Feature

Living On The Edge

Coloradans have long pursued outdoor adventures, usually to satisfy a craving for one thing: Adrenaline. But what’s the real cost of our most feverish obsession?

November 2012

Not So Fast

A risk-taker finds liberation in limits.

since my neck was immobilized by plastic, the only place for my gaze to go was up, toward the ponderosa pines and the 30-foot granite face I’d been climbing. As the EMTs hoisted me off the rock escarpment to the waiting helicopter on that March day in 2003, I lay on the gurney and watched the birds overhead, high and bright white, circling in a cluster. I would later mention them to my friends, wondering what species could fly that high and be that white. No one else saw them. 

Maybe I was hallucinating; after all, I’d just plummeted 20 feet down to a stone slab. Real or not, the birds distracted me from the foreign sensation enveloping my body. It was less of an aching than a not-fitting, as if my once-snugly arranged puzzle pieces of bones and muscle now floated disjointedly in a galaxy-size emptiness more intense than anything that could be described as pain.       

Although I was new to climbing, I’d always known the outdoors. I grew up in New Mexico under my family’s motto: “Those who ski together stay together.” My sister and I spent our youth chasing each other down moguls and chutes throughout the West. Our father led us on summer backpacking tours through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, fishing rippling crystalline streams for rainbows or browns. I attended the University of Denver largely because of its proximity to the Rockies’ serrated ridges and pine forests, and even when I moved away after graduation, I always sought out peaks that promised a bird’s-eye view of the world.

Like most twentysomethings, I took risks lightly and harbored that youthful sense of invincibility. While I worked as a reporter in Guatemala City—home to one of the world’s highest per-capita murder rates—people were routinely robbed at gunpoint, or worse. When nothing happened to me, it only strengthened my illusion of being untouchable.  

Climbing lured me in with its challenge of navigating routes that led to dazzling views, coupled with the sensation of defying gravity and accomplishing something seemingly unnatural—or even impossible. The day I fell, while top-roping in northern California near the spot where the infamous Donner Party met its bleak demise, I was with much more experienced climbers. Although I had several of them check the equipment before I started up the face, I slipped near the top, and nothing caught me. 

I landed in a sitting position with a sickening thud. I’d fractured my pelvis in two places; mercifully, though, the bones that floated in space like exploding planets were still aligned and eventually healed without surgery. After two months of evolving from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches, I walked again. Soon after that, I returned to the mountains via hiking. Feeling the wind on my face was liberating; inching along a steep drop—while my legs wobbled and my heart rate spiked—was terrifying. 

I’m back in Colorado, and while I relish a run along the base of the Flatirons, or a hike or mogul-run in Vail or Summit County, I’m much more cautious now and have no desire to climb. Since my accident, the glory of suspending myself amid a postcard-worthy view no longer seems worth the risk, and instead I now follow one of my father’s other maxims: “If you can’t afford to fall, you probably shouldn’t be there.” 

Although skipping such rewards might feel like a living death for some people, I’m at peace within my newfound limits. Before, declining an invitation to the climbing gym would have made me feel like a wimp; now I think of those birds. The image of that fluttering white circle on a bright, blue sky reminds me that I’m lucky. It’s not because I’m invincible; it’s because I know now my life is worth protecting—and I have nothing left to prove. —Megan Feldman

SAFETY TIPS

Rock Climbing

˛Make sure your equipment is up-to-date and functioning properly 

˛Frequently check your harnesses, knots, ropes, buckles, rappel system, and belay device 

˛Always wear a helmet

˛Pay attention to your movements, and plan each step before you take it

˛Don’t climb solo

˛Be aware of your surroundings and know exactly where other climbers are

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