Fall on Rock by George Perkins

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I clipped her to the anchor, untied her knot, and pulled the rope through the gear.

“I need more time.” Jessica whispered so weakly that I had to lean close to hear her.

“We don’t have more time. We have to get help,” I replied.

“What happened?”

“You fell. You broke your arm and leg.”

I didn’t tell her about her face. I wasn’t going to be able to do much if she had a serious head injury anyway. “We need to get to the hospital. Let’s go.”

There was blood all over the fucking place. All over her, all over me. Her face was a mess. Blood covered her cheek, and her swollen and black right eye stared emptily back at me. Jessica was quiet and five years younger than me; because of her reserve, I still didn’t really know her all that well. But she and I both liked rock climbing, so we’d gotten along wonderfully over the last couple of years.

“I need more time. Wait.”

We were clipped to old bolts on a tiny ledge 130 feet up. Even though we could see Albuquerque to the west, we were four miles from the nearest road.

“We don’t have more time; we need to get to the hospital. You’re hurt,” I said.

“What happened?”

Her shinbone was sticking out the front of her leg, three inches above the ankle. I pivoted her foot so as to align her bone back inside her leg, if only so I wouldn’t see it, and wrapped it tight in her pants with slings. She had pulled off a bowling-ball-sized rock and had fallen sixty feet on the second pitch of Rainbow Dancer, an eleven-pitch 5.11 on the Shield, the biggest cliff in the Sandia Mountains. When she fell, the rope had slipped through the gear in slow motion as though unencumbered by the weight of a person. When she stopped falling, her body hung limp in her harness, and the moan she made was not a noise from the living.

“Jess! You fell. Your leg and arm are broken. You lost a lot of blood. We need to get you to help.”

“I need more time. What happened?

She didn’t get it. There was no more time.

“I need more time.”

Her words haunted me. I had PTSD for months. I tried to talk through it with my wife and friends. Their platitudes were hollow. No one could relate, so I became quiet. After a few weeks, they stopped asking. I had flashbacks almost every night. I’d wake panicked, with hallucinations that my one-year-old daughter was falling off a cliff and I’d try to reach out and catch her. Or, I’d yell audibly in my dreams at Jessica, “We have to go!” When I’d wake, the sheets and my body would be soaked in sweat. Drinking helped some, but it made the restlessness worse and bad dreams more lucid. And I couldn’t drink enough to numb my mind, as I had to get up for my daughter. I was often unmotivated and distracted at work and became detached and emotionally distant from my family. It wasn’t just for lack of sleep. In those months, the day-to-day life just seemed so insignificant.

by George Perkins (banner photo by Jesse Punsal) 

note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

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Sympathetic initially, my wife eventually lost patience. In addition to my problems, our young child was challenging and demanding. There’s little value in sharing the details of a failing marriage…most people have a sense of how hurtful it is when a family disintegrates. We kept trying to make it work because neither of us could face the regret of having given up and then explaining that to our daughter.

After a particularly painful argument, I called in sick to work on a sunny Wednesday morning in June. I drove back to the Sandia Crest without a partner, looking to feel something, anything, by returning to the mountains that had sent my mind into free fall. Could I stick my hand back in the fire? I hiked away from the empty parking lot and the radio towers, following the faint climbers’ trail under the Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, through the thin white Madera limestone bands, to the grove of aspens, above the eight-hundred-foot wall called Muralla Grande. I rambled down the couloir of scree and thorny bushes to the base of a classic 5.9. Although I’d only occasionally soloed over the years, I was solid at the grade. Heading up a big wall alone without a rope felt unreal at first; however, it soon became comfortable as I found the flow after half a pitch. By the time I entered the crux in this sea of orange granite, I was seeing only the positive edges with their slightly darker varnish, the coarse crystalline texture on the sloping footholds, and the sequences of movement linking them that would lead to the next stance large enough to rest.

Photo courtesy of George Perkins

The Sandias have loose blocks, and holds occasionally crumble, so I’d pull a little more lightly and ease onto footholds before committing to standing on them. Had I been roped up, climbing this route again would have sparked memories of my previous climbs on the formation—of my climbing partners and my life situation at those times—or I’d be mesmerized watching the peregrine falcons circling in the updrafts. But on my own, I was too focused and moving too quickly to stop and reflect. I didn’t notice the light wind picking up when I’d reached the exposed headwall, with its perfect cracks splitting the immaculate auburn face. For that hour, it was as if time had stopped, just for me. Stop. Look down for feet. Step up. Another small edge, but I was always in balance, always solid. It wasn’t liberating, nor did it feel unsafe or scary. I had skill, balance, and strength acquired over the last fifteen years. I topped out feeling proud but still partly empty. There was a feeling of recklessness about the whole endeavor. I didn’t want to risk dying; I had a little girl to take care of. In the back of my mind, I knew that any block or flake could have pulled off, just as it had when Jessica fell. Perhaps, in tempting fate that day in the Sandias, I was seeking to understand: “Had Jessica fallen because she grabbed something loose that she should have seen, or was it just something that had happened?” I didn’t find any answer, and by a few body lengths up, I had forgotten all about why I came.

Open to the idea of more, I contoured southward along the base of the limestone band and slid down the talus to the start of my favorite climb in the Sandias, a 5.10 called Mountain Momma. I put my shoes on but reconsidered. Once you commit to Mountain Momma’s overhanging finger-crack crux on the third pitch, you need to climb without hesitation and throw your left heel up over the lip and mantel. Could I pull through quickly enough that my arms wouldn’t tire? Prudence triumphed, and I descended farther down the valley to the Thumb’s thousand-foot 5.5 ridge and made my way up. The Thumb looks down on half a million people living below in Albuquerque, none of whom have any idea you’re up there. I sat in the sun on top for a few minutes and tagged the summit register (I miss my girls). Until writing this, I told no one what I’d done that day, embarrassed by the selfishness of it and distressed that it left me feeling as lost and empty as before. My highlight memory of that day wasn’t even the climbing. It was seeing a bear in the approach gully on the way down to my first climb. It was fifty feet away, and it’s funny to me now how irrationally nervous I had been about getting mauled. “Go on, bear. You do what you need, and I’m going to do what I need to.” It let me go by. In retrospect, the whole day seems like a dream. Unfortunately, dreams don’t expel inner demons.

When my daughter was three, our marriage broke. Everyone tires at some point. Maybe, with more time, we’d have worked through our problems, but we didn’t know that parenting would become less demanding as our child got older. At least the divorce went fairly smoothly.

The next woman came into my life too soon after I’d moved out. I knew better but did it anyway. Excitement over something that felt like love with someone new worked pretty well to hide the scars of trauma and a failed marriage. She was younger than me, and I knew that she’d want me to be someone other than who I was. But that was all right—I wanted to be someone else, someone without emotional damage. I was still somewhat detached and never even tried to talk with her about what I’d seen; she mistook my restless sleep as being from other things. After two years, I hadn’t quite had the time to heal. A second person that loved me had decided they’d be better off without me.

“I need more time.”

“Let’s go. We have to get out of here.”

Jessica was in shock, confused, with a broken arm, broken leg, and who knows how many other injuries. I tried to lower her to the ground, but she got stuck on a ledge and tangled the rope in bushes.

“Wait! Stop! I need more time.” It was barely loud enough to hear.

I tied her rope off to the anchor, rapped to her on the trail line, and tethered her to my harness with slings. With the weight of both of us on the thin rope, the rappel device became very hot, burning my hand, and I almost dropped us to the talus. But we were down. Thank god. Off the cliff. Disoriented, she started to walk on her broken leg. I tried to carry her out. I made it fifty feet and set her down on a partly shaded granite boulder, under the lowest of the three large ponderosa trees at the base of the Shield. Albuquerque isn’t as close as it looks; there was no way I could get her out on my own. Half a million people down there, four thousand feet below, and not a single one knew you needed help. Neither of us had our phones. Damn! I wrapped and slung her bleeding arm and further stabilized her leg with sticks tightened over the wound with my long-sleeve shirt. After a few minutes and a sip of water, she had regained some coherence but was still in shock and confused.

“I’m going to go and get help. I’ll be back really soon.”

I don’t know if she understood what that meant. And I didn’t know how soon I’d return, but I didn’t know what else to do. I looked back; those next steps were the hardest to take. I was leaving her to die alone on that rock.

“Dad, try to think of something happy. You seem sad.”

“I’m happy, Cora.”

“I think you’re sad about your life.”

“My life around me is beautiful.”

My daughter, Cora, had seen my eyes shift away again, and she gave me a hug. But I still believe those words I told her were true. Being single after fourteen years of having a partner had provided time for introspection. My life oscillated between meditative and depressed, but I had become aware of, and comfortable with, this pattern.

A six-year-old now, Cora would tell me her thoughts and needs but hadn’t learned to hide things from me so as to not hurt me. She always needed my complete attention. All I could see was that bubble around the two of us, and I put little emotional energy into anyone else. It was like being twenty feet above your last piece of gear on hard climbing. Remain calm, because losing focus can start a cycle of irrationally increasing stress that can end in disaster. The state had determined that Cora would spend half her time with me; so, for half of my life, I was a typical divorcée. We’d read together and play imaginary games. I’d teach her to swim and bake cookies and watch her do cartwheels.

The author on Death Drives a Stick at The Dungeon. Photo: Gary Parker

Cora and I would often hike to our closest climbing area, the Dungeon, where she’d eat raspberries she’d picked along the trail, splash in the stream, and, screaming with glee, swing on the ropes hanging from the roof sixty feet up the overhanging gray rhyolite. The Dungeon was an oasis among the charred mountains from the forest fire five years ago. Canyon wrens nested in pockets in the cliff, and pink-chested hummingbirds and bright-yellow swallowtail butterflies flittered above the gurgling waters of the tiny stream. Sheltered by its rocks, the Dungeon and the plants and life in its immediate surroundings had remained unchanged.

The other half of my duality was a routine of climbing with every spare minute. At the Dungeon, I’d warm up on Gangland, a 5.12b I’d climbed hundreds of times. I knew the choreography and subtle body position of every move. Pull up. Cross over to undercling with the right hand, reach high left to the pocket. Place the outside of my right foot flat in the hole, reach high with the right hand, bump again with the right to a side pull, stem, reach high left, to the jug. Start the technical crux, cross over with the left hand, make the tiny high right-hand crimp, bump it to the baseball, hit the tooth with the left, and shake with a drop knee. Then sprint: left hand straight above, match with the right, left, then right again to the three-finger pocket, bear down for the hard clip, make a long reach left to the diagonal edge. Go far with the right hand to the square edge, left hand straight up to the crimp, match on it, and roll over left to the rest. I knew most of the other Dungeon climbs almost as well. Most of the time, success or failure was reflective of how I felt on any given day, whether I was able to summon up the effort to try hard or keep focused at the crux, but sometimes it would still surprise me when I climbed well or poorly. With just the right positioning, I could feel secure on the smallest edges, thinner than I believed I could. After climbing, on the occasional darker days, I’d drink too much in compensation for a lack of direction. On the good days, I’d work out more, motivated to do the 5.13 I was projecting up the middle of the cliff. Climbing three times a week at the same place wasn’t particularly exciting. I just couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time.

Every now and then, I’d remember when Jessica and I used to climb there together, back before the accident five years ago. Back when we were younger, when climbing was what we cared about more than almost anything else. Gangland had been her hardest lead. In addition to innate talent, Jessica had always been optimistic and pushed herself. If she were here, she’d probably have been showing me how to do the crux on my project. Or she’d have been lying on a rock in the sun…those days seemed like a long time ago.

Days into weeks into months. I returned to the Dungeon so often that I’d feel the seasons and notice the subtle changes around me. Every new burnt tree that had fallen down or the stream level that tracked with the monsoon rains. The raspberries along the trail would be ripe one week, the purple and yellow asters flowering the next, the aspens turning gold the next. For me, this place had become so much more than just another concrete-colored cliff where I climbed a few routes after work. I knew I’d be going there frequently for years ahead, over which I’d witness the forest regrowing from the ash and the aspens growing taller each year. Yeah, I think I ought to be able to find peace with this.

The Dungeon eventually became too snowy, and my routine got put on hold until March. That winter break, my work was closed, and Cora was with her mom and new family. Not wanting to stay in my lonely house for the holidays, I was happy to head to Canyonlands with a friend. His old truck slowly carried us around the White Rim, a hundred-mile jeep trail used by prospectors hoping to find uranium six decades ago. Like them, I’d hoped that I too would find something in the stark desert and return whole again. There’s nothing quite as cleansing as the pure effort you have to put into sustained desert cracks, the adventure of carefully testing loose, sandy blocks and old, sketchy fixed gear, and the reward of tiny, seemingly unreachable pinnacle summits high up in the perfect blue desert sky.

The excitement started on our first climb, Chip Tower, on Christmas Eve. Looking up from the highest rivet on the smooth last pitch, I was surprised to see a shallow, eroded hole—was the last bolt missing? I stood on the hanger, reached high to a half-pad edge, and folded my thumb over my index finger. I slapped the arête with my left hand, smeared, bumped higher up the arête, placed my toe on the edge, and lunged for the lip at the top. We kept a regular cadence—one desert tower every day, for five days in a row—and still forgot which day it was. We’d camp in the frigid temps with twelve hours of darkness mostly spent in sleeping bags in the back of the truck, silently drinking tea and reading. We would wake to the snowcapped La Sals over Monument Basin and the pink Wingate strata, and we would sleep with Orion rising over Taylor Canyon’s towers. Other than the desert bighorns, we were the only souls out there, in the Island in the Sky. But after rappelling down from Moses, I drove for ten hours straight back to the same life and the same psychological scars that were there when I left.

“Dad—is God real?”

Oh shit, this wasn’t in the parent manual.

“Well, Cora, what do you think?”

“The other kids at school believe in God, but Mom doesn’t.”

“What do you believe?”

“I don’t know.” She looked at me intensely, as though I knew a genuine truth. I paused.

“The other kids probably believe what their parents told them. They might not even be thinking about it. What do you think I believe?”

“Don’t know, Dad.”

“I don’t know either, Cora. I can’t answer that for you. But I’ve seen some stuff that’s hard to explain.”

She listened intently as I let my eyes drift off. The memories of turns of fate and eternity that could have gone otherwise started flowing…when I was eighteen and fell soloing slippery terrain on Little Bear in late-October snow. A microwave-sized block had pulled off, taking me with it. Somehow I caught myself after fifteen feet rather than tumbling down to the tarn below…the avalanche debris I crossed over on my way back from Castle Peak, which hadn’t been there on my way up earlier…being fifteen hundred feet up the formation Isaac in Zion, when the rope dislodged a block that hit my partner. Out of my sight below me, he gave a moan like the one Jessica had made. The rope didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity, then he kept on climbing…on the overhanging right side of the Diamond on Longs, watching the blocks of ice falling behind us from the top, splattering on Broadway and the chimney we’d climbed by headlamp an hour earlier…another time, just after topping out the Diamond with a high school kid, the sky opened up with cracking thunder followed by a deluge of hail. A small overhang provided a minimal amount of shelter from the icy waterfalls around us, and the storm passed before we got too wet and cold. After it cleared, we continued on to the summit, watching the swirling mists…waking up to perfect bluebird skies after an open bivy on the sandy ledge nine hundred feet up Howser Tower in the Bugs, on a climb where I was too young, and my dad was too old, and we were both too slow…seven hundred feet up a wall in Zion, hoping to move half a body length higher, committing my weight onto a marginal small cam in a sandy pin scar, with a series of tiny brass offset nuts wedged in the overhanging seam splitting the perfect pink sandstone below me…

One memory I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my six-year-old. My partner and I were a few minutes down a popular trail in the Sandias, with nervous excitement to climb a 5.11 with thin gear. Hiking with his daughter, a fellow in his fifties collapsed in front of us. A dozen people helped to do CPR, but he spent his last moments there in the sun. He was fit and hadn’t shown any symptoms for a heart failure or stroke. My partner and I both silently thought about our potentially dangerous route and contemplated the inequity of fate.

Most of the time fate gives you a pass. The climb is too difficult, or the weather turns bad, so you leave some gear, rap off, and walk back down to your normal life. But every so often, it lets you know that control is illusory. All it takes is one loose rock or a storm moving too quickly. Sometimes the outcome of a day in the mountains isn’t what you’d planned.

Out of time, I ran downhill from the Shield toward Albuquerque, through the scrub oak and the piñon toward the Sandia Foothills trailhead. I was shirtless and covered in blood. Three miles below, I met two hikers to whom I frantically relayed what had happened and Jessica’s location. They went down to make the phone call, and I headed back up. When I returned, Jessica was awake on the flat granite rock under the ponderosa tree. The bleeding had subsided. Her eyes fixated in the distance; she was hardly talking anymore. Jessica had always been a quiet person as long as I’d known her. She was still breathing but in a transitional state between two worlds. I knew there wasn’t much more I could do to keep her alive. Just hope and wait. I silently watched her condition, wondering what would happen when she stopped breathing. How long could I do CPR knowing it couldn’t change the outcome and undo the injuries that caused her body to shut itself down in the first place? Would it be better to make her last living moments in a beautiful place comfortable and peaceful? Jessica had said she felt cold, but the rock she reclined on was now warm in the full sun. The bees hovered around us. Thinking her blood was nectar, they’d light momentarily on her crimson-colored clothes, then fly off disappointed, only to return seconds later.

The Black Hawk helicopter and Albuquerque Mountain Rescue arrived a few hours later and lifted Jessica off to a sterile place. As it turned out, the impact had damaged her lungs. This injury—tension pneumothorax—caused each inhalation to force a small amount of air into her chest cavity rather than her lungs. Every breath was just a little bit shallower than the one that preceded it. Had the helicopter arrived much later, she would have used up all her space to breathe.

On the drive home from the hospital the next morning, I stopped at the gas station at San Felipe Pueblo and picked up a cup of coffee and my first can of Copenhagen in a decade. People there gave no second thought to my bloodstained clothes. My injuries were emotional, and at that time, I had no idea of their severity, how long the scars would last, or how much my life was about to unravel. People would tell me I was a hero, an angel—as if I had saved my friend’s life. At the time, I thought it was just luck.

Jessica spent weeks in the hospital with tubes in her chest and limbs. She was held together with astonishing amounts of metal and no recollection of the accident. She would fully recover and finish up her degree, travel the world, fall in love, and do so many things other than climb with a singular focus. When her path would lead through New Mexico, we’d catch up with each other and go cragging for a few hours. Other climbers would sometimes ask her about the four-inch-long curving scar on her right arm, just above her elbow. Jessica’s response would simply be, “I fell,” and her eyes would meet mine. It was good to see her healed and moving on with her life.

It took me over five years to recognize that on that day in the Sandias, Jessica wasn’t talking to me. Her disoriented prayers and questions were meant for other ears, and she’d gotten the time she asked for.

I still haven’t answered that question from my kindergartener. I don’t know what Jessica saw in that space between life and death or what’s controlled by luck, fate, or some higher power. I’m not sure it matters. When I reflect on my life after my daughter was born, it hasn’t gone how I’d hoped it would. But now, six years later, I remember most the details of individual moments of love and laughter, of fear and excitement, and of those that hurt. I smile as I recall those perfect sequences with my girl, with people who love me, or in the mountains with my friends.

I’ve changed. I’d like to think my demons are finally gone, and the only remaining scars are the rope burns at the base of my fingers. I’m no longer as hurried; I’m calm and accepting as I tie the rope to myself once again. I know that, after I step off the ground, I will be in that focused and aware mind-set where I can see precisely the crystalline roughness and the small edges of what’s immediately around me. Time will again slow down, just for me.

George Perkins is a sandbagger living in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with his lovely daughter, Cora, 7. He enjoys cheering for his kid at gymnastics meets and appreciates dogfights at his local crags. Soon after this piece was completed, he finally sent his first 5.13. He asks that those who enjoyed this story kindly donate to the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council to help save someone’s life.

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