Following on from Ground Rush entry, here's another of my true life encounters.
A couple of years back, I was kneecapped playing soccer. I was about to clear the ball when a guy carrying a thirty-pound and twelve-inch height advantage body-checked me. When he struck, my foot was planted in the turf with my full weight on it. My body twisted, but my foot remained firmly where it was. Something had to give and it was my knee. I suffered the most intense pain I had ever felt. My leg pointed ninety degrees in the wrong direction and I screamed and cursed like you wouldn’t believe. The upshot was that I couldn’t walk for a few weeks and spent months in physical therapy to heal the damaged tendons.
Over time my knee healed but it was never a hundred percent and it fatigued easily under heavy usage. I certainly felt all its flaws on a descent hike from the top of Sealy Tarns in New Zealand.
Sealy Tarns was the first major hike of my New Zealand vacation and I discovered my knee wasn’t up to the terrain. My wife and I had walked several tough trails in Northern California with similar elevation changes in preparation with no knee problems, but New Zealand was much meaner than California with steeper inclines, rock-strewn trails and rapid changes in elevation. The weather complicated matters too. Although it was summer, conditions were more like winter, with snow a distinct possibility. The wind was severe enough that I had to climb on all fours at times as not to be blown off the mountain. Although the peak provided a stunning vista of a mountain range carved by a glacier, the wind and cold curbed our enjoyment.
My wife and I were a few hundred feet from the mountain’s three thousand foot summit. Going up wasn’t too bad--tiring, but I hadn’t felt any ill effects. Coming down was a different matter. My leg didn’t have the strength or stability to support my every footfall. I could see the hike down was going to be a lot slower than it had been going up...
But then again, maybe not.
Rounding a switchback on the footpath, my knee gave up the ghost, losing all sensation and strength. I pitched forward with my hands out in front of me to catch my fall, but as soon as I started falling, I knew there wasn’t going to be a fall to catch--I was going over the edge. I watched my hands glide past the eighteen-inch wide ledge and over an abyss.
Maybe it was because I sensed my impending doom during my fall, but a queer feeling overwhelmed me. My stomach plummeted to my ankles, but at the same time, my instincts amped themselves to the max and beyond. Faced with death, you’re supposed to have your life flash before you or relive an old experience. Well, this is my third close encounter with the grave and I’m sorry, but none of the above is true when it comes to final thoughts. As I went over the edge, my thoughts focused to a singularity with the coherency of a laser. I developed mental tunnel vision the moment my hands were over thin air, all nonessential thoughts dissolved into the periphery. Only one thought preoccupied my mind--No, not now, not today, I will not die. I didn’t know what I was going to do to save myself or how I was going to go about finding out, but I was going to do something.
I plunged over the side, going head over heels as I did so. Instinctively, my hands snatched at everything and anything. To my shock, my left hand latched hold of an inch-thick root belonging to a shrub, stopping my descent dead after a fall of only a few feet, but I was left dangling by one arm against a sheer wall of sharp rock and loose dirt held in place by wild grasses and shrubs. If I lost my grasp on the root, my fall was some three hundred feet to the next ledge, but with the severity of the mountain face, the jutting rocks would flick me beyond the narrow ledge. Where I would land next would be impossible to tell--overhangs, terrain changes, and trees blocked the rest of the mountain. I was pretty sure that once I started falling there was little to halt the two and half thousand feet descent to the bottom.
My problems were compounded. My back was to the cliff face and I was wearing my backpack. This meant I was pushed away from the cliff wall as my legs flailed to find a foothold. My heart rate went through the roof, as I didn’t know how long I could keep a grasp of the root or the root could keep a grasp of the cliff face.
My wife dropped to my side to aid me. Julie grasped my wrist on the hand that held the root.
“Let go. I’ve got you.”
There’s no way she had me. Even though I couldn’t see her and I know she’s strong, I knew she would have been bent over and there was a good chance I could have taken her over the side with me. There was no way I was giving up my only strand of safety.
“Let go,” she repeated.
I didn’t answer. My feet thrashed against the rocks and shrubs for a foothold. Julie said something else that I ignored. My feet found an edge in the rocks, but kept slipping off because of the awkward position I was in due to my backpack. After several attempts, my heels dug into something solid and I hitched myself up an inch to get the full strength of my legs under me. With three points of contact with the cliff face, relief washed over me. I breathed again, not realizing that I’d been holding my breath, and for the first time, believed I was going to get out of this one.
Julie still fought to take my hand clasped around the tree root. I thrust my other hand at her.
“Take it,” I ordered.
She took it.
I was supported but with my back to the cliff wall, it was nearly impossible to climb up. I needed to be facing the other way.
“Pull me up,” I told Julie.
She heaved on my arm with both hands. As she dragged me back to safety, I turned my body, helping myself up by finding a new foothold in the rock, but I never let go of my trusty root. I believed in that root more than anything on earth. Slowly and without finesse, Julie hauled me back onto the ledge. Finally, I let go of my root and clawed at the footpath’s dirt. Once safe, we just lay there catching our breaths.
Adrenalin coursed through me and my legs had been immensely strong during the rescue, but the moment I was safe, my crippled leg was useless. I could barely stand on it. For the remainder of the decent, I struggled. Where I had to cross several rockslides that wiped out the footpath, I was forced to butt-skoot across them. I applied a similar technique to many steep drops. Unable to find a makeshift staff, Julie tried to be my crutch, but the needle thin paths made it impossible. For much of the hike down, I leaned against the mountainside for support. My feeble stamina meant I couldn’t go more than ten minutes without a stop. It was a torturous couple of hours. Limping back to the parking lot, my knee was mush. I stripped off my weatherproof and thermal layers and Julie bandaged my leg. I hadn’t let her bandage it on the mountain; I’d just wanted to get down.
A few days later, Julie admitted something to me. “There was no way your hand was coming off that root.”
“Your knuckles threatened to burst through your skin they gripped that root so tight. I couldn’t believe your strength. I tried to peel your fingers off, but I couldn’t get one to budge.”
Neither could I. It didn’t feel like I was holding on that tight. I know for damn sure I was holding on for dear life, but in all honesty, my grip felt light, although in that frantic minute or so I fought to hang on, my hand never slipped a millimeter. To compound my miraculous strength, my arm and shoulder suffered no muscle strain or bruising. I’d had a Bruce Banner/Hulk moment, echoing the belief that we all possess superhuman strength we only use when called upon in times of extreme stress. I’ll buy that theory in a New York second. And it’s not the first time I’d experienced these tendencies. When I raced single-seater cars in the UK, on several occasions, I reacted lightning-fast to avoid accidents, which seemed to happen intensely slowly to me, but spectators remarked on the speed of my avoidance. Something sure gets awakened in me at times like this and I certainly have a survivor’s instinct. I’m grateful for this. For whatever reason, things happen to me where the outcomes are extreme and I’ve learned to trust my instinct and let it take over when it kicks in.
An event like this only reinforces my own belief that irrespective of technological advances and perceived superior intellect, we humans rely on and use our primitive instincts a hell of a lot. Three millions years of fight or flight reflexes are hardwired into our brains and aren’t going anywhere fast. And if you don’t believe me, just let me push you off a mountain.