balanced against the objective danger that mountains present, and how lucky you feel. Loose rock is not uncommon, and there are normally no second chances if something happens to you while free-soloing.
As scans and tests would later show, the tremendous impact to my cheek – just below my helmet – forced all the bones around my left eye to cave in and bruised my brain, leaving it bleeding and swollen in the left frontal lobe. So hard was the impact that I had no recollection of where I had been, or how far I had fallen.
My left shoulder shared the impact, as did both my shins, leaving them with deep gashes and swelling. My bloated hands suggested that I had held them out to soften the blow. My neck suffered a fractured bone and ligament damage, as did two bones in my lumbar spine.
The injuries on the rest of my body suggested some tumbling. A blow to my chest bruised my right lung. A cut to my pants and underwear left bloody streaks down my backside.
I stood up and weighted my legs and feet. Nothing seemed broken. It never occurred to me that it might be challenging to extract myself from the mountains. I just thought that, given my clear injuries, continuing to free solo seemed like a poor choice, so I should probably head down.
I made steady progress down-climbing, though my movement lacked fluency. Soon it became too precarious and I pulled a rope and climbing gear from my bag, and started abseiling.
Seizures are one of the symptoms of a brain bleed, and I was lucky to be free of any as I abseiled. It was exhausting to find suitable places for the technical challenge of building abseil anchors, and at one point I found a spot to lie down and immediately fell asleep for who knows how long.
At another point, I put bits of muesli bar into my mouth, only to realise I couldn’t chew. Just bruising, I thought. It didn’t occur to me that my jaw might be broken, which it was.
It took me about eight hours and five or six abseils to get to the base of the cliff. Now on scree but without vision in my left eye, the lack of depth perception sent me tumbling over frequently, and I soon resigned myself to simply falling on my back, thinking it the least injurious way to get down.
I negotiated some snow slopes and dropped down to Minaret Lake, and then into the forest, the glare of my headlamp replacing the evening hues of the sky.
Darkness set in. My memory of this period is hazy. I seem to have circled around repeatedly, covering a distance in six hours that should have taken about one hour.
And I lost the trail. I trudged through the bush in the vague direction that seemed right to me, and 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 5am, after a few hours of shivery sleep, I awoke to mosquitoes biting exposed skin. I sat up with anchors in my flesh. With my memory of the previous night, I had expected familiar, friendly faces to be lying next to me. But I was alone.
I had no idea how far from the track I had strayed, and headed vaguely towards river sounds. To my extreme good fortune, the woods 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 day hike, and it wasn’t long before I crossed paths with a couple who were aghast at my blood-covered face. 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 trail head 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 was I suffering any 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. Not only had I broken multiple bones – though my spinal fractures were not misaligned, meaning I could walk – but there were no facilities in Mammoth Hospital for traumatic brain injuries, and I had to be flown to Renown Medical Centre in Reno.
But I was too out-of-it to assess what any of that meant. Still oblivious to the gravity of my injuries, my main priority was to send a message to the climbing partner I was meant to meet the following day and to the few people who knew about my soloing plans. I did so, switched off all devices – I incoherently thought that saving battery would be wise – and then fell asleep as I was transported to a helicopter.
But my messages were typical of someone who wasn’t thinking straight. “Out of the mountains, but now in hospital” did nothing to reassure friends, particularly with no mention of which hospital.
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.
The surgeons told my friends that they may have to slice open my brain if the bleeding worsened. “You looked scarily fucked up, just covered head to toe in blood and swelling,” Alaina told me later. “You clearly had a brain injury. You kept repeating the same lines 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’.
As I lay unconscious, they called my family and managed my inbox as concerned messages from friends started trickling in.
The disturbing sight of my injuries was punctuated with moments of comic relief. I had been given a tetanus shot in Mammoth, and staff had followed routine practice and placed a bandaid where the needle had punctured me. It was laughable to Alaina and Lauren to see me lying there, covered in blood and bruises, with the only sign of treatment being the tiniest of bandaids on my shoulder.
All of this went on without my awareness. I was full of fentanyl – an opioid stronger than heroine – 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. In another exchange, staff told me that I had impressive lung capacity. When I was later asked if I took drugs, and I answered dryly that LSD was awesome and directly responsible for my amazing lungs.
The nursing staff thought my brain injury might be worsening, but my friends reassured them that this 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. The first sign was the relief from staff that I could still see out of my left eye. Then it was my face, which had 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 allow them 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 falling down.
Damage to my infra-orbital nerve, just under the eye, numbed all sensation from my upper lip and teeth to my left temple, making it feel like my face was in a vice. 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.
I spent days watching movies and walking laps of the ward, followed by an afternoon sleep. Friends called and came to visit as word of my accident spread. Many went above and beyond, collecting my van from Mammoth, offering me a place to recover, bringing me milkshakes, and generally being the most amazing people in history.
My ability to do basic math problems seemed to suggest my brain was doing fine, and after 10 days in hospital, I was allowed to leave and be driven to a friend’s place in California.
Now, eight months later, my bones have healed. The titanium implants have prompted friends to refer to me as the T300 (using the liquid titanium Terminator – the T1000 – as a reference point). My broken jaw meant I was only able to eat mushy things such as scrambled eggs for weeks, but now I can put an entire dumpling in my mouth – the proper yardstick of any eating joy.
Soft tissue injuries are taking longer to heal, including ligament damage in my shoulder, wrist and knee, but I’ve been delighted to indulge in road cycling, hiking in the rugged Tararuas, and even occasional climbing in the last weeks.
The feeling in my face has improved, and now it only feels as if I’ve been punched in the face, rather than struck by a freight train. Most of the time, I don’t notice it.
Recently I had to get a new passport. The office called me to say that the photo I had provided was taken too close to my face, distorting the image. I guffawed to the rafters and, when I sufficiently recovered the powers of speech, informed the staffer that my face just looked like that now.
When I consider the luck I’ve had, the good definitely outweighs the bad. It seemed a cruel twist of fate to be in the path of random rockfall and to be struck just below where my helmet would have offered a great deal of protection. But I didn’t break a leg, ankle or any bone that would have made self-extraction a slow, painful, and much more doubtful prospect. I didn’t suffer a seizure while abseiling, which would have led to my body plummeting down the rope.
I had also only just bought insurance two weeks before the accident – the luckiest timing in insurance history. The only thing luckier is the miracle that I was knocked off the side of a mountain and somehow avoided bouncing all the way to the bottom in what would have surely been lights out for good.
By Derek Chen from issue 212