The Indignity of it All

by Zoe Hart
Late Summer 2009

A rivulet of baby vomit streamed down my hand and disappeared
into my cast. “Rookie!” I scolded myself. “How did I end up here?”
I dabbed at the mouth of the baby I was tending for a friend as my mind wandered back to that defining moment when the ice fractured around me, and the plate I was climbing on detached.

Gravity won that round. I hit the slope 30 feet below. I clawed and scraped with my hands and feet, willing my crampons not to catch and break my ankles. Rocketing over the edge of the second step – another 35 feet – I saw nothing but felt a force I had never felt before: my body compressing against the ground.

Crouched on my hands and knees, I gasped, unable to breathe. I inhaled a gulp of air and sat, eyes wide. Voices echoed in the distance. I don’t think I responded. I was too busy taking note of what hurt – wiggling toes and fingers, moving arms and legs. No blood, no bones sticking out. I sat still, staring across the wintry horizon of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, imagining how far from Silverton or Ouray we were. Fear welled up from the pit of my stomach.

Three hours later, I sat on the X-ray table, morphine coursing through my veins. Sweat beaded on my forehead as the tech moved each aching body part into position. My head disappeared into the claustrophobic tunnel of the CAT scan. “An abnormality,” was how the doctor described the X-ray of my neck.

I imagined writing a resumé: “Broken Mountain Guide: Former alpinist with expensive, unused college education. Professional vagabond experienced at living in a car or out of a duffel bag. Can swing a hammer, carry large loads, and suffer with grace.” Was my best use now as a nanny for my climbing friends?

I was immobile for the first time in my life. My body was shattered: whiplash, a badly bruised heel bone, broken rib, broken hand. I could barely walk. Who was I without my physical identity? Where was the glory in this? The people who lusted after my life as a climber, as a guide: Did they want to switch places with me now?

Three months later, three of us drive to Telluride with our eyes on Sapphire Bullets, a steep ice and mixed climb. My hand atrophied, my body sluggish from inactivity and my anxiety spinning, I put on a harness, strap on crampons and grab my ice tools. I struggle to articulate my hand. Instead of solid strokes, I bash the tool randomly into the brittle ice. My forearm throbs.

Desperately I yell, “Take me tighter!” I grovel ... and laugh: the indignity of it all. It wasn’t this hard three months ago.

A deep breath, and I grit my teeth and fight again. I reach the belay, legs shaking and my hands throbbing with the screaming barfies. I look up at my friends smiling and laughing. “Good job Zoe! Way to get back on the horse,” they say.

Maybe there is a life for me beyond changing diapers.

About the Author

Zoe Hart is an American UIAGM Mountain Guide living in Chamonix, France. When not guiding, she travels around the world, exploring new mountain ranges, learning how to renovate her new home, or trying to write about her experiences. Since her accident she has become very partial to climbing with ropes.