Tara and I slept out at 8000 feet on the summit of Old Snowy Mountain. Since mid morning we had been descending through high alpine country. First the boulder fields, then a short section of Pacific Crest Trail, snowfields, scree slopes and stream-laced meadows. Six miles and a couple of thousand vertical feet lay between the trailhead and us. The clear sky mirrored our high spirits. In the intimacy and silliness that can grow on such an adventure, I had been singing a song to accompany the plunge step as we powered our way down a snowfield. "I love my feet, I love my legs, I love my thighs, I love the sky, I love the snow…"
The difficult terrain gave way to easy walking through heather and the beauty of countless alpine flowers. My right foot stepped onto a slight muddy slope. The boot slipped forward and as my pack pulled back, I fought the fall. A great straining in the knee yielded the sickening snap of breaking bone. Searing pain roared in my right thigh, and an uncontrollable animal scream accompanied crashing to the ground.
As I fell I knew that serious damage had occurred in my leg. A vivid memory flashed of that time 40 years ago when my Dad approached and I said, "Either my ski is broken, or my leg is, I felt something snap."
"Don't move", Tara commanded as she arrived, having dropped her pack and sprinted. She had been well trained by her Dad.
Tears came with fear and great sadness.
A terrible sense of failure swept through me. Of all the places I am supposed to be strong, competent and unbreakable, it is in the mountains. This father is not supposed to have an accident in the mountains with his child!
"I am sorry to let you down Tara", I cried.
"You're not letting me down and don't cry" she insisted.
"I need to cry right now," I replied.
Wise and loving beyond her 14 years, she held me, saying. "Cry if you need to, but not for letting me down, because you aren't."
In a minute or two the waves of feeling passed, followed by deep calm and equanimity.
We found no distortion of the leg and no blood, only a deep pain, inability to move, knee and thigh twice their usual size, and the certainty that something was broken. Tara would have to go for help. We set about making me comfortable and safe, improvising a rudimentary splint. Ever so carefully I dragged my body off the mud and onto an inflated sleeping pad. Further preparations included polypropylene clothing, sleeping bag at hand, tent to wrap up in, two liters of water, a bag of gorp, whistle, wool hat, signaling mirror, flare pen, and space blanket gold-side-up on a snowfield for air visibility. Tara created an ice pack with plastic bags and snow.
Tara left to get help at Goat Lake with a note saying "1:45 PM, Robert Beatty, age 52, probable broken femur, unable to walk. No bleeding. Adequate shelter and water, limited food. Need helicopter evacuation. ½ mile SE of Goat Lake about 100 yards above the trail from Snowgrass Flats"
I instructed her firmly, "Don't run." A sprained ankle now would be disaster.
As I watched her disappear behind a wall of pines I suddenly realized that I was alone in the mountains with a badly damaged leg. The rational mind was calm and clear, "She will find people at the lake. Someone will be here within an hour and I will probably be out by tonight." In relative comfort I lay back and admired the exquisite cumulous clouds that formed and disappeared over Johnson Peak that cradles Goat Lake. Mindfully breathing in and breathing out I participated in a deepening calm. Occasionally I would attend to, embrace and soften into the growling ache that was my right thigh. Easy acceptance, "Things are as they are." No fear.
From some dark, frightened corner of the mind, unbidden thoughts arose. "What if she doesn't find anybody? What if she doesn't come back? Twenty years ago I hired a fellow named Dean to install two windows in my living room. He went over-budget and we had some difficult negotiations before it all ended. A few weeks later he vanished while hiking alone on Mt Hood. Some months later hunters chanced upon his body, with a broken leg, less than 100 yards off the trail.
These fearful thoughts had a life of their own. Perhaps they were archetypal, emerging directly from the tissues of my leg, an instinctive way of motivating an injured mammal to be alert and to struggle to survive. They began to gather momentum.
Years of Dharma practice suggested a comforting alternative. The Vipassana mind noted, "Fearful thoughts. Tight chest, tight throat, shallow breathing."
I began the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen, "taking and sending." I imagined all the other people in the world who were suffering the same or similar injury and pain at that very moment. The field spontaneously expanded to include the countless hunters and travelers who had fallen with the same anguished knowing that terrible damage had happened in their leg. I began to breathe the enormous suffering of all these beings into the heart, and breathe back to them the love of the Compassionate Buddha. A sense of deep "inter-being", of intimate connection, arose as the experience transmuted "my pain" into "our pain." The contracted chest and shallow breathing opened into the Heart of Compassion. Images of frightened and lonely beings passed through my mind and suddenly there was a jolt as the image arose of millions of young men in war who have suddenly realized that they have been shot. "I'm hit!" Many have looked down to discover not a broken leg, but no leg.
After a while my thoughts drifted to memories of the night before. The wind had blown in 35 mph gusts, whipping our coats until we hid behind the rough rock wall surrounding the bivouac spot. We had climbed since mid morning, up from the forest below tree line, through the springtime exuberance of the meadows at Snowgrass Flats, and on up into the harsh realities of retreating glaciers and wind-swept rock that forms Old Snowy. We joined the Pacific Crest Trail and talked about how it would be to make that long pilgrimage from Mexico to Canada through the high country. I carried a precious half-gallon of water from the last snowmelt creek. Our dinner began with double strength hot chocolate followed by three freeze-dried courses. Vegetarian Lasagna, Mashed Potatoes with Turkey Gravy, and Chocolate Decadence Cheesecake, all emerging from their aluminum pouches. "Caution, discard and do not eat the oxygen absorption packet." Plenty of calories to keep us warm through the night and proteins to repair muscles worn by the climb.
All around our perch there was awe-inspiring grandeur. Glaciers cascaded in broken disorder down into fluffy clouds on Mt Rainier to the north. Mt Adams rose to the glaciers of its north face from thousands of square miles of forest that formed an elegant green apron, spotted here and there with old clear cuts. To the west we looked down on Goat Lake, still frozen solid except for a tiny crescent of aquiline blue around the south rim. Beyond the lake lay the pass we would traverse tomorrow to descend the deep forests of Jordan Basin. The sun set in regal splendor. There were layers of multicolored clouds that Tara's imagination brought to life as alternate worlds with cities, oceans, mountains and clouds of their own. The bivy spot had just enough room for us if we were cozy and didn't mind a few rocks below and beside us as our intimate companions. Several awakenings revealed the course of the moon as it made its way to the West. In the early morning the stately dance of Saturn and Jupiter climbed over our Eastern parapet. At 6:02, the great orange sun rose in the East. We stood up like two cocoons inside our sleeping bags to pay homage.
The reverie of last night's pleasures dissolved into relief as Tara and two adults emerged from the trees. They were David and Debbie Knierim of Beaverton. They were camping with at Goat Lake with their spouses and five children. Tara and I had met and visited with them two days before. They checked out what I needed, reassured me that there would be food, shelter and support if rescue took overnight and headed back to the lake to get supplies.
The Dalai Lama maintains that the basic nature of human beings is love and compassion. When these are not evident, it is only because there are impurities of consciousness, defilements, which obscure our true deep nature. My rescuers manifested that prediction of human greatness. A second couple stopped by to get further information, having already broken camp. They were going to make a high-speed trip down Goat Ridge to the trailhead, and drive out to the first phone to call in a rescue. Before they left the woman knelt at my side and asked if she might pray for a moment. With my nod of "yes" she put her hands gently on my injured leg and began, "Dear Heavenly Father, we know that your love and healing energies are always with us. Please bring them now into the leg of this man so he will be healed and free of pain. Please let him, and his daughter be safe and quickly rescued…" As she continued I was overwhelmed with tears of appreciation for the love that was present. They took off at a fast pace toward the trailhead and a phone. I never learned their names.
Tara and I have established the ritual of reading a novel to each other during our annual father/daughter adventure. This year our book was Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. As we waited for more help Tara began to read aloud about two teenage sisters as they discovered how to survive while civilization crumbled, their mother died of cancer and their father died in an accident.
For 10 years, since I first took the kids into the Wallowa Mountains I have always carried a ham radio, so I could talk to the forest service in case of accident. This was the very first trip I left it behind, thinking that in a pinch the cell phone would suffice, even if someone had to climb up to a ridge. The phone was useless even from the summit of Old Snowy. The digital signal was very strong, but no calls would go through. While Tara was away I had several mind moments of self-directed anger and disappointment as I realized that this was the predicament for which I had always carried the radio.
Tara interrupted her reading and said "Why don't I try the phone one more time?" She took it a hundred yards up the slope and when she turned it on it remained in the analog mode. She reached 911 in Oregon a hundred miles to the south. They patched her through to Washington 911. When I heard her talking a huge wave of relief swept through. I might be rescued today!
We yelled back and forth.
"What County Dad?"
"I don't know! It's Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Goat Rocks Wilderness, ½ mile SW of Goat Lake. Say we need a helicopter!"
"What is the cell phone number?"
"Tell them that reception is bad and that they most likely will not get back to you!"
The call ended with them telling Tara, "We'll see what we can do."
The phone never worked again.
Within an hour there were eight or nine adults and Tara tending to my needs. One rescuer was Ellie Graham, a pediatrician from Seattle. She looked at the knee and said, "With that much swelling there is lots of blood loss into the joint. Let's get the stove going and fluids going in." I was pampered with someone sitting behind me to provide back support, the tube from my camelback carefully fed to my lips from cups of hot liquid, and careful attention to sunscreen and clothing. Ellie fashioned a fine splint from ensolite pads, a wire brace she carried for just this purpose, and the poles from my tent fly. We talked about the very real possibility that there would no rescue until tomorrow. The weather was changing. Clouds were pouring over the pass and the ceiling was dropping noticeably.
While waiting for the helicopter we discussed the fact that Tara might not be able to accompany me. David and Debbie kindly said she could stay with them at Goat Lake overnight. They would cut their trip a day short, hike out the next day, and bring her home. As we spoke of getting Debbie to drive my car home I mentioned the license plate being "DHARMA." Ellie looked up and commented that in the trailhead parking lot she and her sons had spoken about who would be driving a car with that plate. She had been introduced to me as Robert. Suddenly her eyes lit up and she said, "You're Robert Beatty. You teach at Cloud Mountain." Further conversation revealed that she is a member of the Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound in Seattle and practices with Eileen Kierra. What a small world!
Big helicopters announce their arrival with sub-sonic thumping followed by the rotor-punctuated roar. The army Blackhawk thundered over the West Ridge above Goat Lake and circled down toward the lake. The ground rescue party waved everything they had. It seemed we were not noticed! My anxiety soared as the fearful mind imagined the chopper climbing up out of the lake and leaving. When I was 21 and set off to travel the world I purchased a 22-caliber pocket flare pen. It had been fired once at a friend's wedding. Many times I had thought that it might be silly to be so faithfully carrying it. As the chopper began to climb, I shot the first of two brilliant red fireballs skyward. The chopper turned in our direction, wheeled behind the trees and it became undeniable that we had been seen.
The giant green dragonfly hovered fifty feet off the ground and a bit uphill. The wind was incredible, firing small sticks and pebbles at us like bullets. My rescuers clustered in a protective wall to shield me from the wind. With my mountain glasses I could look directly at the chopper. It hung there for an eternity and then drifted slowly up over the sloping snowfield. From there the wind tore great showers of ice particles. I was suddenly cold. My bare legs were peppered with ice as I struggled to get my coat on. Why didn't it land? Would they decide it was too steep and leave, sending in a ground team by horseback tomorrow?
The side door slid open and a heavily uniformed man with a huge helmet swung out on a cable, sitting on yellow device that looked like an anchor. He was on the ground in seconds, ran to my side, and said his name was Tom. He was clearly in charge. He wrote the details of my condition onto fresh white adhesive tape that created a pad on his right thigh. From one of his many bulging pockets he produced an IV bag. Hearing that Ellie was a doctor, he handed it to her saying, "Stick this for me" as he inserted a needle in the vein of my right arm. Talk was difficult over the roar of the engines and the hurricane of wind.
"We will be lifting you out of here on a litter, sir."
" Can we take my daughter?"
"No sir, not if we can't land. She'll have to go out with these people."
He handed me earplugs and instructed me to put them in.
"We won't be able to talk over the noise in the chopper. We will be taking you to Harborview Hospital in Seattle."
As Tom and the ground rescue team prepared to lift me onto the hard yellow stretcher I was filled with terror. Images of compound-complex fractures and bones tearing through muscle and skin flashed in my mind.
"One person has to support my thigh above and below the break!" I demanded.
Tom positioned himself and I felt his confidence and youthful strength as the lift produced minimal pain.
"Hold this and keep your hands inside the stretcher. It's going to be really windy as you go up", said Tom placing the IV bag in my right hand.
I called for Tara
"I am so proud of you sweetie. You've been terrific. I couldn't ask for a better hiking partner"
She hugged me bravely.
"I'll be fine. I love you, Daddy."
I always thought that helicopters hovered, balanced beneath their rotors. This massive machine parked like a giant boulder fastened to the sky. There was no wavering. The lift began with one bump into the ground as the cable became taught and the litter swung directly beneath the winch. I felt a deep calm, neither excitement nor fear, as I was lifted skyward. Tom was right about the wind. I was instantly chilled to the bone. My body began to shiver violently. I was concerned for Tara watching her injured Dad being flown away. As the litter slowly spiraled up I looked for her waved. I was confident that she would be all right and I wanted to reassure her I would be too. She told me later that I was waving in the wrong direction.
The Blackhawk is all business. I have never experienced such raw power. I felt slight G forces as it dropped its nose, and banked sharply to climb up and out of Goat Lake. Treetops and crags raced by only feet away. Tom helped me sit up and leaned against my back so I could view the mighty west face of Mt Rainier from very close. It reminded me of the fluted ice and tumbling glaciers of the Himalayas. Tom shouted into my ears that we had been diverted from Harborview and that we would be landing at Fort Lewis to refuel. "14 minutes!" My greatest suffering at that point was the fact that the vibrations of the chopper made my bladder, filled to overflowing with all the forced liquids, threaten to burst.
Tom inspected the IV and discovered that my blood was running the wrong way in the tube. In a moment it was inserted in a device that looked like a long blood pressure cuff and the flow was corrected.
The helicopter made a hard right bank allowing me to see a large modern building that was obviously a hospital. Beside it I saw a white circle and cross that indicates a landing pad. We were on the ground in seconds. Before the rotors stopped, the chopper team rotated the rack that held my litter and pulled me directly onto a gurney. I was surprised and relieved to hear a young man in uniform say, "This is the Emergency Room at Madigan Hospital, Fort Lewis. We'll be taking care of you here." I had thought we were stopping only for fuel.
The sun was sweetly warm on my face and bare left leg as I rode headfirst across the smooth tarmac and through the double doors into the waiting arms of the ER team. They looked like angels to me, all dressed in different colors and with great concern on their faces. Someone spoke to the team, "52 year old male, climbing accident just lifted out of the mountains…" It was easy to surrender, answer questions, offer arms for blood draws, OK the cutting off of pants, joking about burning the underwear. In my childhood my mother told me to change my underwear when I was going skiing, in case I broke a leg. I had failed her, with three-day-old hiking undies! As I assured one doctor that I thought my only injury was the leg he very kindly said, "Yes sir, that is probably true, but we need to check. People come in here sometimes so preoccupied with one injury that they don't notice something very serious and life threatening. We just need to check." As soon as he was done my earlier plea for a urinal resulted in blessed relief, as everyone looked discretely away to provide privacy in the midst of a crowd.
I felt so safe, contained in the professional attention of that team. Compassionate competent kindness. Gratitude filled me and I observed that I felt an enormous happiness, sense of calm and ease. There was surprise at experiencing no self-consciousness as my clothes were cut off, and ease in receiving care. I remembered Ram Dass' post-stroke teachings about the practice of gracefully receiving assistance and providing others the chance to be giving. There was a deep pleasure in being so helpless and passive among such caring people.
The initial intensity of the ER soon passed. I said I was cold and moments later a man placed a wonderfully warm, heated white blanket, over me, saying: "This is one of the small pleasures we can offer you here." They raised the bed so I was sitting, gave me several pillows and moved on to other tasks.
A great commotion from the hall preceded a policeman, and a young Hispanic man hysterically yelling "I'm shot, I'm shot…" The same team that had greeted me entered with him and pulled a curtain between us. A plaque on the wall read "CONVERSATIONS IN THIS ROOM ARE NEITHER PRIVATE NOR SECURE." Through the curtains I learned that he had been shot twenty minutes before, that there was a lot of pain and blood and that he was under the influence of grass and alcohol. In my comfort and safety I began breathing his anguish and pain into the calming Compassionate Heart of the Buddha. I went deeper and deeper into the suffering of those moments, and was comforted as I heard the voices of the team become more relaxed and the young man became quiet. Before long a fellow came by, said, "Let's get you to somewhere quiet," and took me to cubicle #4 down the hall past the nursing station. When I later asked about the young fellow I was told that his injuries had been minor and that he was OK.
Had I not felt so content, grateful and filled with equanimity I might have grown impatient during the ensuing hours as emergencies preoccupied the medical team and I waited for x-rays to be taken, developed and read. I kept floating in gratitude for Tara, cell phones, the love I experienced on the ground, helicopters, hospitals, trained medical staff…
From my various parking spots as I made my way from curtained room to x-ray and back I glimpsed into the lives of several families who had met emergency that day. A pained, sad man and his unhappy wife waited in x-ray to see if his shoulder was broken. A distraught mother cried, as it was uncertain if her baby would survive. Another mother became more and more happily animated as it became clear that her 18 month old would come to no harm from drinking a bottle of medicine. I found awareness of breathing and the practice of embracing suffering with the Compassionate Heart to take me ever deeper into realization of the vast suffering that is inevitable in our lives, and how we are dependent upon one another.
The X-Rays revealed no broken bones.
"But I felt something break," I said.
"Try to lift your lower leg and foot", said the doctor as he supported my knee off the bed.
The doctors felt around in the swelling and discovered that there was no resistance, a hole, where the quadriceps tendon should be just above the knee. I could feel the absence with my own fingers.
"It looks like your quadriceps tendon is ruptured."
Was this good news or bad? I had experienced a broken leg before and recovered. What did "ruptured quadriceps tendon" mean?
With this diagnosis the emergent situation was over and now there was the question of getting home. It was 10 PM.
The phone system at Madigan Hospital is inadequate and difficult to use. Because it is a military base the staff must use security codes to call out. Even when the codes are correctly entered the phones sometimes get wrong numbers. As I gave instructions to one of the nurses concerning possible ways of getting me home the doctor suggested that it would be easiest if I simply spoke on the phone myself. My bed was wheeled out to the nursing station. After several tries a nurse got through to Nancy. She was deeply relieved to hear from me, for she had been having a radically different experience. Communications with her had been inadequate and frightening. Soon after my arrival at the ER I gave calling information to a nurse who passed it on to a civilian fellow. He came twice to my bedside saying that dialing my home number connected him with a warehouse. I was not medicated at all yet and was certain of the number. I joked that perhaps Nancy had moved, but I thought it was too soon for the number to have been reassigned.
When he did finally connect with Nancy he told her, "Your husband has fallen off a mountain and is in the Madigan Hospital ER." When she asked for more details he said that he couldn't reveal details over the phone, that it was long distance call, and that he was very busy.
Nancy pressed on, "Can I talk to Robert?"
"Is his neck broken?"
"Is his back broken?"
"Is he conscious?"
"Of course he is, how do you think I got this phone number?"
"Why can't I talk to him."
"He's in a room down the hall where there is no phone."
When I finally got to speak with Nancy I was unaware of how poorly informed, and how anxious, she had been. I took great delight in speaking with her. We had two dilemmas, getting me home and calling Marsh House to cancel the retreat that was scheduled to begin in 22 hours. While I remained on the line, Nancy called Kathleen Bohlken's cell phone in Seattle. Kathleen, who looks upon life as an educational institution and garden of service, responded with characteristic generosity, "This is perfect, I am in Seattle going south on I-5. I will go straight to Tacoma and bring Robert to Portland." Nancy immediately called Janine on Whidbey Island and the word went out canceling the retreat.
The rupture of the quadriceps tendon was total. This injury is relatively rare, occurring in hunters and backpackers after going downhill for extended periods of time. The patella (kneecap) had a bone spur on it, possibly the result of tense quads that I have been trying to release since a trip to Tibet last year. This spur and sub-clinical tendonitis may have contributed to the acute failure. Five days after the accident I underwent surgery to reattach the torn ligament. It was a relatively "simple" surgery that took about an hour. Several titanium hooks were screwed into the patella as sewing anchors. The incision stretches straight over the kneecap from just below to one inch above. Alas, no more shorts ads for Nordstrom's.
The prognosis is good. I will need six weeks in my removable leg brace, careful walking with canes, and some months of physical therapy. The doctor said that with diligent rehab work I should regain full functioning of my leg. My physical therapist further assured me that with effort I will once again walk, run, ski, and be able to visit the sacred terrain of the high mountains. The only residual limitation may be that I will not be able to sit cross-legged.
The time since surgery has been more difficult than I expected. The surgeon advised me to expect an increase of pain due to the incision, and the stretching of the quad muscles back into their usual positions. The nights have been particularly difficult. Even with potent pain and sleep medications there have been many hours of meditation on pain and the Four Ennobling Truths. Yes, there is anguish in life. Sometimes all I could manage was to endure the pain, aversion, fear and despair. "Oh no, I am awake and it's only 3:40 AM! My knee feels like it is bending backwards and there is no concentration or equanimity, I hate this!" Other times there was the grace of spaciousness, and acceptance such that the same sensations produced no suffering at all. My will appeared to have little influence upon which states arose.
The window into interbeing, compassion, love and spaciousness that graciously opened on the mountain has occasionally revisited. Frequently it has been closed. In its place there have been extended visits by fear, depression, anger, fatigue, self-preoccupation and great sadness. The awful moment of the snapping tendon and agonized scream have spontaneously replayed themselves over and over. As I wrote about the moment of parting from Tara in the mountains, the anguish and grief of that separation emerged. My first session of gentle bodywork released terror and tears that had awaited a safe moment.
My tendency is to underutilize pain medications. I think this comes from the notion that I "should be able to deal with the pain through meditation" and the idea that if I am using less medication I must be getting better fast. One morning soon after surgery I thought I could go with half the dose. A visit to the hell realms followed. Physical pain and the darkest of mental states took command. It took several hours for the medication to catch up.
Nancy's kindness, service and patience have been essential to my making it through this difficult time. She remained present to the moods, mental states and interactions that make interesting or entertaining stories about intimate relationship, but which are painful to live through. I am most grateful of her loving presence and help.
"Fortune changes like the swish of a horse's tail," said the Buddha. One moment life is unfolding in a particular direction and in the next there can be an utterly unexpected turn in the road. We take birth into incredibly sensitive, vulnerable and fragile human bodies. A slight slip, a moment of inattention, a twist of fate or the ripening of an ancient karma and any of us can suddenly find our reality turned upside down. I know that the outcome of this accident could have been quite different. I have been granted a reprieve. This time I will return to being "temporarily-abled." I have been given a glimpse into pain, disability and loss, common experiences of the personal self as it encounters the reality of its impermanence. Someday, inevitably, accident or sickness, disability, old age and death will prevail. There is no predicting, or controlling, when any of these will occur. I am touched by the realization of how much I have needed and received the kindness of others. Perhaps this accident will empower me to appreciate more fully the precious and fleeting gifts of health, walking, breathing, loving, and being alive.