I am now under the impression that people who witness a catastrophic accident have the potential to be more severely affected than those who go through the accident. This is not always going to be the case, but sometimes it’s true. The witnesses get to see every little bit of an accident and the images stick with them, whereas the victims experience it and if it’s bad enough, may not even remember what happened.
On Tuesday, I went climbing with a friend of mine. We were trad climbing, where the lead climber goes up and has to place cams (equipment that gets placed into cracks) along the route. As each cam, a safe point of sorts, is placed, the climber has to free climb to the next spot of choice to place a cam. This means that if you fall, you can often fall a long way to where the last cam was placed to catch you. While generally a more dangerous style of climbing, it is not supposed to be life-threatening.
My friend was climbing lead on a route that had a small overhang (‘roof’) about midpoint. He had placed three cams by the time he got to the roof. As he was just reaching the top of the overhang, I saw his arms shaking and before I knew it, he had fallen. In slow motion I watched him slide down the cliff face 15-20 feet all the way to the bottom. All three cams had ripped out along his fall (and they had been solidly placed). He twisted around halfway so that the rest of the fall was face first to the bottom. When he came to a stop, neck at a horrible angle on his limp body, he just lay there for a split second. A thought twisted itself through the dumb, shocked recesses of my mind that I just watched my friend break his neck and die. Then he started writhing and moving on the ground and I saw his bloodshot eyes and blood in his mouth. The previous thought was replaced by one of terror that now I was in the process of watching him die and OH MY GOD HOW THE HELL AM I GOING TO GET HIM TO THE BOTTOM OF THE TRAIL WE JUST CLIMBED UP?!?!?! He kept saying ‘Who are you? I had a dream about this, who are you?’ All I could do for about 10 seconds was scream his name. Then I snapped to, and dug around the bag we carried all our gear in and found his phone. It was turned off and I panicked, thinking the battery was dead and I was going to have to leave him alone while I raced down the twisting, fallen log and rock laden path back to where the car was to get my phone. Then I got his phone to turn on and called 911. While I was doing this, he was becoming a little more aware. I kept telling him to stay with me, that I was going to get him help and asking him if he knew me. His mumbles of ‘who are you?’ morphed into, ‘Aleta help me! I had this dream before. Help me!’ While I was on the phone with the operator, he gradually came to awareness and I watched my friend go from almost sure death to complete awareness with only a memory lapse in the actual fall. Cutting to the end of the story, the doctor at the ER dismissed him with a few bandaids. He had no concussion, no broken bones, no stitched needed. Nothing short of a miracle.
I shudder when flashing back to those visions of him falling and lying on the ground, thinking he was dead or dying. I would wake up thinking about it in the middle of the night and would have to remind myself, lovingly, that it was not doing me any good to dwell on those visions. He’s ok, I’m ok, and it’s ok to let go of those thoughts.