When lights go out in the tunnel.

It was February of 2015: I was a month away from my apartment lease terminating. I wasn’t happy with something, but I didn’t know what. I had tried changing my relationship status on Facebook from “single” to “in a relationship” by getting a girlfriend. That didn’t make anything better. I tried being more active, but that also ran its short course before I found myself back at that spot of discomfort. I moved from an apartment to a house, to another house, and back to an apartment. I made every move I felt I could without tossing the entire script of my previous life out the window to grab a stack of blank paper and start anew.

Wiping the metaphorical slate clean was the beginning of my nomadic lifestyle. It was the beginning of my climbing career, and my passion for creating a story that I felt was worth putting into words for others to read. I have been riding a high and beautiful wave for the past two years and change, but I have always known in the back of my mind that all waves recede back into the ocean at some point. Basically, I knew that the good vibes will take a turn for the worse eventually. I haven’t exactly been looking for that moment, but every so often I get a glimpse of it and wonder if the time has come for my wave to come crashing down.

The first time the wave died down was only three days into my journey away from Sacramento: Dumbo had abruptly decided to stop running when I was driving on CA 299, about ten miles southeast of Weaverville. “So soon?” I thought to myself as I scrambled to push the now-dead van off the road. I mean, I was totally ready for there to be struggles, but three days out from leaving Sacramento? Damn. Either this was God trying to tell me that my choice to move on from Union Pacific was the worst idea I had manifested yet, or it was a sign to show me that I was living life in easy-mode up until now. Now I was playing hard ball. After thirty minutes of troubleshooting and fifteen minutes of singing a sad-bastard song about my van breaking down, I discovered that the positive wire to my fuel pump had managed to come unplugged. Easy fix! Another wave of fun had come along and I caught it!

Another time, it was hour sixteen or so of that twenty-two hour drive from El Paso to Mammoth Lakes. I had just got on US 395 after leaving Victorville, California. I drove through a series of stoplight intersections before hitting the open road. On both sides of 395, there was dirt and sagebrush, allowing for some serious winds to blow into Dumbo’s face. The throttle was floored as we barely managed to hold 40mph, and the wind kept changing periodically in attempt to blow Dumbo into the dirt and Sagebrush. Maybe it was because of the stop and go stuff through those intersections. Maybe it was the heavy wind. Or maybe it was an old and decaying wire in Dumbo’s engine compartment that had finally decided how unimportant it was to deliver signal to, I dunno, the digijet fuel ECU.

Whatever it was, Dumbo stopped running once again. This time, I was much more stressed than when the fuel pump stopped working. But I did the same thing as before; fifteen minutes of singing sad songs with some cheesy guitar accompaniment, and an equal amount of time looking at the engine wiring for something burned or loose. It turned out that Dumbo just needed a bit of rest; after thirty minutes of sitting, the engine fired right up and ran smoothly for the rest of the drive to Mammoth.

Each time a wrench is thrown in the gears, I put on my happy pants and try to be as positive as possible about the cards Life has dealt me. So far, the wave hasn’t crashed down like it did in 2014, causing me to seriously reconsider my entire direction in life. Hiccups happen here and there, and I take them in stride as the next day comes and I continue to pursue my dreams and passions. But just over a month ago, I was dealt a handful of Uno cards. While playing poker. At the World Series of Poker Tournament in Las Vegas. I’m still trying to convince the other players that three “reverse’s” counts as three of a kind.

It was a beautiful day for riding on some snow. In the morning, I went skiing with a guy named John Dye, who had been a guest at the hotel for a month. He had also given me a pair of K2 Apaches to go skiing with, and I picked up a pair of boots for twenty-five bucks. Him and I had a blast, but it was short-lived. He grew tired around eleven and retreated to his room, leaving Morgean and I to ourselves. We hurried to my van and I ditched the skis for my board; Morgean wanted to ride steeps, and I wasn’t about to test my luck on that terrain with a set of skis. We took the gondola to the top of the mountain, then headed down the back side.

On the back side of Mammoth, there was a field of plush snow and beautifully formed wind lips to play on. I took the first triple set in stride, gliding off of lip one, clearing lip two, and landing peacefully on the back side of lip three. I was feeling good as I watched Morgean take off unbalanced from the next lip a hundred feet in front of me. “Eh, she must’ve left wrong,” I thought to myself as I disregarded the internal warning to scrub some speed.

As I was lifting off of the four-foot lip, I saw what she saw when she left it: another four foot lip ten feet down and ten feet out from the one I was now leaving. There was no good option for a landing and panic hit me for a fraction of a second. A fraction of a second was too long away from maintaining composure. I landed flat on the face of the next lip, watching my left knee bend medially instead of forwards like it should. I didn’t hear the tell-tale “pop” that most hear, but as soon as I was stationary, my hands went to my left knee and I yelled in a way that felt almost foreign.

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Neil prepping the sled for my Cadillac ride.

We hobbled down into a flat area and called ski patrol. I couldn’t weight my left leg at all. I sat down and instantly packed snow around my knee until ski patrol showed up to give me a luxurious cruise down from the top of the mountain. On the ride down, I found myself greatly appreciating Neil and all the other ski patrollers for the work they do on that mountain. They don’t get paid nearly enough, but that always seems to be the case in those lines of work. I’m glad they love what they do as much as I do!

The first week after the accident, I couldn’t do much other than lay around in Morgean’s van. My knee was considerably swollen. Walking was a chore; if I weighted my left knee slightly, I could feel it begin to dislocate either inwards or medially. The week consisted of loading bags of ice with snow, icing my knee on and off throughout the day, and taking ibuprofen.

I felt better after a week of lying around, but I was still hobbling. Laying in Morgean’s van for another week wasn’t exactly an option. I was going stir crazy. I went back to work after one week off, informing my manager that I would be slow to get work done, but could make it through eight-hour days of walking around. I wore a brace daily. Stairs were almost impossible. My left knee was able to move somewhere between ten degrees and eighty. I still wasn’t able to drive my own van, since my left leg was needed for the clutch pedal. I felt much better when I was finally doing something more than laying around, but it was still difficult to go through each day without some form of real physical exercise.

The lack of physical exercise was beginning to get to me. Throughout the first week, I was moderately happy because it seemed that my knee injury wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. But it was wearing on me by week two. I was dealing with all the struggles of living in a van in Mammoth, without any of the rewards. I would wake up on some mornings with a foot of fresh snow burying Dumbo, stranding me until I dug it out. Chains had to go on the tires every time even a few inches fell. Climbing into a cold sleeping bag every night took twice as long as I carefully moved my left leg inside of it. Each task had grown much more difficult from the reduced use of my left leg.

The following weeks were even harder than the first two. I could walk normally, but I still couldn’t snowboard or climb. I had a brand new pair of skis sitting in a storage closet, unable to be used. Morgean was my only voice of positivity. I kept talking to her about wanting to drop the van life thing and go towards the normal American lifestyle again, but thankfully she kept reminding me why I chose to head in this direction years ago. And on the fourth week, a miracle happened. We went to Bishop, like we normally do on weekends to escape the snow. I had gained eighty percent of my movement back in my knee, and I was feeling much more positive since arriving in Bishop and feeling the warm sun on my skin.

We went to the Sads, a boulder area neighboring the Happies. Morgean had a few project problems she was working on. I pulled my shoes and chalk out of Dumbo.

“What’re you doing,” she asked.

“I’m gonna climb some easy stuff,” I replied with a smile.

I picked boulder problems that were well below what my capabilities were, and paid extra attention to the use of my left leg. Every so often, I would try to bend it a bit too much or put too much weight on it, and it would instantly let me know that it wasn’t about to handle that. But I was careful, so it didn’t send me into a world of pain each time I pushed it a bit more than it wanted to go. We bouldered for about four hours. When we sat in our vans at the end of the night, my knee was feeling better than it had in weeks. There seemed to be a light shining at the end of the tunnel once again.

The following weekend, we drove to Alabama Hills to do some sport climbing. I was feeling happier by the day, looking forward to progressing the use of my left leg and climbing more rocks. We had agreed that Morgean would lead everything, and I would only climb on top-rope. I didn’t want to fall any distance and risk injuring my knee. I also didn’t want to be confronted with a climbing maneuver that was left-leg intensive. I’ve learned over the past few decades that there is no reason to push progress faster than it needs to go; it will often result in taking two steps back.

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Morgean racking up to lead “Lawless Riders.”

On the second day in Alabama Hills, Morgean attempted to climb Taming the Power of Small, a 5.10b on Sunday Matinee Wall. The route is thirty feet and four bolts. Mountain Project describes the route as “Fun steep face climbing up fat edges in between small crumbling holds.” Morgean had climbed a couple other tens the day prior, and was feeling stoked to give this one a go. After setting up the rope, strapping on our harnesses, and her putting on shoes, She started up the wall. The first bolt was twelve feet from the floor.

“Wow, this is really hard,” she said, as she slowly worked her way up to the first bolt. She didn’t appear to be struggling with the climb, but then again, the route wasn’t exactly easy to read. As she passed the first bolt and worked for the second, she reiterated her thoughts about the route’s difficulty. “I’m already feeling pumped!” She was progressively slowing down in her movements, spending more time deciphering where to move next and less time on executing those movements. When she got to the third bolt, she stopped dead in her tracks.

“Take,” she yelled with exasperation. “I can’t figure out where to move next. There’s nothing…” For ten minutes, she sat in her harness, looking at the wall’s blank face above her. “There’s a huge jug, but I can’t see any way to get to it,” she complained. “I don’t know what to do.” I let her hang there in her own world, hoping that her monologue with herself would open up an idea on how to move to that jug, four feet above her head. “I don’t think I can do it.”

When she finally gave in and asked to come down, I said “don’t worry about using a bail ‘biner. I’ll give it a shot and see what I can figure out.” Normally, a climb with this rating wouldn’t be much of a mental issue for me. It was vertical, meaning a fall wouldn’t likely result into smacking the rock once the rope ran taught. I have climbed numerous 10’s over the past year and succeeded in many, if not all of them. My only real concern was encountering a move which relied heavily on my left leg.

As I worked through the beginning of the route, I reminded myself, I don’t have to do this. I was climbing up this because I genuinely wanted to see what the problem was like, and was excited to attempt to figure it out. When I reached the third bolt, I was face-to-face with the blank section of wall. Directly in front of me, there was a flaky undercling and a sloping crimp just above it. Off to the right, there was another crimp; this one a bit less slope-y but a bit more crimpy. I tested my hands through different combinations of these three holds, while maneuvering my feet on tiny ledges below me. Nothing added up. The feet weren’t strong enough to turn the move dynamic; the hands weren’t solid enough for me to pull up to the jug, four feet overhead.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I was beginning to wonder if there was a missing hold, or maybe if I was going to get lowered down to the ground like Morgean. As I sat in my harness, hopelessly staring at the few options in front of me, Morgean yelled up to me to “just do it like Alan would do it!” At that moment, I looked to the left and saw what would be a line that had just enough possibility that it may work. There was a left foot on an almost vertical edge, a left hand on a decent pinch block, and the undercling for a right hand. “I’m gonna go for something here,” I yelled down to Morgean. “I don’t know if it’s gonna work, so be ready!” I got back on the wall, put my right hand in the undercling, grabbed the pinch, and started to place my left foot on the vertical edge.

Shit.

I had to get my entire foot turned sideways (think inside of arch against the wall), then angle it with toes pointed down to situate it on this edge. When it was on the edge, my knee was all but folded up into my chest. Putting it in that position wasn’t painful, but I could tell it was at its limit.

Can I stand on this? What if it gives out? Is it worth it? 

The last bolt was now a few feet below me, and I was off to the left side of it about six feet. A fall wouldn’t be terrible, but it could be devastating for my knee if I didn’t fall correctly. I pushed the thought out of my head. I wanted this move. I wanted to see it work. So with my head clear, I weighted my left foot and began to stand on it. Most of my mind was focused on the next hand hold, a vertical corner about three feet above my right hand’s current placement. But in the back of my mind, a slight bit of attention was still focused on my left leg. Just as I checked in on that part of my focus, my left foot slipped. I watched calmly as the thought of falling passed through my mind, exiting out into space again. I was still on the rock. My foot found traction and held on, so I continued standing up slowly.

I reached for the corner, found a tiny divot to get two half-pads in securely, then quickly bumped my right hand to a horizontal ledge connecting to the jug. I barely heard Morgean screaming with excitement thirty feet below me. “Derrick that was amazing! I am super impressed! I can’t believe you just did that!” I kept my focus as I got to the next bolt, clipped a draw to it, and then the rope to the draw. A huge sigh of relief escaped me as I yelled “Take!” down to Morgean. I needed to sit and recoup.

When I got back on the ground, I was in a state of bliss for my seemingly monumental accomplishment. One month prior, I was concerned and slightly depressed. I didn’t know how long recovery would be for my knee, or if our summer plans of climbing in Squamish would come to fruition. I wasn’t even sure if climbing would be a thing again at all. All I knew was that I’ve finally found my passions in life, and I wasn’t ready to throw out this script and grab another stack of blank paper. I want to keep reading this story. With Morgean’s constant help, I have been able to transform what negative thoughts I’ve had about what’s to come into positive ones. Morgean and I always joke that “all you need is hopes and dreams.” I think maybe, just maybe, it was all of those hopes and dreams that we kept talking about which turned on the lights in the tunnel again.

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