Not a Learning Experience, the Result of Them


6:45 am and I had a text from my boss.

Bzzt. Bzzt.

6:48 am and I have a text from my landlord.

Hey, I saw you in the paper. I'll bring it in.

Keese, I saw the paper this morning. Are you alright? Let me know if you'll need any help.

I have a nice boss, and a great landlord. But, at the moment I'm wishing I had gotten more than four hours of sleep. No one ever said a trip to the ER would be fast.

The story is simple. I got stuck rock climbing and had to call 911 to get extracted. Stuck 127 Hours style. And, because no one ever lets me end the story there I'll tell you the rest. David and I were rock climbing. The plan was to climb for three hours (we were out for nine). We climbed up an easy route, played on a much harder route and then top-roped the aptly named Easy Jam. For those who've yet to experience the pleasure of an off-width crack, the climbing technique is to wedge as much of your body as you can fit into the crack and wriggle your way up.

"I've got a cool calf jam thing going on!" My last words, obviously, and I leaned back. My calf was firmly wedged into a constricting crack allowing me to brace myself with my hands as a writhe upwards gaining millimeters of progress by pushing and rocking my toes.  I find myself in a kneeling position crack and try to torque my knee upwards. It won't budge. Pulling out on it reveals two bits of rock positioned right behind the bottom of my femur. I can't push myself down as I pushed myself up. With a straight leg I had just enough space to reach this position, now my leg is bent, causing my knee to expand, and I can't get my leg back into the crack to contract the knee. But I work at it. David realizes something is wrong and asks if I'm stuck. It's official now.

And we do everything we can. David descends to me to assist. We rig up a step I can put my unstuck leg into and I try to shift my weight. Nothing. I use my rock climbing equipment to try and hang from a different position and change the angle of my mass. Nothing. It's currently 3:30 in the afternoon.

We call 911.

"Twenty-seven year old male. Good health. Stuck in Easy Jams on Vedauwoo's Nautilus formation."

 Climbers learn from experience

David passes me up another jacket, some food, and we wait. Three sheriff's deputies arrive an hour later. They attempt to pull me out of the crack. They attempt to pull me up through the crack. I slide an inch and become even more stuck. What was two points of stone holding my knee now feels like a solid vice. The sheriff's deputies call for help.

Six hours, a quart of motor oil, one 3-to-1 assist, six men, and a rock drill later I'm limping back to the parking lot missing a pant leg and some skin. The ambulance crew formerly suggest I go to the hospital and get checked for compartment syndrome, though their body language indicates I'm fine. The ER trip lasts four hours and the only gain from it is a scrap of paper with the phone number of a nurse. After hearing my story he laughed and said we should go climbing sometime.

Climbing rescue

My mom asked if I was embarrassed about the incident. I'm not. A co-worker made some comment about it being a learning experience. I brushed off her comment, but it got me thinking.

Other than "don't get stuck in a crack," it wasn't really a learning experience. Instead it was a culmination of learning experiences. I've been rock climbing for nearly a decade, and though I've never been stuck before I have learned a lot. This incident with the rock simply reinforces everything I've learned over the years. Rock climbing is dangerous. Being lax in your safety systems or preparedness can be dangerous. We were prepared with proper gear and equipment. When things went badly we reacted. Ego can help you overcome fear and give you strength in scary situations. It can also cause you to wait until the last possible minute to call for help. We called 911 at 3:30 pm recognizing that it would be easier to cancel a rescue call after an hour, then initiate a rescue in the dark. As it was, I wasn't freed until six hours after calling for help. We had extra clothing, food, and water. We kept our cool. And the problem was never allowed to spiral out of control. I got stuck. And we never allowed that to lead to a situation where then my partner was put in danger, or I found myself in greater danger.  So we did everything right and I still got stuck in a crack. But now it's a few scars and a funny story, not continuing visits to a physical therapist or doctor.

Years of making small mistakes, education, and raw experience put me in a position to use my cumulative knowledge when I needed it. And everything worked out fine.

I drew on numerous experiences where climbing took longer than expected, I got hungry or cold, or I had to talk a frightened climber into a safe/better position. These lessons allowed me to recognize that any help we asked for would take over an hour to reach us. And meant that we had plenty of insulation, food, water, and gear with us. What are some lessons you've learned over the years that you utilize on regular basis?

-Keese Lane is a climber, skier and outdoor enthusiast. He is a freelance writer and formerly the Twitter Ninja behind @SierraTP.

Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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