Inches From Death
Every now and then I jerk awake, flailing, grasping, falling through the sheets, scrambling to find something, anything, to hold, to stop my fall. My grip gives out and instantly fear overcomes me. I wake sweat soaked, heart racing and blood pounding. My hand has been bruised trying to save myself, flailing for an imagined hand hold and smacking the nightstand instead. I moved my nightstand out of reach after that. Some nights it takes time to re-find sleep, but eventually I move on, rolling over and releasing back into the comforting dark of unconsciousness.
From a young age I’ve loved to climb things. Escaping the hold of my crib before I could walk, there was nothing that could stop me, no obstacle in my way. Can’t go through it, just go over it. The first job I ever wanted was to be a professional tree climber, ascending the towering pines and the swaying birch, nothing but me and the wood beneath my feet, branches in my arms, and teetering in the wind.
But rock climbing specifically has always been daunting.
I faced my fear of rock climbing head-on in middle school, getting a membership to a gym and spending hour after hour bouldering and climbing. After that much time in the gym, I was pretty good, able to complete 5.10s easily and without sweat despite my 4'11" frame and short arms. The height of being on belay still scared me, but I was comfortable on the wall, secure in knowing the rope would hold, that I would not fall. I began to seek things out to climb, much more comfortable with myself and my body, controlling my movements through space.
Of course, this all comes with the asterisk that the handholds were secure, the wall unmoving. Each bolt had been tightened and I left clouds of traction forming chalk in my wake. I wasn’t going anywhere.
But in nature, things slip and break.
One particular Saturday morning several years ago I went for a hike. I was with a buddy, up a trail we frequented often. This time was no different than any in the past. We would hike in, scramble on some boulders to eat, then we would hike back out. This time we chose a new rock, a place we had not climbed before, but with a much cleaner view of the mountain we had ascended. He scrambled on top of the boulder easily, reaching his hand out to help me.
Up close it was an easy 4–5 foot scramble. In the process of finding the right route, however, I had unknowingly put myself above a drop-off, a precipice.
My left foot began the climb, finding an easy and secure spot.
Right hand and left hand found some jugs to wrap around.
Right foot came up, just above the left one. Now that my weight was entirely on the rock, I became aware of a slight drizzle around me. It must have just started. The forest smelled damp, like fresh dirt. The rock was a little slick. I tightened my hold, suddenly hesitant. Pikes Peak granite is notoriously difficult to grip.
My buddy asked if I was alright. It really was an easy climb, he had crawled up the boulder in seconds.
“Yeah, hold on” came my reply.
My right hand let go, reaching up to his outstretched arm.
Just too short.
I search for a new grip to give me the last few inches. There’s a good spot.
My left hand releases and I reach up.
Our fingers touch.
And then the rock broke, and I fall.
One of the many amazing processes that occurs in the brain is the creation of new memories. The hippocampus deals with creating the images, pictures of time, and then they get sent to the prefrontal cortex where they are ordered, indexed, and filed away. Each memory filed by the prefrontal cortex makes up an instant in time, a snapshot memory. The more snapshots we have, the more vivid and sharp the image or memory is.
In moments of extreme danger, an rapid series of processes occur in our brain. Instantly, less resources are sent to the higher functions. The prefrontal cortex and cerebrum are both limited in their activity. Instead, the energy is sent into the limbic system. This system in our brain is composed of the older, survival-based sections. The medulla oblongata (heartbeat and breathing signals), hypothalamus (homeostasis: temperature, hunger, thirst), amygdala (fear/fight or flight response), and thalamus (relay board for all of the brains signals) are some of the main sections. But also very important to the limbic system is the hippocampus.
As an emergency occurs, and the limbic system is flooded with signals. The amygdala engages the stress response, the thalamus lights up as information pings around the brain. And the hippocampus begins churning out photo after photo.
Enough photos that these moments of extreme stress seem to last much longer than normal, things almost seem to move in slow motion.
It’s like a flip book. In general, flip books have 5–10 pages per second. If you add in a section that’s meant to be viewed at 20 pages per second, but keep the rate at 5–10, that section will take twice the time compared to the normal pace of the book. The same thing happens in our brain. Picture after picture, snapshot upon snapshot, slowing things down to increase processing abilities.
But now back to the story.
Some things are otherworldly. Outside of description. There is no way to impart the weightlessness, the thoughts, the epiphanies that have come through this experience. There’s no way to share the PTSD that I developed, leading to fright at the top of the stairs, nightmares, and therapy.
Only through shared experience can we know of the feeling. The feeling that something isn’t right. The flailing, grasping, falling, scrambling to find a hand hold, some grip to slow me. My hand pulling down rock and the instant fear that comes with it.
Sweating, heart racing, blood pounding. I bruised and scraped bloody both hands from scrabbling at everything.
Down I fell, about fifteen feet. I threw my hands out, desperately searching the rocks, kicking my legs. It felt like I fell slowly, but hit the ground in an instant. I landed straight on my back on a slope. My head whipped back and smacked the boulder I landed on, nearly giving me whiplash and opening the skin on the back of my head, as well as the view of a large cliff directly under me. It went at least twenty feet farther. I lay stunned, unmoving. I felt blood running up my leg, dripping off my shoulder from scrapes on my back.
The Gatorade in my backpack had exploded with a bang, my Nalgene was shattered. My hands hung out over the precipice, fingers already dripping blood. My poor friend thought I was dead. I couldn’t move for at least fifteen seconds. I slowly raised my head.
It was barely a croak. Fine was another question. I carefully checked my body. What was scraped versus broken. I hurt everywhere. I sat up slowly, carefully avoiding the ledge. I had torn through my backpack, windbreaker, and shirt, revealing the raw flesh beneath. With one last boost of energy, I scrambled away from the edge.
We sat for a long time. I waited until the bleeding stopped.
Nothing needed more than a bandaid at the time, but I probably should have had a few of the wounds stitched later.
My right leg was super scraped. This is where the deepest wounds were, dripping blood into my socks, onto my shoes. My right hip was likewise scraped. I didn’t tear through my shorts, but I definitely bled through them. My back had deep tears all the way up from the bottom right of my ribcage to up and over the scapula, crossing all the way to the left side. My head was bleeding slightly, enough to run a river of blood down my spine and into my shorts. Luckily it began to rain for real, so I didn’t have to worry about showing up at home covered in blood.
My body was shaking, every nerve shot with adrenaline and endorphins, masking the pain. Slowly we stood up, and began walking.
Heading home. Alive.
In reality, the fall, assuming a 15 foot drop (I later went back and measured) and 0 initial velocity, would have taken around .97 seconds. I spent less than a second in the air. By the time I hit the rocks beneath me, I would have been moving just over 30 feet per second.
But in my mind, it took much longer, happened much slower. I had time to think. None of it rational, “I’m trying to save my life” thoughts. Instead, I had simple clarity. The thought that I wasn’t ready to die echoed. My right are went up. My left arm out. I pushed off the rocks a little with my legs in a weak attempt to clutch at anything my feet could grab. That probably saved me, pushing my head out over the drop instead of over the rock. I felt my body rotate. Head go down, feet come up.
When I wake up in a cold sweat, it’s that same feeling. Freefall. Rotating head first as my feet swing up above me. Especially landing on my back where I can’t see the ground.
I’m not ready to die. It’s a morbid thought for a then 18-year-old to have. I was confronted by my greatest fear to the fullest extent, ending the experience a couple inches shy of death on all sides. To my left, more cliff. A few inches forward, more cliff. To my right, a boulder that would have broken my back. A few inches back and my head splits open on a rock. I know how it feels to plummet. It scares me. I will always recall the moments I spent in the air.
The greatest lesson I learned though is not about the fear. This story isn’t about my phobia, my plummet, my wounds. The greatest lesson I learned is not because of the fear, it is in spite of the fear.
I learned to live life to its fullest. Each of our days will eventually end. That’s life. Some cling to it, fight for every last breath. I know I will. But in the end, the very end, when there’s nothing left to cling to, we need to have peace in what we’ve done.
My fall was a reminder for me that I want to do good in the world. I want to help people, to be a light in a darkening world. Each day we live we need to strive to be who we want to be, reach toward where we want to go. Give our current self another chance to be that ideal self. We will always fall short, but that’s life.
This whole story isn’t a “live each day like it’s your last” story. Statistically, there is a 99.998% chance that you have a tomorrow. That’s 49,999 times out of 50,000. We still need to take care of our futures and work hard. I believe instead this story focuses on the little things. Take the time to hang out with a friend. Go hiking. Serve. Do all the little things that we often say, “I don’t have time for that,” or “maybe next time,” or “I’m too tired right now.” Each of those opportunities is a chance to live, a chance to love, a chance to change. We just need to seize them.
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