About two years ago, Outside Podcast host Peter Frick-Wright was canyoneering in Oregon when he jumped off a ledge and broke his leg. He was stuck at the bottom of a canyon, and it took an epic effort by search and rescue teams to get him out of there. The experience was rough on Peter and rough on the many volunteers involved with transporting him safely to a hospital. Many of them had to go right back to work the next day. This week we’re going to replay our 2017 episode about the accident to set the stage for an upcoming conversation between Peter and one of his rescuers about a part of the healing process most people don’t talk about.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Outside Podcast Theme: From PRX and Outside Magazine. This is the Science of Survival.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): About two years ago, I had a really bad day, with the really excellent folks from Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue, and Portland mountain rescue, and the reach and treat team from American medical response, and Mountain Wave Communications, and the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, and Gulf Company 1st to the 180th Aviation, a medevac team based in Oregon that flies Black Hawk helicopters for the army national guard.
If you've been listening for a while, you know the story. I was canyoneering, broke my leg, and it was an epic day getting me out of there. When I talked to search and rescue folks who were there now, that's the word they use: Epic. Anyway, that same summer, 2017, it wasn't just rough on me. It was rough on the entire search and rescue community. When I got out of the canyon after 21 hours staring at a broken leg, wondering if I would ever be the same person, one of the first things I did was talk to a counselor. The people that got me out of there, they went home, went to work the next day. But as searches and rescues go, mine had a pretty happy ending. They don't always, and the volunteers go home and go to work the next day.
Today on the show, we're going to replay that episode, both because it's one of our favorites and because after the summer of 2017, the search and rescue community started looking into ways to give their members better coping skills so that it wasn't just thanks for recovering that body. Til the next time. One of the many different strategies came up with is a podcast called Rescuer MBS or Minimum Breaking Strength, in which they talk to people about different ways to cope with the traumas that you encounter as a rescuer. Just a few weeks ago, they had me on as a guest.
The podcast episode that we put out about my injury is probably one of the most raw and personal stories we've ever done. I was trying to process and convey the emotional experience of being injured and evacuated -- but if I'm honest, I'm still processing that day. As much as you'd like to think that the end of an episode is the end of the story, they keep going. So this week we're going to play for you the story where I jump off a cliff and break my leg and next week the story continues in the form of a conversation between me and one of the people who hauled me back to civilization -- about a part of the healing process most people don't talk about.
My co-producer Robbie Carver introduces this piece. Here's Robbie.
Audio from 2017 podcast begins:
Robbie Carver: Hey everyone, this is Robbie. I’m the behind the scenes producer on the podcast.
I'm leading out the episode today because I need you to understand something pretty important about Pete, the guy who usually kicks off our episodes -- and that is that he loves jumping off of things into water. The happiest I've ever seen because he was falling through the air, having just jumped off a waterfall toward a pool down below.
(audio of Peter jumping off a waterfall)
He turns into a little kid in a way you don't see very often from 30 year old men. This tape you just listened to is from a trip four years ago when I invited him to come canyoneering with me and my buddy Travis repelling and jumping down some pretty incredible waterfalls into a hidden slot canyon, not too far from where we live. Pete came alive on that trip. I've never seen him more excited. For the year leading up to it, he'd been pretty lonely and depressed, struggling to heal from the breakup and uncertain about his future. He’d just been sort of dirt bagging around the globe, trying to find something to grab onto -- but that trip solidified our friendship and it wasn't too long after that that we began making podcasts together. Pretty soon we had our own show. He also met his girlfriend, Ellie, just after that trip, and he and my friend Travis started taking insane adventures together. They hiked an entire tributary of the Grand Canyon. Then they crossed Yellowstone almost completely off trail -- but we all still talk about that first canyoneering trip and how in this strange sort of way it feels like all that good stuff and Pete's life traces back to those waterfall jumps and flying through the air towards a huge splash. He was a different person afterwards.
The point here is that it's understandable why, when his brother-in-law, Fabian, and Fabian’s brother Kilian, were visiting earlier this summer, Pete wanted to take them to this life changing canyon that he goes back to every year. When he invited them, well, let's just say it was not a trip he expected would become an episode on his own survival show, but here we are.
Frick-Wright: It was well after the accident and the injury, evacuation, surgery, and even most of the recovery, that I started having the nightmares and just breaking down in tears sometimes in quiet moments when I'm alone or trying to fall asleep. It's almost like it's only once the physical pain has subsided that your brain confronts and tries to process the rest of what happened. Up to that point, when people ask you how you're doing, you have no idea.
What you do know in those days and weeks right afterward is exactly what you were doing. You were canyoneering with your brother in law and his brother, and you jumped off a 15 foot waterfall.
(audio of Peter jumping off waterfall and injuring leg)
It was the same waterfall you always jump off, but this time you came out of the water with your left foot pointing off to the side in a way that makes you slightly sick to look at. Your leg is useless and you're stuck in a place that's going to be hell to get out of. You're at the bottom of a waterfall, so traveling upstream back the way you came is impossible. To the left and right of you are 600 foot near vertical cliffs. The only way out is to follow the river, except just a hundred yards downstream is an 80 foot waterfall. Beyond that, it's a two mile boulder scramble to the trail over and through rocks the size of cars. So you can't even be carried out.
You don't say this lightly, but you're fucked.
Despite most of the usual safety mechanisms and what felt like a healthy dose of precaution, here's how you end up at the bottom of a waterfall with a broken leg. Or at least here's how it happened with me. Four years ago, my friends Robbie and Travis brought me to this canyon, and it was not only mind blowing, but actually right next to a popular hiking trail that I go to all the time. But hardly anyone knows it's here.
(in interview) We're gonna have to cut all this out cause there's no way that I'm broadcasting our secret waterfall places out to 130,000 people.
Carver: We’re going to bleep all of the names.
Frick-Wright: (voiceover) We'd planned to spend one day in this canyon, but we accidentally stood out for two and we had no food, and that's a whole other story. But it was transformative.
(in interview) I think the reason that we tell that story all the time and that we love that story is it felt kind of hardcore. Like we spent the night sleeping on top of our wetsuits with nothing else and just like a fire for warmth and like everybody thinks we're ridiculous.
(voiceover) Heading into that day four years ago I was broke, lonely, little depressed, coming off a breakup and having just lost a lot of my social network, but the people I bonded with on that trip have become some of the most central friendships in my life. Everything changed practically overnight. A few weeks later I met my girlfriend Ellie, and, on our first date, I told her the story of that trip and while everyone else had listened with a sort of horrified look at the thought of such a rough night out, when I finished, she leaned in and said, don't you just love it when you're out in the back country and you run out of food and you get to find out what you're made of? We've been together ever since. In fact, looking back, I point to that first trip down this canyon as the moment when my life started to catch up with my dreams. And so I love this place, so much that it makes getting hurt feel like some sort of betrayal of trust, like getting bit by your own dog.
That morning, my sister's husband, Fabian, and his brother, Kilian, and I had hiked six miles, then dropped down to the river, ate lunch, and pulled on wetsuits, climbing harnesses, and helmets. Then we hopped into the current and let it pull us downstream toward one of the most incredible places I've ever been.
Canyoneering is the process of traveling down river through a canyon, descending otherwise inaccessible waterfalls by repelling or jumping. It's some of the last true exploration left.
(in interview) When you talk to geographers and you say like, Hey, if I wanna explore somewhere new, where do I go? And they're like, find a canyon. There's no reason for anyone to have ever gone there in history.
(voiceover) This place is not that secret, but when I saw it for the first time, I remember thinking that it was like I’d imagined a fertile waterfall Wonderland, and then found it in real life. Every few hundred yards, the river drops over another falls, or slots out into a tiny channel and the river just pulls us along. On some level, yeah, it's obviously dangerous. It's hard to get to, and the river changes each year, moving boulders and logs downstream, so we stop and talk through every repel and jump, but it's also my fourth time down the canyon so it feels familiar, and this would be a day trip, we'd be home by dinner, so I hadn't exactly given comprehensive details about where we were going.
(in interview) My text to Ellie was, I'm going canyoneering with Fabian and Kilian, should be a pretty straightforward day. And her text back was “don't die, but I'm still really mad at you.”
(voiceover) We'll get to that. But suffice it to say that I needed a reset button and this canyon was it
At the second to last waterfall, the river drops down, maybe 30 feet, then splits into five thin channels leading toward five separate waterfalls that drop into another pool and then over a small ledge. That's followed by another 80 foot drop.
(in interview) It's beautiful. It's especially beautiful when you take a picture there in the afternoon, like the afternoon light is really amazing and we get there and I start taking a video and bam, the camera dies.
(voiceover)The battery came back to life for a couple of photos, but for the most part our memories are the only actual record of what happened next.
The only way down the second to last waterfall is to down climb the bank on a fixed rope to where the river turns left 90 degrees and then safely jump 15 feet into a calm channel. It's narrow, maybe 10 feet across, but because it's so narrow, it's very deep. And at this jump, like every jump, we stop and talk through why we're jumping, where we're jumping.
(in interview) I remember really clearly going, something doesn't feel quite right about this and I can't figure out what it is but I'm just going to go through all of my little checks again. And I went through all my little checks and said, this is fine, like this is a good jump. And in the air it was just like, this is interesting, I'm gonna have to like evaluate why this time, why did I have that hesitation this time when I haven't had that in a long time? Cause I feel like I've been in this place of learning to ignore fear and that sounds sort of like macho or something, but like I really mean it in a daily life kind of way. Like the key to whatever success I've had writing and podcasting and wanting to like talk to people has been there's a very acute sense of fear right before you call somebody important, or interview somebody that you really want to talk to or get on a flight to a foreign country to report for a week, or like are talking to their sources there. And there has been this incredible correlation between learning to ignore that fear and success. And when I was able to start ignoring it in professional life stuff, I actually started being able to ignore it a little bit in terms of like jumping off of things. And I was kind of noticing that like I wasn't scared anymore jumping off of things, and that made it less fun. I was kind of worried about that, but not in a physical way. I was worried that I was never going to feel that thrill again.
And so I'm in the air thinking basically that entire progression at about one second and then I hit the water, landed on the rock and I'm up and I'm yelling in pain, but mostly as a way to communicate to Fabian and Kilian that they can't jump.
(music starts, pain sounds)
(voiceover) I still have no idea what I hit, but it was immediately clear that my leg was broken -- my foot stuck out at the wrong angle, like it was trying to short pass a soccer ball without the knee’s permission.
(in interview) My foot is bent at the wrong angle -- it's 45 degrees to the left. When I look at it, you just think, this leg has been run over by a truck or something. I didn't faint. What it did to me was -- this leg no longer looked like mine. It was just an injured leg. Which is a very strange thing to have happened mentally. It was like this is the patient's leg, and you need to do these things for the patient's leg, no matter if you are also the patient or if you're a caregiver.
(voiceover) I got myself out of the water and Favian and Kilian scrambled down after me. My wilderness first responder is long expired, but no one else had any medical training. Iwas going to be in charge of my own care.
Because of the shock, the pain was mostly superficial at this point. So we had a little meeting to come up with a plan while I was still mostly thinking clearly. What we came up with was that since he had done the canyon before, Fabian would scramble out the rest of the way to the trail, then run four miles to the car where we'd stash my phone. He'd call Travis first because he knows the canyon and was actually training with a search and rescue team that day. If Travis didn't answer, Fabian would call 911-- I said to tell them that I had a broken leg, probably a compound fracture, because it was bleeding, and hurry, this is going to really start to hurt. Kilian and I would just wait here and try and get comfortable. The one thing I could do was crawl, though maybe crabwalk is a better word. So I started making my way toward a spot under a tree where we could wait
(interview) On the way there. Um, I crawled directly through the middle of where some predator, probably a cougar, had killed a deer and there were leg bones strewn around like it seemed like everywhere. And I was just like, man, I'm glad I'm not alone. I'm a wounded animal. Oh, totally. And I would be very tempting to a predator of some kind.
(voiceover) Killian and I set my leg up on a rock and packed clothes and rope around it, trying to support the foot, which was sticking out to the side in such a way that gravity was constantly twisting it around, like trying to detach a crab leg from the body. Our makeshift support system didn't really work though. And pretty soon the endorphins were off.
(interview) This was the point at which the pain started to happen in a really specific way. It was the pain of being hurt, not in a way of like your body is trying to tell you not to do something, which is most of the pain that I think we experienced --like pain with immediate relief is familiar pain-- and this was the pain of there was no end or change to it really. It was just there and there was nothing I could do about it.
(voiceover) You try not to think about the pain, but how can you not? There's nothing else to think about except the future, which is scary because you don't know how this'll end; and the past, which is, as we found in a lot of these survival stories, suddenly overflowing with regret.
(interview) My foot is really badly damaged. The only good sign that I have from it is that I can feel and wiggle my toe. So that means that there's nerve connections going through there. That's good. But I don't know how bad this is going to be. I might lose my foot. So I started to just like lose it a little bit. And then I said, no, if I lose it, Killian's not gonna know what to do. And so I told Kilian, we're going to need to talk. We can talk about any topic except my foot -- that's off limits. But we can talk about anything else. And so the first thing that he says is like, so tell me about Ellie. Are you guys going to get married or what's the deal?
Carver: Is this the right moment to ask what you guys had been fighting about?
Frick-Wright: Well, I mean it doesn't matter. We'd been fighting about a sewer repair.
Carver: (laughs) Like, okay, so you weren't fighting about whether to get married or not? It wasn't the relevant question.
Frick-Wright: No, the fight was over whether I was doing the right things to try and get the sewer repair done,because it was supposed to take one day and it had been two weeks and just like nothing was happening. And she wanted to me to call them and kind of hassle them every day. And I was kinda like, no, like, let me do it my way. So this was the day before we went canyoneering and she'd come in here again and just said, will you call them right now please? And I said, okay, I'll call them, but like, I'm not going to do it with you right here watching me. Like I'm not going to do it just cause you said so. And she was basically camped out and watching me and was like, I'm going to stand here until you pick up your phone. And we just had this stand off and she just said like, you know, I'm really struggling with this and I just need some support. And I raised my voice back at her, and was like, yeah, you've made that really clear. And she just stormed out of the room and I didn't see her the rest of the night. She went to work.
And that was our last interaction before I was there like in the canyon -- and knowing that and then having Killian's first question being like, what's the deal with you guys? I mean, it sounds like such a cliche, but like the fact that our last interaction had been a fight was like completely unacceptable. I couldn't do anything about it. If I had had one message to get, like if I had one text, like somehow some special satellite phone with one text left on it, I might've used it to apologize to Ellie rather than being like send a helicopter right now. It was that intense of a moment and just like a feeling -- cause like I mean this is how I deal with emotional stress and if she saw this on any level at all like her fault, I was being extra risky because I was blowing off steam, like I couldn't stand for her to carry that weight. I just couldn't and yet that was going to happen. I think that's when I felt the most removed.
We're actually really far from everybody, even though it didn't take us very long to get here.
(voiceover) I figured it would take about two hours for Fabian to get to the car and call 911. Then the rescue would start. I had no idea how long it would take from there, but given the terrain, I wondered if they’d just send a helicopter first thing.
Carver: How were you responding to the pain? Was it cry out kind of pain or waves of nausea?
Frick-Wright: No, it was, clench every muscle in your body and try and take your mind off of it. And so the way that I took my mind off of it was actually telling stories, stuff that we've reported and hasn't been on the podcast yet; stuff that like stories we've done. I think the thing that we came across was like, this is going to be uncomfortable for a really long time, but you can do it. Other people have done it. I was thinking about every survival story we’ve done. It's in some way or another, it's come down to somebody just being really stubborn and gritty and just they make it through, and it has nothing to do with anything except outlasting something else. It's not like the strongest, smartest, most athletic people that survive these things. It's like the grittiest, the most stubborn, the most mentally resilient.
When we talk about mental resilience, most of the time we're talking about the ability to suffer, which comes in handy in marathons and Iron Mans, but in my situation, you don't have a choice. There's really no trick to it. I divided each hour into 15 minute chunks and tried not to look at the watch until I was sure the time had passed. Usually I failed. I'd broken my leg at 3:00 PM. I had no hope of rescue before five. That's a long time to just sit there in pain.
The hours ticked by slowly five o'clock came and went. The canyon started to play games with us. The sound of the waterfall kept morphing into the sound of a helicopter and I kept sending Kilian out from under the tree to look for it. After the third or maybe the fifth time, he stopped going and would just smile sympathetically because there was no helicopter. Six o'clock. Seven o'clock. I’d now been at the base of this tree with a broken leg for half a work day and we didn't know whether that was because Fabian hadn't made it out or if they just didn't have any search and rescuers available or if the whole world had ended and no one was coming ever. But these were the golden hours and even with the limbo we were in, it was beautiful.
(interview) I'm laying on my back. I'm like basically comfortable. I'm just like, when was the time that I just like laid and watched a beautiful view for like an hour and why haven't I done this in the last five years? That's kind of sad that this is the reason that I actually stop and think about how you can just look at one thing with barely moving your head and see new things for hours. Like we should do that more. There was a point I was just like, if I can't make it out of this canyon, I wonder if I can just live here, like this is a really beautiful spot.
Carver: Did you start building a little house for yourself?
Frick-Wright: What would it take? It'd be a little likeQuincy out of sticks and just have -- you know, apparently there's a Cougar. I would make it my friend, it would bring me food, water to drink. It could be worse.
And then as the sun started to go down, like it got really beautiful and then the sun went behind the ridge and it got really scary.
(voiceover) Our entire plan to go get help had been based around the idea that someone would get back to us before dark. As it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, I started thinking about something we've talked about on this show before, that survival situations aren't usually the product of a single problem. You can almost always survive one mistake or a simple accident. It's when you make multiple compounding errors and things go from bad to worse -- that's when people go from injured to dead. And so we just have to be really careful not to make any more mistakes. And then it becomes, okay, what's a mistake? Because I did not think that we'd be out there after dark, and as the sun goes down, it's like, no one is going to repel down this canyon in the dark. No one's going to climb up this waterfall in the dark. That's too risky. I understand that. I wouldn't want them to try that.
(voiceover) Eight o'clock, one hour til it gets dark. We have to make a decision. Do we stay here between two waterfalls, waiting out 15 minute chunks of pain all night, or do I crawl over to that final waterfall, repel down with a broken leg and spend the night hauling myself back toward the Trailhead? I know the safest thing would be to stay put, but that's not what Kilian and I do.
(interview) I think I was acting from a place of fear of another eight hours. Like it had been five hours at this point and another eight hours just seemed impossible. And so I was scared and I was running away from that.
Carver: Was trying to talk you out of it at all? Was there any like, we shouldn't do this?
Frick-Wright: He told me no, that he thinks it was the wrong decision. It was not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to stay in one place for search and rescue when they're activated. I couldn't remember if downstream from the falls there was anything that would make it impossible for someone to come upstream. But I kind of figured if it had taken them that long to get there, it may be that was the case. Maybe no one was coming. And so we had to go.
(voiceover) So, new plan: down the last waterfall, a big roaring crush-a-car-if-it-drove-underneath waterfall. But to get there, first we'd have to see if I could still crawl with my leg bent out to the side and no pain-reducing brain chemicals in my system. Then killing it would go down the road so that if something happened, he’d at least be at the bottom. Then I'd clip in and go myself.
Carver: You're alone at the top of an 80 foot waterfall with a busted leg. You're about to like roll yourself, you know, into the void. What's that moment like for you when you're all alone up there and you have to make that final decision to go off.
Frick-Wright: (interview) It's just like the decision to jump. It's that sort of scared thrill. Like I kind of enjoyed it -- going off. The added dimension is that if something goes wrong, I'm going to be that idiot that tried to repel with a broken leg and died. Um, and that's kind of the big fear at that point of just like, I don't want to make the wrong decision and die, and die because I made the wrong decision. I thought about it for a really long time. (sighs) I do know that when we got to the bottom and Kilian pulled me over, and I was sitting on a ledge in one foot of water, unhooking the rope and I let out a howl (howl in the background) -- I was so happy. It was like, I could feel a line between me and like civilization had just gotten thicker. Like I knew that I could, if I needed to, I could touching-the-void my way out of here. I could just crawl for 20 days or whatever. I could make it and that felt amazing.
Carver: So that feeling that you wondered if you would ever have again going over water. You found it.
Frick-Wright: It was right there. I mean it was just like, let's go.
(voiceover) We started crawling downstream and it got progressively darker and scarier. For me, the easiest mode of travel was to scoot down the river on my butt, steering my leg between rocks, like a barge. But when the current got too strong, I'd have to haul myself out of the water, crabwalk through the Boulder field.
(interview) At one point I'm sort of scooting my butt over the top of a rock. I swing my leg out in front of me and the river sort of funneled between these two rocks and this was a much stronger current right there. And my foot dips down below that current (sounds of a scream) and straightened the foot out. Maybe 45 degrees straight ahead.
Carver: No! You're shitting me, like the river reset your leg?
Frick-Wright: The river reset my leg and did so perfectly.When we got back to the hospital, they haven't touched it. And about 10 minutes after that, Killian's up ahead of me, I'm trying to follow him. We get to this really terrible boulder section and we just see this like flash of light and Killian goes, Oh! And it's a headlamp. And I go, was that a headlamp? And Killian’s like, I don't know. And like, let's wait and we just like, we wait.
And this is probably the longest like 20 seconds of the trip because I was just looking downstream. We’re just waiting and waiting and then the headlight comes back and then another headlamp appears next to it. And this rush of emotions just floods me again of like thankfulness, relief. It feels like I am allowed to be scared and that's okay.
(voiceover) We connected with the first rescue team at 9:20 that night, just under seven hours after the injury. The paramedic, a guy named Robert Aberly, splitted my leg, gave me water and painkillers, and told me that they had 15 to 20 volunteers right behind him on the trail. It felt like the end of the whole ordeal, but it wasn't -- because even with 15 to 20 guys around, that didn't change the fact that we're still on a rock in the middle of the river surrounded by 600 foot cliffs.
(interview) For him, it was just beginning. Right. For me, it was kind of the middle, and it actually got a little bit harder in some ways from that point because now I'm the patient. Now there's liability issues. I can't just decide to repel another waterfall. I can't just crawl down the river. And when we were in the worst, like one of the most difficult places you could find to move a person that can't move themselves.
(voiceover) We waited on that rock for four hours, from 9:30 at night to 1:30 in the morning; around midnight, we found out that there wasn't a helicopter available until the next morning. To get me out of there, the search and rescue teams were going to have to build a mechanical advantage system, a system of ropes to haul me out. Around 2:00 AM, I was loaded into a sketch to be hauled up the hill. A sketch is like a stretcher made of thin, flexible plastic. But with the angles and the underbrush and the canyon walls, there was too much friction. 20 minutes of hard work would only get me 10 feet closer to the top of the Canyon.
Carver: Also a good point to point out, you’re 6’5”. Six foot five, 210 pounds.
Frick-Wright: I'm the biggest guy at the scene and I'm the least helpful. At 3:30 in the morning they decided to call it -- they'd wait for the helicopter and the team hauling me out, stumbled away, laid down and went to sleep.
(interview)The EMT that was there just draped himself over a rock. The paramedics slept like right next to me on a log. There were guys up top tying themselves to trees, like putting themselves in the fetal position at the base of a tree so they couldn't roll down the hill. It was really incredible, and that actually brought me to tears a couple of times -- both like at the time which I'd kind of choke them down, and since then, just like the amazing effort and the fact that like we have this apparatus to come get us in the back country if something happens. There were at least 32 people on scene there, and like 30 of them I know for a fact were not getting paid. They were all volunteers. It was also a Saturday and like half of the volunteers that were there had spent all day on a call that had ended at 3:00 PM; my call had come in at 5:00 PM, and they were out for another night.
At 5:30 the next morning, the first tiny smudges of light reached the bottom of the Canyon and everyone started to wake up. At about 7:10, a Blackhawk helicopter took off from an air national guard base in Salem, Oregon, roughly 60 miles away.
At 7:30 they arrived in the canyon, started hovering, looking for a place to drop their medic and haul me out of it.
(helicopter sound effects)
45 minutes later, about 8:15, they determined that there was no safe place to bring me out of the canyon and they left. At that point, the search and rescue teams resumed trying to haul me out using ropes. When that failed again, they got a message that the helicopter now had a more qualified crew and what's called a forest penetrator device. They'd be able to drop a medic and pick me up.
What I remember about being hauled up into the helicopter is that the view from that height was very similar to what the canyon looks like from the top of a waterfall. It was 11:30 in the morning. In total from getting hurt to getting to the hospital took 21 hours. When I got there, I was told that I'd broken my fibula, the small bone on the outside of the tibia, which is the shinbone, and that I dislocated my ankle and fractured the malleolus when it spun so far around the wrong way. None of the bones had protruded from the skin. I'm still not sure why I was bleeding. Then I waited three weeks for the swelling to go down and went into surgery.
(Recording of surgeon): You're a big man, big leg, you big bone. You also broke that fibula bone not in one spot, like it looks on the X-Ray. You had multiple different --you had one strike point and then you had a number of different fractures that emanated out, I would say like probably about five or six. Anyway, I put two plates on just to help me get...
Frick-Wright: Six long, slow, difficult weeks later, I started walking again, and as the physical damage fades, the question becomes how badly damaged is the rest of me.
One way to think about trauma is as the process of the brain trying to prevent pain and chaos. If it can make sense of what happened, it can keep it from happening again. Part of that process is reliving moments that were exceptionally harmful or scary or difficult to figure out. I don't have specific triggers, just a tendency to drift back to that day. A few times a week, I find myself back at the edge of that waterfall about to jump, or sometimes I'm already falling through the air looking around for something I could have done differently, some indication that a log’s moved downstream since the last time I was here, or that a boulder dislodged over the winter, tumbled down the canyon and now waits for me just a few inches under the surface. These thoughts play on a loop over and over. Ellie and I call it getting stuck in the canyon.
Sometimes I relive things that didn't even happen. I hit the water and I drowned trying to get to the shore or I get tangled in the rope trying to repel with a broken leg. Sometimes I'm awake and get stuck on the guilt I feel, and the pain and fear that I caused the people who care about me.
When you go through something like this, there's this strange sort of pressure to come out the other side with some new lease on life, some lesson learned or nugget of insight, but all I really have to show for it are a series of nightmares. As I write this, I'm still having vivid dreams of Killian trying to reset my fractured leg but not getting it into position and I'm writhing around in pain and I see how terrible it is for him to be doing this to me. I dream that the people I grew up with are judging and scolding me for taking unnecessary risks. I dream that I'm being hauled out of the canyon by helicopter, and, on the way up, I look around from roughly the height of a big waterfall and it looks so familiar and welcoming and then the cable snaps and I'm falling and from high enough in the air that I have plenty of time to process what's happening. Plenty of time to think about it. My first thought is that there's absolutely nothing I can do. I just have to try and enjoy this final jump and then the ground is rushing toward and I'm trying to figure out what to do with these last few moments of existence.
After an accident or a close call, some people wonder how should you live your life if it can end at any moment, but what my brain seems to be dwelling on is how should you live that moment at the end of your life. In the dream. I'm still falling and I hit the ground in perfect silence and then I'm awake. I'm not falling. I'm in bed and Ellie's right there and I'm shaking and she asks if I was stuck in a canyon and I say, yes, she wraps me up, just holds me until I calm down. I'm told this is normal. There's nothing to solve or fix. This is just what needs to happen for a while. That canyon changed everything and now it's changed it all again. I get through the days just fine, but the nights are different. It's getting better -- I just need my dreams to catch up with my life.
Frick-Wright: This piece was written and produced by me, Peter Frick-Wright. Production music and editing by Robbie Carver. Michael Roberts runs the show. Next week, we're going to check back in on this story two years later with a conversation with one of the guys who pulled me out of there. It gets pretty deep pretty quick.
This episode was brought to you by Bob's Red Mill and Honey Stinger. They have been and continue to be great sponsors of the podcast. Thank you. The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media, and it's distributed by PRX.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.