It was the summer of 2007. Stephen and I worked hard to physically prepare for an extended trekking vacation crossing the Alps. I couldn’t wait to roll in meadows of edelweiss and dip crusty bread into fondue. But first we had to survive July in Oklahoma. Early summer rains had given way to an unusually colorful carpet of wildflowers and it was particularly enjoyable to be climbing with friends on the 4th of July, sprawled out on a granite deck. All morning we lounged between climbs like lizards in the hazy sun, but as the heat bore down and the haze burned off, we crept between boulders for shade.
That’s when the Echo Dome July 4th fireworks started. The group voted to abandon the dome, but Stephen stood there studying a route. I knew he wanted me to do it, but I didn’t feel it. Undaunted by my lack of courage, he quietly racked up. While most activity was focused on packing up, Stephen was heading up a granite fin.
I was on belay. My hands cautiously let out rope, fearful of giving too much above that fin. Stephen climbed confidently, setting his gear in the lower crack, arriving at the crux with ease. His ease dissolved. He fumbled with gear and then decided to run it out. His shimmying legs displayed doubt. I was about to call someone over to anchor me when I realized it was too late. With only one way to take up enough slack quickly, I dove backwards off the slab as Stephen went airborne.
He fell well, calm and collected. Initially people were concerned that I was injured, with a rope-burned neck, and might let go of the rope. I was grateful to see Stephen dangling midair and calmly lowered him. Once grounded, facial expressions showed rare signs of extreme pain, fear, and heartbreak. Stephen attempted to stand but neither foot functioned.
As I loaded my pack with his things to prevent burdening friends, Stephen and I exchanged a knowing look, both aware the Alps dissolved in that instant of gravitational fury, but our immediate focus was on getting out. Stephen was heroically carried down slippery granite boulders and across muddy meadows. Loading him into the car, our friends wished us well with frazzled looks. I drove off, we were left to ourselves and our fears.
We asked the ER doctor the question but we knew the answer. Wondering if I’d been strangled in a holiday domestic dispute instead of a “climbing accident,” he said the only way we were hiking was if I could carry Stephen. X-rays revealed one shattered calcaneous and another heel full of hairline fractures. Two days later an orthopedic surgeon repaired the damage, restructuring bones with long screws.
The doctor said he wouldn’t walk for twelve weeks. He was climbing on the sharp-end at ten. We didn’t trek the Alps that summer. One of us learned to walk again. We realized how fickle health can be. That was when we committed to always taking time to play. I think it may have been the start of the end of our desire to stay in Oklahoma.
Now it is about to be the tenth anniversary of one of the events that rewove our life plan. The screws in his heel increasingly seem to cause issues lately, and my scar gets darker. We refuse to climb on the 4th of July since that day, looking instead for solitude and long walks or fishing days. We still haven’t been to the Alps, and it is starting to look like we may do that trek on skis instead. If that plan shapes up, you can bet we will have travel insurance and be extra careful when playing on ice and snow that winter.