"Hello, Beast!" - A Broken Arm Canyoneering Accident Tale
A guest Rave by Jenny West
My dad gave me the gift of believing I can do anything. At least I believe I have as good a chance as anyone else to succeed at any given task. So much of my joy comes from concocting new ideas, forging new paths and encouraging others to do the same. James Madison said, “The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.” Why not? What is there to lose in this can-do way of thinking? Is failure a by-product? Certainly, but one cannot fail if one does not try. There is no fear of failure in this equation. Yet, as I sit here with a broken arm, pecking out these words with one hand, I discover cracks, little fissures in my certainty about many things. So, I lick the wounds, both sweet and sour and savor the healing caress of retrospection as I share this story with you, Dear Reader.
This canyoneering accident occurred in a remote canyon in the Lake Powell area. However, this is not a trip report nor an accident report. My injury did not involve an anchor failure, a missed capture, or an equipment failure. In the telling, there may be no lesson available for the greater canyoneering community. I simply need to tell the story, for myself and to acknowledge and thank my adventure partners for their support and care.
I think I share a common thread with most canyoneers. Most of us have generated an image of that particular canyon problem that may stop our progress, or even end our lives. Some imagine being caught in a tight squeeze, unable to escape. Some speak with dread about flash floods. Rock falls and collapsed ledges spook some. Prolonged stemming, high off the deck, haunts many. The idea of not having the required rope length at the last rappel on an exploration can bring quivering knees and loosen the bowel. My personal nemesis is the image of a gaping span across a silo, bombay, or pothole. A “gaper” wider than my reach. My heart races at the thought of discovering this situation too late to retreat, too late to alter the movement, too late to get help. The resulting consequence I imagine would be a fall. The old rock climber within me screams at the idea of a fall! The added misery in my scenario is having my partners’ trip ruined with the responsibility of dealing with my body, dead or alive.
You see, I have clearly identified “The Beast”; but I know better than to feed it. It is best to focus on the reality one wants to create; focus on where you want to go, forgetting the undesired path. Thus, I am on the constant alert for opportunities to stretch myself, to become very familiar with my limits. With nearly a hundred canyon descents yearly in the past two years, I have had many opportunities to test myself in a variety of conditions. I am 5’4” with an extra inch in my ape index (span from fingertip to fingertip). Being shorter than nearly all my partners, watching their dance steps rarely serves as a viable sample of what my body can do. But it does serve as a gauge of difficulty, in general. When I see long, strong Ram cross a span, I can pretty well gauge how I should move. I often opt to go lower, tighter or drop into the bottom for a different route, better suiting my size. Conversely, Carol, Alicia, Malia or Heather would be great span-size gauges, since they are closer to my own size.
So it is on a sunny day at the end portion of my April canyon trip that I face The Beast (well, maybe a cousin of the big guy anyway). I feel strong after 13 canyoneering days with top notch partners and top shelf slots. I’m feeling spunky and my energy is running high with the insertion of four new members. We number nine, with two veterans of the canyon onboard to lead us efficiently to the head of the canyon. The previous year I had scouted this canyon from the rims and I am filled with expectation from the stories of the past two descents.
The canyon delivers and surpasses all my expectations with long stemming sections. A nice big rappel. Some spicy downclimbs. And finally, delivery into the water feature section, just as temperatures are heating up.
As we work our way down through this lovely corridor, my confidence grows with celebration of several personal “firsts”. I never jump into pools. I’ve seen too many broken backs, tail bones, other injuries and view it as an unacceptable personal risk. I usually turn away from watching others do this then wish for a positive outcome. Getting caught up in the raucous joy this day, I find myself perched on the lip of a pool and hear myself say, “I hate this. I hate this. I hate...” Next, I am seeing bubbles and fighting to get up to air. I feel exhilaration and victory.
There is a log jam in Kaleidoscope Canyon that sometimes requires one to pass beneath it by submersion. I dread this solution. But I find myself confronted with a similar situation in this great stone waterpark. In a half filled pothole, my way is blocked by a high escape lip on the right leaving me the option of submerging and passing through a lovely little arch. I pause a moment to think, “Heck, I just jumped!” I dive through, selfishly I want to maintain my front position. I feel my pack catch, fight panic and reverse direction. I quickly toss the pack over the lip and move through, sputtering on the other side.
The third new experience is one that I feel embarrassment for later, when three handsome men peel a slightly odiferous wetsuit off my body. I pee in my wetsuit. (Argh! I feel like a recovering Cathoholic admitting a minor sin.)
These three minor personal wins subtly shift my balance of risk taking. I notice that I am making movement choices that are slightly more risky. I notice that the guy following me is opting to drop in and climb out of a pothole whereas I have dashed across. I am “feeling my oats”. We have a standing tradition that those who have not seen the canyon get the experience of being out front; solving problems fresh. There are seven newbies to this canyon, and I soon pass the lead off to Rick and I fall in behind Brendan.
Brendan is a superstar in everything he does. He is a well-known champion sailboat captain. He brings his quick thinking and lightening-speed reaction skills into the canyon setting. We have leap-frogged through 13 canyons in the past two weeks. I love to ride his heels for as long as I can keep up with his pace (which is usually not for long).
I pull up out of a big pothole and watch Brendan stem effortlessly, across the gaping maw of the next one. I quickly step out to cross, one foot on one wall and the other on the opposing wall. I shuffle across without much thought. I sense Brendan’s gaze and look up to hear, “Jenny, maybe you will want to go down into this one?” Behind me, I hear Ram voice a muffled comment. I pause. I consider changing position. I know that I gain greater span if I shift to move with hands and feet on opposing walls. But it is too late. I am too extended.
Hesitation is a thief. It steals confidence, slows forward momentum and fires questioning synapses in the brain.
In an instant, I see my left foot slide off the vertical wall and I plummet twelve feet to the bottom of the hole. My feet land in knee-deep water. My right arm hits hard on a rock slope. The pain is sharp and searing. I hear Brendan ask, “Are you okay?” Then his statement of the obvious, “No, she’s not okay.” Then I hear the first of his sad, “Poooooor Jenny”s. With my good arm I lift the flaming pained thing out of the water like a dead fish. The gloved hand sits perched at an ugly angle to the neoprene-clad black stump of my forearm. I carefully return it to the cold water and vainly wait for the initial shock to wear off. I long to leave it there, weightlessly floating in the cool pool. Suspended and out of view, the pain seems less.
I caress this private moment alone. I feel heavy with defeat and sadness. I feel such a fool. I resist the urge to give in to self pity. I am keenly aware that I am now a victim and a burden. With a head bowed I feel the ripple of fear begin to rise in my gut. I swallow hard, close my eyes and shake my head. On the wide screen of my mind, I say “Hello”, to The Beast. I push hard to fill my lungs with air and let go a long exhale. Reluctantly, I stand and surrender myself to the dreaded process of evacuation and the journey to medical attention.
Murray quickly drops in beside me and assists to extract me from my hole. Calm, thoughtful discussion begins around me and concerned faces pass in and out of my view. Brendan, Murray and I fashion a splint. The foam insert from an Imlay Canyon pack is bound tightly with electrical tape and hung with webbing from my neck. This splint immediately brings a higher level of comfort and my fears diminish. Then, I begin to feel the creeping fingers of shock. I name it “shock” and fend it off with words that share my determination to stay alert. Dustin listens as I recall the symptoms and offers much needed reassurance. I make my commitment to do my best to assist them in helping me.
Epicurus said, “It is not so much our friends' help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.” I surrender my care to these caring and competent men. I feel the lightness of that release.
I swallow pain medication. It is decided that retreat up canyon is the best option. The crew moves past me to devise solutions to safely move me back up through the three previous obstacles. In a state of partial awareness I cross my pothole atop Murray’s shoulders. I cradle my arm tightly as I feel Ram’s hands lift and support me across the next pool. He hoists me up to a pair of waiting arms and I am pulled out of the water. I observe Matt attach two ropes to my climbing harness and I swivel to my left hip to be hauled up to a dozen helping hands. Soon, I see the 4th class exit from the canyon that Ram and I found on the initial scout. It becomes my goal! Now freed from the canyon, I know what I need to do. I am anxious to begin. Benny races to join me as we pick the easiest route up the steep slab of stone.
On the rim, my wetsuit is cut off above my elbow pad and peeled off. Someone removes my shoes and puts them on again. My helmet is replaced with my sun visor. I request my sunglasses. Someone complies. Water, food and more pain medication is given. I attempt to persuade Murray to continue down the canyon with the others. Emphatically, he refuses, as he adds a rope in his bulging pack. I need Ram, and his memory, to find our way back through the maze of ribs and gullies that we had navigated the previous year. We wave to the rest of the group as they prepare to continue down the canyon and we begin our trek.
Ram scouts ahead as Murray assists me with the trickier down climbs. We arrive at the pick-up boat just as the others spill out of the bottom of the canyon and climb aboard their boat. Murray belays me down the last steep drop as Matt suddenly appears, like a fly, landing beside me on the steep section dropping into the lake. He carefully passes me into Captain SteveO’s welcoming receiving towel.
From the channel a call is made to acquire a number for our canyoneering friend and surgeon, Mark Rosen. Following his advice Murray ferries Ram and me to the vehicle at Bullfrog, and we head north toward Salt Lake City.
My arm is suspended from the handle above Ram’s passenger door. He offers a warning at each cattle guard and bump in the road. He downs an energy drink then successfully negotiates the dangerous Spanish Fork Canyon and the forever construction zones of Provo Valley. We arrive at the hospital in Murray in the early morning hours. Doc Rosen arrives soon after, cuts away my layers and masterfully reduces my fractured arm at 4:10 am.
A few hours later, just a few miles from the hospital, my Mom fixes us a full country-style breakfast as she listens to the story. We shoo exhausted Ram into a quiet room where he naps. When he awakens he insists on making the long drive home to his family and work.
That pretty much sums up my tale. How might this be a gift to me? Some might call it a “reality check”. Maybe it is that. Maybe I will stir this canyoneering accident into my cocktail of perspective to proceed with more caution in the future. Maybe, the next time, I will take a moment to consider consequences before moving through a challenge. Is this a matter of the inevitable tug of time and gravity at work? Will there be new wisdom that comes with this new experience? Maybe it is nothing more than a mistake. Certainly, the broken bones will heal. I believe that time will mend the memory of the fall and pain.
For me, the gift has several layers, some may be obvious to you, Dear Reader; some not so. Most worthy of definition is the generosity given by my canyon partners that day. Each played a critical role in my successful evacuation from a very remote location. They packaged me up so carefully, worked me safely back up canyon through difficult problems, stripped me down and attended to my needs, spotted me across rough terrain and roped me down into the boat. Add to that the safe passage across land and water by big-hearted Murray and Ram’s dangerous late night drive through one of Utah’s most deadly canyons. How fortunate I am to have Mark Rosen, M.D., listed as my “primary physician”. He is surely that and so much more. My primary canyoneering pal, Ram, lost three precious days of canyoneering with great friends in supporting me to medical care. All of this he offered with enormous grace and generosity. He is the best of friends. He even promises Murray and me a return trip through the aborted canyon.
Quite intentionally, I clip from my memory the names of doers of bad deeds. Like the boys down the hill from where we lived at the time in Colorado. Those sad boys who did the killings at Columbine High School. However, I will happily remember these heroes’ names; Murray Clark, Ram, Brendan Busch, Matt Brejcha, Dustin Hymas, Benny the Intrepid, Dave Duro, Rick Fetters, Captain SteveO (Osler), Michael Thornton and Dr. Mark Rosen.
I thank them all from the very bottom of my pothole, I mean heart. Hey, I may have a feature named after me now!
Photos by Ram, Matt Brejcha and Michael Thornton