This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 236 (August 2016).
On a crisp fall day in Flagstaff, my friend Dillon and I packed up our climbing gear and drove to the local crag, The Pit. We climbed for a few hours, and as darkness fell we stowed our gear at the base of the cliffs and hiked around to the top. Wearing headlamps, we walked along the trail about five feet from the edge of the cliff. I stepped onto a rock wedged into the ground and stood looking at the view. As I turned to Dillon to point out the Big Dipper, the rock dislodged.
I plummeted in darkness, stars swirling sickeningly over my head, thinking only, I am falling. I am still falling. As I started to wonder what my injuries would consist of, I hit. I have hit before, falling off a fence or out of a tree. This was different. This was not a bonk, “Ow!” This was a wham. Time slowed. I felt my innards fly up as my bones smashed down; felt my hip swell and stiffen. I tasted dirt-flecked blood and noted a narrowly avoided cactus.
As time resumed its normal speed, I realized I was sliding, as if I would always be falling.
I scrambled, swimming in an avalanche of dirt and rocks. My desperate searching hands found a small shrub, and I stopped, the dirt warm beneath me, on a five-by-10 ledge about 40 feet off the deck. I had dropped 60 feet, the last 10 by sliding.
After the eerily silent fall, I screamed, the sound of terror echoing through The Pit.
“Alyse! Don’t move, I’m coming!” Dillon shouted. I waited as he carefully moved down a low-angle section of the cliff toward me. I was afraid to breathe or even blink, picturing falling off the ledge in a landslide caused by my own tremors.
I was aware of everything. I felt the dirt stuck to the roof of my mouth and the copper taste of the blood dripping steadily from my nose. My right hip was bulging and stiff, like the rock it had hit, and my groin muscles protested every move. My left shoe had fallen off.
A hand clamped my arm. As Dillon and I looked at each other with wide eyes, the pure fact of what had just happened vanished, and we shared a single thought: We have to get out of here. We happened to be above a 5.9 where we had stashed our gear, and its anchors were right next to me on the ledge. At the time, I didn’t think about the risk of Dillon down-soloing a 5.9 by headlamp to get our gear to set up a rappel, it was just something
that had to be done. As he down climbed out of sight, I watched, fascinated, as my blood dripped bright red on the sandy gray stone. Somehow my headlamp had stayed on, and the yellow circle of light enhanced my tunnel vision and highlighted the crimson slicks. My thoughts began to spiral into sheer panic with each splatter. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
I jolted out of my reverie to see Dillon inching toward me from the top, a harness on, sliding the rope through the anchors. Gently lifting me, he eased me into my harness and lowered me slowly. Once we were both down, it was back to business.
Dillon carried me sack-of-potatoes style up the trail as I clung on. Everything was in patterns. Tree, rock, tree, rock, bump around, rest, bump around, rest, despair, confidence, despair, confidence, whimper, grit teeth, silence. The patterns were occasionally broken by a stumble or a burst of searing pain radiating from my grotesquely swollen hip.
After about two hours we finally reached the trailhead. Laying me carefully down, he ran off to get the car, and again I watched my blood drip onto the dirt and pine needles. I stared intently at the grass as if the long stalks were prying neighbors. I felt invaded and on the spot. The slender blades bent toward me, whispering secrets in the wind. They were talking about me; I knew it. I stared down the longest blade, the king of blades. If I moved, they would see me. If I looked away, they had me.
The warm, welcome rumble of a car engine shattered my delirium, and I turned gratefully. Dillon piled me in and pulled out of the lot.
In the ICU, a doctor somberly informed me that my worst injuries included a shattered pelvis, two fractured vertebrae and a partially collapsed lung. He also told me I might never walk again, and to say goodbye to climbing.
I had to withdraw from my first college semester to recover. At home, I set a goal of six months to movement. Those six months were absolute hell. I had continual nightmares about falling, and I developed insomnia. I pushed myself every day in and out of physical therapy, using all my free time to try to wiggle just one toe. It was hard, and I was in constant pain, but life doesn’t care about your excuses. At five months and a week, I stood. A month later, I went to my local climbing gym and crawled up the easiest route. It didn’t even have a grade, just the label “5.fun.” It took me over an hour. I had never been more proud.
September 19 will mark four years since my fall. I am climbing harder than before and am more motivated than ever. Currently I am on a climbing trip around the country. People ask all the time why on earth I still climb. I tell them it’s what I do. Climbing pushed me away from the wheelchair and toward adventure.
Alyse Dietel, from San Jose, California, is currently living in a van, exploring the best climbing areas in the country. Dietel was on the cover of Rock and Ice No. 229. See seelyseeclimb.wordpress.com.