Stride Stories: I fell off a cliff (and survived)

[We are proud to support Rannveig’s life pursuits as a professional climber and Stride Health ambassador]

Our lives are full of transformative moments, and April 26, 2012 was one of them. It was the day I took a ground fall that shattered my back, pelvis, arm and both ankles, and changed my life forever. This is my story.

My husband Nathan and I awoke in an idyllic bungalow in the mountains of Turkey. The rising sun slowly heated our tiny cabin, and I rolled over and asked him innocently how he thought I was going to die. He pushed me deeper into the covers — “Of old age,” he said. “Why are you even asking?”

It was spring, and life tasted so fresh. We sat in the cafe by ourselves, feasting on a breakfast of fresh cheeses and yogurts, and brainstorming which of the countless classic climbing routes we’d sample that day. Eventually, we made it up to the Sarkit Sector to the lines that have drawn climbers to Geyikbayiri for a decade.

After a few warm-ups, we decided to climb a classic line at the cliff. I moved fluidly up the tufas, my feet dancing side to side on small edges, my hands pinching minute limestone features. When I arrived at the top, I clipped myself directly to the anchors of the route, and I fixed a small tangle in the rope. This is where a subtle slip of the mind happened, born from habit and comfort; I made a small mistake in rope work and accidentally took myself completely off belay. “Got me?” I shouted down, and then I unclipped from the chains. But nothing was holding me.

From my husband’s diary:

I can still see her falling: in a sitting position with outstretched arms that made small clockwise circles, like a bird falling from the nest. I can still feel my intestines knotting up as the rope failed to come taught with each new meter she plunged. She made a surprised noise — the same sound she’d make when she dropped a plate or fumbled with her keys — and I can hear the nauseating thud of impact; the cracks of snapping bones and tearing flesh; the breathless, powerful echo of my voice as I screamed for help into the empty pastures below.

I can still smell her blood as it poured from her head and into my hands, soaking my clothes and flowing down the limestone. She had bones coming out of her ankles, out of her elbow, and both her feet were grotesquely twisted 90 degrees to the side. She was paralyzed from the waist down, her hip was broken, her back was broken, her feet were broken, her teeth were broken, and she had a deep bloody gash on her head. She was shrieking into the blazing Turkish sun. “Where am I?” she cried, “What happened?”

I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know if she was bleeding to death on the inside. So I just cradled her head and held her hand and wondered silently if this was how I was going to lose my wife, like a scene in a movie, looking into her big blue eyes as her life slowly ebbed away and they closed for one final time.

I woke up after surgery and looked down over my mummified body, and then, just barely, I was able to move my little toes. I heard a loud relief from Nathan and nurses in the room who had feared that I had been paralyzed. I still didn’t quite know what was going on inside my body because only one of the doctors spoke English. Nathan started using Google Translate to help learn about my condition.

I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my tricep tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.

For days I laid there, hovering in a weird state between sleep and awake. It was mostly a blur, but some things I remember very clearly. I remember a nurse coming in after work with a home cooked meal of bone soup that was supposed to help heal all my fractures. She sat on my bed and fed me, and despite not speaking the same language, I felt so connected to her.

Before the fall, I was a healthy and strong athlete. I had spent the last few years climbing around the world, and I spent an entire winter hiking across Norway on cross country skis. Yet there I was, stuck in a body that didn’t work, and in tremendous pain. I couldn’t go to the bathroom alone, I couldn’t wash myself, I couldn’t even roll over.

But still, I had an enormous sense of gratitude that overshadowed everything. Every small thing I normally took for granted became a huge gift — to have my back scratched, to have my hair washed, just to lie on my stomach, to eat food. It was like all the colors were slightly stronger and all emotions more intense. Joy and sorrow went hand-in-hand and could change from one breath to the next. It felt like I was taking a journey to my very core.

The pain made it impossible to sleep more than an hour at a time, so I had a lot of time to think. If I ever did climb again, would I get back to the level I was at beforehand? Could I continue as a professional climber? Would I ever want to climb anyway? And why climbing?

What I got back was a confirmation: that climbing is something I do for myself, because I love it, because it challenges me at every level. Climbing is a tool to trigger my own potential, a place where I can strive to be my best. And I can always do that, no matter what level I climb at. I realized I had to distinguish between who I am and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.

All this clarity created an awareness, which created an inner calm and confidence amidst the fear and uncertainty. I asked for a weight so I could start training the one hand that was still working. Some laughed – but for me it was gold. I got some blood circulating and kept some of my muscle tone. Most importantly, however, it helped me to remember who I was.

I slowly began to regain my independence. My brother brought me some volleyball kneepads so I could crawl around on the floor, and I did that a lot. After about 10 weeks it was time to start bearing weight, so I moved to a rehab center near Oslo and began in the pool – for the first time in months I was able to get my heart rate up while floating in the water running intervals. I trained weights, rode a spinning bike, and stretched between 6-8 hours a day.

The biggest challenge was (and still is) the pain. I used to gauge pain as a reference point for when I worked out too hard, but now the pain is always there. I know I have to charge through it, but I also have to know when to rest. I’ve grown to understand that pain can cause a lot of fear, and if you listen to that fear it begins to limit everything in life.

A great example was the day my physical therapist asked me to jump up two feet onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. I still remember his words: “If you don’t do this, you’ll find ways around your limitations. To know your true limits, you must get in over your head, and usually you’ll find your limits are far higher than you ever thought.” So in action and attitude, I jumped.

About 18 weeks after the accident, I still spent most of the time in a wheelchair, but I was able to crutch around for short hikes. At that point, I began to take mini climbing trips outside again. My friends carried everything as I slowly made my way to the crag. I was overwhelmed – I would hop and cry, and walk and cry.

In late October, 2012, we were back in the USA, and Nathan and I went to Utah to celebrate the 6-month anniversary of the fall. What did we do? We went climbing! Our plan was to spend a couple of days on Moonlight Buttress, a big wall that goes free at 5.12+. This is a route we both have been dreaming about forever. Work distribution was simple: Nathan did pretty much everything. Walking was still the hardest part, and I couldn’t carry any weight because of the pain in my ankles. I took the job as the master chef, photographer and the happy face.

The whole trip, I felt like I was dreaming, and at the same time, I was as alive and awake as I could possibly be. I tried to top rope every pitch, and despite hanging here and there, I realized that freeing the whole thing on lead after the accident was very possible.

Here I am today. My fall and rehabilitation process has been more challenging than anything I’ve experienced. I found that the key to handling whatever I’m struggling with is to accept the situation and find a game plan to attack it. You need patience and the flexibility to change your strategy if it doesn’t work. You need to somehow get in touch with that inner motivation and willpower. And the way to find that is to find what triggers happiness.

I am amazed at what my body has given back to me. I can climb harder than I ever thought possible, even before the accident. I can make steep, long approach hikes on uneven terrain. One of the most telling improvements is that now, after a few years, I can stand and photograph weddings again.

It’s been a long journey and it’s far from over, but my fall reinforced the fact that you have to get after it and chase your goals and passions. Be sure you create your definition of success, not what someone else made up for you. Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine.