“Dad,” my daughter, Mayah, called down to me, “are you coming up?”
“Up” was the top of a rock face in Shoshone National Forest, near Lander, Wyoming, that I’d long dreamed of climbing, and that my wife, Cyndy, and six-year-old daughter had just successfully ascended. Just a 45-foot cliff, but its sheer face made it an interesting puzzle to solve. The kind of challenge I used to live for.
Now, though, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to live for. Closing my eyes, I tried to close out the pain that still racked my body and summon the words of a devotional that I’d read in the rehabilitation facility, a devotional that said God would always be with me in everything.
“Dad! Dad!” Mayah’s voice came again from far away. “Are you coming up?”
I say rock climbing was my life, and that’s no exaggeration. I discovered the sport when I was 21. A buddy of mine back east was getting married, and a bunch of us drove to Livezey Rock, a popular rock cliff near Philadelphia, and went climbing for his bachelor party. I had never been an athlete, had never been good at team sports like football or basketball. But climbing I took to right away. For the first time in my life, I could do something physical at a high level.
I climbed every chance I got. I’m a professional photographer. I could have landed a full-time job with a newspaper around Philadelphia, but I stayed freelance so I could climb whenever the urge struck. Which was often. At 23 I traveled the country, climbing in Yosemite and Wyoming—all around the lower 48.
Two years later I met Cyndy in a Philadelphia climbing gym. She was a student at Colorado State University, a one-hour drive from Rocky Mountain National Park, home to some of America’s highest peaks. “If you ever get out there, call me,” she said, just before heading back to school. “I’ll go climbing with you.” Before I knew it, I had moved there. Colorado is a climber’s paradise. First Cyndy and I climbed together. Then we fell in love.
Life was good. I was generally a churchgoing man, but on Sunday mornings, if the weather was perfect, I went climbing. The way I figured it, the higher I got, the closer I was to God. And then it happened—the fall.
I can’t say it was anyone’s fault. I was up the equivalent of a nine-story building on Sundance Buttress, a sheer 1,000-foot rock cliff, perched on a two-inch ledge. My friend Steve was on the ground. “Okay,” I shouted, meaning I was ready for him to belay me back down, so he could take a turn climbing. For some reason, I never checked to make sure he heard me. I slipped into the harness, leaned back and waited for Steve to gently lower me. To my horror, nothing was holding me. I flew through the air, banging against the buttress as I plunged to the ground. I fell so fast, I didn’t even have time to pray.
I came to in intensive care. I opened my eyes. They were about the only part of me that moved. I was breathing with a ventilator. Both feet were in casts. Neck and head in a brace. Everything was numb but my fingers. Clearly I had no business being alive.
Cyndy was at my side. I tried to talk. “Don’t speak,” she whispered, stroking my cheek. I looked into her eyes and knew that she had thought I wouldn’t wake up.
The pain came two weeks later. I had been heavily drugged until then. That morning an aide came to my room. “Craig,” he said, “we’re taking you to an assisted-living center so you can begin physical therapy. We’re going to put you in a wheelchair and wheel you into a van. There might be some pain.”
Some? As he sat me up, a bolt of white-hot pain shot through my feet and back. Unbelievable pain. Pain so intense I wept.
“Is this what it’s going to be like?” I asked my doctor.
“This is what they make painkillers for,” he said. “For people like you.”
Lord, did I cry out for those painkillers during the coming weeks. “I want you to walk to me,” said my physical therapist, standing six feet away. I took a step with my right leg and nearly dropped to the floor. The left one was bad, but this was worse. There was no avoiding the pain, no way around it. I had to go through it. Rehab meant movement, and every movement was torture. And the pain wouldn’t end with rehab.
Lying in bed one night, I tried to make sense of my life. I had been a rock climber. When people asked what I did, that’s what I told them. Now I didn’t know who I was. I started keeping a journal, but every entry ended with the same question: What am I supposed to do now?
I looked at the stack of books by my bed. Friends sent them. They wanted to help but they didn’t know how so they sent books. I snagged the one on top—the only one I could reach. It was a daily devotional book. I turned to July 21, the day of my accident. The devotional startled me. It was about recognizing God’s presence in your life, in the good and the bad. Especially the bad.
I must have read it 50 times. It was like a shock to the system—almost as intense as the physical pain I felt. God is there, inside the pain. Working through the pain, I move closer to God. I felt a spark of optimism take light. I can beat this pain, I thought. I can keep it from taking over my life. And if I’m unable to climb again, well, I’ve already scaled more heights than most.
When Cyndy came to visit the next day, I showed her the devotional. “I’ve discovered who I really am,” I said, “and what my life means.”
Cyndy gave a big if gentle hug. I rededicated myself to rehab, but with a different goal in mind: to make the best out of every day I have. Two months later, the doctors finally said I could go home. I took joy from accompanying Mayah to the movies, sitting in the stands with Cyndy at her soccer games and going out for pizza afterward. I put climbing out of my mind.
Not Cyndy. She still went climbing with friends, or with Mayah, and I would hang out with Will, our three-year-old. I missed being in the outdoors with my family.
Then came the trip to Shoshone National Forest, where I found myself standing at the base of that cliff recalling the devotional. Lord, you are with me in all things. I hesitated. I hadn’t been on a rock face since the fall. I took a breath, got a handhold, dug a step on the face.
Immediately the pain shot through me. Push through it! I told myself. Climb beyond the pain.
I placed my right foot on the rock. Now the pain was so sharp I broke into a sweat. I grimaced, set my teeth and took hold of the rope. Cyndy coached me from up top. “That’s good,” she said. “You’re doing great. Keep going.”
The climb seemed to take forever. My heart raced from the effort. I had to pause after every movement, every step. I kept thinking, If God is with me I can do anything. Finally I reached the top and fell into the arms of my family. Breathing hard, I threw my head back and stared up into the dazzling blue sky. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”
My struggles weren’t over by any means. There was a lot more therapy in front of me. Surgery, too. In the end, the pain in my right leg grew so bad, doctors persuaded me to have it amputated below the knee.
That was eight years ago. I’m back climbing rock cliffs now, wearing a new prosthetic. I’ve scaled El Capitan, a world-class 3,000-foot sheer rock face in Yosemite, and captured two gold medals in the 2007 Extremity Games—an extreme-sports competition for athletes missing limbs. I won in bouldering—scaling large natural boulders without using a safety rope—and rope climbing.
The pain is still there. It always will be. But you know what? It’s not a reminder that I am disabled but that I am alive.
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