Author's Notes Naked Edge
The experiences that ultimately poured into Kat and Gabe's story began on July 28, 1994, high on Mount Ida (12,844 feet/3,914.85 m) in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. I'd gone backpacking with my father, a long-time alpine and rock climber, hoping to spend four days away from the demands of newsroom and motherhood. My goal was Arrowhead Lake, a hanging lake that overlooks Forest Canyon. I never made it.
About eight hours into our trek, we encountered a 20-foot wall of ice framed on both sides by cliffs. Without ropes and technical gear, descending the cliffs was impossible. The ice was our only route down.
My father kicked footholds into the ice and in a few minutes reached the bottom. Although I'd spent my life hiking in Colorado's mountains and had done some basic rock climbing — my childhood home was ten minutes from the trails of Boulder Mountain Parks, for which I've volunteered as a naturalist, leading educational hikes and such—I didn't have my father's experience climbing ice. I tried to do what he did, but I slipped from the top and fell 20 feet, bouncing another 20 feet down a steep slope of talus and boulders.
I remember hearing my father shout my name and thinking without any emotion, "I might die." I felt bone snap painlessly as I hit rock again and again. In a split second, I'd gone from being a person with control over my future to an object caught by gravity. Later, my father would tell me that I looked like a human rubber ball.
I blacked out for a few seconds. When I became aware again, I found myself sitting up with my right leg caught around a large rock. My father was there, shouting for me to look at him, to say something, but I couldn't. I couldn't talk. I couldn't move. I couldn't even raise my eyes to look at him.
Slowly, I began to regain my faculties. First I was able to moan, then I could speak a little. That's when the pain kicked in. The nearer a body part was to my brain, the sooner it checked in. I almost passed out and started going into shock, which was really inconvenient for a couple of reasons.
For one, we were just beneath the mountain's summit in the middle of a rockslide area. For another, a thunderstorm was moving in fast. If you've ever been in a Rocky Mountain thunderstorm above 10,000 feet in elevation, you know what that means. We were in danger from both lightning and from falling rock. Add the cold temperatures, wind and rain, and hypothermia was also a real possibility.
My father is adept at survival in the mountains and taught alpine climbing when I was little. He knew I was in no shape to resume climbing—I was still barely coherent — but he also knew we were in danger. He shoved every piece of spare clothing we had on me, then covered both of us with a tarp from our tent. We rode out the thunderstorm beneath that blue tarp, thunder echoing around us.
By the time it had passed, I was able to think and talk again. I tried to stand, but the pain in my right leg was overwhelming. It was clear that I wasn't going to be able to finish our trip. My father was going to have to leave me and hike out for help. Because of the remoteness of our location, he guessed that I'd be alone for the better part of 48 hours—one day for him to get out, and one day for help to get back to me. His priority became finding a relatively safe place to pitch our tent so that I could have shelter while he went for help. And that meant I had to keep climbing. The slope was far too steep for him to help me.
For the next hour and a half, I struggled down the side of the slope while he hiked ahead of me carrying my backpack. I had to scoot down on my behind, using my arms and my relatively uninjured left leg to maneuver around boulders. It was slow going and very difficult. But the worst lay ahead.
At the base of the slope was a snowfield about the size of a football field. The only dry spot around stood on the other side of it, and that's where my father had pitched our tent. But I couldn't scoot across it on my backside because the snow was soft enough and deep enough that I simply sank. So I got on my hands and left knee and crawled, dragging my right leg behind me.
The pain was excruciating. I inched my way forward, my right foot catching in the snow, making me scream. I can't say for sure how long it took to cross that snowfield—ten minutes, an hour — but if ever I had a heroic moment, that was it.
By the time I reached the tent, I was soaking wet from the snow and exhausted. I carefully took off my right boot to find my ankle and lower shin swollen and purple. Then I took off my wet pants—along with bits of my right leg. My right quadriceps had ruptured, and some of the skin and muscle had been gouged out by rocks. Far worse, a third of the muscle was gone, liquefied on impact, most of the blood catching beneath my skin, forming a hematoma that had swelled to the size of a cantaloupe.
I reached for our first-aid kit and found a single Band-Aid and an Advil. I took the Advil, tossed the Band-Aid aside and put on dry pants.
When I was reasonably dry, I rolled onto my stomach and looked out of the tent up and up and up to where I'd fallen. I was able to see grooves carved into the ice by my fingers where I'd tried desperately to hold on. And that's when it hit me.
I had almost died. And now I was going to have to spend perhaps as many as two days alone in this tent injured and waiting for help. I started shaking and crying, then, terrified, said a prayer out loud.
"I think you've got a direct line to God," my father said.
I opened my eyes and saw a man climbing down that same ice wall. What happened next may be the strangest conversation ever to take place in the Colorado mountains:
"You wouldn't happen to be a ranger would you?" my father called to the man as he neared our tent.
"Yes," the man called back.
"Your name wouldn't be Rick, would it?" my father asked.
(Was now really the time for a "Ranger Rick" joke? Give me a break, Dad.)
"Um, yes, it would," Ranger Rick said.
"You wouldn't happen to have a radio, would you?" my dad asked him.
"Yes, I would."
It turns out that Ranger Rick was also a paramedic. He assessed my injuries and called for a helicopter rescue.
It took the helicopter a couple of hours to become available and even longer to find a place to land. The rescue was almost postponed until the next day, as the pilot didn't want to chance landing in the mountainous terrain in the dark. But at last he found a spot, then had to wait while Rick and my father helped me get to the landing site. At the very end of my strength and in significant pain, I could move only a few feet at a time.
As they helped me into the helicopter, the chopper pilot, seeing the grooves my fingers had dug into the ice some 200 feet up the slope, said, "Whoa! You fell from there? Why are you still alive?"
"I don't know," I told him. "But if this chopper crashes, I'm going to be angry."
An hour later, I was safely at the trauma center, while my father camped on Mount Ida with Rick and finished our backpacking trip without me. (Rescue helicopters only bring down injured parties. Anyone capable of continuing the climb is required to do so.) With a broken tibia, ruptured quadriceps, broken ribs, torn Achilles tendon, and a bad concussion, I'm not sure I'd have lasted two days up there alone. Statistically speaking, half of people who fall 20 feet are killed. I had survived a fall of twice that distance.
The injuries I sustained that day caused long-term damage that I deal with every day, particularly the concussion, which left me prone to migraines. But I am alive.
I remember thinking at the time, "I should use this in a novel some day. Then, at least, it will have happened for a reason."
So now I have.
I went back in 1997 and climbed Mount Ida again. Standing on the summit, I was able to look down at the place where I nearly died and feel victorious.
But I never made it to Arrowhead Lake.
I first began covering Native issues in 1995. I'm one of those who believe that the job of the journalist is to give a voice to the voiceless. Very rarely do we read anything of substance about contemporary American Indian issues in our newspapers. Most people know very little about reservation life. I wanted to do something about that.
I dug around and learned that some Navajo families were being forced off their traditional homesites for a variety of reasons far too complex and controversial to explain here. I asked permission to come to the Navajo Reservation — the dinetah — to report on the conflict. The elders, who didn't trust journalists, said, "No."
Respecting their wishes, I covered the issue as best I could from a distance for a few years before I received a call asking me to please come to the reservation now. So, with a verbal map that included things like, "I think there's a cornfield planted near there," and, "When you come to this pile of tires, keep to the left for a while," I drove down to the rez by myself to cover a sacred ceremony that was on the brink of being interrupted by law enforcement. There were no road signs and no paved roads. Some of the ruts were big enough to swallow my little car.
The experience was transformative. After that, I was asked to come back again and again, covering a range of issues. Over the years, I spent nights sleeping under the stars in the desert, eating frybread with honey in the morning and mutton stew at night. I discovered that the beating of a single drum can make you feel more alive than anything you've ever known, that you don't have to know the words to sing, and that you don't have to speak to communicate.
My reporting on Navajo issues led to my being asked by the Lakota to come to the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations, where I covered a variety of topics, including the Si Tanka ride and the conflict between paleontologists and "looters" near Stronghold. By 2001, I had been charged by three recognized traditional Native leaders from three different nations—Lakota, Diné and Hopi—to act as a bridge between the Indian world and the world of mainstream America. I've tried to take that charge seriously as a journalist and now as a novelist.
It was at about that time that my own life unraveled. I was still dealing with some of my climbing injuries. I was recently divorced. The newspaper where I'd worked for the better part of a decade was forced into bankruptcy by embezzlement, and I lost my job. I felt defeated and deeply depressed.
And so it came to pass that the people I had hoped to help turned around and helped me. Prayers came in from thedinetah from people who lived in traditional hogaans without water or electricity, offering me comfort and strength. People who owned a single chicken offered to slaughter it and hold a feast for me. I can't tell you how deeply their generosity touched me.
When one is feeling sorry for one's self and those who have so little offer to give everything, it puts one's struggles into perspective.
I have tried to the best of my ability to create in Kat James a true Diné character, a young woman who, like so many contemporary American Indians, is caught between tradition and the modern world. Any mistakes with regard to Dine culture or language are mine alone. I offer this story respectfully and with gratitude.
Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all one.
Nov. 3, 2009
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