First of All, The Accident
The one-minute snapshot of the accident is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was on a hike with one other person on a remote island in Australia, and we set up camp on the side of the mountain. I had to go to the bathroom and I needed to do so away from our water supply, so I started scrambling up this steep rock wall. I got to no more than a few feet off the ground when a piece of the wall broke loose. That’s when life changed big time for me, because that rock slammed me back down into the creek bed. Geert and I couldn’t move it. I spent all night underneath it. We decided that Geert would have to hike out and then organize a rescue. While he did that, I spent two days trapped underneath that one-ton piece of rock. Finally a helicopter came in with a rescue team. They lifted the rock off and got me to the hospital, the surgeon explained to me that he would have to amputate both legs above the knees.
I cried myself to sleep and woke up to a new reality. I spent ten days in intensive care. Once I got out and could think about things other than just surviving, I started to ask myself “What does a life without legs mean for someone that’s always been active outdoors? Am I ever going to be able to get back to the mountains and have even a small part of that life back?”
Why the Rock Climbing Life Is Worth Getting Back
I think you set yourself up for a fall if you live life really safely instead of working with fear. Fear gets me focused. I’m scared of heights, so rock climbing for me is an exercise in control. I get really engaged with what I’m doing, because if I panic, I will probably die. I can’t close my eyes and will myself to the ground, so I just have to overcome the fear and take control. It’s almost like a meditation. A lot of climbers, including my partner, started climbing because it was the only time they felt they could live fully in the moment.
In a way, I’d been preparing my whole life for what happened on Hinchinbrook Island. My partner pointed out to me that I was the “ideal” person for this to happen to. One of my mottos, which I didn’t really put into words until after the accident, has always been “Don’t freak out and never give up.” Staying calm was what really helped me get through it. If I had freaked out and spooked Geert, and then he had had his own accident rushing down the mountain to get help, well, that wouldn’t have helped anybody.
The Road to Recovery
My mobility defined me in a lot of ways, so after the accident I had to question everything I identified myself with. I was pretty naïve in the hospital. I thought I could just get new legs like The Six Million Dollar Man. Rehabilitation would not be that straightforward, but that stubbornness motivated me anyway. A doctor actually told me not to get my hopes up about walking again and I remember thinking, “We’ll see about that.”
When something like this happens to someone, they often have to make a huge shift in body image. I moved through this stage quickly. In the beginning, I got angry when people at the mall would stare at me and feel sorry for me. Then I realized, of course somebody would feel sorry for me when they first saw me. I don’t look like other people anymore. They couldn’t know that I was planning an expedition to climb a mountain. So the emotional aspect soon wasn’t on my radar anymore.
Learning to walk again took a lot of little steps and a lot of visualization. But at one point I realized how much faster it would be to move in a wheelchair, and that I could maybe reclaim my climbing life that way. My friends would see me walking on prosthetics and say “Wow, it must be so amazing to have your mobility back” and I’d be using ninety percent of my energy just to stand up. Once I saw that the wheelchair was a more efficient way of moving, I moved away from the stigma of a person being “confined” to a wheelchair. My wheelchair is just a tool, one that allowed me to get back into the mountains in a bigger way than I had before, even on short legs. Being able to make that shift in perspective was amazing. Since being in the wilderness is, for me, more about the oneness and connectedness that I feel than chasing a burning feeling in my muscles, I realize I could still have the personal experience I valued in climbing
At first, I didn’t think there were lessons to take away from the accident and everything after, because of the way I grew up. I just thought that when something bad happened, you got back on the horse and went off again. After some time I realized that not everyone sees things that way, and that I could share something valuable and important with people. I could say, “Hey, bad things happen to all of us, but we can get through them.” Doing that taught me so much and made me such a different person that I wouldn’t go back anymore. I wouldn’t go back and change what happened.
So now when I do public speaking, I don’t want to tell the story of the accident anymore. I’ve created an intro video that tells the story. When it’s done, I come out and say “Yeah yeah, big deal. Guy spent a couple days under a rock. Get over it. I did.” Because all the important stuff happened after the accident. I want to keep pushing it into the background and focus on moving forward. My mission is to take my experiences and make something bigger and more relevant, to be a conduit for other people reaching their full potential. Cruising around the planet and giving speeches has been great, I’d be disappointed if that’s as far as I can go, because I’ll give a speech and then come across someone setting up clean-water wells in Africa. I always want to be evolving, and making a positive influence more and more accessible. There are so many negative influences out there that I think our purpose is to override them and create something better for people.
For example, I run into a lot of people who are sick of this recession and want the old economy back. Well, we can’t have it back. We don’t have a time machine. I think we have to accept that and look at what’s happening through fresh eyes. It’s 2011, maybe we can develop a system that is sustainable for everyone on the planet.Acceptance is probably what’s helped me more than anything else. When I left the hospital, one of the doctors wrote in my discharge report that I hadn’t accepted what had happened to me. In reality, I had accepted it by the time I’d come out of intensive care. There was no denial or pretending. That leads to freaking out. Throwing a tantrum won’t magically make a plane appear so you can catch your delayed flight. Acceptance is a huge step toward overcoming fear, because then you can get a full picture of what you’re dealing with. Freaking out is a natural human response, but I think you can train yourself to have more of a choice, and I’d rather stay calm and collected, given the opportunity.