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Desert Companion

Get a Grip

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Get a Grip
Illustration by Brent Holmes

After I lost the use of my fingers, my rock-climbing career seemed over. But not the adventure. I had to get back in touch — with a new sense of self, and a new sense of purpose

I was 60 feet off the deck on the side of a limestone cliff when I heard Jorge’s voice.

“What the hell is going on up there?”

I hadn’t moved in a while. Below, craning their necks, a small group of climbers considered possible outcomes. “Oh God, she can’t fall there,” a guy from Utah said. “That would totally suck,” his partner added. They were right: I had already done the hardest climbing on the route. Battling winter weather and shredded skin, I was as close as I’d ever come to climbing the route clean, without falls or resting on the rope. But climbers know outcomes are uncertain until they are not.

It was a cold winter day in the Virgin River Gorge, aka the VRG, an area with tough climbing on stellar rock, and long routes with well-spaced bolts, which means taking big falls when sorting out moves. Even with the crag’s lousy location on the side of I-15 between Mesquite and St. George, VRG regulars know how to focus.

I let Jorge’s words and the hum of highway traffic drift by.

The truth is, panic was setting in, because a dime-size foothold — the gateway to the route’s easier terrain — was suddenly too far away. The last of the day’s sunlight glimmered off the route’s fixed anchors, empty, taunting me. I shifted my focus back to the rock; I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Even a momentary lapse in concentration meant space for failure to creep in, upping the chance I’d end up airborne.

Support comes from

If I didn’t blow it and fall, the route, Don’t Call Me Coach, would become one of the harder ascents of my career. It was 2011, and at 43 years old, I would be the first woman to redpoint the route. (Redpoint means to climb successfully from the bottom to the top of a route without pulling or resting on gear, after the first attempt.) But far more important, how I handled myself would reveal what kind of climber I was, even more so than when I had climbed through the route’s crux, the most challenging section, with confident precision, hitting each tiny, razor-sharp hold perfectly.

Problem-solving under stress is paramount in climbing. Assessing the situation, I shook my right arm, first above my head and then alongside my body, resting and hoping to decrease the lactic acid in my forearms. Dipping my hand into my chalk bag, squeezing the hand warmer inside, I placed my fingers on the rock, changed hands, and repeated the process on the left side. All the while, I was taking long, calming breaths, and devising a new plan. I’d come too far to just give up. As in yoga, in rock-climbing you must find comfort in discomfort. More so than finger strength, grit is often the dividing line between success and failure.

But my fingers had always been my superpower. Knowing I could hang onto almost nothing fostered confidence.

Stephanie Forte

Rocking Out:  Stephanie Forté climbing Ghetto Boyz at Mount Charleston. Photo by Dan McQuade

***

“What are you even using?” my boyfriend yelled, amazed, from the ground as I pieced together the crux moves on Ghetto Boyz at Mount Charleston. It was 1999, and the route had not yet been climbed by a woman. Earlier, as he loaded the rope in the belay device, he’d been skeptical. He had said, “Look, you’re just too short to reach between the handholds.” I’m a hair over 5 feet tall, so it wasn’t the first time I was told by a taller person (usually male) that a route was unclimbable. “Trust me, it’s going to be impossible,” he said as I started climbing.

But I had a secret weapon. The first time I pulled onto the rock in 1991, it was clear my small fingers were unusually strong. That was the year I moved to Aspen, Colorado, from New Jersey, an odd choice considering the outdoors had always meant the space between my car and the Paramus Park mall. But I quickly fell in love with the dramatic mountain landscapes and colorful local characters. And of all those characters, the climbers were the most captivating.

Back then, climbers were a small lot, a curious breed of prudent, cool-headed adventurers who were as humble as they were bold. Harrowing tales of near-brushes with death in far-off mountain ranges or dicey moments climbing on desert towers were recounted matter-of-factly, like talking about having to shovel snow. Like, Oh yeah, so that happened.

Since I’d never done anything athletic growing up, discovering the power of my fingers felt like a miracle. Imagine if you started singing a tune one day, and you discovered you had the vocal range of Mariah Carey. That’s what it felt like. It was a game-changer. Still, at first, I showed up at the cliff wearing giant silver hoop earrings, scared of heights, and unsure of how to even do outdoorsy-person stuff like pee outside, so I didn’t always feel like I fit in. But there was no doubt that climbing was where I belonged.

Exposing hidden strengths and hard-to-swallow weaknesses, climbing is where I first discovered how subtle shifts in both body and mindset can dramatically change a result. Climbing is also where I went to process the trauma and grief that had punctuated my early life. In time, it’s where I turned to trudge through life’s muck — a lost pregnancy, failed relationships, and suicides of friends. Climbing was my north node; a climber is what I was meant to become in this life. So, choices, like living in my pickup truck and moving to Las Vegas to climb, were simple.

About six weeks after my impatient boyfriend scoffed at my attempt to ascend at Mount Charleston, I did it. Using tiny bits of rock texture that other, usually larger climbers either didn’t have at their disposal or the need to even consider, I became the first woman to complete Ghetto Boyz. He became my ex-boyfriend.

Climbers read rock like braille; holds outside our line of vision can still be within reach. An incredible level of detail is imprinted on a climber’s memory through touch. A spot that’s just enough for half a pad of an index finger. A sharp, crystal-like feature where the middle finger is placed, and a small depression on the left side of the hold for the right thumb. The sensation of finding a hold where the rock appeared to be blank was like a door opening on a world of possibilities. It was hope.

 

***

Until the day I woke up, and it was gone.

“I think I have a rope burn under my arm,” I said, shortly after opening my eyes. The burning sensation under my right arm was alarming, hot, and raw. It was familiar yet totally misplaced. I know what a rope burn feels like, but I was in a recovery room of a surgical center in Las Vegas after having had rotator cuff surgery.

“Oh, that,” my surgeon said. “I tried something new.” But something new was not a part of our plan. Something new had never been discussed.

Before I’d gone under for the procedure in September 2015, my surgeon said, “I’m going to fix your right shoulder just like the left. If your bicep is torn, I’m going to fix it like last time.” I laughed and said, “Sure, give me another bicep lift.” In 2014, he had repaired my left rotator cuff, also fixing a torn bicep tendon, leaving behind a small scar, and a perky bicep, which always looks like I’ve just finished a few sets of 50-pound curls.

Shoulder surgery is not uncommon for climbers. When I injured my left shoulder in 2012 while climbing in Red Rock, it wasn’t a surprise. I had favored it since 2003 when I had torn my right shoulder in a bouldering competition. Terrified of a bad outcome, I did anything to avoid surgery — long stints of physical therapy, prehab exercise routines, platelet-rich plasma shots, acupuncture, and many months sidelined from climbing. Finally, in 2014, my physical therapist pulled the plug. “I am happy to keep taking your money,” he said. “But you’re an athlete, and athletes fix themselves.” He worked with big names in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. I trusted him.

A climber surgeon friend had helped me sift through research on orthopedic surgeons; their education and training, tactics, patient reviews, philosophy on PT, along with input from local physical therapists. “You want a surgeon who has done a procedure at least 100 times,” urged my friend. So, it was the first question I asked prospective surgeons.

When climbers tackle a hard route, they collect beta, that is, information, to ensure success. Prior ascensionists are consulted about sequences and ideal conditions. Videos are studied, and other climbers who have tried the route — even belayers — are asked for specific details: Have any holds broken since so-and-so’s ascent? What’s so-and-so’s reach? If-this, then-that scenarios are carefully considered before leaving the ground. Intelligence gathering is as important as training and diet.

The beta pointing to my surgeon seemed to be good; my left shoulder had had an ideal result — full range of motion in three months — and I was rock climbing pain-free at my usual level nine months after that surgery. When a new MRI showed the right shoulder was hanging by a thread, my surgeon said, “There’s no reason you wouldn’t have the same result again.”

But like a broken handhold, something new had been introduced.

 

***

 “My fingers won’t move,” I cried into the phone after the nerve block wore off. The thumb, index, and middle finger on my right hand, which is my dominant hand, were frozen stiff, unable to bend, and do the things fingers do. My surgeon was unfazed. “Just a little pissed-off nerve. You’ll be fine in three days.”

When this something new was finally given a name, a subpectoral bicep tenodesis, I asked how many times he’d performed the procedure. “You make 29,” he said. My stomach dropped.

An incision made in my armpit was near the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that sends signals from the spinal cord to the muscles of the shoulder, arm, and hand. The median nerve, one of the five primary nerves originating in the brachial plexus, which innervates the thumb, index, and middle fingers, half the ring finger and the rotation of the palm, had been damaged. The conclusion was I had a first-degree nerve injury, neurapraxia, where there is usually full recovery in a few days to three months, with no lasting muscle or sensory problems. But even as the three-month marked passed, the story remained: I would wake up one morning and be pain-free with fully functioning fingers.

Nerves are the body’s electrical system, stimulating muscles and controlling sensation. The tricky part is, although nerves can regenerate at a rate of one inch per month, muscle reinnervation won’t happen if there’s a long period without being charged by the nerve. The muscle poops out, withers, and dies. This explained the aggressive muscle waste in my once-muscular forearm, turned thin and frail, unable to tolerate the weight of a small bracelet. According to the Center for Nerve Injury and Paralysis at Washington University School of Medicine — led in part by Dr. Susan Mackinnon, the world’s leading peripheral nerve surgeon who performed the first nerve transplant in 1988 — this is why it is essential to reestablish a nerve to muscle connection as quickly as possible. And, if there is no evidence of recovery three to six months following a nerve injury, surgery is usually recommended.

As the months passed, my pissed-off nerve was in good company.

My life had begun to crumble. About 20 minutes after I woke up, the electrical shocks would start, rolling down my right arm, through my hand, finally exploding like fireworks in my fingertips. My skin felt like it was doused with acid, while shards of glass were being pushed under my nails. It was relentless.

Using colored pencils, I shaded a calendar according to Homeland Security’s former color chart for terrorism alerts. Most days registered orange or red. I looked for patterns that could shed light on the pain spikes, hoping this would help doctors find a solution.

My sensation was so off, one morning, I found my three fingers touching my 450-degree flattening iron, and I didn’t flinch. Yet other textures would generate a deep burning sensation inside my hand. I couldn’t type or write with a pen. I couldn’t button a button, zip a zipper, hold a fork, or even think, so my work performance tanked, leading to the termination of six figures worth of contracts. Needing to make payroll, I attempted securing new business only to have the nerve pain skyrocket mid-pitch. I swallowed the nerve medication Neurontin like Skittles, but it only made me groggy.

I understood why people with chronic pain — often marginalized and discounted as weak — take their own lives.

I dug deeper into Dr. Mackinnon’s work. She had developed nerve transfer techniques, in which healthy nerves are rerouted into areas left paralyzed by damaged ones. The rerouted nerves “wake up” the muscles and get limbs and digits moving again. From what I had read, it seemed I had a fourth-degree nerve injury, which required surgery.

I was told by my doctors to get off the internet, as though I had handed them a blog post about the healing powers of turmeric. Their advice was to calm down, stop being so emotional, and to find a new hobby. “You’re just upset about climbing.”

 

***

Ted Style TalkClimber had always been the first word I used to describe myself. At work, I used climbing stories to illustrate points about the importance of planning, communication, and being accountable for your actions. One story was about the time I partnered up with a guy who was trying the same route as me, so we spent an afternoon swapping belays and beta. On one of his attempts, he stepped on a foothold, and the rock broke. Because of our weight difference, as he fell, I launched into the air. The falling rock was picking up speed in my direction; finally, it struck me in the leg. An unfamiliar sound left my mouth.

After I lowered myself to the ground, two climbers ran over and orchestrated a safe takeover over of the belay, lowering my partner. The area had no cell coverage, but luckily, the other climbers were highly experienced. One, a paramedic, cleaned and bandaged my leg while a few others rigged a system to lower me to the trail. The paramedic carried me on his back a few miles back to the trailhead. My friends shuttled me to Las Vegas, where it was confirmed the rock had broken my fibula.

As I crutched around town, climbers asked things like, “You’re going to still train on a fingerboard, right?” Or, “Think you can climb at the gym with one leg next week?” Non-climbers asked things like, “Are you going to sue your partner? What about suing the state of Utah?”

Outdoor sports come with risks that must be accepted as a part of the package. Within one’s control, however, is how we respond and handle the aftermath of a crisis. In climbing, there are books dedicated to evaluating climbing accidents; reflection on poor outcomes is essential in learning to be more prepared for the future. In the heat of a crisis, the focus must be on creating solutions rather blaming someone or avoiding blame. And, as the bystander climbers did, knowing it could have easily been them in my shoes, the default must be practicing empathy.

At that pivotal moment on top of Don’t Call Me Coach at the Virgin River Gorge in 2011, what I had in my favor was 20 years of climbing experience and a catalog of thousands of routes. I had learned success often comes after loosening the grip on a desired result and becoming fully present in the process. It’s how I was able to create a new sequence of moves and finally slip the rope through the route’s anchors.

That night after my ascent of Don’t Call Me Coach, I sat outside my hotel room in Mesquite, thinking about how much climbing had evolved. Women were dominating headlines, and older females with careers like mine were still reaching new levels while redefining the idea of an athlete. “This is a new era of climbing,” I thought, as a waning moon lit up the night sky. The times were quickly changing.

 

***

Therapy chartTo get my fingers to work again, I went to Calico Basin to touch the sandstone boulders. It hurt like hell, but the idea was that if all of my senses were stimulated by the desert, where I had spent thousands of hours using my fingers, maybe I could trip a switch that would turn on my sensation and movement. As the electrical shocks roared, I tried visualizing my hand and arm as separate from my body. I would explain to my hand, “I agree to be a witness to your pain, but you can’t be a part of me.” As Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

[Pictured right: Getting back in touch: a color chart used in Stephanie's occupational therapy that tracks the levels of sensation in her injured hand.]

I looked for clues to recovery and how to overcome physical adversity in episodes of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and hours of TED Talks. After watching Dr. Mackinnon’s talk, I called Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where she practices, to see if I could become a patient.

“Stephanie Forte, on behalf of surgeons everywhere, I want to apologize for what happened to you. This is not why we go to medical school,” Dr. Mackinnon said as she entered the exam room in April 2016, seven months after my botched surgery in Las Vegas. Mackinnon is petite with fair skin and delicate features, but her presence is powerful. I was most struck by her curiosity and how intensely she listened.

“Show us with your left hand what your right hand needs to do to rock climb,” she asked, explaining they had never had a climber as a patient. The goal was to save the muscle to ensure my fingers could move again. I should have been referred to a peripheral nerve surgeon months ago. “The window is closing,” she said. When the surgical plan came together, joy filled the room. “We are going to make you a climber again,” Mackinnon said. Two days later, I had a nearly six-hour nerve transfer surgery.

When I woke up, Mackinnon explained the damage had been worse than expected. The nerve transfer operation was no miracle cure. She told me a story of an esteemed surgeon who had led one of the hospital’s departments. After a lot of consideration, he decided to retire. “He was excited to play golf,” she explained. But after a while, the surgeon sunk into a severe funk; golf is not cutting-edge surgery. “He made that choice and still struggled,” she said. “You didn’t choose to stop climbing.”

It turned out the retired surgeon found a new way to be of service to his profession that was still fulfilling. “Consider how you can be a climber, but differently,” Mackinnon told me. “You are going to show us what’s possible.” As in climbing, in recovery, my mindset would dictate success or failure. At first, my progress was slow, and I sunk into a deep depression. I had solved one problem, but was now standing there, looking uphill, alone, with no idea where the summit was, but sure it was going to be a long slog to get there. Climbing is where I had gone to make sense of life’s messes. I felt its absence deeply. It was like living in white space, a place with enough room for possibilities but also a vast, uninhabited universe that felt lonely.

 

***

So, I made an Excel spreadsheet.

In a neat stack, column A held everything I loved about climbing — movement, adventure, problem-solving, and being forced out of my comfort zone. In column B went the associated emotions and sensations. Column C was a list of sources that could provide those same feelings. Experiences once categorized on my “someday” list started to play out. I have had new adventures walking up big peaks at altitude. The grace and flow of movement found in yoga led me to a teacher training course. Getting onstage and giving a TED-style talk pushes me far out of my comfort zone.

If much of my joy in climbing came from solving problems, then I had just been handed a massive opportunity. I had to figure out how to get my fingers to move in unison, build strength so they could do things like type, and in the absence of sensory feedback, find a way to maintain a grip on a carton of eggs or a climbing hold. I could choose frustration or fascination.

Grief doesn’t come in stages; it happens in cycles. The best we can do is to develop tools in the reconstruction phase so that our third — or thirtieth — pass through anger and depression is shorter and a little smoother. When told to just accept what happened, I pushed back; to me, acceptance meant embracing the choices of those who marginalized the severity of my injury. I wondered how the pain and heat could ever be something other than the sensation of not being heard, left cliffside, injured. Eventually, I learned to let the grief walk alongside me, but not let it cast a shadow on my future. They are parts of a story, but not the whole.

Today, my fingers operate differently. Sometimes they don’t engage, and my sensation is still pretty skewed, so sushi on a first date is out. My hand feels like it is filled with a pliable cement, heavy and stiff. It gets hot after typing or driving. Sometimes, randomly, I feel electrical shocks in a fingertip. These are reminders of the grit required to devise a plan under the gravest of conditions, and the resolve to keep going.

I still climb, but not like before, and mostly in a climbing gym; real rock is a challenge. Maybe one day that will change. I am a climber, so I have the good fortune of knowing an outcome is uncertain — until it is not.
 

Writer and rock-climber Stephanie Forté made several first-female ascents of difficult sport routes around Las Vegas.

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