sharing my adventures both big and small

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My 21st Birthday Disaster

So the past couple of stories have been from my childhood, so I am going to change things up a bit and fast forward to my 21st birthday.

Growing up in the Catskills, I was just a stones throw away from touristy spots that the leaf peepers took photographs of each year. Places like North and South Lake, where artist Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School artists became known worldwide for painting landscapes of the Hudson valley and mountain ranges. Kaaterskill Falls in Tannersville, one of the best known attractions around, as the city folks drive up windy route 23A past the base of a spectacular 260 high multiple dropping waterfall, on the way up to ski Hunter Mountain. I have made the hike many times myself, in all seasons, but I would have to say, the dead of winter is best, when crowds are gone, the hanging ice mimics the Cinderella castle turned upside down, an ice climbers wet dream (when totally frozen). Amazing.

However, always being around the tourists, it gets aggravating, we all complain when a NJ driver is heading up the mountain 15 miles an hour and won't pull over. It gets old. So I spent a lot of time where the tourists don't go, they might not know about these spots, or they are on private property. But the locals know about them, I knew about them.

One particular spot is actually right in plain view, but not many people ever visit the area, because its somewhat difficult to get to. Within a mile from my parents house, lies the Catskill Creek, a meandering very long creek, with a total elevation changes of about 2500'. Its highest point is Slide Mountain and it tumbles and drops over smaller mountains, cliffs and through thick evergreen forests finally reaching the historical Hudson River. To see this spot you simply drive over a bridge and look down onto a bunch of shale cliffs and the Catskill Creek running at the base of it, pretty exposed cliffs overlooking the creek below.

As an experienced rock climber, I loved this area to rappel down into the creek. I woke up early on my 21st birthday on a sunny day in June, with previous plans to meet one of my good friends at that time, Jane, to go climbing with me at this special spot. I waited by the phone since she had to drive down about an hour and 15 minutes to get to my house. About 11:30am I get a ring, she is unable to make it for some reason or another. I was totally bummed out. Why do I have to cancel my plans on my birthday, especially a milestone birthday, I'm 21! So I made a few more calls, and since it was in the middle of the week not many people were free, and the people I normally would climb with are working. A few hours go by and I decide that I am not going to have a ruined day, I will go, on my own. A risk that I won't take today, but had never thought about the possible consequences of climbing solo.

I packed up my rucksack with a 60 meter dynamic rope, my harness, approach shoes, helmet, a few carabiners, repel device (a figure 8 at that time), a pair of ascenders (to climb rope), slings and extra webbing, a nalgene of water and a pb and banana sandwich. I jumped onto my mountain bike and set off down the hill, for my 2 mile bike ride to the bridge.

Once I arrived, I rode my bike across the bridge to the far side and then bushwhacked through some pricker bushes, and past a few of wild blackberry bushes (eating a few) to where the tree line meets the top of the cliff. I stowed my bike under a tree, and began unpacking my rucksack. I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down and out across the view of the creek and boulders below, it always seems higher then it actually is, and it makes my belly do a bit of a flip. I tied a square knot from my webbing and anchored off of a pine tree to the right and then I used a few slings and attached it with a prusik knot to a tree to the right, so that both the anchors were equi-distant from the trees. Where they meet I attached two opposing carabiners and attached the climbing rope at the center. Then I tossed the rope over the edge and waited to listen to the thud of it hitting the rocks below.

No thud. A splash instead. Oh man! The creek it high today, I am going to get wet!

I bet I was grinning ear to ear, I love getting muddy and dirty when I am playing outside. In a way its a baptism of proof that you are still a kid playing outside at heart, no matter what age you are on paper.

I took my empty rucksack, threw in my acsenders, extra carabiner, water bottle, pb and banana and put it on my back. Then I put on my helmet, my approach shoes (with sticky rubber on the bottom to grip onto the rock better) and wrapped two slings across my shoulder and chest and back up. All set.

I had walked to the edge and put my figure 8 repel device onto the rope and attached to my carabiner, attaching me to my harness. Then I began turning around, facing toward the cliff. I quickly checked everything once more from my position, and began to descend the cliff. As I fed slack through the figure 8, and walked down the cliff I began to feel the pressure of my weight all on the harness, until all my weight was on the rope. I loved this feeling, just you and a thin piece of 8mm thick rope holding your body. I bent my knees and pushed off the cliff wall, all while letting slack out of the figure 8 and for a quick moment I was suspended and a controlled fall in air. Then gravity pulls me back toward the cliff, I had descended 5 feet or so. What a great feeling. I continued this repel down the cliff until my last controlled fall/jump I ended up in 2 feet of water.

SPLASH!!! So much fun! I unclipped the rope and let it hang on the cliff. I began to walk up the creek along the bank to where I could get out of the water. It was a bit chilly since it was only June 7th, and it hasn't had the time to warm up. I got out and started to hike up a steep hill, climbing over boulders and high stepping my way up rocks. It took me about 20 minutes of a sweaty climb back up to the top, then walk back along the top of the ledge back to where I started. I took out my bottle and drank a bit of water, half of it, and ate my sandwich. My pack was a bit heavy, so I dropped my acsenders at the top, next to my other gear. I stood up and decided that it was a great birthday, and I think I could get another 2 repels before the sun started dipping and I had to bike back home and meet my family for dinner.

I reconnected myself to the rope with the figure 8 and walked backwards until all my weight was on my harness again. Then I bent my knees and pushed off, this time letting more slack through the figure 8 and I decended about 10 feet. I bent my knees and pushed off again, letting a few more feet out even and swung back towards the wall. As I landed with my feet flat against the rock wall, the rope up above had shifted and I was now leaning more to the right, then left. I took my weight off the rope by haning onto the cliff with my hands and feet, and tried wiggling the rope back to a center position.

No luck. I tried again. Still no luck. I tried a third time, and it moved a little. Was it enough? I remember thinking to myself "Kelsey its on TWO anchored trees, its fine, you will just be a bit uneven". I assured this of myself, and I bent my knees and pushed off the cliff, letting about 10 feet out of the figure 8, but this time it didn't feel right. As gravity pulled me down, the movement in the rope had shifted it WAY to the right over a pretty large rock jug setting it free to fall (luckily away from me), and as I came back down the force of this had me trying to upright myself as I came closer to the rock wall. I overcorrected my posture forcing me to spin on the rope in the air. FUCK. Then I put my feet straight out and locked my knees closed my eyes and braced myself as best I could for impact with the cliff. Big mistake. You should NEVER lock your knees.

SLAM!!!!!!!!!!!! CRACK!

I landed with all my weight on my right ankle. I hung suspended on the rope leaning to the right for a moment. I felt my right ankle get really warm, then I opened my eyes. I looked down, I wasn't bleeding. Then I tried to wiggle my right ankle, and felt an overwhelming rush of pain, I felt very light headed, I was about to pass out. I had stood up in my harness on my left foot and using my hands, tied an overhand knot under the figure 8. I had no break but my own hand using the friction of the device to stop, so I had to create a knot or if I passed out I would fall down the rope all the way to the bottom, 60 feet below. Just as I finish the knot, my body passes out.


I don't know how long I dangled there in the air, in broad day light, as birds chirped and even cars crossed the bridge above and to the left of me. It could have been 10 seconds, or 10 minutes. I will never know. When I came to, I remembered what had just happened. The knot was secure, I looked down at my ankle, it had already started to swell like a softball. I remember glancing between my legs to the creek floor below and saw the boulder that I had knocked loose with the rope. Then I was reminded that I had to repel the rest of the way down so I can get off this rope. Then I looked at my ankle and tried to move it again, how bad was it? The pain raced through my foot up to my ankle and I screamed out loud, "Ahhh FUCK!". This was bad, I began to feel light headed again, and passed out a SECOND time on the rope.


I woke up, again not knowing how long I was out. This must be bad I thought to myself. I made an assesment. I had two options.

1. I could repel the rest of the way down the rope, without jumping, just slowly hopping on one foot to the bottom. Then once down, I would have to walk through the creek along the bank and hike up the steep hill, which took me a hard 20 minutes with two good ankles. Then hiking through the woods back to the anchor.


2. I could take out my asenders in my backpack and create a prusik knot on the rope and climb up it. The climb would be at least a 50 foot climb to the top.

Well, I think, I can't hike out with this ankle, there is no way I can make it up that hill with all this pain. What if I get to the bottom and I can't get up the hill, then NOBODY can see me. And nobody knows where I am, AND they think I am with Jane. No worth it.

I decide I will climb up the rope. Now this a hard thing to do, when you have two good ankles AND are in great shape, and I have both disadvantages. But I really don't have any other choice. Then I began to take my pack off and bring it to the front of me, I opened the hatch and stopped. How could I have been so stupid. My life line, wasn't there. The ascenders, I left them at the top of the cliff because I didn't want to carry around that weight of a whole 10 pounds on my back. I started to curse myself out, and began to cry. My ankle was throbbing, and I had no way out.

I began to think about the reality of this situation. I could just hang out here, and hope a car that passes over the bridge, by chance, has a passenger in the car, and by chance they happen to look out the window to see my arms waving erratically for help. What if they see me and don't stop? What if they think I am waving hello? How long am I going to have to wait? My parents will be waiting for me, but they have no idea that I am just 2 miles away stuck on a rope. Then a haunting image of an old Jansport backpack advertisment enters my mind of a skeleton hiker that didn't make it across the desert, and the backpack looked in perfect condition. I felt a shiver run through my body. I can't die from a broken ankle I tell myself.

I began to tie two prusik knots, auto locking knots that allow you to slide up the climbing rope, and lock down when weight bearing. I had tied two, with a loop on the end, one for each foot. Then attach it to a carabiner through my harness. I put my left foot in the loop and stood up, it was wobbly and I began to spin on the rope.
I stop my spinning and stand up, then I move the right prusik knot up 6 inches and step up on my right...AHHHHHHH! Pain from the ankle is so intense. Then I thought I should tie in a second backup break to the leg of my harness to the rope, incase I passed out again. This time I stayed awake. I slid the knot up and then stepped up on my left foot, spun a bit, then took the wieght off the right prusik and stood up on the right. AHHHHHHHHH, more pain! This just made me angry. I was so furious. I hated that I had to be in so much pain every other step. I began to curse all sorts of things, like the rocks, the rope, the creek below, and Jane for not cancelling on me. It was the only thing that kept me moving up the rope.

Soon I had asended about 20 feet. I was so tired and in so much pain. I was about at a level where I could see the cars better passing over the bridge every once in awhile. How much it angered me that I could see help, but my "help" might not be looking to see me. This made me furious. I sat down in my harness and dangled for a few minutes taking a rest and a good cry. My ankle was the largest I had ever seen it, and it was nasty. I got mad that this was the start of my summer and I most likely broke my ankle. I began to climb up the rope again. Slowly but surely I made my way up the rope. Another 20 feet up. The end is in sight now.
I looked off to my left and was now about eye level with the bridge, then a car passed by and honked. I waved, but there was no point to waving, I was so close to the top. I WAS GOING TO DO THIS ON MY OWN. I had to prove it to myself that I could do this. I got myself into this situation and I am going to get myself out of it.

Of course the last strech of anything physically exausting is going to be the hardest part. I kept saying to myself, "You hiked the fucking Grand Canyon, you can climb 10 more feet!" it was almost like a chant. As I climbed the last bit of rope, my hands finally felt the pain of rope friction. I was dirty, dusty, had wet feet, cold, in pain, upset and relieved all at once. I reached the top and rolled over onto my back and looked up at the sky and closed my eyes. I made it. I did it. I was proud of myself, then I began to feel worried again. How am I going to explain this to my, how irresponsible I was. Then I opened my eyes, it didn't matter, I was okay, well for the most part.

I stood up and gathered my ropes and slings, I left my harness on. I hopped my way to my bike and then cursing out the roots of the trees as I stumbled over them, and down the hill to the road below. Then like someone had heard my confession of how irresponsible I was a car came up behind me. I stopped and turned around. I waved my arms and yelled "HEY!!!!!" believe it or not, it was my friend Liz who lived down the road from me. She stopped in the middle of bridge and began to back up her car. I hobbled toward her with my bike. She said "Happy Birthday Kels! I was going to call you when I got back to my house!". I began to smile and told her my story and how I hurt myself and everything.....she helped me put my bike in her car and she drove me home. Once home, nobody had gotten home yet, and I called my mom to tell her that I needed to go to the hospital for xrays... what a 21st birthday.

All in all, my ankle had fractured in 4 places and I was on crutches and a soft cast. Then I vowed that I would never climb or repel on my own ever again, AND if I was ever to do a sport solo, I would tell someone where I was going and when they should expect me back. I guess for me, sometimes, it takes a mistake to become more responsible.

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