Nine months have gone by since the accident.
A small piece of a sedimentary rock, created many millions of years ago waited patiently. On the 21st of December 2014, my left hand decided to grab it. A simple act, a simple gesture and…all my future plans changed drastically, violently.
Stones do not think, they’re just there. After all these months I find myself wondering if that small piece of the planet was always meant to be detached of its position on that day. One small piece of stone breaks off and fall to the ground, inescapably taking me with it. For the stone, falling to the ground meant nothing, but for me…
The fall was short, not much more than 2m, but it was unexpected. The impact was hard. I felt it violently and straight away I knew it was serious. I screamed and moaned like a child. I cried. I felt faint Had my time come? Had my hour come? THE HOUR? The anxiety left me dizzy and suddenly, out of breath…
The gear was still perfectly organized on my harness. I hadn’t had time to place a single piece of protection between me and the ground. One meter higher and probably nothing would’ve happened. It was a ridiculous climbing fall, short and undignified.
João Gaspar hugged me, doing all he could to comfort me to tranquilize me. Fernando Pereira had already grabbed the phone to call 112 (Portuguese emergency number). Between crying and panicking I raged with myself. My thoughts moved between several images, none of them pleasant: “How could you let this happen? Again…”, “112, ambulance, hospital…”. I thought of Daniela, the pain she would feel…again. I thought of my mother, the sorrow I would cause her…again. I thought and thought again, breathless. Still in João’s arms, I heard him say repeatedly: ” Don’t go to sleep, don’t sleep!” – I felt grateful for having a friend there, so close – but I didn’t go to sleep’.
With my eyes shut, I remembered to breathe, deeply, rhythmically. After long minutes the panic gave way to deep, rhythmic breaths. Sometimes anxiety would take hold and the irrational would take over. During’those moments, I felt faint. But slowly, I would come back around.
I heard Daniela’s voice, she had already been crying, I knew it. She hugged me, kissed me and said a few words to calm me down. By then I had already given myself the “check up: move the toes, feel the legs. “They’re not numb!” “That’s good, that’s good…!”
Hours at the hospital. Exams to check for fractures. The prognosis was not all bad. Two lumbar vertebrae fractured but without damaging the marrow, a micro-fracture in the basin and one (“unimportant “) fracture of the metatarsal bone of the little toe of the left foot.
Forecast: three weeks lying in bed, then a wheelchair’, then transition to crutches, then transition to a single crutch then relearn how to walk, then…
Daniela’s parents, Maria da Luz and Antonio Teixeira, to whom I will be forever grateful, gave me their room and bed. For two months I became the main guest in their house.
Teresa Leal and João Gaspar became the tireless and ever-present’friends who helped in all sorts of ways’… I know that I will never be able to repay this huge debt of gratitude…friendship’.
Daniela became a full time professional nurse, dedicated, supportive and caring. Doctors coincided in the opinion that I should lie down and move as little as possible. The most unfortunate effect of being bedridden was the “non-visits” to the toilet. I felt like the protagonist in a tragic comedy. The problem was that the play involved the daily lives’of everyone around me. And Daniela was always with me, always caring, always present. The days passed, long and endless. They turned into weeks.
The first “walk” out of the house in the wheelchair was celebrated at a café near the house. While Daniela went inside to get two coffees, I enjoyed the clouds crossing the sky. I always liked the clouds. Although I was in an urban environment, that little piece of nature brought me some encouragement. Clouds are excellent metaphors of freedom. They can form anywhere; they do not obey any rules and they travel where they want, following the whims of the wind. They fly free above all countries, above all people. Leaving the house for the first time after the accident, gave me one of these ephemeral moments of freedom. Its ironic how sometimes the bad experiences of life are the ones that awaken us to the small details, those that really matter. For a brief moment, I joined the clouds, en route to an uncertain horizon.[caption id="attachment_26320" align="alignnone" width="960"] The first ‘walk’ out of the house.[/caption]
The physiotherapy sessions accompanied my first steps, and walking with a pair of crutches became part of my routine. Months went by. This was not my first climbing accident, the first occurred almost 25 years ago. From that accident I had physical memories, but not a great deal of psychological trauma. It was such a long time ago. Time has its own magical way of smoothing everything out’. An unbearable pain becomes a remote memory, present, but manageable. Time teaches us to live with our own demons and ghosts.
From the accident back in 1992 I don’t remember the physical pain; it disappeared as the years went by. What I keep in my mind is a lesson, a decision. I was young and my dreams flowed at a frenetic pace. Likewise my existential doubts. At that time, breaking two legs on an ice fall in the Pyrenees forced me to think deeply about the consequences of following a dream. Was climbing mountains worth it’?
According to the surgeon that placed the six screws that I still have on my ankles, I “would never be able to climb again”. Today, strangely, I had almost forgotten the post-surgery pain. What I do clearly remember are the tears I cried in that hospital bed, the night after hearing the surgeon’s words.
There is an old saying in alpinism that you have five years to decide what you really want. That’s to say, that during those five years you are always asking yourself if all the sacrifices, the effort, and above all, the risks, are really worth it. “Is this what I really want?”. So the saying goes, after five years either you give up, or alpinism gets into your blood, like a chronic disease from which you can no longer escape.
In 1992, I had little more than five years of alpinism. I was at the edge of taking the ultimate decision. “To carry on or not?”. I didn´t have to endure a massive fall in the middle of winter, on the famous “Gaube Couloir”, to question my compromise with alpinism. Still, there I was, lying in a hospital bed, with a lot of time to think about life and dreams.
For one night I just cried, then I made my mind up. The surgeon could “go to hell with his fucking opinion!”
Now I found myself facing the same dilemma. I would willingly dispense this new lesson. Lesson?
In 1992 I learned several lessons and took crucial decisions that in a certain way changed the course of my life. But now, after more than two decades, honestly, I I am not sure what the moral of the story is. I have much more experience than in those years, I have climbed on every possible type of terrain imaginable, I feel much more cautious, and my ability to analyze risk in the mountains is infinitely superior. Still, the “burden” of my experience did not prevent the accident. The fall occurred at the start of the route and it could’ve happened in any sport climbing route, immediately before reaching the first bolt.
This time I couldn’t see what mistake I had made, I hadn’t placed’the protection incorrectly (I hadn’t been climbing for long enough to place any’!), I wasn’t distracted (as far as I know), I wasn’t climbing on terrain I was uncomfortable with … and yet it happened!
I can only conclude that the more one climbs, the higher the chances that something will happen! Maybe that’s it. Perhaps the grand designs of fate, the ones we look for when things like that occur, can be summarized by a simple, dull fact.[caption id="attachment_26321" align="alignnone" width="960"] Daniela Teixeira on the South face of Kapura, while we climbed the new route Never Ending Dreams. In a distance, a sea of mountains in the Himalayas, all there waiting to be explored.[/caption]
The truth is that it may as well be decided by a giant game of Russian roulette, spinning at random until stopping on someone’s name, without taking into account their experience, beliefs, or anything.
“Climbing is risky”, “Climbing is dangerous”, “You can die climbing”…so, why keep doing it? Why dedicate your life to something that might kill you?
The truth is that I don’t have a convincing answer for this question.
“Convincing?!” Then again, who am I trying to convince if not myself?
This new accident that could have killed me or (even worse) placed me in a wheelchair forever, made me reflect a lot about the consequences of some of our choices and paths we take. We can think, believe and insist that these are OUR CHOICES, OUR PATHS, but the truth is that our decisions will affect those who are close, our loved ones. And whenever I think about it (as I do now, while writing) I feel confused. In this mental turmoil, one thing seems certain: trying to justify my choices with logic and reason seems like an impossible task. Time has taught’ me that it’s useless to try to find reasons to justify why we climb rock walls and mountains, to those who simply have no feelings for these activities. In the extreme eventuality of an accident occurring, trying to offer an explanation based on logic is absolutely ridiculous. Whatever you come out with sounds like a stupid excuse and you always get the feeling that the listener will turn away muttering “He´s crazy!”
Maybe I choose to go on because for me, climbing and alpinism are components of an art form, a powerful combination of the beauties of nature, adventure and philosophy. A complex web of concepts which are hard to explain. Something which I hold on to firmly, to deal with a certain feeling of guilt for burdening others, especially those who are close to me and have to live with the consequences of my actions. The distress on Daniela’s face when she saw me lying on the ground that December afternoon, bounces around my brain and ends up sinking down to the pit of my stomach, where all tension always accumulates. What to do then? It is an unanswered dilemma. Words are not enough.
The Himalayan wind blows plumes of snow from the crests of the mountains. The magnificent silhouette of Shivling dominates the landscape. Far in the distance stands Meru. Behind my left shoulder, not far away, I can see the massive bulk of Bhagirathi. The base camp plateau is covered by a blanket of freshly fallen snow. Daniela is sitting in lotus position in meditation, facing Shivling. The silence is total, only disturbed by a gentle breeze that raises thousands of snow crystals that sparkle when being pierced by the light of the sun. Here, one can smell peace. The mind empties. The mountain…we are part of it. We are part of something grand. We are mere dust of stars but like the mountains, we have become the most important element of all. We are the world. We are the mountains! It is impossible to explain these simple but simultaneously complex emotions with words. I look again to the icy peaks … a small black crow passes by, floating gracefully in the air, and suddenly, without even taking consciousness, I end up discovering what I seek. In a blink of an eye, I can foresee the reason…my reason.[caption id="attachment_26322" align="alignnone" width="960"] Peace![/caption]
After months without climbing on rock, Daniela and I returned to our dear Serra da Estrela. Little by little, the balance, the rhythm of life slowly returns.
I’m still not 100% ok, and honestly, I don’t think I ever will be. I will content myself with a solid 90%. I will be happy to be able to return to the world of high altitude climbs, in a greater or lesser degree of pain.
In the meantime, we are back to exploratory climbing and have already climbed a few new routes. Interestingly, on the wall, I feel very stable and calm. Apparently the accident didn’t have any impact on my confidence. It is possible that the mental training that I forced myself to do while recovering (“You shall not be mentally affected. You shall not be mentally affected!”) helped to achieve this state of mind.
I suspect however, that the fundamental reason for the apparent tranquillity while climbing, is the simple acceptance that “this” is what defines me. “Accept and live well with your decision!”
The cloud disappears from sight, hidden behind a gray building. The cloud is free, it does not respect borders, it is part of a much more important whole, it is a part of the planet, of nature and beauty. Maybe the cloud will reach the mountains, or maybe not. The cloud is free … Daniela arrives with the coffees. I look at her and privately I feel thankful for knowing love. Shortly after, I’m again pushed home in the wheelchair. I feel peaceful…
… I saw the cloud.
Paulo Roxo[caption id="attachment_26323" align="alignnone" width="960"] The full moon enlightens Shivling’s base camp. Behind, the impressive Bhagirathi. And the clouds…those fly far.[/caption]