The Long Way Back by Mike Reddy

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“Oh you feel and you taste it and you want to go higher. So what do you do? And so you peak into the mountain where your desire goes. Spilt blood on this place it only echoes true all through the days. And so you peak into the mountain where your desire goes.”

The Mountain by Heartless Bastard

I used to spend a lot of time focusing on whether June 30th, 2009 should have been my last day of life. I have debated endlessly in my head whether or not surviving my fall and subsequent rescue was the best outcome for all involved and often wondered if simply letting go might have been the easiest way to deal with what has proven to be the single most important life-changing event in my life. In the end, I found this internal debate all rather pointless, as the fact of the matter is that I survived. It’s been the road back to recovery that has proven the far greater challenge.

by Mike Reddy 

banner photo of Mike by Zuzana Svitek

My life as a “normal” ended that day in the Snake Couloir on Mt. Sneffels just outside Ouray, Colorado. I never saw it coming, but the events of that day changed my life forever in ways I am still discovering. Upon receiving the preliminary diagnosis of a spinal cord injury, my heart sank and I truly believed my life as I knew it was over. That much was true, however what I didn’t know then and what I have come to realize since, is that I was starting down a new path, one filled with ambitious new goals, challenges to be bested, and opportunities to be realized. I have come to appreciate the preciousness and fragility of life- a form of self-awareness and purpose that comes only through risking one’s own life, especially when engaging in dangerous activities such as climbing mountains. It is that realization that compels me now to share the story of my many “life days” since my fall.

June 30th was a bluebird day in the San Juan Range, perfect for an acclimatization climb. Sneffels was to be the first of three objectives my long-time climbing and mountain biking partner, Arne Bomblies, and I had planned for what had then become our annual climbing trip to Colorado. In the weeks leading up to our trip, we had discussed taking on the Snake Couloir and summiting Sneffels as a warm-up for what we thought would be a far more challenging climb- the Cross Couloir on the Mt. of the Holy Cross. An ascent on Mt. Sneffels first seemed like a logical choice given the similar elevation gain and conditions we expected to encounter on both mountains. Waking early to a bright, clear morning full of anticipation, we embarked fully expecting the climb to be a good test of our mountaineering skills and physical endurance. The striking beauty of the surrounding mountains did not go unnoticed by either of us as we set off from camp that morning. Our enthusiasm for the natural beauty of the landscape was matched only by our contentment to be climbing together again in the mountains of Colorado.

Upon approach, the Snake appeared totally within our grasp- a relatively easy ascent up compacted snow in crampons and ice axes, conditions for which we had trained and felt fully competent. We rapidly made our way up the couloir past the remnants of rock fall and evidence of previous ascents and descents including a lone, lost ski pole. Arne paused to rest at a convenient snow bench, located just below a constriction in the couloir at about 12,500 ft. As I approached, I noted an ominous sign- water freely running under the snow just next to where I was planning to step and pivot in order to grab a seat beside my resting partner. I remember thinking to myself that I should plant my next footstep just to the left of the patch of unconsolidated snow. I also clearly remember Arne pointing out the loose snow and mentioning to avoid it just as I was preparing to sit down. Those were the last words I would hear just before my crampon grabbed what appeared to be solid foothold and then immediately slipped out from under me as my weight transferred to my right foot. I desperately attempted to self-arrest. Unable to do so, my crampons caught and I was flipped upright and thrown on my back. The violent torque of the crampon “catch” shattered my right ankle and badly sprained the left. On my back, out of control and rapidly picking up speed, I was unable to gain purchase on the 45°+ slope. I slid on my back nearly 150 feet, hurtling downslope with no feasible way to slow or stop my descent before colliding with a boulder that caused a burst fracture of my L1 lumbar vertebrae that would drive bone shards into my spinal canal and result in my worst dread- a spinal cord injury and paralysis.

Mt. Sneffels. Photo: Arne Bomblies

I impacted with the boulder and was knocked out briefly, but came to, much to my surprise, as I had calculated in the moments of my descent that the impact would be fatal. I regained consciousness only to feel the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced radiating from my lower back. So much so, that I couldn’t even feel the pain resulting from the ankle fracture which had contorted my right ankle into a most unnatural angle. After a few moments, I was able to catch my breath and utter some incoherent yelps to my partner. With the recognition I was still alive, a rescue rather than a recovery was launched. My initial rescue was facilitated by the heroic efforts of Arne, Joe Ladowski and Steve Durbin. Joe and Steve happened to be climbing the same route and were taking a break very near to where I had fallen. They provided invaluable assistance before, during and after the courageous rescue superbly executed by the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team. To be perfectly frank, while I would like to say I remember the whole rescue, the pain was such that I am certain there is much I don’t recall. That is a story to be told by the folks who put their lives on the line to save mine that day.

Mike’s rescue on Mt. Sneffels. Photo: Arne Bomblies

The rescue took about nine agonizingly long hours from the time of my fall to when I was placed on a helicopter to be medevac’d to the local hospital in Montrose, Colorado. It was there that my ankle was re-adjusted, CT scans were conducted and I was made aware that immediate surgery was required. Once stabilized, I was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado for the spinal surgery to be performed the following day. Bone fragments were removed from the spinal canal and a titanium brace spanning my several vertebrae was placed in my back to fuse the vertebrae and support the fractured L1 vertebra. A bone fragment was removed from my ankle and six supporting pins were placed in the area of fracture. I lost nearly a third of my total blood supply during the course of the surgery.

As a consequence of this injury, I suffered a permanent, incomplete spinal cord injury that initially left my left leg paralyzed, with significant damage to my sacral nerve that has resulted in a reduced sensation in my lower extremities. After approximately ten days of post-surgical recovery in Grand Junction, I was transferred by air ambulance to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, for intensive physical and occupational rehabilitation. I remained in Seattle for about a month before returning to Connecticut. It was during this time I learned how to manage the basic functions of life after an injury of this nature, such as how to transfer myself into and out of a wheelchair. I endured extreme pain, mixed with the relief of having survived a near-fatal mountaineering accident and sorrow brought on by the sobering reality that my life was forever changed.

After completing a three week stay at the UW Medical Center, I returned to Connecticut with my girlfriend Zuzana Svitek. There are few words that adequately express the tremendous depth of love and support Zuzana has shown me throughout my recovery. I can say this with absolute certainty- without her unconditional care through the many ups and downs of my recovery, I would not be here today to document these events. She has seen me at my very best and worst and never wavered in her support of my goal to return to an active, fulfilling life. I owe her more than I can ever repay in love and good will and for this I will always be indebted to her.

Within a few weeks I returned to Yale University to continue my PhD dissertation research on the mosquito vectors responsible for transmission of malaria in Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa. Restricted to a wheelchair and the confinement of a back brace for the first eight weeks of recovery, I came to lab each day to work as best I could given to my limited function and the tremendous amount of narcotics I was taking to get through the days. Pain and fatigue were my constant companions and upon reflection, I am still shocked any coherent research was accomplished in those early days of my recovery. After eight weeks, my leg cast and back brace were removed and I was able to move out of the wheelchair and onto crutches. I quickly regained significant function in my left leg and my right ankle healed to the point where I could walk several steps without the aid of crutches. I still suffered debilitating, chronic pain, however this pain was nothing in comparison to the overwhelming sense of loss of function and identity I suffered as a result of my spinal cord injury and ankle fracture.

About six months after my injury, I began to struggle with a deep depression resulting from my incapacity to perform the simplest of physical tasks. I had literally gone from climbing “fourteeners” to being unable to climb a staircase. In one instance, I dragged my lower body up the stairs in order to get to the only shower in the house, located on the second floor. I spent much of my “free” time alone, not wanting to engage in even informal social gatherings. Watching the winter Olympics on TV was a soul-crushing experience as I came to the realization that I would most likely never again be able to engage in the types of athletic activities I loved so much, let alone competitive sporting events. I contemplated dropping out of my PhD program due to my own doubts as to whether I had the capacity or motivation to complete the goals set forth by my dissertation committee, my research funders and myself. I felt like nobody understood what I was struggling with since my accident, especially with respect to what this injury had done to my sense of self-purpose and relevance. I seriously questioned my ability to contribute in any meaningful way to society- scholarly, athletic or otherwise. It was extremely difficult for me to express these sentiments, and I tried hard to put up a façade that this injury would not define my capacity as a productive human being. This injury had brought me to my knees both literally and figuratively speaking. There were many moments, where I would without hesitation, have given ANYTHING in order to feel “normal” but for a single moment. I was left feeling broken, defeated and lost. Suicide seemed like the most reasonable solution to what seemed a hopeless situation, and thoughts of ending it all were constantly on my mind.

Through the slow process of healing, I’d come to the realization that even though my body and spirit had been badly damaged, my desire to pursue an active lifestyle remained intact. Climbing, mountaineering, cycling, international travel, scientific field research- these were just a few of the many activities I engaged in before my fall and I desperately wanted to believe I would be able to do them once again. My medical team was cautiously optimistic about a recovery, but climbing mountains was not in their opinion, part of that equation. They were not enthused, to say the least, at the prospect of my taking up the same types of sports that had nearly killed me. I was left with the feeling that life as I knew it, as a “normal” was over and grew despondent over the idea that I might not ever pursue any of the same activities as I did before my fall. That all changed with my introduction to fellow “gimps” and “normals” that comprise the Paradox Sports community.

The first of many “life days” came in February 2010 with the visit of U.S. Army Captain Dennis (DJ) Skelton to our local climbing gym. DJ, along with pro-climber Timmy O’Neill formed Paradox Sports, a not-for-profit organization of athletes and volunteers that works to enable people with “disabilities” to live an active lifestyle in whatever form they envision. It is an organization that developed out of an idea to get wounded veterans and disabled folks in general engaged in human-powered sports in the wake of trauma. DJ is an active duty soldier who, while serving in Iraq, lost his left eye, a portion of his mouth and partial function of his left arm and right leg as the result of a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his platoon. Despite these injuries and numerous medical procedures performed to repair his battered body, DJ’s desire to live an active life remained undiminished. DJ’s determination to pursue an active lifestyle that included climbing despite extensive traumatic injury, in many ways, mirrored my own situation. Within moments of meeting DJ and throughout the rest of our time together that day I realized I was in the company of an extraordinary individual who represented an extraordinary organization.

An active climber before and after his injuries, DJ sought to share the excitement and exhilaration of climbing with his fellow wounded warriors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center by any means necessary. That meant developing or re-designing rigging systems designed for “able-bodied” climbers to be used by amputees, paraplegics and otherwise impaired individuals. Working together with Timmy, they were able to bring the joy of climbing to a group of folks who might otherwise have been overlooked by the “normal” outdoor sports community. Thankfully, through DJ and Timmy’s efforts and the Paradox Sports family of athletes and volunteers, the “gimp” tradition of challenging the status quo when it comes to athletic endeavor is alive and well. Paradox athletes routinely defy and re-define the conventional notions of what it means to be an athlete engaged in human powered outdoor sports.

For me, DJ’s visit represented an opportunity to re-learn how to walk and then hopefully climb again. To put it plainly, I was doubtful this would ever be the case, as I was barely able to hobble around on my crutches without losing my balance, let alone walk independently at that point. My doubts slowly began to erode as I took my first independent steps that day, in my climbing harness that was attached to a pulley running along a static line above me. I was able to do this in large measure because of the support and confidence of DJ and everyone at the gym that day. I found the inspiration to push beyond what I thought possible that day and rekindled my passion and belief that I too could pursue an active lifestyle once again.

This feeling was further realized with the visit of Paradox’s Executive Director Malcolm Daly in mid-April of 2010. Mal is a below knee amputee who lost his leg and several fingers to frostbite as the consequence of a mountaineering fall in Alaska in 1999. Mal came to the gym at the invitation of my good friend Nate McKenzie, then co-owner of our local climbing gym. Mal was invited to run an adaptive climbing clinic for the staff and myself. Within moments of meeting Mal, I recognized I had met a kindred spirit and a fellow “gimp” that shared my love of climbing and the outdoors. Mal happened to be in Connecticut visiting family, but had made a special trip to New Haven to lead the clinic. The skills I learned that day would be integral for my re-integration into the climbing life. I eagerly volunteered to be the guinea pig “gimp.” When it came time to put into practice what we had just learned, instead of putting me on the Wellman rig, Mal sized me up and simply said let’s just “try” to toprope on belay without the use of any adaptive equipment. Silently doubtful that this would work, I dropped my crutches, put on my harness and tied my first figure-8 knot in over eight months. Soon I was climbing, not elegantly, and not without several falls, but I eventually topped out on a 5.7 route. I was climbing again, not even a year after my injury! None of my doctors or physical therapists were the slightest bit optimistic I would ever climb again. I had even convinced myself that I wouldn’t attempt climbing for at least another six months. And yet, there I was, 35 feet off the ground under my own power. It is hard to express the range of emotions I experienced that day, but elation was probably the most evident based on the smile I couldn’t seem to wipe off my face.

Soon after Mal’s visit, I was toproping outside at Chatfield Hollow, a local crag, using Mal’s SideStix (an all-terrain variant of fore-arm crutches) to hobble my way on approach. Later that summer I even went trad-climbing at the Gunks for the first time since my accident. Both of these climbs represented a personal triumph of will to once again live an outdoor life. Since then, I’ve ridden my road bike around Wooster Square Park, travelled back to Central Africa to visit my field research site, presented at an international scientific meeting and defended my PhD dissertation in the spring of 2012. Each of these events is seared in my memory as yet another milestone on the road to recovery. In March of 2011, I would experience yet more “life days” when I went ice climbing for the first time ever in North Conway, New Hampshire with Chad Butrick. Chad, a “disabled” veteran, then the Director of Operations for Paradox Sports, had made a trip to the Northeast specifically to scout out potential opportunities for Paradox to expand its operational capacity beyond Colorado. Chad’s enthusiasm was infectious, and with his and Nate’s encouragement and guidance, I quickly fell in love with ice climbing, an activity I didn’t think I was capable of even before my accident. The feeling of topping out on ice was the same I felt the day I took my first steps with DJ and Nate and the day I climbed with Mal in the gym- pure joy. A few weeks later at the Paradox Sports-sponsored adaptive ice climbing event, Gimps on Ice in Ouray, I would yet again feel the same sense of awe and inspiration watching other Paradox athletes experience that feeling of empowerment as we climbed the fabled icefalls of the Ouray Ice Park. Watching and supporting my fellow “gimps” as they experienced the same exhilaration I experienced was incredibly humbling and inspiring.

I am deeply indebted to my loved ones who were there for me when I needed their love and support in order to re-commit to a life of outdoor sports and activity. I am equally indebted to the inspiring folks at Paradox who showed me that an active lifestyle is not restricted to only those who consider themselves “normal” and prove it everyday through simply living their lives in the most intentional of ways. It is with a full heart and calm mind that I look to the future with the knowledge that it is not a matter of if I will climb mountains again, but when.

A version of this piece was originally published for the Life Days section of the Paradox Sports website. This version was published in Volume 4. 

Mike Reddy continues to recover from his injuries incurred on Mt. Sneffels in 2009. He defended his PhD in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale University in early 2012. He currently works for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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