After the fifth lower I called “off,” grimaced, untied with one hand and walked cautiously to a flat rock. Dammit, I’m getting sick of this. Across the valley El Capitan rose straight skyward and I sat down, surrounded by dirt, pine and granite. Clouds moved, darkening, signing an incoming storm.
I held my left arm above my head, the only place comfortable or something like comfortable. I did what I could with one hand: removed my rock shoes and pulled on my sneakers. Mikey rapped to the ground, stripped gear from my harness and tied my shoes. The guy is dialed and got us down the DNB from five pitches up in no time flat, and with no added damage to my now damaged shoulder. I thanked him for everything. But I had to piss. With one hand. I gave Mikey a tender look and a wink.
“What?” He shot back with justified suspicion.
“Mikey,” I said. “I have to take a leak.”
“No way, dude,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ll do a lot of things to help an injured partner, but you’re on your own there.”
[Laying in El Cap meadow after the dislocation. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
We’d been cruising along, our first time climbing together, Mikey taking the first block and linking some pitches, handling the runouts with ease. Near the end of pitch five I traversed toward his belay, and with my left arm overhead in front of my body, and my weight on my feet, my right foot slipped. Just a slight jar and I caught myself, but an instant, shocking gruesomeness shot down my left arm as the head of my humerus sat wedged in my armpit. I yelled, cursed and traversed to the anchor, largely blocking it out – I’ve had some training lately and it’s nothing compared to my leg. Thoughts raced through my head almost immediately – I don’t want to become a chronic dislocator, no, no, no, and my Patagonia trip, cancel delay go anyway WTF ouch ouch f*** OK, get down, glad I’m not in the Karakoram right now this will be fine f***f***f***.
What to do?
Get a bigger hammer: I finished the traverse to the belay ledge and took my right hand and slammed it into my inner left arm as hard as I could. Twice. Hoping to knock it back into socket. Ouch. Dammit, my low IQ never helps. We didn’t know how to put a shoulder back in; this had never happened to either of us, and I have – had – no history of shoulder problems. I do my pushups and all-around exercises, but sometimes, I suppose, the wrong combination of space and time and action strikes. Again. WTF? I swear to god/buddha/allah/the easter bunny that I have never, ever, in my life or any past life kicked a puppy dog.
“Damn, so it won’t go in?” Mikey said.
“That’s what she said,” I replied, trying to shift my grimace to a laugh. We had to bail.
Back on the ground, we resolved the leak issue – I managed on my own, cursing the difficulty of finding something so small with only one hand – as Mikey gathered our gear, and then we hiked down, my arm above my head and my head desperate with fear of my future. Again. Not a future like a job or a stupid IRA or a fancy car – I'd already missed the payments on my new Camaro – but the ability to do what I love to do. I think about the things that make me happiest, the difference in how I felt with a broken leg versus how I felt later this summer, how, regardless of difficulty ratings or other such bullshit, I felt like myself again when I could move through mountain air, step off the horizontal plane and climb in every dimension with my mind fully engaged in controlling my fear and my too-often racing mind and how climbing, and especially climbing in the mountains, soothes me and brings me something I don’t find anyplace else.
Down at the clinic, the doc asked if I wanted meds – they could knock me out and put my shoulder back in – or, if I could relax enough, he could do it with me conscious. I didn’t want to be roofied, and I want to know how to do it. So I took a moment, OK, relax. POP! In less than ten seconds the doc had it back in, instant euphoria flooded through me and I laughed, slapped his leg and said, “Thanks, doc, now I’m gonna finish the route.”
[The X-ray. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
Not such a good idea, he said – I’m looking at six weeks for the most basic healing, and probably three months for full recovery. Ten minutes later Mikey and I sat quietly in his van, my arm slung to my side in an immobilizer. Mikey broke the silence:
It’s a good question. I thought about it for a minute. If I screw-up this recovery, my chances for becoming a chronic greatly increase. I’m supposed to leave for Patagonia in a month. What keeps happening to my body? I know I’ve got it great, though, and I remain grateful. I also know that if I were a horse, they’d take me behind the barn and shoot me. But I’m not ready to quit, not ready to let go, and not because I’m holding on too tight but because, after all these years, I am still in love.
I turned to Mikey, “Wanna go to the bar?”
A big ol’ sammich and a tasty beverage later we strolled though tall grass, me with a limp and a slung arm, and lay lazily in the meadow, watching friends through binoculars as they lived their dreams on the big stone. Scattered clouds drifted over El Cap and my thoughts grew quiet and my eyelids heavy. In the fading afternoon sun I drifted off to sleep, dreaming about the mountains.
[Mikey Schaefer at the bar. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
[Kelly at the bar. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
[Kelly’s explanation on the accident report. Photo: Kelly Cordes]