Episode 2: Death

Plate V of an artwork contemplating the idea of Fate…By: Jethro Watson

I awoke with such calm. If it is at all possible, this was were I was meant to be. My dogs came in for their morning hellos, a quick cuddle and a reminder that they wanted to go out, there was a whole world out there to explore. I opened my tent and stepped out into the cool Cederberg morning, stunning in its winter clarity. I walked down the road to where it overlooked the dam and waited for my dogs to come back round the corner. I felt an alignment so deep that my entire being was at peace, my dogs, this place, the sacrifices, the training, the transformation, the achievement. It was as if I had discovered some kind of personal cosmic compass and although I couldn’t put it into words, I felt that I was firmly heading in the right direction. I walked back to my tent, made a fresh press of coffee, the click of my gas stove and the smell of coffee in the tent were hallmarks of the life Id chosen to live. A nomadic life of climbing, and living in the outdoors with my dogs, wherever that might take me. I walked over to greet Nick, we were heading out to a new area, time to do some first ascents in Rocklands.

Home in Rocklands
Photo by: Jethro Watson

We drove out and parked on the side of the road at the top of the Pakhuis Pass closer to Clanwilliam than most of the established climbing. The amazing vistas which greeted us in that section of the pass were novel and beautiful, ridges of rock and green, and a valley with secrets untold. My dogs were loving the freedom, no paths and large areas to explore as we walked out to find Nick’s project, a proud highball boulder which he said could go at 7C or higher. I wasn’t planning to climb it, just to take photos of him doing so. Id climb something altogether more tame, something a bit safer. The area was a maze of rock we went over the ridge but we didn’t take the most direct path. Nick eventually found what he was looking for but we would have to go round and up to get there. The going was kind of tough and the uphill was tiring. But we were almost at our destination.

The details are a bit sketchy in my mind, perhaps it was the tiredness of the hike and uphill, perhaps my mind just stopped recording to make way for my body to act. I was approaching a ridge of some one and a half meters high, I was trying to circumvent this ridge when I noticed that the rock I was passing was moving too quickly. Going up hill as I was, I was expecting to see first the side then the top of this rock, which I did, but something in my mind clicked that this was happening too fast.

On the left is the shelf from which the boulder slid…In the lower right corner is the boulder that assailed me
Photo by: Nick Muehlhausen

My body moved fast, especially considering the weight I was carrying, I remember pushing off with my legs and turning at the same time, desperately trying to put distance between me and the boulder coming towards me. I remember hitting the ground and feeling the push of the boulder that kept my momentum going further than my initial jump. I remember feeling my left leg bend back up and over my knee in a very unnatural way, the acute snapping noise of the bone breaking and then an intense pressure on my right leg. My adrenaline spiked, I could feel the rush. The pain hit me. But what hurt I couldn’t say. My breathing was sharp. The pain was everywhere.

I knew I had issues.

Breathe in, I told myself. Pay attention, assess.

I turned to look back at my legs, the left was bent out under the knee and was clearly broken, my jeans were torn and I could see the blood. Well, that’s not good.

My right leg was pinned at the knee under the boulder, I couldn’t tell how badly injured it was. But I knew I needed help, and fast.

“Nick” I yelled.

“Are you okay” He answered.

“No”

“I’m Coming buddy”

Nick came dodging down the mountain slope to me. He took one look at me and went into action, trying to assess how to get me out from under the boulder.

“I’m gonna get you out of here bud”. He tried to lift the boulder without effect. “Ok I’m gonna try to get your pack off”. My head was reeling and I was breathing hard, the pain and shock taking full effect. But I used the adrenaline rush my body had reacted with to keep me focused, there was work to do. I helped Nick unclip my pack, just to stay with the process more than being useful. He got the pack off me and looked at the pinned leg, digging around it to clear some space. He said I was pinned on a rock underneath, I tried to turn slightly, more onto my stomach, to see if I could get the leg into a better position to pull it out. I think this worked but the pain lanced through me like the fire of hell itself, I realized the damage must be pretty bad.

“I’m going to try to lift it” which brought me back out of the alternate dimension of pain.

I looked around and saw an exposed rock in front of me, there was a small ridge I could crimp, I readied myself. Nick lifted, the boulder moved, I pulled and was free. By some Power of Greyskull, he had lifted that thing and got me out. He helped me move into a more ‘comfortable’ position on my back. The pain was all too real, It was all I could experience, every other sense dulled by its insistence. I was breathing sharply and erratically, my breath and the involuntary screams controlled purely by the pain.

Nick looked at my right leg, “Man, you are broken” He said. “I’m going to tourniquet it”

I couldn’t see what he was doing, I couldn’t lift my head, my struggle was elsewhere, internal at that point. Trying to drive sanity back through the shock and pain. As he pulled the tourniquet tight around my leg, I screamed. But somehow it helped me back. The pain which had been the unravelling of my mind seconds earlier, seemed to tether me to reality. I raised my head to look at Nick.

“Do I make this man”

“What?”

“Do I make it”

“I’m gonna get you outa here okay”

He gave me a bottle of water, I drank some and splashed some on my face. This helped bring me back into the moment again. “I feel really bad I cant be here but I need to get help” Nick said.

“You need to do what you need to do, please hurry, I don’t want to die from loss of blood”

He stood, turned and ran. I was left alone with the pain and the uncertainty of the severity of the injury. I could barely move due the pain, let alone sit and an examine myself. I had no idea if I was at risk of death or not. The pain and the shock were overwhelming, I had no idea where I was. Would I live. Would I walk again. Would I climb again. It was all too much and my sanity crumbled.

From then time became distorted, my mind went into automatic. It cut out certain elements of reality to focus on what was necessary. It focused internally, through the pain and shock, through dreams of the future and layers of the past and found what it needed to survive. Focus on Consciousness. Focus of Breathing. Don’t think about the future. I was in uncharted territory, plunged through that thin sheet of ice that we walk on every day, down into the deep cold water below. It was Chaos. I had left order and was firmly in the realm of Chaos. But I was still there, and that pure state of experience held a special sort of significance.

Focus. Focus. Focus on consciousness. Aaaargh. No. Focus. Focus on the moment, you could do that before…do it again now. Aaaargh. Focus, dammit. Focus on this moment. Focus on your breath. Breathe. You need to breathe. Breath in. Brea… Aaaaaaaargh…ok don’t move…Breathe in…breathe out…slower…breathe in…breathe out…ok this is working….argh…stay focused…drop into that space where its just experience….breathe in…breathe out…but the pain. Argh. Aaaargh. Water, need water.

I craned my neck over to see the bottle, i managed to reach for it. Although every movement cost me pain, I had seemed to gain some composure through this brief journey into this internal world of consciousness. I drank, the cool water did refresh me, but unable to control my sharp breathing I coughed. This was unbearable and the water splashed over my face from the bottle. As the cool water hit my face and it caused me to gasp and then scream. It wasn’t only a scream of pain though. This was different, this was more determined. A scream of anger, a scream of hope, a scream that came from a place of resolve. Had I not been here before? Had I not calloused my mind, as David Goggins had said, had I not put enough friction  and challenges in my life before to know how to overcome this? Had I not been humbled enough before to be able to get through this? I laid my head down again, this time more determined. Embracing the pain, I breathed in again.

Breathe in…Breathe out…Breathe in….Breathe out…embrace this moment…don’t judge, just experience…shorten your time frame like Jordan Peterson said…when you’re faced with inescapable suffering…shorten your time frame…if a minute is too long then all you have is a breath…breathe in…breathe out…aaaargh…its too much…no…just breathe…what if I don’t make it out…my dogs…breathe Watson!…

But it was too much again and the world started to spin. Thoughts of the future, the possibilities and the pain overwhelmed me. With my mind racing out of control, a feeling of massive frustration built inside me until it became a rage. This time the scream was intentional, a primal beast of terror and anguish.

Ok you’ve had your moment of weakness now…you got rid of that emotion…no more future now…no more past…just breathe Watson!…Breathe in…Breathe out…slower now…Breathe in…Breathe out…What did Sam Harris say…just rest as that space where things appear…I am not this pain…I am only in this moment

My mind kept to its task now, somehow found a way to stay focused on the moment to greater or lesser degree until Nick came back. “Jethro” he called. “Nick” I yelled. He came back and told me help was on the way. I lay back and focused on breathing, the pain hadn’t subsided but my ability to withstand it seemed to have been bolstered by the meditative state my mind had found. “The medics are on the way” Nick said, “Okay man, I wanna live”. When Timmy from Klein Kliphuis arrived I told him the same Thing “I just wanna live” It had been a long internal struggle to withstand the weight of the all too real situation, but I was determined to fight. The medics arrived sometime later, I’m told it was about two hours from the incident, time had ceased to work in a normal rhythm to me. My reality was breathing and consciousness, punctuated by salient events in real world: James from Alfa arriving, the medics putting up an IV for what I presumed was morphine, the pain lessening slightly, the medics dressing my legs and moving me to a stretcher (both of which caused me to cry out involuntarily in pain). I remember them talking on their radios about the helicopter and our whereabouts, at last we heard the helicopter approaching.

The Medics stabilizing me on site…The damage to the right knee visible
Photo by: Nick Muehlhausen

At first they couldn’t find us, the sound of the helicopter growing louder and then fading again several times. Eventually they found us and came in low, they lowered a paramedic to help roll me into a stretcher to be airlifted. He explained that they couldn’t land and I would be lifted along side the helicopter for a short distance and then land to be brought inside. Safely inside the helicopter I realised I was freezing, a problem aggravated by the fact that we needed to refuel and protocol said we needed to have the door open for that. The winter air coming into the cabin was freezing. We landed at Milnerton hospital at 18:40, about seven hours after the rock hit me. They wheeled me into a room with some kind of scanning machinery on the roof. I presumed it was an X-Ray machine. I really wasn’t sure what was going on at this point. I was on drugs for pain, tired and cold. My ability to focus was waning.

In the stretcher waiting for the helicopter
Photo by: Nick Muehlhausen

To move me from the stretcher to the bed, they game me Ketamine. Ketamine, I later learnt, is used because it dissociates one from reality and reduces pain. It’s effect is powerful but relatively short lived. It helped with the pain and made the transfer easier. But the effects didn’t stop there. I was lying prone, looking up at this X-ray machine which was a very foreign looking thing, grey and white and black. My feeling was gone, I was floating on my stretcher and it had gone quiet, quiet like my hearing had failed. I was suddenly aware that my vision had gone very wide, it was as if my vision no longer had a boundary. When I tried to look for the end of my vision all I found was a repeating sequence of colour. Black and grey and beige, like a repeating fractal or an Escher like construct. It was everywhere, it consumed everything. I can only describe the experience that followed as and Ego death experience. I had heard of this idea in some of my research into taking psychedelics. The idea that the world turns into pure experience, to the extent that your identity ceases to exist. The fractal became that experience, it was in front, on the sides and as my vision looked back through where I should have been, there too was the fractal. It was all there was, repeating, changing and everywhere. And then it began to clear. At some point an ‘I’ became aware again, and the ‘I’ was very confused. Who was ‘I’, Where was ‘I’, and what the hell was going on? It struggled to grasp for any meaning, a thread of what that ‘I’ was. I knew I wasn’t born now, spontaneously. I had a feeling that there must be some nexus which caused this reality to be. I worked back through my disjointed memory of the last events in my mind, each one unfolding before me like a new event in time until I found the boulder crashing down on me. Boom, like knowledge uploaded in the matrix, I had a continuation of self again. A self which was somewhat in shock, in pain, but still determined to live.

I brought myself to, and decided to focus on the outer world for the time being, lest there was another one of these  ego-death trips. I didn’t want to have to battle through that again in my state. I made conversation with the people there, I didn’t know if they were doctors or dentists but somehow I got them to play music, Tool of course. In my not so together state I convinced them to play Invincible, a song about feeling time exert its inevitable pressure. Although this seems folly in a situation where time is quite apparently limited, but the correct response to feeling time so acutely is to fight it, not to succumb to it. You fight it by trying, trying to be productive, trying to create, trying to stay alive.

By this point they had called my sister and she had arrived in what seemed to me to be a very short space of time, but how could I tell. I was really kind of out of it. I remember asking, “If I pass out now, have you guys got me?” because I wasn’t sure if I could maintain this conscious connection anymore. Determined as I was the drugs and the tiredness were taking their toll. I don’t recall their exact answer, but I remember that I wasn’t convinced.

They transferred me to Christian Barnard via ambulance. I remember the ambulance drivers were really awesome, friendly and positive. They made the ambulance really warm to help heat me up, I was still cold as stone. At Christian Barnard hospital I was again wheeled into a theatre and here met a very focused and concerned looking woman that I would later learn is Dr Kirsten Bischof. She went to work examining me. She touched here and there on the legs and feet and asked me what I could feel. I answered as truthfully as I could. She discussed something with her colleagues, presumably looking at the X-ray scans done earlier.

She came to me looking very serious, she said that I was very sick, I had lost a lot of blood and I was in a serious state. She said the right leg was dead and that the dead tissue was putting a lot of pressure on my body. “We need to take the right leg to save your life”. “Well then we need to do that” I said, somewhat surprised at my response. They were going to amputate my right leg and this didn’t really seem to be such an issue. It needed to be done so I could live. Shorten your time frame, I told myself, I just want to live. First this then we worry about the future.  Dr Bischof confirmed that they were going to amputate the right leg and, for now, try to save the left. She wanted extra scans done to make sure and to give her more information for the operation to come. She added that we need to hurry, that I needed to get into theatre soon. Whilst it wasn’t quite fear that I felt, I was certain that there was a pressing need for something to be done to prevent me from dying. Its an odd feeling knowing that you are at very real risk of death and there is in fact nothing that you can do about it. It will now either happen or not.

The X-ray of the Right knee…First from the top and then from the side

They wheeled me into the MRI room, despite the drugs, the pain when they transferred me from the bed to the dolly was intense. I think by then my ability to withstand the pain of my bones moving and grating against one another had more or less dissolved.

The X-ray of the left Knee…Again first top and then side

The look on Dr Bischof’s face was grave when she had told me that I was in a serious state, I was certainly not convinced that I was in the clear. Had I come this all this way to die on a theatre bed. No one had told me, “don’t worry, you’ll make it”. It was a possibility I had to consider. So if this was to be my last few moments of consciousness, I had better make peace. I didn’t want to be fighting of fearful when they put me under. Through the haze of pain and drugs, my though process went something like this.

My body is broken…too broken to fix…So I’m going to die…in some sense I have already died…and I need to accept that…At best some part of this identity will survive…at worst, none, and the conscious experience that is me will be no more…Am I ready for that? Well, that’s not exactly a fair question is it…is anyone every ready? I have things I would like to achieve still…but if this is it can I say its been a good life…a life that was actually worth living…..I come from a good home with parents who loved me and gave me a great start to life…They gave me access to experience and education…I’ve overcome adversity, that’s a good thing…I’ve achieved things, built buildings, helped others do so as well…and I’ve climbed, if personal achievement is any measure for life then yes…its been a good one…I could have done more, I could have given back more, but I’ve achieved things I could never even have dreamt of…dedication and sacrifice paid off…if I’m to go now I’ll take that as a win…me 1, the suffering of reality 0…and that’s at least a light to shine in the darkness…perhaps that will inspire people…perhaps that will leave this world just a little brighter than when I arrived…goodbye Watson, you’ve done well my friend…

I remember lying on the theatre bed looking up at the lights. I was ready, in what ever way I could be in that moment. I was peaceful at least. One way or another, this life had come to an end. The anaesthetist said something. The world went dark, consciousness slid out from underneath me.

I was, once again, no more.

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