Separate Realities: Accident and recovery update

Post Edit: This post was written one-handed on an iPhone during my last days in the hospital. There’s a lot I’d liked to have fixed, but I don’t like to perform large edits once a post goes “live.”  this is the first of what will likely be several posts reflecting different periods of recovery. Check back for more as time goes on. Hopefully I’ll be more coherent. This post was mostly me ranting, raving, and being angry to keep myself busy in the hospital room. Though the writing is poor, it served the purpose of mass-updating my friends and family, that was the only intent for this piece. </ PostEdit>


If you drive through the valley, all you have to do is take one turn an everything changes. Suddenly you’re out of the lowlands and riding tunnels through the walls of Yosemite high above ground. Park at one of these tunnels and you can scramble straight off the rim. Rig your rappel at the right spot and your reality changes again as you drop into panic for a moment landing in 40′ of pure freespace before you are deposited at the base of the iconic climb “Separate Reality.” You’re  not the ground, but you’re  not on the wall either. Yet. Anchor your belayer and lieback up for 30′, and then prepare your soul for the final transition as the world goes horizontal again. Unfortunately , you’re on the wrong side of the earth and have to crawl back out, you’re in the Separate Reality.

  Photo: Jacob Bodkin Photography

You’re not exactly on the wall, and you didn’t start on the earth, and this certainly isn’t vertical. It’s pretty out there.

This route was established by Ron Kauk, mixed up in the advent of cams, sent by the Kings of yosemite, and legendary from free solo ascents such as Wolfgang Güllich (who sent the first 5.14d), Alex Honnold and (of course) Dean Potter.

So it’s obvious that I had to touch the thing when I came to The Valley, Separate Reality is more dear to my heart than any climb on earth, even more so than The Nose.

Fairy Dreams:

In another reality… Everything was laid out in our canvas shelter for visitors on that rainy night as I adjusted my sleeping space. There, that’s comfy, Daniel would probably appreciate if I snored less, perhaps a comfy space  would help! As everyone arrived and I doled out sleeping supplies I realized this sturdy little shelter would be a fully packed house tonight. Surrounded by friends, all geared up for days of adventure, a good shelter so everyone can rest, welcome to Camp Mojo indeed! Rolling over onto my mat it occurred to me that I had never felt so comfortable , so at peace, or so happy. Being able to facilitate everyone’s trip like this is the ultimate satisfaction.

False Reality:

I could feel the world spinning like someone had tossed me in with the laundry. I couldn’t even feel what way was up. Opening my eyes clued me back in to reality once more. Can I go back to my canvas shelter now?

  • I had been in a fall
  • This was my third night in the hospital
  • I have 5 fractured vertebrae
  • My wrist and skull are fractured
  • I have no sense of equilibrium, I cannot feel up and down
  • 9 staples are holding the wound in my head closed
  • I am completely deaf in my left ear
  • I have double vision and my eyes refuse to focus on anything further than three feet away
  • My doctor says the loss of equilibrium means I will never climb again
  • I say that’s horse-shit

I have six months to learn up from down again, whatever Cerebellar dysfunction remains after that will likely be permanent. The doctors say I will have a hard path to a normal recovery. He also says I will never climb again, he obviously has no proper concept of what “normal” means for this patient.

Photo: Julia Watson

Road to Reality

Here’s my recovery plan: I will send “Separate Reality” on, or at least I n time for Dean Potter’s one year anniversary. Dean isn’t dead, he’s just not here man.
Just practice

That idyllic scene in the shelter never happened, it was just a dream produced in the delirium of extreme duress on the fine line between sleep and reality. I awoke from that dream state in the middle of my own private nightmare, but at least it seems my brain was already trying to bring me home the only way it could: in my dreams. Thanks for the help little buddy, I’m guessing the sweet dreams were your way of saying “thanks for the helmet!” Now my brain and I have to partner up for a more permanent return this time as I begin my #RoadToReality. It’ll be long, and it won’t be easy…. But hell…

“Life is uncomfortable, but that’s why it’s so fun”
-Daniel Woods on lessons learned from Dean Potter

Recovery Notes:

  • I can focus in mid distance now. Rare bits of blurred vision, I can focus all the way out to about 50yds
  • I no longer experience vertigo when my eyes close, but stil need assistance walking straight since I can’t feel “down” very well
  • Still deaf in my left ear
  • We need to have my left wrist inspected for risks of complications including necrosis of the bone. With luck the blood supply to my scaffoid bone remains intact through all of this

  Photo: Jacob Bodkin Photography

 What the FUCK happened

Here’s the best guess for what caused the accident based on my fractured memories and reports from the scene. 

  1. I was on the first pitch of “The Nose” (5.10+ or C2)
  2. I wanted to free the moves, but the crack was too wet to climb safely.
  3. I feared slipping on wet rock would send me on an unpredictable fall through the low angle blocky terrain
  4. I began leapfrogging link cams as handholds while leaving C4’s as pro. I don’t trust link cams so under no circumstance would I allow them to be the only point between me and the ground.
  5. I planned to leave fall protection every 10-20′ while aiding. Because of the wet I remember deciding to leave gear every 3-6′ just in case.
  6. Wet gear is less likely to hold, so I was avoiding purely parallel placements (PS: Terribly written. I was placing in bottlenecks as often as possible…), and exploiting my offset cams. I was also leaving extra gear in to shorten fall potential and hopefully limit impact forces to give the gear every chance to stick, plus the extra gear should’ve been there in case it didn’t
  7. Reports state I fell 20′ to the ledge atop the “Pine Line” with no gear arresting the fall. Daniel reports that the rope never came tight on his belay (which was solid).
  8. Given those known facts:
  • My link cam must have popped when I pulled on it
  • All of my fall-protection cams must have ripped out when I fell
  • Judging by my injuries, the fall was upside down. Or at least my landing was
  • Perhaps my aid gear failed before I was able to fully deploy my fall protection system, Though I find it unlikely I would expose myself to danger like that.
  • There were three parties lined up and we were at the head of the line, I can surmise that it’s possible the pressure of being responsible for a traffic jam could have caused me to brainfart on my well made plan, but ultimately we will never know for sure. I remember climbing and evac. I don’t remember falling or hitting the ledge.
  • You know what? Fuck this shit, I need to stick to soloing…. The gear is MUCH more predictable and complains loudly before its at risk for failure….

“There are only a few more moves left to the obvious holds where the roof starts and the world turns horizontal; these holds are the last position of safety. Then I will move into the ‘other reality.’ Separate Reality free solo—out onto the edge of the roof and over it—is what I want to do! The crippling fear that made my every move freeze at the very thought and left my hands damp with sweat is gone.

Finally I have all the information I can get about the route. I know every detail, know how much strength it is going to require…. I have already done the route with a rope several times without mistake. But having to do everything perfectly can cause you to freeze up, to obstruct the precision of your climbing, to prevent you moving economically. What would that mean? Maybe somewhere out there on the roof the vicious circle of panic would start and you would be left to shrivel up with your hands locked in the crack.”

-Wolfgang Güllich on preparing for Separate Reality

 Güllich described the free solo as entering ‘another reality in free climbing.’

‘An incredible feeling of joy melts all the tension and I suddenly have the impression that it was not a game of gambling with my life; it was not subjectively dangerous. I sit in the sun on the flat summit plateau – the ‘other reality’ is now part of the past. It is the thought of death that teaches us to value life.’
 – after his first free solo – ‘Separate Reality’, Yosemite Valley, 1986.

More on Gullich here

well, that’s enough for me to digest this week. I’ve dissected the accident to my satisfaction, assessed my injuries, plotted a course to heal, and fixed my motivation by tying my past and my heroes into my future. Here’s hoping my #RoadToReality goes well, I’m looking forward to clawing out of this nightmare. It certainly beats the alternative!

“We are the last of the Wild. If we keep excluding the next most-wild-creature, sooner or later there will be nothing left.”
-Dean Potter

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