Screams are a colorful thing. Each one has its own distinct message. An anger, a joy, a pain. The nature of each rings clear somewhere deep in our instincts. From the sound alone, you can practically see the scrunched nose and raised upper lip of a shout delivered in loud fury. Yet slightly muffled as it fights the jaw’s urge to clench tight. Or the way the mouth creates a small O as it attempts to open against a bright smile while the eyebrows grow high and round in moments of joy. Presently lying facedown in a pile of cactus, I scream a different kind of scream.
Note: This piece is published in Volume 17 of The Zine, which is now available to order via our online store.
The kind of scream one emits unconsciously for fear of death. The sound of wide fixed eyes and jaw agape in such a way that sound forms by the guttural thrusts of my diaphragm alone. They are rhythmic. Lasting as long as a deep breath. And only pausing to take in another. It’s between the pauses that I can feel the pain exploding from my lower back, so the animal in me continues to self-medicate.
On lead, while hand drilling a new route up on Angels Landing in Zion, something went wrong. I can’t say where I messed up, but I can say that it was bad enough to send me thirty feet straight to the ground with only a minor ledge to painfully slow the fall before I landed inverted in the cactus. I suppose the distance sounds kind of pathetic knowing I’d only just gotten started and still had hundreds of feet to climb before reaching the summit. Though when considering the mortality of a person, it’s not realistic to measure with mountains.
After an immeasurable moment, I realize I’m alive. The fear of death gives way to a fear of slow death. How badly am I hurt? Did I break something? If I can’t walk, how long will I be alone out here for?
Whether the years of experience on an ambulance kick in or the cactus spines digging themselves into my lips keep me from moving my head, I can’t be sure. Either way, I try not to move for fear of exacerbating any critical damage to my spine. Wait, the tiny submerged needles hurt. If I can feel a small pain like that, what else can I feel? I open and close my hands and wiggle my toes without problem. Ok, what else? Without getting up, I struggle to reach behind me as if being able to scratch that impossible-to-reach itch was the most important thing in the world. As I run my fingers down the notches of my spine, they feel consistent and painless. Ok my back might not be broken.
In the distance, about a mile away, screams of joy from curious tourists ring across the agave before bouncing off canyon walls like ghosts of a world I was living in just moments ago. The voices are following a paved trail up to the same summit of Angels Landing. I had to step off that path and bushwhack for a mile to reach the base of the wall before attempting to climb it.
Robert Frost’s famously misinterpreted poem about the path less traveled making all the difference comes to mind. Many folks think the moral of this work is that when one chooses their own path in life, they become something special. We all love to be so special. In reality, it was written to say that we don’t really have a choice; what will happen will just happen. Today, in the dirt, I feel like I had a choice, and it actually did make all the difference. I could have been happy following a paved trail to the summit, but I wasn’t, and now I’m paying for it.
Without much delicacy I sit up and beach myself on a nearby boulder. A quick head-to-toe trauma assessment reveals that a three-inch-long mouth has opened up wide on the outside of my lower right leg. Presumably it’s here to laugh at me like the hundreds of tourists across the canyon. Pulpy masses of oranges and reds spill from its lazy flaps while an unmistakable white shaft is tucked firmly behind its gums. Just as my last two lower-extremity wounds hadn’t, the mouth doesn’t bleed at all.
I flush out the wound with lukewarm water. It feels like a trillion degrees. Some ace bandage, climbing tape, and a cheap splint make for a package job good enough to get me to the car. The hike back is steep and loose and covered in all the flora Mother Nature designed to hurt you. Loose blocks look solid, but aren’t. I slide down the eroded cliffside with both feet buried in arid sand and dirt. If I did a bad job packaging the injury, I’ll surely find out when the wound is filled with debris. Even with trekking poles to bear the weight my leg can’t, some part of my lower back feels like it has been hit by a truck. About halfway back to the paved tourist trail, a park ranger and medic appear from the thickets.
They say they were dispatched to a climber that took fifty foot fall. I apologize for the disappointing lack of excitement I have to offer. They don’t get many good calls here versus back home in the city where the stabbings and accidents and overdoses happen constantly. They laugh and are genuinely happy to see that I’m ok enough. After I refuse their care, they offer to carry my pack and lead the way back to the trailhead.
Hunched over in the trunk of my Jetta wagon, I pretend to wait patiently for my wife, Jasmin, to return from her hike of the Narrows, so she can drive me to the hospital. She’s not due to return for another hour. A pair of tweezers and I spend the time plucking spines out of my face, arms, and back. I consider the fragility of my body as each little needle slides out of my skin with a tiny pop as their barbed tips release. Each one begs another question.
What was the difference between not surviving the fall and walking away…?
Other than not making the initial mistake, was my life just then up to a cosmic coin toss…?
Why do I constantly keep finding myself here asking these same questions…?
How many times did I put myself in this place I have no right to walk away from…?
Wait, for real, how many was it? Not just times I “felt” like I was going to die—rather how many times had I unequivocally dipped my toes into death’s waters and nearly fell in? I put the tweezers down and raise up both fists to begin counting. A weak finger rising with each instance.
When, as a little boy, I only escaped the Sheyenne River when my cousin pulled me out with a stick. The rivers back home were thick and dirty with a wicked undertow. I don’t know if I’d be here if he wasn’t there. Then, there was the time I got robbed at gunpoint over a stupid laptop in my own home. I had just gotten home from work late one night and was looking forward to watching some Netflix on the porch. Not five minutes after I sat down, I looked up to find a pistol hovering a few inches from my head. The man only said, “Hands up.”
Stunned, I replied, “What the fuck?” He repeated himself once and disappeared with my computer.
Soon both hands are open, so I close them and start again.
Then there was that time we were developing routes in North Dakota, and we found a beautiful sandstone finger crack. I knew the rock was soft, but I didn’t anticipate ripping out two perfect cams and having a humble hero nut save my ass. Had that little guy ripped too, my belayer (see: wife) would have certainly watched her husband die. Oh man, and that time getting spit off a freight train in Denver and somehow walking away with all my limbs. We had been waiting in an abandoned building for the right train to come through. When the train we needed finally came, it was rolling way too fast to “safely” get on. Sitting around all day in anticipation had me all torqued up though, so I risked catching on the fly. Not being able to run fast enough to catch the train, when I jumped up to grab the ladder, it ripped me off the ground. Out of sheer luck it sent me flying into the ballast instead of under the steel wheels.
I’m almost out of fingers again, but I can’t think of any more…
Seventeen times alive through no fault of my own. I think back to Robert Frost and his two paths that only appear to offer the opportunity to make a decision. Is it possible that I keep finding myself here because it’s the only way I can live my life? Maybe I am destined to be pulled this way forever. Even now, just the thought of staying on the paved trail makes my heart twinge.
However, I did make the decision to leave the paved trail, right? I don’t literally need to keep chasing brightness in adventure and risk. After all, what kind of sane person keeps willingly putting their head under the guillotine to see if it would actually fall? I don’t feel crazy, I think. Damn you, Robert Frost. But mostly damn you, Dakota.
Jasmin calls out from across the parking lot, jarring me back to reality. I can hear her vivid visage of bright-white teeth smilingly loud against sunburned cheeks. I stow my grimace as I hop out of the trunk to stand tall. At a young age, I learned the importance of looking ok when you’re not. I tended to get into a lot less trouble that way. I stand weak pretending to be stronger than the lightning firing up my lower leg and back. More than anything though, I am again afraid.
What kind of scream would Jasmin scream? The one a lover makes with jaw subtly agape, wide darting eyes, and the warmth of a concerned brow? Or would it sound like pursed lips, flaring nostrils, and a brow furrowed with disappointment of my current, constant state. Our marriage has been rough, and we’re not even to the one-year mark. This trip was supposed to be us figuring out how we can support each other’s goals, and it’s hard enough to convince a caring wife that there’s nothing to worry about when her husband jaunts off into the vertical world alone. Now the result of her trusting my abilities is that she has to cancel her plans in order to drive me an hour to the nearest hospital and worry even more every time I tell her that I’ll be fine.
Whichever scream she screams, I will likely survive. I just hope that I can keep myself together long enough to figure out how to keep us together. Long enough to get the chance to hear her laugh again.
As a living, breathing namesake, Dakota Walz represents the few unlikely wall climbers to come from the third flattest state in the union. North Dakota born and road worn, he cut his teeth on every style of climbing the Lower 48 has to offer. Currently residing in Colorado, he spends many of his days (and nights) working in an ambulance, serving the burbs north of Denver. His new book is called Everything I Loved More: True Tales of Rocks and Rails.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published six books: The Desert, Graduating From College Me, American Climber, The Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .