In my life I’ve had a few close calls with broken bones, but it was an accident on the rain-slicked California coast which had me in my first cast. While on a weekend camp out with the Boy Scouts to the beautiful Limekiln State Park in Big Sur, myself and two other boys, being the most senior on the trip, had plenty of time to hike and explore on our own. We were accomplished pioneers and were well on our way to earning Eagle Scout—which all three of us eventually did—and so the adults didn’t think much of it when we said we were heading to the beach to enjoy the sand and waves under the low-hanging rainclouds. It was cold, enough so that I wore sweats under my normal pants, and though the beach was interesting, its rocky makeup reminded me a lot of the shores near my home, which meant the exploration didn’t hold that much excitement for me.
I don’t know which one of us noticed that the mountainside, which lead up to the twisting and scenic Highway 1, and thought it would be a fun endeavor to climb it. After all, the road couldn’t have been more than 100′ up and we had each of us spent many hours at our local climbing gym. With all of the ego our teenaged minds could muster, we began to scale the cliffs, I on a face to the left and my companions on another to the right.
The rocks I clamored up weren’t the most stable, largely being weather-beaten shale, but the increasing slope didn’t bother me too much. I could hear my friends monkeying their way up their own cliff, and I wanted to show them that I belonged in the club as well—even from a young age I had difficulty with self-validation. Above me there was an overhang, no more than a few feet, but enough that I had to suspend myself by my fingertips and pull myself up and over it. With muscles sore but fueled by a newfound sense of accomplishment, I continued my ascent, hearing the sound of passing cars on the road above.
One of my friends decided to try his hand on my rock face, and jumped from his over to mine, below the treacherous overhang. We three were still joking and posturing when I felt the first few sprinkles of rain hit my hands, and saw the rocks around me darkening with the increasing downpour. I knew climbing in the rain was a very poor idea, and so I judged the distance remaining to go up versus the difficulty of going down, and opted to try and continue my climb.
As I set my left foot to propel myself upward, the rock came loose and tumbled past the overhang, leaving me scrambling to find purchase on the slick, wet shale. “Hey, stop throwing rocks at me!” my friend below yelled out in an almost-joking manner, deciding it was better to hop back to his original climb rather than be battered with anything else I might send down. In reality I was too scared to answer, holding on by two sets of already-strained fingers as the rock beneath my right started to crumble and disappear, sending a shower of pebbles, wet dust, and sharp shards careening over the edge.
Perhaps it’s something of a false memory, but I can picture quite clearly the moment my hands fell loose, either the strain of holding myself up too much for the tender digits or the rocks unable to support the weight, and turning around, facing the dull grey ocean, arms and legs skittering for any hope against flying off the overhang. It seemed to leap up at me with the ferocity of a pouncing jaguar.
I found no purchase, and was airborne.
Now, here’s where my recollection differs from my friends’, and while I’m pretty sure they weren’t the ones with a severe concussion, it remains a vivid and clear memory of mine, that which happened after the unceremonious drop onto hard stone, and the rough and rugged tumble onto the rocky beach beyond.
I remember feeling the visceral thud of my body as it bounced off the hard stones, finally coming to rest near the water’s edge on the coarse sand. I remember standing up and screaming—perhaps more a yell borne of the adrenaline in my system than out of fear or pain or triumph at still being alive. I remember seeing my two friends race down their rock face and come to my aid, suggesting that I need to lay down. I refused, wanting to check myself over for injuries, and I distinctly remember them knocking me to the ground so they could make sure I was alright.
Their recollection has me laying motionless on the cold shore, both of them thinking I had died. They approached and slapped me into consciousness, at which point I was disoriented and needed their help to stand.
Whatever the truth, I had torn clear through my hiking pants and sweats, and both my sweater and t-shirt were ripped and ragged. I took one look at the darkening sky, full of rain, and decided I needed a flashlight to get back to camp. My friends followed me as I—probably staggeringly—made my way to the small ranger station, wherein I bought a small keychain light. I can only imagine what silent exchange there had been between the ranger and my friends as this soaking wet, dirty, bloody, tattered child walked in and asked for a flashlight in what was probably slurred speech.
Using the pitiful light, we returned to the camp’s facilities, and I took the opportunity to really look at the extent of my injuries. My ribs hurt all over, my right hip was purple, and I had shooting pains in my left forearm. Different parts of me were swelling and I felt miserable. Trying to wash off the sand and skree as best as we could, we ambled—I ambled, they walked—back to camp proper, just in time for the other scouts and adult leaders to be cooking their respective dinners.
I remember sitting on a thick log, cradling my left hand, ignoring the dense rainfall which had picked up while we were looking over my injuries. My friends cooked dinner but I couldn’t bring myself to eat. I went and laid down in the tent we had pitched earlier, beneath expansive trees which would provide cover in case of rain—this wasn’t our first adventure in threatening weather, after all.
Please note, unequivocally, that if anyone around you has possibly had a head injury, 1) get immediate help, and 2) do not let them go to sleep. My friends were either convinced I had things under control—there’s that age-old trait of not being able to ask for help rearing up again—or felt I wasn’t in as much danger as I could have been, and so went about their evening as I twitched and shook in my bedroll.
The next morning the troop woke up and began to cook a small breakfast—instant oatmeal packets were a favorite when we weren’t hiking—where my friend’s father, who had come in the night to relieve another adult leader, saw me staring listlessly into the middle distance in my tent. “What happened?” he asked. Being a local police officer, he was well-versed in identifying when something wasn’t right with a situation. His question wasn’t if something had happened, but what.
“I fell down,” I murmured meekly, looking up at him through bleary eyes.
“Boys,” the man pointed to my two friends, “pack up. We’re leaving right now.” His tone brooked no argument.
With surprising rapidity we piled our gear—okay, they piled the gear, I sat mutely in the truck holding myself against the pain—and began the drive back to civilization. Once we were in range of cell towers the adult called my mother and asked her to meet us at the church that sponsored our Boy Scout troop; I was hurt and needed medical attention. Admittedly, I don’t remember the details of that car ride, other than the way the sheets of rain blew in comforting patterns against the equally-grey sea as we headed South.
Making a long story short, my mother met us and took me directly to the emergency room—we would surely sort out the transfer of my gear and equipment later—where a doctor reiterated the scout leader’s question: “what happened?”
I, feeling catty for some reason, replied that “I fought a mountain, and the mountain won.” My mother tutted and told me to be serious. I explained that I had been climbing and was caught in the rain, falling down onto the hard, rocky beach. He asked me where I was hurting, and I pointed to my wrist, several ribs, my hip, and long stretches of muscle in my legs and back. X-Rays were ordered, and off I went.
After the X-Rays a doctor said they’d have results back soon, but that nothing seemed broken and so would likely be fine. My mom however, being a registered nurse herself, took one look at my wrist and proclaimed “that’s a broken arm” and set me up with an immobilizing splint. I went back to school on Monday morning and shared the story of my death-defying climb (and fall) to classmates. They asked if I were hurt so bad, why didn’t I have a hard cast? That I couldn’t answer.
Several days later the hospital called back, saying that I had definitely broken my wrist and that I needed to come in immediately for casting. I don’t remember my mother ever being smug but I can’t help but imagine there was some “I told you so” in her eyes when she brought me in, having ensured I could not move my hand or wrist on her own suspicions rather than the doctor’s cavalier assumptions.
All told, we only counted “some” broken bones—several of the tiny bones in my wrist had either been crushed or re-fused in different patterns—and nothing was ever really said or done about my ribs or hip, which in time healed of their own accord. Some years later I had occasion to re-visit the Lime Kilns for a day trip, and I pointed out the place from which I fell. With rough guessing we came up with over 35 feet, which seemed pretty accurate to me—it sure felt at the time like I was thrown off a three-story building onto hard rock.
It may have taken some time for me to learn the lessons taught to me that weekend, and some I still haven’t fully internalized, but I hope that, by this point twenty years later, I’ve learned at least a little to ask for help when needed, and know when I need to take a step back from leadership. Ideally my friends will also know by now what to do when they see me take a nasty tumble that leads me to slur my speech and stumble along a rocky and broken shore, holding my wrist at a funny angle.
Header image provided by the National Parks Service
Thank you Shannon P for the topic suggestion!