A year later: reflections on a life-changing climbing accident
Editor's note: In December, 2016, Connor Young planned to climb New Zealand's Mount Aspiring with a friend. A series of fateful changes to the plan and a couple of admittedly questionable decisions landed him in a dangerous situation. He suffered major trauma to his head and face, ankles, shoulder and almost every part of his body in the fall. A year later, Connor looks back on the life-long learnings he has gained from the experience with the hopes of helping others avoid a similar fate.
*Warning: some graphic photos of the accident are included below.
On December 20, 2016, I fell from the southwest ridge of Mount Aspiring while on a climbing trip in New Zealand. It is funny to look back and see the series of seemingly small decisions that together would change my life.
On December 17 while at the Arthur's Pass Christmas Party, a change in the weather forecast made my original partner, Petr, unable to come with me, so I reached out to another climber who could make the new dates work. On December 18, I left Arthur's Pass and was a few minutes late arriving in Wanaka, missing my opportunity to rent an emergency beacon. On December 19, we hiked into the French Ridge hut and discussed the next days plans with a group of Americans — a group of climbers that would end up being the ones to save our lives the next day.
After the accident
Two days after the accident, my originally intended climbing partner Petr reached out to me to ask what had gone wrong. I told him I was still working it out but would speak to him once I had things figured out for myself.
Eight days after my accident, Petr fell from the northwest ridge of the same mountain and died.
Shortly after all this happened, I shared a story outlining what I thought I had learned. At that early time, I focused on all the technical components of what went wrong and failed to see how it had really been my approach to climbing that had been a ticking time bomb.
I've spent a year recovering now, easing myself back into climbing, logging over 600 hours of physio exercise, and spending countless hours thinking about the accident.
Looking back a year later
After a year of contemplation, I realize that the list of things I've learned from the fall are very different than what I had originally thought. They are as follows:
- You are not invincible. As a 23 year old man in strong physical shape, I felt as though I could only get stronger and fitter. I pushed my limits almost constantly, believing that accidents couldn't happen to me. This complex, along with an overly strong sense of motivation, led me to try to squeeze long routes into small weather windows, forcing me to rush and leaving no room for error. I was not invincible and got to learn that the hard way.
- "Likes" do not equal skill or experience. I feel somewhat ashamed to say that I was a bit of a social media addict last year. I used to put together posts and reports about the various trips I went on. And what started as an information sharing exercise, soon became a major ego boost. People around me would like and comment on my posts making me feel like I was suddenly very experienced and really knew what I was doing. I felt compelled to maintain an online adventure profile that was constantly being updated with newer bigger objectives, regardless of whether I had the weather, partners, or experience to do so. Experience comes from years of practice and actually has very little to do with the grades at which you are climbing or how quickly you progressed in the sport.
- Getting to the top of something doesn't mean that all similar objectives are now within your grasp. I think a lot of new climbers experience this once they have a solid understanding of rope systems and climbing techniques. "If I got to the top of this mountain, why not that one? They are basically the same." How many times have you made a wrong decision, but gotten away with it? I think we all have done this a few times that we know of, and countless times that we aren't even slightly aware about. The mountains are surprisingly lenient on poor decision making, but when they do decide to be strict about it, they will crush you to your foundation. Better to become comfortable climbing at consistent grades and commitment levels for a period of time before pushing the boundary. Just because you climbed 5.11 once doesn't make you a 5.11 climber; doesn't make you ready to climb 5.12. Just because you've climbed harder things doesn't mean easier objectives are safe.
Recovery and rehab
I am now 25 and, despite making an enormous recovery over the past year, my body feels much older than it did a year ago. There are a few things I will have to carry with me. I had to get braces for the second time in my life to realign broken jaws and to account for missing teeth. I have permanently aching joints and range of motion issues. I have displaced bones in my ankles and right shoulder. I will likely never be able to run again. Physio is going to be a major part of the rest of my life just to try to keep the arthritis at bay for as many years as possible.
Climbing makes life worth living but it can also take so much away from you if you don't give it the respect it deserves. I had to learn this the hard way and I am sharing this with the hope that that others do not have to.
Learn from my mistakes. Know that you are not invincible. Don't let social media make you think you are more hardcore than you really are. Don't try to speed through the the long process of experience building. Become solid before you push your boundary, and always push that boundary within reason.
I'm incredibly lucky I got to survive to take these lessons with me. Hopefully, they will keep me safe and keep me climbing for many more years to come.