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The Prow

[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 60.–Ed.]

The author on the approach to Washington Column with Half Dome in the background, 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

The author on the approach to Washington Column with Half Dome in the background, 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

JANUARY 2014: LINCOLN, NEBRASKA. As Steven walked toward me down the bright, carpeted corridor, his white, push-broom mustache broadened over a smile. We knew each other, but not well. Friends whom I liked also liked him, and that’s as far as our relationship had gone. Apparently today was the day he’d agreed to give me a Reiki treatment, but time has little meaning when you live in a hospital. I was eating breakfast in the common area with all my new, crippled friends, and I wasn’t sure how Steven would respond to this place: the wheelchairs, the quadriplegics wearing large, cartoonish bibs, and the sanitized, medical smell of the halls where nurses hand out opiates like vitamins, and doctors dictate treatment notes for bedsores at hallway phones.

My neighbor in 122 ate meals only in her room, and she was discharged after a month without ever talking to us. I once heard her arguing with her mother about eating with the group. “I’m not going out there with those people!” she hissed. I wondered when she’d accept the reality of her motionless legs, but of course I understood why she didn’t want to be one of us; I didn’t want to, either.

For the first couple of weeks, I preferred my meals alone, or with healthy, able-bodied visitors. I didn’t like it out there for the same reason “normal” people didn’t. But eventually, I had questions that my friends on the outside couldn’t answer, and I began to realize that I wasn’t “on the outside” anymore.

Steven sat down at the breakfast table and introduced himself with a slight bow to Art, who was across from me in his power chair. Art tried to say hello but the bandage covering the old ventilator hole in his throat flapped as the breath blew past in a short exhale, and his lips moved silently to shape the air that never came. Art shrugged and dabbed at the bandage with his curled fingers. Steven smiled and nodded, so I stopped worrying about him. I was beginning to accept this place, and I only wanted to be around people who could do the same.

“I don’t know anything about Reiki,” I told Steven as I ate, trying to mask my skepticism. He gave a brief history of the practice and his training and experience. The description reminded me of the “healing touch energy work” my mom used to champion, and I softened a bit thinking of her. “I’ll be an extension cord to energy in the Universe,” he said. “I can’t promise that it’ll help. All I can promise is that I’ll be present with you.”

In my room, I sat in my wheelchair while Steven moved his hands over my head, back and legs. Occasionally he chanted in low, hushed breaths. I tried to relax, but I latched onto every new sound: the hum of the heater to my left, the rhythm of footsteps in the hall, the ringing of a distant phone at the nurses’ station.

“If you have a religious tradition, Alex, go there now,” Steven said, his voice cutting through the noise. Having none, I wondered where exactly to go, but as I closed my eyes and gently let go of my breath, I found myself standing on a breezy alpine slab, hundreds of feet above battered talus and hummocked grass. I recognized it as the Spearhead in Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park. The sun felt warm on my shoulders, and my dry palms were at ease on the thick flake of rock above my chest. I pivoted on the balls of my feet, chalking each hand in turn as I scanned the cirque. Pagoda, a wide lump of broken slab, defined the southern edge, and sharp towers marked the ridge north to Longs Peak. Trees, now small and distant, obscured the lakes and drainages as this ancient glacial valley dropped away from view.

I realized that two dead friends had joined me on this slabby ledge. Ricky, packing a dip and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, feigned surprise while he pretended to fall, and then he chuckled to himself. Squinting against the haze, Charlie nodded at me as he looked down over the route, his taut, thick forearms and square shoulders evidence of his earnest approach to climbing and life. Both looked strong, happy, and in their prime. I wanted to sink deep into this peaceful moment, to be present with men I’d last seen in caskets. I felt for the scrape of dry granite against my fingers and listened to the deep silence of the peak. As I did, the power, meaning and value of the vision grew. at place may not have been real, but it was now.

I HAD NEVER BEEN A GOOD CLIMBER. I never established new routes or climbed hard grades, but those things didn’t attract me to the mountains. I loved the keen focus that arose from two feet smeared on an alpine slab as I ascended to an airy summit ridge. I loved to sit in silence as the plains, golden and endless, fell away all around me, before I descended to the cool shade of tree line. Days like those seemed to be the only way I could cut through my mental clutter and move beyond the endless processing that is my mind. I never placed enough gear to learn to do so with pace and rhythm, so I mostly stopped placing any. Living for a time in Laramie, I avoided Vedauwoo’s famous crystalline offwidths and instead soloed steep, gritty slabs, bright with fluorescent green lichen. Again and again, I tiptoed across individual crystals where it seemed a deep breath was enough to cut your feet loose and send you skidding to sage and sand below.

As much as I loved climbing, however, it never drove my life decisions. In 2010, with a baby on the way, my wife and I left the Rockies to be closer to family in Nebraska. We started a vegetable farm, and I worked as an arborist, climbing, pruning and removing trees for extra cash. Like aid climbers, tree climbers hang from their gear, except that arborists tie into and belay themselves from a dynamic, living thing: the tree. When a breeze shakes the leaves, you feel each limb buck and yield, and your harness pulls as the tie-in sways. In my job, I used ropes, pulleys, chainsaws and some off-the-cuff physics to cut and lower 500-pound chunks of wood away from threatened houses. I missed climbing rocks, but as we welcomed twin daughters and our farm business expanded, my life was drifting away from the mountains.

I considered selling my seldom-used ice tools and crampons, but decided against it. Instead, I built an ice tower on an old farm power pole. Some of the last photos I have of my able-bodied self depict me bundled inside a tattered, hand-me-down belay jacket in front of that tower. A week later, I was being cut out of my car and loaded into a helicopter. Paralyzed from the waist down, I wondered what the hell just happened to my life.

Alex McKiernan in the hospital with his family four days after the car crash. I have no memory of this, he said. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

Alex McKiernan in the hospital with his family four days after the car crash. “I have no memory of this,” he said. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

THE FIRST TWO WEEKS in the hospital were a blur of grief, pain and drugs. My legs were numb and my hips burned with an itchy fire that engulfed my mind. I slept restlessly each night only after a cocktail of opioids and muscle relaxants. Nurse aides turned me every four hours so I wouldn’t develop bedsores, and each morning I awoke inside an intricate nest of pillows that propped me up in strange positions. Several times each day, I’d push the call button and a nurse, usually a woman, would come in with rubber gloves, lube and a sixteen-inch long catheter, which she then buried through the tip of my dick until the attached bag warmed my thigh. I never associated women touching me with pain and embarrassment, all of which underscored the depth of loss that I felt. My bowels, also paralyzed, didn’t move without drugs, enemas or “digital stimulation,” which I refused to provide for myself. One nurse who pushed me to be independent told me that he’d help. Holding up his fat index finger, he said, “It’ll only take one time.”

My injury was “incomplete,” which meant there was a possibility of full recovery, but also of no recovery. Early in my treatment, I often reflected on my mom’s death from cancer years before. “I’m going to beat this,” she told me shortly before her mind became muddled with tumors and shot full of holes from radiation. At that time, I felt sorry for her unrealistic hopes and guilty for my own doubts. Now, I was determined to be aware of the reality I faced–and to keep a clear perspective on everything I still had.

Ten days after the crash, I said to a friend, “If I never walk again…” but he cut me off. “You will walk again!” he half-shouted. The room grew quiet as I sat in my wheelchair, staring at the floor. I hated the idea of not walking, but I didn’t hate myself, and at that point I couldn’t even move my legs. While I appreciated my friend’s attempt at motivation, I felt that adopting such ungrounded optimism would imply a kind of self-hatred. Was there something intrinsically wrong with me as a paraplegic? I didn’t think so, and it seemed silly and backwards to wait months or years before learning to love my disabled self after my recovery had ended.

Uncertainty creates fear, which prevents physical, mental and emotional growth. I’d tasted that cold, metallic horror before, solo in the mountains, and I knew where it led: down. Through climbing I’d learned that fear is just the nightmare version of an unknown future. When dwelled upon, it erodes presence, just as the anticipation of a fall removes you from a climb. Alex Honnold once spoke of how he became “freed of the little prison” created by fear only by trusting himself, the rock and his movements. On lead and afraid, I’d learned to accept each moment without judgment, and then continue on. Shortly after the crash, I decided to do the same.

AFTER A FEW MONTHS of inpatient treatment, I moved back home and began two years of outpatient physical therapy. My new therapist heard I was a climber, and she gave me a copy of Mark Wellman’s book Climbing Back. In 1982, while descending Seven Gables in the Sierra Nevada, Mark slipped on scree and tumbled hundreds of feet down a steep slope. He spent twenty-two hours alone above 12,000 feet while waiting for rescue. His injury was considered “incomplete” like mine. My recovery was progressing quickly, and I could now walk short distances with a walker. I began thinking beyond my disability and wondered how I could lead climb again.

McKiernan enjoys the sunrise from a portaledge on Washington Column on his first attempt in 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

McKiernan enjoys the sunrise from a portaledge on Washington Column on his first attempt in 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

A year after the crash, I persuaded the local rehab hospital and university to bring Mark to Nebraska to speak to patients and teach an adaptive climbing course. Mark’s bushy mustache widened with a quick and regular smile, and his easy laughter filled the five-day visit. I showed him a set of adjustable aiders I’d fashioned with motion-capture pulleys and an old arborist rope. My quads allowed me to stand, but my weak hip flexors made lifting and controlling my legs extremely difficult, so I was hopeful that these etriers would allow me to lead on aid. Mark warned me about the dangers of leading for folks with limited mobility, and the damage that a fall could do to rest-weakened bones, muscles and ligaments. Although I’d tested my aid system in the gym, I’d never tried taking a fall. I told myself that if I didn’t climb harder than C2, and if I bounced the hell out of every piece, then I’d be safe.

Shortly after Mark’s visit, I was in Yosemite with old friends. We picked the East Face of Washington Column for the “short” approach and the steepness of the wall, which was easier for me to jug than a slab. On that trip, I seconded, cleaned and led a short section of a bolt ladder. Six months later, I made my aiders more comfortable and secure by clipping them directly to loops I’d sewn into some old hiking boots. I led two pitches on our first day before bonking hard as I reached the second anchor. We bailed the next morning. The following spring, a friend and I spent four nights low on Zodiac. I cleaned every pitch we climbed, but steady rain and spray from Horsetail Falls left us soggy, tense and full of anger. We were soon back on the ground, where my daydreams returned to leads on Washington Column.

OCTOBER 2016, YOSEMITE. Before dawn, I headed east along the paved trail under Royal Arches. My wheelchair creaked, and the light from my headlamp disappeared into the darkness of the forest. Big rains the night before had cleared most climbers from the Valley walls, and I hoped my partner and I would have the route to ourselves. As the pavement curved south toward Tenaya Creek, I left the path and went north into a clearing. The metallic blue frame of my wheelchair looked alien against the brown pine needles that covered the ground. Leaving the security and ease of my chair, I made for the switchbacks, relying on crutches to keep me upright. The rhythmic click of each aluminum crutch and the scratch of my toes through the duff marked my slow progress uphill.

After an hour of hiking, I had travelled 500 feet, and I sat at the base of the wall to rest. With the dark granite at my back, I turned off my headlamp and took in the predawn silence. I was still hours of slow, deliberate hiking from the start of the climb, and as my sweat cooled, a chill rippled through my body. I pushed myself up to stand, and then waited for the inevitable leg spasms to pass.

Three hours later, I reached the base of the Prow. My climbing partner Todd and his fiancee, Kat, passed me on their way up with the haul bags. They had fixed the first pitch of the climb the day before, and now Kat helped us get organized before Todd and I jugged into the sunshine, leaving her behind. After Todd led the second pitch, I struggled on lead to reach Anchorage Ledge. The last move–if you could even call it that–required me to stand up without an aid placement to secure my feet. With long slings and some luck, I covered the final eight feet in about thirty minutes of intense concentration. At the bolts, I hung and panted like a cartoon dog. Todd led and cleaned the fourth pitch while I set up our bivy. Well after dark, ours were the last headlamps visible in the Valley.

McKiernan tests his adaptive leading system for the first time on Washington Column in 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

McKiernan tests his adaptive leading system for the first time on Washington Column in 2015. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

On day two, the first lead was mine, but all I wanted was water and a pillow. Above the fourth anchor, I tried repeatedly to sink a little cam into a faint seam. It popped twice while I bounce-tested it. The sun, now clear of Half Dome, shone hot on my back. My mouth was dry, and my confidence soon evaporated. I continued at a snail’s pace up a corner with a shallow, flaring crack. “I know I don’t need to apologize, but I wish I could move faster,” I said to Todd more than once. Midwestern through and through, I then apologized for apologizing. My feet tangled together as I tried to drag them up, and my legs twitched in spasms that took effort to control. At an old, frayed copperhead, I stopped to place a small offset cam so I could hang and reset my convoluted system. Hypnotized by the soaring, blank slab above, I pulled my feet toward the piece. A moment later, in free fall, a short “Oh!” was all I could muster before I flipped upside down. I stared at Todd, now just ten feet below me. The offset had blown, and I had dropped about fifteen feet before another cam caught my fall.

Todd’s eyes narrowed. “How ya doin’, bro?” he said, his voice quiet and even.

I fought to right myself and remain calm. “I’m good, bro, how are you?”

But my head was just then catching up to my body: my harness wasn’t very tight and my mind, now high on adrenaline, ran wild with “what-if” visions of slipping out of the harness, dropping onto Todd, and then cartwheeling to the ground 500 feet below. Doubt swelled in my gut as I struggled to place myself back in the moment–this moment, where I was safe, on belay, and hanging from a fat cam.

“Do I have to fucking re-aid it?” I asked the wall. Leaning in close, I closed my eyes. My helmet scraped against lichen and I took in the musty air of the seam. I wanted to lead, to be here, but I was somewhere else–I was falling.

NOW NINE PITCHES UP, our gear was tangled in the lead line, and the bright green rope wound tightly around the blue haul bag like a net trapping a tropical fish. I needed to free it so Todd could finish the haul. I sized up the required sliding-swing across the wall and frowned: I’d have to traverse twenty feet of steep slab, and then drop down into a corner where the bag rested. I could leave a piece and lower out, but an able-bodied climber wouldn’t need to, and I didn’t want to, either. It looked as though hitting that hard granite corner would hurt, and a moment later, it did. I grimaced and hung in the shade of the bag while the pain eased. I was thirsty, hungry and battered. But here, just below the ninth anchor on the Prow, I felt energized because our bivy atop Washington Column was two easy pitches away.

My thoughts drifted to dinner, tomorrow’s descent of North Dome Gully on crutches, and my wife and daughters back on the Plains. I became conscious that my mind was hurtling past another unique moment, and remembered my Reiki treatment years before: “All I can promise is that I’ll be present,” Steven had said.

I slowed my breathing and closed my eyes. My swollen, painful fingers touched the cool rock and I leaned into the rope. My body tingled with pain and excitement. The distant, muffled sound of the haulbag dragging through the gully filtered down to me. Swallows dove past nearby, their wings audibly cutting the air. Thoughts drifted into my mind, and, unengaged, they drifted away. As I inhaled deeply I imagined the massive granite column breathing with me, each breath unique from, but dependent upon, the last.

–Alex McKiernan, Martell, Nebraska

McKiernan and Todd prepare for a long descent from the top of Washington Column after climbing the Prow in 2016. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

McKiernan and “Todd” prepare for a long descent from the top of Washington Column after climbing the Prow in 2016. [Photo] Alex McKiernan collection

[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 60.–Ed.]