2013-11-17

Wändlispitz (1971m)

I did not cry sitting in the snow waiting for the helicopter, my pelvis twisted and broken in two places, vertebraes cracked and broken, ribs broken, ankle shattered and broken in what they'd later call a complex explosion fracture, one of the long bones in my left foot snapped, my right calf muscle punctured, middle finger with a big crater in it and standing at a completely wrong angle, the tendon ripped, bleeding from an open head wound, freezing wet while my ruptured bladder is seeping blood and poison into my guts, slowly bleeding me to death.

I did not cry when the helicopter jerked me up on a winch, the straps of the harness running between my legs, the weight of my body resting on the broken bones of my pelvis.

I did not cry when they put me down on the snow, head facing down the slope, straightening my legs and putting me into a vacuum bed stretcher.

I am crying now.

The pain is intense. The pain is everywhere. Everything. Anita's soft caress on my good, non injured, hand is hurting. The only sensation I know is pain. I'm waking up after the second round of surgery, several days after the accident. I've spent a lot longer on the operating table than planned. Someone screwed up and didn't tape my eyes shut properly. So I lay unconscious for hours, staring ahead blind and unblinking, wrecking my eyes. I have a towel over my face in a darkened room but it's still blindingly bright. My eyeballs are being rubbed down with rough sandpaper. About a dozen tubes and wires are running into and out of my body. I can't move at all. I can't see. I can't think. The pain from my eyes has a direct connection into my brain, no chance for the cocktail of painkillers to intervene.

I'm lying helpless on my back. Limbs outstretched. Floating, flying, swaying in the center of a dark and endless room. My limbs stretch longer and longer, thinner and thinner, until they completely dissipate into the void. Leaving only the injured bits of my body. Sticking out of the nothingness as bright disconnected islands of pain.

Andrey after we've left the trail for some bushwhacking action.
Sihltal under a veil of clouds.

I completely lose track of time. Turning on the radio to occupy my mind. A drowning man in a black and boiling see of huge waves I cling to songs like life rafts. Repeating the lyrics in my head over and over again until I can't stand it any longer. When I come up for air, another song, it's still the same fucking song playing I started with. Not even minutes have passed. This goes on for an eternity. When the radio plays its jingle marking the passing of a full hour I am suddenly hopeful. Hasn't it gotten brighter outside? Don't I hear more traffic than before? Surely it must be morning by now?
"It is two am. You are listening to..."
I'm heartbroken. Devastated. How am I ever going to get through this endless night? Impossible.

Steep avalanche area.
The grassy band cutting through the cliffs diagonally is our "Schäferweg".

How did I get here? My climbing partner of many previous trips, Andrey, and I set out to climb the peaks of the Fluebrig. The most challenging of the four is the Wändlispitz, so we attack that one first. Arriving with the earliest possible public transport connection we initially make good progress. We are breaking trail, but there is little snow and it is frozen and powdery on easy trails. Soon we take a small turn off and scramble up almost pathless steep slopes, occasionally swiped clean by past avalanches. Somewhat ironically, considering what is to come, Andrey is commending me for being very efficient and confident in this type of tricky terrain.

Andrey scrambling up the steep "Schäferweg".

We follow the Sheppard's trail, a steep grass band cutting diagonally through a vertical rock wall. Luckily it is mostly dry and free of snow. Reaching the ridge we are in deep powder and apparently the first humans in a long while. Mountain goats have trampled a highway of a path though, so progress is quick and easy. We reach the summit at noon, breaking through virgin snow for the last few meters to the cross. The weather is perfect. Sunny and clear for us with a dense sea of clouds below. Spectacular views all around.

We plan to descend via the difficult south ridge. It is rated T6 in good conditions, giving it the most difficult rating possible on that scale. However now it's early afternoon in November and the sun has made the snow sticky and wet. I have to scrape big lumps of snow out of my crampons almost every step of the way. This definitely does not count as "good conditions".

It is very exposed terrain with near vertical drops on either side. Scrambling on slippery snow and lose rocks requires full concentration. Looking down the cliff we agree that falling here would not be wise and almost certainly fatal. I'm leading the way, some 30-50m ahead of Andrey. I clearly remember turning around to him and remarking that we've passed the worst part and are back in walking terrain, not requiring our ice tools and hands for progress anymore. The next thing I remember is waking up 150m lower, lying in the snow, shattered and broken with a trail of blood leading to my resting place.

Wändlispitz South-East Ridge - our path down.
Andrey scrambling down towards me.

I perform a quick self check. Brain seems to work, I can move my back and feel my feet so the spine seems to be ok. Worth going on with this experiment called life. I fumble around looking for my cell phone. It is not in the top flap of my backpack where I expect it. I finally find it in my trouser pockets. Strange. Until I realize that I'm also wearing my fleece jacket and am carrying the backpack in my lap. I was in t-shirt on the ridge with the pack on my back. So I must have been awake and active before with no memory of it whatsoever. I have weird dream like memories of dark and red colors and shapes, paired with the distinct knowledge that something isn't right. However, I also distinctly remember feeling that it's alright, that it isn't so bad because it doesn't affect me.

This is how I like to remember the trip: Relaxed mood in spectacular scenery. Note my footsteps leading to where I'm standing... Also note that I'm still wearing just my t-shirt.
The best smile I could muster. I fell down slightly left of the arc.

Andrey shouts down to me periodically and I remember one or two of my responses. He did this over a period of two hours while waiting for the helicopter. If you had asked me I'd have said that it arrived within 15 minutes of the accident. In reality they had to try several times to find a base to launch from. The fog in the valleys was making safe flights impossible for most. Because I knew from Andrey that rescue was already on its way I called Anita instead. Something people in the hospital would later mock me for. You wake up and call your girlfriend?! I thought it was a rational choice.

Rega landed in the wrong place first - that's how this picture came to be. The emergency doc took it before they picked her up again.
Our descent route and my resting place marked on the same image.

It is 6 weeks and two surgeries later now. My foot is still in continuous pain with a lose splinter of bone poking around the flesh. I have lost more than ten percent of my body weight, most of it muscle, turning me into a weak stick figure scare crow. It took more than four weeks for my blood to return to normal levels. I can hobble around on crutches, but my right hand is unusable and my left foot immobile and not allowed to carry any load.

Pro tip: If your foot looks anything like this - go see a doctor.
My new cybernetic enhancements. I have an internal Wifi antenna and copy of Wikipedia now.

I have become part of the statistic and I hate myself for it. It doesn't fit the image I have of myself as a climber. Some people think I had this coming, that something like this was inevitable eventually. That my attitude towards the risks involved was too cavalier. I disagree. When we set out for this trip we were well trained, in fact I have never been more fit in my life. We were equipped  appropriately, experienced in this type of terrain, a routine climbing team, the weather good and our spirits high. I don't think we committed any major mistakes or behaved irresponsibly. And indeed I fell from a spot well past the most difficult section. No reason really. That's why it frustrates me to no end to have no memory of the actual misstep, the crucial mistake. As for my attitude towards risk. I'll grant that I may often sound macho when talking or writing about our exploits. However, actually being there I think I have a good track record of behaving responsibly and not doing anything reckless.

Morning after the "endless night" - not a good time to be me.
First time out of bed. My physio therapist Jan is watching me intently for any signs that I should faint. I need two people to maneuver my legs out of bed without changing the angle at my hips because that is still intensely painful.
Learning to walk stairs again a couple of days later. I was so happy to walk again I didn't care about the hospital gown being open at the back and my naked bum showing... A passing nurse took mercy and taped it (the gown!) shut.

During recovery in the hospital friends and strangers alike kept remarking on my high spirits and good mood considering the circumstances. It's true. While at times it required a large amount of will power and a very conscious effort to pick myself up I managed a cheery attitude most of the time. This is in no small part thanks to you. I received the best support from friends and family you could possibly hope for. I have received more kind support than I ever know how to repay you for. There have been days where my voice was hoarse from talking on the phone and I had to be very careful not to laugh too hard because my broken ribs would literally pop out and my stomach muscles pull on the pelvis. I've had so many visitors that they'd hold open the door for one another, coming and going in shifts. I could bind the get well postcards into a book. But first and foremost Anita has been absolutely tireless in her care for me, visiting every day while holding up a job and the household at the same time. I am immensely sorry that I caused all of you worry and tremendously grateful for your support. Thank you!

The view from the rehab clinic where I spent the next couple of weeks. Not too shabby.

I would also like to extend my thanks to the emergency and medical teams that got me off the mountain and stitched me back together. I keep joking that if you have to pull a stunt like mine then Switzerland is the best country in the world to do it in. I think it's true. All people involved acted professionally, quickly and efficiently. Although the final result is still outstanding I'm sure puzzling my foot back together was no small feat of surgery. The way it has come thus far gives me hope for a full recovery.

Coming home!
Playing board games with Anita and my brothers...
... who stayed with us for a week over Christmas.