Episode 3: The Fight to Retain Consciousness

First, a warning: This post details a time where the realities of life were stark, the gruesome details of the operations were something which I needed to get used to very quickly to keep abreast of what was going on. I debated whether to include images from the operations here but in the end decided to keep with the idea of being as truthful about the journey as possible. Parental guidance is advised.

Me on Born into Struggle 7B+
Photo by: Unknown

My Memories of this time lack continuity, partly because the doctors gave me drugs to prevent me from forming memories and partly due to my own reluctance to continuously rebuild those memories. I will try to recall salient thoughts and emotions from this time as write but mostly the information I have has been taken from the accounts of the doctors involved and my own journal which I started keeping on the Tuesday. I was more recording a timeline of major events that detailing my emotional or psychological state, I didn’t really have the energy to do more than that.

Monday 14 July 2019

Firstly, I don’t really remember waking up for the first time. I don’t recall my sister and her husband seeing me awake on Sunday whilst still intubated, in fact I don’t remember being intubated at all. But apparently I did wake up on Sunday, albeit under serious drugs. The initial operation had ended early in the morning and I was in again on Sunday Morning. The first memory I have is of waking up on the Monday morning. Or at least being awake, I don’t fully recall the moment that I awoke. Rather like being in some dream, I was aware that I was conscious but with no real recollection of arriving there. I was alive and that certainly seemed to be a good thing, although there was serious pain. A kind of ‘this isn’t just going to go away pain’. I was also in some shock, there was a lot going on. On top of that I was also high. A kind of dull high Id never experienced before and it wasn’t altogether pleasant. My lips were dry and cracked, my muscles ached, my throat was sore and I could barely move. It was bad, maybe not the worst that there has ever been, but pretty fucking bad.

My bed in ICU (Taken during the second week)
Photo by: Carlien Wassermann

So what then had actually happened to me? When I arrived in Christian Barnard Hospital, I was in a state called pre-renal Failure, from what I understand its just before your body starts giving in and you get into serious trouble. I had lost a lot of blood, one doctor estimated I received around ten units of blood and a few units of plasma and platelets. About four and a half liters in total, an estimated 80%+ of my total volume of blood. The loss of blood combined with the dead tissue of my right leg was putting a lot of pressure on my body. There is a measure of lactic acid which they monitor during trauma, when I was put under my measure was 10 mmol/l where about 0.5 to 1 is average. This Lactic acid buildup is a reflection of the body’s oxygen consumption outweighing it’s ability to deliver oxygen. An inability to deliver sufficient oxygen and to remove a buildup of CO2 were starting to threaten my life. Apparently when I went under my blood pressure fell quite substantially and to keep me within limits the doctors had to use various vascular constricting and heart stimulating drugs to keep the flow of oxygen sufficient. Despite the drips and ongoing transfusion of blood, the anesthetist manually injected blood and plasma with a syringe to boost the amount of fluids going in and raise my blood pressure. In the end it was pretty close, they didn’t actually need to resuscitate me so I guess it could have been closer, but it was close enough that the doctors were concerned and also relieved when my vital signs showed a large improvement post surgery.

My Left Leg was smashed just below the knee. The head of the Tibia bone, which forms the bottom of the knee, had been broken into three separate pieces and most of the bone directly below it at the ‘fracture’ site was so badly damaged that they needed to remove it. The small shards of bone apparently don’t get sufficient blood supply, then die off and cause infection. Large pieces of the muscle and flesh had also been damaged. They had cut my leg open on both sides to relieve pressure caused by the swelling. The pressure had lead to compartment syndrome and was stopping blood circulation to the muscles. The Fibula had been displaced and broken at the top. The loose bottom section of the Tibia had been stabilized with an external fixation device using pins which screwed into the Fibula and the Femur above the knee, carbon fiber rods and bolted clamps kept the pins and bones secure. The wound was still open but covered in suction bandages to drain off the blood and plasma draining from it. The doctors were as yet uncertain as to whether they could successfully save the leg.

A video taken during the operation shows the extent of the damage
Video by Carlien Wassermann

My Right leg was amputated above the knee and the doctors were apparently trying to leave me with as much of a stump as possible although they were concerned with the amount of viable soft tissue available. The trauma had been contained but the leg was not yet closed. Again suction bandages were used to drain the wound.

The initial surgery to save my life and remove my right leg took around 4 hours and ended at 3:07 on the Sunday morning. I was then taken back to theatre later that Sunday by the orthopedic surgeon to fit the external fixator.

To say that I slept on that first night in ICU wouldn’t be quite accurate, its as if I continuously faded into and out of a nightmare. The nightmare part was when I was awake, pain, the effects of the drugs, the constant churning and beeping of the monitors and the machines that regulate the flow of drugs, the business of the nurses and patients coming and going and the shock of being in a hospital with only one leg which could still be amputated.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Tuesday morning came, although in ICU there is scarcely a night time due to all the activity, and it was back to theatre at 08:20 AM for about three and a half hours, the doctors would continue to work on the left leg . Debriding the wounds, cleaning out more fragments of bone and removing more dead or dying tissue around the wound. Again I came out of the operation in pain and exhausted, it was like all the energy in my body had been depleted, everything I had was used up, maxed out. It was all I could do to try to get through that day moment for moment. I ate some bean soup that evening, although I was not allowed to eat the beans, my digestive system had shut down and the drugs almost guarantee that you get constipated, an issue which would prove to be a problem in the days to come.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

My father arrived from Italy and came to see me in the hospital. It was encouraging to have my family there and without their support during this time, I doubt I would have had the fortitude to continue.

I was taken to theatre again today for the vascular surgeon to do an angiogram of my left leg. Essentially they use an MRI machine and a dye to track the functioning of my blood vessels. They inject the dye into the vein in your pubic area and then uses a pressure bandage to close off the injection site to help stop the vein from bleeding. The anesthetist apparently used some kind of clearing agent drug to wake me from the anesthetic. The effect was to neutralise the painkilling drugs in my system. The procedure wasn’t long but I awoke fast and in considerable pain, post operative shock set in instantly. I was shaking, sweating, cold and breathing in gasps. It felt as if I had just been hit by the rock again, only this time I was already in Hell when it happened. Back in the ICU it took around two hours for me to ‘normalise’ again. Later that evening I had my first real food since the accident, Chicken (lets just leave it at that).

Thursday 18 July 2019

My mother arrived and I saw her for the first time, I also learnt of the amazing amount of support that I had from friends, acquaintances and colleagues outside the hospital. The realisation of how many people I had connected with in my life was staggering.

The doctors placed an ‘epidural’, which is essentially a continuous local anaesthetic applied directly to the spinal cord. They insert a catheter between the vertebrae and into the the area surrounding the spinal cord, a process which is quite unpleasant I can assure you. It did however, help with the pain. For the first time since the accident, my pain was lessened on a more continuous basis. Before then I had had moments that were pain free, but they would be induced by the doctors or nurses giving me some hectic dose of drugs that would reduce or even pause my consciousness. Sure, the morphine, ketamine and precedex were helping to manage the pain, but the epidural really improved things.

I was again taken to theater for around three and a half hours. They continued the process of closing my right leg, they sutured blood vessels and soft tissue and reapplied the vacuum dressings. They also worked on the left leg again, removing further bone and suturing more of the muscles and other soft tissue to try to save the leg. Again I awoke in pain and exhausted, I had this feeling that the world was happening to me and there was in fact very little I could do to change the course of events, I was a passenger on this rollercoaster through Hell and every operation was like a limitless fall further into the black, hot darkness.

My left leg at the end of the first week
Photo by Carlien Wassermann

Friday 19 July 2019 – Sunday 21 July 2019

Although I technically didn’t have surgery on the Monday, it still felt to me as if i had. I had woken up for the first time in recollection since the accident on Monday and it felt as if this Friday was the first day on which I had not been to theatre, and what a relief. To know that there was a break from this constant in and out of induced unconsciousness and that I could just rest was incredible. The journey to this point had been so dense and chaotic, new people, new experiences and a large amount of learning to stay informed on what was going on. For the most part I just lay there over the weekend reeling from the traumatic events of the past week. The nurses turned my bed inside the cubicle so I could look out the window, although it was raining and cloudy, I could still see the Hottentots-Holland Mountain range in the distance. Once my home and my passion, the mountains now looked like some far away land, beautiful and inaccessible, simultaneously alluring and jeering, as if the world was saying ‘Yea, you want this, well then suffer…’

There were no answers, there was no reason, my emotions ranged far and wide; Courageous, born out of my lessons in climbing; Grievous, born out of the complete devastation of the future; Fearful and frustrated from within the present moment. People often tell me how I was so positive during that time and that that’s what got me though, I can’t say I agree with them, I was just trying to stay with it, trying to hold on to some kind of sanity amidst the sudden and terrifying chaos which had so rapidly consumed me. Perhaps it is just such striving to overcome that is the core of positivity, it has occurred to me before that its genesis is such. There might have been no answers, but by the end of the weekend I was clearly faced with the question: Do you have the will to suffer? You can give up, but if you have the will to suffer seemingly without end, if you truly ask that question, in all its seriousness, through all the sacrifices you will need to make to learn the answer, you do not know what you could become. When all else is washed away, when reality is so overbearing that you get faced with this question in its full undisguised nakedness, the choice between two options becomes quite clear: Suffer bravely and voluntarily, or cast yourself down to the end of consciousness.

Rocklands
Photo by Jethro Watson

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.

Episode 1: The Road to Paradise

Finders Keepers, 7a+ Photo by: Dan Bates

They say a good place to start is at the beginning, but perhaps that’s too far back. The beginning can only really be understood in the context of the now, it being a memory after all. That context is the nexus of this journey, the day my life changed, as epic as that sounds.

So where to begin then, well perhaps not the beginning but at least we should have a reference point, an understanding of what life looked like before the fall. A fall from Paradise into Hell. So this is what paradise looked like for me at the time.

Some 8 or 9 years ago I was on the road, nomadic in some sense, a recurring theme in my life. I was born in Cape Town and lived there for 25 years until my life fell apart after a breakup, a dwindling social circle, and economic collapse and depression. The company I was working for ‘asked’ if I wanted to go work in Port Elizabeth, so naturally off I went. This turned out to be a time of rebuilding and experimenting, it lead me to many odd chance encounters and perhaps too many hangovers. As work dried up in Port Elizabeth I found myself moving to Pretoria, again for the same construction company. This time however I was more optimistic than the move from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, keen to see where the wind blew, perhaps keen to keep running as well. Running from what, I wasn’t quite sure. Having no friends there, I did what was necessary to make some, I searched for things to do. The thing I found was The Barn, a small homely climbing gym east of Pretoria on a smallholding, surrounded but not much but grassland. Here I met James, his dreadlocks and smile were all I needed to decide to invest some time there.

A Sport that Changed my Life
Photo by: Dan Bates

I had climbed before, briefly in junior school and again during University but it had never really inspired me. That was to change in the coming years. The barn became my social center and I quickly made friends with the regulars and the owner Paul. Fast friendships were made before I had to ship out again to a hellhole called Standerton. I stayed there for a year and a half before finally losing it and moving back to the city, back to Pretoria. Overweight, unfit and still a bit disillusioned by my experiences, I started climbing again at the Barn I was privileged enough to be invited by Paul to live there in a separate house which was basically derelict. As part of my stay there I would refurbish it, turning it into a great gathering place for friends and climbers to share their stories. Soon, climbing and the lifestyle at The Barn had filled my life. As I began to explore this world, the meaning and purpose it inspired in me crashed headlong into my depression and my nihilistic beliefs. Climbing became the catalyst that would send me on a search for more answers. Later I would admit that climbing was the guide that pulled me out of that dark hole of depression and meaninglessness, although at the time I was still oblivious to all that, the wind was just blowing.

This continued and increasing devotion to climbing lead to some profound changes in my life. Over the years I would quit my job in construction management to have more time to climb. I would negotiate with my next company for flexible time which I could control to be able to go away for climbing trips. I stopped smoking and began to change my diet avoiding heavy carbs and sugars and also cutting out all fast food. A much healthier lifestyle ensued, all due to climbing. The improvements didn’t stop there, after having a severe back problem brought on by lack of core strength, i ended up doing two dedicated ‘one on one’ Pilates training sessions a week for three years straight and rebuilt my whole body from the ground up. Coupled with the two climbing sessions a week, running and actual rock climbing on weekends, an overweight and unfit 28 year old slowly became a climber and climbing slowly became the raison d’etre for my being.

I began to send routes and problems which I had thought impossible for me to complete, still low in grade compared to the global standard but monumental achievements for me. I remember sending my first 7a+ on sport and thinking, “I didn’t believe this was possible. But now that its done, who knows what is. Lets go and find out”. A 7b called Vandals  followed which was the most exhilarating sport climb I have ever climbed. 7a sends came frequently and a several 7a+ sends only inspired me to push further. Sadly there was not a lot of bouldering in the north of South Africa. Especially after the closure of our small playground, called Ezemvello. An event which was devastating to our climbing circle in Pretoria, we had spent so many amazing hours there camping and climbing. This place above all others had inspired me to continue climbing,the beauty and the time bouldering with good friends will forever be etched in my mind.

Strong Arm of the Law, 7a
Photo by: Paul Bruyere

Life at The Barn was good, I had moved into a cottage on my own there an would climb nights away with close friends, sometimes playing Magic The Gathering or some board game with them late into the night discussing life and climbing. With the flexible hours I worked, it was a lifestyle that allowed me time. Time to climb, time to think and time to explore the world of ideas. During this period of stability my sense of nihilism and depression had dissolved, replaced by a dedicated drive to improve myself for the purpose of climbing. I had the time to explore the ideas of many thinkers and had many a discussion surrounding life and its meaning with my friend Marc who lived there at the time. As I read, listened and learnt, my drive to improve became paramount and my quest for meaning insatiable. It wasn’t until I found the online lectures of Dr Jordan Peterson that I was able to fully articulate this new philosophy I had been living. I had been liberated from the nihilism of my twenties and I had become a fit and healthy climber. I was proud of my achievements, but something still bothered me, a sense of restlessness. A change was coming, the world of The Barn had taught me all I would learn there and it was time to answer life’s call to adventure with my new understanding and skills.

Last Day at The Barn
Photo by: Jethro Watson

It was as this new person that I ventured forth from the solid foundation of The Barn to move back to Cape Town to see what else Life had in store for me. I packed up my belongings and sent them to storage in Cape Town, loaded my tent, gear and two beautiful white Alsatian dogs, Luthien and Huan, into my Toyota pick up and headed into the future. First stop was a month bouldering in Rocklands. That season’s climbing was good but I still felt that I was under-performing, a feeling that had plagued me for many trips there. That said I did send Human Energy, 7a, a long term project for me and Finders Keepers, my first 7a + on boulder, a magnificent climb. After this it was off to the crags of Cape Town, Montagu, Oudtsoon and Truikieskraal. I would flash my first 7a on sport, two actually, and add a few more 7a+’s to my list. Climbing was on the up. After sport climbing for a while, I would go on the keep up the training pace, returning to running and doing Pilates on my own. This renewed effort in training lead to me sending several 7a boulder problems in Cape Town some of the best climbing I have ever done, most were sent in a session or two. I was now a 7a boulderer, a grade which I had long envied. This life of sacrifice and training and a new philosophy of meaning  was starting to pay off and it was time to move back to Rocklands to test my new strength and form.

Home in Paradise
Photo by: Jethro Watson

Rocklands started off with some frustration, minor injuries like tennis elbow and back spasm kept me from pulling hard, until one day that just gave way to form. I sent a 7a+ at the Coup, a fantastic pebble conglomerate roof with a big move to finish; a 7a+ called Panic Room, a long pumpy roof problem with a slopey topout; and finally a 7b+ called Born into Struggle. This problem was on top of my list of projects and had inspired me many years back when I’d first seen climbers much more hardcore than I struggling on it. I sent it in a few sessions and as I topped out into the post sunset evening in Rocklands, it felt as if I was truly alive for the first time, a kind of peace that no instant gratification can provide. A kind of peace that only dedication and sacrifice can bring. That night Nick and I celebrated my highest send of a project that, 8 or 9 years prior, I couldn’t have dreamed possible. We cracked open a magnum of Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1989, arguably South Africa’s best wine. We toasted to success, sacrifice and a future of climbing. Life was good, perhaps too good. As it was, humility was in store for me. The next day my life changed, a precariously balanced boulder was to come loose, crushing my legs and sending me from My Paradise of Cererberg Climbing into a Hell which was truly difficult to survive.