Broken Neck Nik
He dropped into a 40-foot crevasse in British Columbia, and the lights went out. When they came back on, it hurt.
At the end of the day, the mind strays. Walking out from the mountain across the glacier, I was thinking about dinner: Veggie korma or pad thai? That was when I fell 40 feet into a crevasse. I can’t say I have spent much time considering what my final thoughts in this life would be, but I’d have preferred something other than what freeze-dried meal to cook.
Cam Mitchell and I had spent most of August 10, 2019, on Mount Overseer, a seldom-climbed and often-scrambled peak near Pemberton, British Columbia. We never found the route, instead making our own three-pitch kitty-litter-and-lichen adventure to the top of a loose, dangerous gulley. Reaching the summit by the first ascent of a line that will likely never see a second, I assumed the danger was behind us.
Belaying Cam up on the final pitch from the most consolidated rubble I could find, I waved clumsily, like a child, saying, “A little more adventure than we bargained for, eh?”
Cam just said, “Yeah,” the way he often does, to agree and ignore me when I am an embarrassment.
My statement was ominous, I now see, but only so with the beauty of hindsight. The fates are generally assholes.
To descend, Cam and I scrambled down the eastern face and navigated the crevasse-ridden glacier at the base. Forging out across the blue-ice labyrinth, we briefly discussed roping up, but, assuming the danger was in our wake, left the rope in Cam’s pack.
Cam had often spoken of how climbing accidents are a result of a series of insignificant mistakes. Instead we made one big one, and I dropped unroped through what is best described as a cartoon trap door. The transition was fast. There was light, then darkness and hungry, cold blue depths. Days later, on a visit at the hospital, Cam recalled seeing me vanish out of the corner of his eye and hearing me tumble down the inside of a narrowing crevasse in a combination of grunts and thuds.
I can still hear the sound a helmet makes when it is being pulverized. I fell backwards, my head grating down the crevasse wall, an unknown ratio of skull and neck slowing my slide into the deeps. I knew I was falling into a crevasse and was confident I would die. Being helpless can be peaceful if you let it. No doubt my brain was dumping comforting chemicals in what it thought were our final moments.
Below the T3 vertebrae I sustained only a deep bruise on my left hip that would later swell with fluid, like an additional, poorly positioned aftermarket butt cheek. Everything above the T3 vertebrae, however, was taxed with slowing down 160 pounds of human who had made poor choices.
Everything went black, though I would later vehemently tell doctors I had not lost consciousness. A severe concussion gave me a level of confidence I wish I had in day-to-day life. I have no idea why I argued that I had been present for all parts of the experience. There was nothing to gain from lying to professionals. I can only think I was trying to downplay the state of things the same way I do when non-concussed and narcotic-free. I was a man on drugs, with two black eyes from head trauma, lying in a bed with a c-spine collar, who couldn’t remember landing in the bottom of the crevasse and said he could. Eyewitness accounts are rarely reliable.
But back to the crevasse: I woke up, it was still dark, and I couldn’t move. I was pretty sure I wasn’t dead, but had no way to confirm it, the immediate assumption being that I had been paralyzed in the fall and would die there face down. For the second time in less than a minute, I thought I was going to die, but this time it was much quieter.
My face was buried in the snow floor. I moved my arms and raised to my knees, then my feet.
Pain shot through my back and neck, which seemed stuck. Forced to arch my back in lieu of tilting my head, I leaned against the cold wall and saw light coming through a climber-sized hole above. The crevasse was probably 40 or 50 feet deep. I was standing on a perch of snow that had clogged the bottom. My platform was hardly wider than shoulder-width, and by pure luck I landed lengthwise. Had my body been turned 90 degrees I would have folded in half, hard.
My hand looked broken, and in the heat of the moment I convinced myself that I had a painful neck strain. A battery of radioactive tests would later show that my hand was fine, but my neck was not.
After a brief serenade of painful groans and swearing, I yelled for Cam to stay back from the edge. Standing, I continued trying to look up without using my neck. The snow bridge I had punched through was about 10 feet wide. I needed a rescue, but if Cam fell in as well, there was a good chance I would have no one left to talk to.
“Nik! Are you OK?” he called.
My self-assessment was that I was “pretty fucked up.”
I said, “I think I broke my hand!” It was the grandest understatement of my life.
“Are you going to be able to walk out?”
Sure, I could walk out, if I could get out: I only had a broken hand.
Cam set off the beacon we all buy but never expect to use, and lowered a rope. I pulled my jacket and harness from my pack, cursing my labored and clumsy movements, and put them on. But with so much happening so fast I could not dwell on the pain.
Cam lowered a loop and I clipped in. Moments before the rope went taut, I looked down to see my helmet on the ground beside my personal-impact crater. Or rather, what had once been a helmet had been reduced to resembling a sad-looking overcooked red pepper. I stuffed it into my bag, unaccountably mumbling, “That’s mine.”
The helmet that saved my life was almost not on my head. I wore it to keep the hair out of my eyes, not the brains in my skull. Had I remembered to bring my ball cap, my preferred method of hair management, this would be a different story written by someone else and probably as a eulogy. The helmet I didn’t want to wear was also not buckled.
Cam started hauling. I wasn’t convinced that our work, mostly Cam’s work, to rescue me would pay any visible dividends—meaning that I would ever be on the surface again. I have faith in Cam’s technical knowledge, but hauling on a pulley system without actual pulleys, as he had to do, is brutal. So much had already gone wrong, I found it hard to expect the tide to turn. No point in not trying, though, and it seemed sensible to help. I braced my back against the wall of the crevasse and chimneyed the first few feet. The crevasse widened, chimneying became impossible, and I deteriorated into dead weight. Cam continued to haul. His speed at this task still seems incredible. Cam hauled ass.
Adrenaline is a hell of a thing. Cam pulled and heaved. I ascended three or four jolts at a time as he hauled to save my life. He was overheating on the surface while I was freezing to death below it.
A rhythm to my rescue developed. The ascent felt fast, but nothing was fast enough. Violently shaking, I mumbled encouragement to Cam, and quietly complained to myself. It’s my life goal never to be that cold again.
With my crooked neck forcing my face downward, I had no way to tell when the surface would surprise me, so I held my axe overhead to probe what lay above.
The axe struck the snow bridge that had failed under my feet. The surface was near. Cam had done it.
The rope we had opted not to use, the rope that was now saving my life, had carved deep into what was left of the snow bridge. Blindly (literally) hacking at the snow overhead, I began to whittle a notch in the roof. Cam hauled me to the lip, and as the loop of my harness pulled me tight against it, pain shot through my back. I begged Cam to stop saving me.
My hands were beyond cold. To complete the comedy of errors, I had also forgotten my gloves. I plunged the axe into the snow around me, and then I was on the surface. I don’t even remember what I did, only that the pain was awful.
Cam later told me, “I didn’t know what we would do if you couldn’t make it those final feet.”
In the single most surreal moment of my life, I stood on the edge of the crevasse, soaked to the bone, violently shivering. I had just thought I would die, and now I felt the rays of a sun I had considered forever beyond my reach.
I walked the eight feet over to Cam, who was already pulling out every shred of dry clothes we had. He undressed and dressed me while I stared at my shoelaces like a guilty child. After making a chair out of his pack and what remained of mine, he insisted I sit down.
“I really don’t want to,” I said between chattering teeth. Cam won, slung his emergency shelter over us, and put his arms around me. We sat baking in the sun. It was the first time anything had felt good since my anticipation of my dinner.
We had yet to receive a response to our rescue signal.
After what felt like the warmest five or 10 minutes of my life, Cam said, “We can’t stay put.”
We stood, and Cam silently collected everything to carry it himself. The straps from my backpack had been torn off, leaving him to deal with something akin to a large dirty purse.
While Cam roped us together, I told him I would have to walk first; I would never be able to rescue him should misfortune strike twice. He agreed. I told him I relinquished all decision-making control to him. He accepted.
Less than 10 steps after setting out, I fell into another crevasse. The crevasse was shallow, and I only sank up to the top of my thighs, but the jarring arrest shot hot fresh pain through my neck and back.
I crawled out with everything above my waist turning to lightning again.
“Cam, I can’t see where I’m going,” I said. My head was still bent down. “You need to tell me where to go.”
Cam accepted this further level of responsibility as his burden grew. We walked on, him guiding my steps from behind, while I shuffled along head down, like a dog.
As we reached the final stretch of the snowfield, Cam said, “Nik, there’s a big snow bridge that we can’t get around.”
It was my turn to say, “O.K.”
“I have you tight,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
I sidled across the terrain, testing the snow less than a yard at a time with my right foot, blind and slow.
A message came in on my SpotX that a helicopter was en route. We had now been walking for roughly 45 minutes since my extraction. Our day had started at 4:00 a.m., and it was approaching 2:00 in the afternoon. I was tired, sore and wet, but movement was the only thing that kept me warm. Maybe this was Cam’s reasoning for our continued hiking. There was also no point in waiting.
“Cam, want to hear a joke?”
“So, there’s a mommy tomato, daddy tomato and baby tomato, all hopping along the sidewalk. The baby tomato starts to fall behind, so the daddy tomato hops back and squishes the baby tomato. He says, ‘Catch up.’”
I asked, “Did you get it?”
“I got it.”
I thanked Cam for saving my life. We heard a faint thumping, then spotted a chopper. It circled. It was ours.
I dropped my axe and said, “Well, thank f!@#. I am so over this shit.”
The bird hovered near. I’ve never been on or near a helicopter, so I had no idea of helicopter greeting etiquette. In the moments before it touched down, I turned to look at Cam, and found him crouched on one knee. It made him much easier to see, given the state of my neck. I had always thought getting on one knee while a helicopter approached was the stuff of movies. Cam had either watched more of these movies than I had, or been in more helicopters. I followed suit and crouched.
The Search and Rescue (SAR) crew hurried out to greet us.
“I might have hurt my neck.”
I sat on the steps of the helicopter while others removed the crampons I had somehow not impaled myself on.
In the helicopter the SAR team members asked me a battery of questions about feeling in my hands and feet. Everything was so numb from the cold I couldn’t even guess at what was still functional. The helicopter passed over the crevasse that had ruined my dinner plans. I turned to look but was urged to hold still. They’re just being overprotective.
The youngest, or at least the most clean-shaven, of the crew asked what route we had climbed. I told him it was a new one, named Free Helicopter Ride. He laughed, and everyone else told me to stop moving.
The helicopter landed, and I was guided out and onto a stretcher surrounded by eight or so onlookers. At Whistler Hospital, medical personnel scanned me head to toe. I had fractured my C1, C2, C3 and T3. The break in my C2 vertebrae, colloquially known as a hangman’s fracture, was unstable and capable of causing paralysis. I had been temporarily paralyzed at the bottom of the crevasse because I was almost permanently paralyzed at the bottom of the crevasse.
Another helicopter took me to Vancouver General Hospital. I was given a catheter despite promising my nurse that I would never pee again. Broken necks are quickly forgotten when fire is being pushed inside your genitals. I distracted myself by quietly upgrading my route name to Two Free Helicopter Rides.
By some miracle, I was going to be fine. My fingers might be permanently “tingly,” the doctor said. There would be some loss in neck mobility, which would make it hard to check blind spots or discreetly stare at people. Otherwise, I could expect a full recovery. It didn’t make sense to anyone at the hospital, but sometimes when you flip a coin it lands on its edge. The girl across the hall in the spinal unit had sustained the identical fracture I had. She was a much nicer person than I was or am, and she’s paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator. I walked out of a hospital ward that few leave on foot.
I’ve kept the helmet I stuffed into my bag, to remind me. This summer I will also keep the rope out of the bag, to use.
Nikolai Paterak lives in Whitehorse, Yukon. When not writing, climbing or being hurt, he works as a plumber at a remote gold mine.