Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

Separation anxiety

Tourniquets and the art of tyin’ one on

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I woke dazed. Doctors were talking to Kara. I was wearing nothing but a gown. A bandage extended from above my elbow to well beyond where my fingers should have been. A clue my hand was still in there? It was all held in place by a bright- yellow foam brace full of holes. It looked like what a Cheesehead might put on his head for a Packers game. The ER staff said they’d heard that before, and let me know I would soon be flying.

An ambulance zipped me to a Life Flight airplane for an immediate flight to the hospital at Utah State University. The plane was refueling when we got there and the ambulance had other broken people to go deal with. They pulled me out and collapsed my gurney directly on the hot black tarmac. The ambulance sped away and even though I was left just inches off the ground I recall good views of the Berkeley Pit and Our Lady of the Rockies. Flight nurses stood nearby, dressed like Top Gun pilots and chatting, exuding calm confidence as they waited for the plane. A slight wind licked at my gown, and I might have felt sexy if it hadn’t been for that Cheesehead thing on my arm. I asked for more pain meds and wondered what things might look like under this bandage, and what would happen next.

Montana Headwall
  • Kara McMahon
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A lot had occurred since we’d arrived to climb at Spire Rock just a few hours before. Spire is one of countless piles of giant granite boulders rising out of the high desert of Homestake Pass, the route by which Interstate 90 crosses the Continental Divide a dozen miles southeast of Butte. The rounded formations are part of the Boulder Batholith, an unmistakeable granite formation visible from the highway. The hard, clean, quartz monzonite has long served as a magnet for rock climbers.

But while dozens of established climbing routes make it a prominent cragging destination, it’s the uncom-monly dry and warm microclimate that draws the masses during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. When Missoula is wet, or still coming out of winter hibernation, the crags at Spire Rock are frequently dry, sun-baked and inviting.

After a quick and greasy breakfast at Butte’s M&M Bar, we’d arrived racked and ready, angling for mid-level sport routes up the west face. There’s no single approach trail, just incipient paths weaving through sagebrush, juniper and boulder piles before converging at the saddle separating Spire Rock’s two prominent towers, The Queen and The King. We spread out and took our own routes up, choosing whatever level of challenge we wanted as we went. I found myself farther left than the others and confronted with a choice of scrambling through spiny vegetation to the right or a balancey boulder problem to the left. I chose left. It was short, just a delicate, gently overhung step-across that required an under-cling to accomplish eight feet of traverse. I was feeling strong and eager and got right to it.

Montana Headwall
  • Kara McMahon

I pounded the rock with my palm a few times to determine its soundness. It rang a bit hollow, but felt rigid, so I called it good. I reached beneath, found a solid grip and, swinging my left foot toward the next step, pulled my body into the rocky bulge.

That’s when the rock shifted and collapsed, the coarse granite pressing against my face while its thin lower edge drove toward the rock below. Its weight pushed what had just been an excellent handhold right through my wrist as if it wasn’t even there.

I instinctively shoved away from the tumbling boulders and, aware that Kara was somewhere behind me, screamed “ROCK!” With the sharp, unmistakable smell of broken stone dusting the air, I became aware that a Massive, Important Thing was happening. A split second later I came to a rest, utterly limp-wristed, and not yet understanding the gravity of the situation.

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