Owens River Gorge Accident


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Social climber
Greensboro, North Carolina
Dec 11, 2012 - 09:07pm PT
Hey there Little Unit, thanks for sharing your struggles and successes with us.

Trad climber
Auburn CA, Seattle, Bishop
Dec 12, 2012 - 10:59am PT
Hi Wendy,

Glad to hear about your incredible recovery. It was Tony (t-bone), myself, Holly, and Olivia, and some others that were there that day. Olivia was the one that ran to the top of the Gorge to call for help. She witnessed the entire fall. t-bone, Holly, and I stayed with you until help arrived. None of us have ever forgotten that day and actually bring it up frequently. Too bad about your partner never contacting. If he is reading this right now I'm gonna have to say that is pretty spineless. I'm sure he has his own demons about the whole thing.

As far as the original accident report, I might have gotten it slightly incorrect because I did not know that the rope wrapped around Wendy's leg to slow down the fall. Instead I hypothesized that the rope kinked in the anchor while zipping through making Wendy slow down about 40' above the ground.


Social climber
Dec 12, 2012 - 03:02pm PT
Inspiring story. Best wishes for the future.

I'm 3 years out from a (very minor) spine injury. Slipped on ice in back yard, hit lower spine on step hard enough for legs to fly up in the air. A few days later either bruising or swelling began compressing my spine, went to ER with right leg in extreme pain and (idiot doctor) they sent me home with paperwork on how to lift properly. Next day entire leg was numb with slight tingle in big toe, which, apparently, was a good sign, damage was done, too late for doing anything. Been recovering ever since. At 2 years out I expected that the recovery I had was as much as I'd ever see, but not so, those nerves keep working away behind the scenes, trying to reconnect or work around the damage.

I'm now effectively close to 100 percent recovered. Can't really run or jump properly but I donít really care, I can just about push up on front of right foot so that my climbing and hiking ability is no longer limited. This, for me, is great, except now I gotta fall back on other excuses.

It gets to where you don't notice improvement any more, it's far too slow for that, but one day you notice can do something you could not a few months previously. You may be at that stage now. Sounds like your spine is now about where mine was at its worst. One leg little better than an unresponsive stump. Acupuncture can help stimulate circulation and nerve/muscle function, but Iím sure you know that by now. Hiking, every day, at least a bit, is a great exercise.

At three years out Iím in better shape that a year ago, for sure. So, if you're 2 years out I reckon you will still get incremental improvements in the next year at least. Not huge improvements, you know better than that, but better than you have now.

With the trauma of what happened, can't blame you for not trying climbing. If certain muscles in your legs don't work then standing and pushing on footholds becomes hard to do and climbing, especially easy-angled slabs, is frustrating. Easy-angled outdoor slabs, however easy they are supposed to be, will suck. If you do feel the urge to try, try toproping at a gym where you can get on terrain that is steep and juggy with well-defined, large footholds and your upper body can compensate for leg/foot weakness.

In fact, I found sessions in the gym on vertical/slightly overhanging terrain worked great for training my weak leg/foot to function better. Outsideís different, much more tricky; 1.5 years out I fractured ankle (evulsion fracture) without noticing, simply by working it too hard. Weeks of swelling and pain and forced rest/scary hiking.

The stand-up paddling looks like a great way to get the leg muscles working and teach the nerves what you expect them to do. I thought of putting up a slackline, too, that would help in a similar way, but Iím maybe beyond that stage now.

Your comment here really resonates loudly:

ďIt's more remembering how I used to climb and worrying about feeling sad, frustrated etc that my body fails me. I know this is all stuff we have to deal with as we age, but it just makes me sad that I'm having to deal with this much earlier than most people, without having that many more adventures and experiences I could have had under my belt before accepting our physical limitations and the natural aging process.Ē

It resonates because, in my 50s, Iím exactly the reverse and Iím well aware of it; Iíve already done so many wild, hazardous and crazy things Iím just glad to be here at all. Never broken a bone. Iím extremely lucky not to have had to deal with far worse, along the lines of what you are going through, long ago. Iíd surely feel the same frustration as you, if were so much younger. Probably react in much less positive ways.

Good luck!

Dec 12, 2012 - 03:15pm PT
Every day is a gift. Congrats on surviving it and wish you the best going forward.

"On the plus side, I get to park in handicap spots."

Trad climber
Feb 11, 2013 - 01:18pm PT
You are an inspiration to us all, and you are a bad ass for sure!

Wendy update?? ;)


Trad climber
Feb 11, 2013 - 07:02pm PT
The makings of an epic biography. With so many chapters still to come, Little unit's big adventure continues.

Wendy, you have my very best wishes for a long and happy life.

Trad climber
Cambridge, MA (formerly) SF Bay Area
Feb 18, 2013 - 10:53pm PT
Thanks A5Scott and Shady (although the bar for biographies these days is pretty low these days ). Scott and I met at the Paradox Sports Ice-climbing weekend in North Conway, the weekend of Snowmageddon. It was the first climbing I had done (ice or otherwise) since my accident. Going into the weekend, I braced myself for a flood of mixed emotions - nervousness, sadness, frustration, perhaps even elation? It was so much fun to prepare for a trip again(even if it was a short weekend one without any camping), planning what gear to bring, dusting off old climbing gear and hot athletic clothing that had not seen the light of day since before my accident. A lump came to my throat as I came across the harness I had worn the day of my accident (my rescuers had managed to take it off without cutting). I'm not sure how it had remained in my possession (my mother had discarded most things in her despair/fury/desire to eliminate any memory of that day), but there it was. I hesitated for a moment before I threw it in the bin and summarily ordered its replacement online. I don't miss it.

I had deliberately chosen to ice-climb before getting back onto rock (I had never ice-climbed before) because I thought this would decrease the chances of feeling angry, sad and frustrated at not being able to do the things I used to be able to do. I'm much less self-critical than I used to be, but it did not make me immune to feelings of deep sadness, disappointment/setback about my changed physical state, as I struggled to walk up to the base of the climbs, as I couldn't kick my left crampon into the snow as hard as I needed to, as I had to worry about not peeing in my pants during the day.

In spite of these moments of sadness, I was surprised by how happy I was to just be out of the city, in the mountains, outside, enjoying the frigid winter air, feeling my ice-tool grab the ice, being able to move upwards with my good leg, shooting the sh#t with fellow climbers, able-bodied and disabled, at and away from the crag. I met Sean O'Neill and other less famous, but no less bad-ass, mofos. It turns out that I rather like ice-climbing. And I wasn't even that bummed when I found that I could barely fit into my usual size climbing harness (I guess that's what happens when you go for the send with every huge meal put in front of you - A5Scott can attest to TheLittleUnit being able to pack away quite a bit :))

My heart and soul sung quietly many times that weekend.

I did have to deal with some bad pain issues after the trip, which sucked. But I'm a glutton for punishment (some things haven't changed) and I'm heading to Ouray at the end of the month for another wkend of ice-climbing :)

I couldn't have asked for a better occasion and better group of people, to mark my foray back into the world of climbing.

P.S. I know the ice-climbing season is coming to a close, but I would love to find some ice-climbers in the Northeast, willing to teach a noob a few things or two.

Social climber
Moorpark, CA.
Feb 18, 2013 - 11:10pm PT
Go Girl...

Social climber
Toshi's Station, picking up power converters.
Feb 18, 2013 - 11:12pm PT
There's hope! Thanks for that.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Feb 18, 2013 - 11:42pm PT
Oh boy, pretty speechless here, just something special..really special.


Trad climber
Feb 19, 2013 - 12:18am PT
Yes Littleunit, it was amazing to watch you eat! You'd make competitive eaters proud... Friday night you had a couple pizzas, and Saturday night you ate a small school of salmon! Good thing though cause you needed the energy for all the ass and ice kicking you did. It was great to hang out and climb together... I felt as if I witnessed your rebirth into the climbing world, and I hope you take it by storm! Every time you climb you will build upon the last, create new experiences and break down barriers that only exist in your mind.
Watching you only makes me want to get my ass in gear and keep pushing. Looking forward to your Ouray TR and others to follow!
All the best,

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Feb 19, 2013 - 12:36am PT
Wendy, you might find the following video of interest from the one-footed (and no footed) climbing perspectives. It's all interesting, but keep watching, because there is climbing at the end and one of the climbers, doing it for the first time, has only one intact leg and no prosthesis on the other. The other climber is Hugh Herr, a double amputee, who you may have heard of.

[Click to View YouTube Video]

Hugh is up by you at MIT and might have some insights, even though he is primarily in the business of prostheses.

Here is a video of Paul Pritchard, who has found his way back to climbing after the injuries from a severe accident left him with no use of his right arm and partial use of his right leg.


I wouldn't be surprised if rock climbing turned out to be easier than ice climbing, especially in corners, grooves and other multi-planar features where hip and body scumming would provide opportunities to maintain a stable body position while advancing the power foot. Think new techniques for unijambistic climbing rather than "oh crap I can't do this the way I would have before..."

The Gunks are a few hours from you and are in many ways an ideal place to see if reconnecting to the rock has some interest for you now. Best wishes for your new path in life!

Boulder climber
Somewhere on 395
Feb 19, 2013 - 01:43am PT
Way to go.
You will love Ouray

Trad climber
East Coast
Feb 19, 2013 - 02:11pm PT
Hey Wendy,

It was great to meet you and a whole bunch of new friends at Paradox Ice. It's too bad a number of folks couldn't make it due to storm NEMO, but it was a super-fun time. You, Scott and the rest of the crew rock.

I figured out the place in the Sierras I was asking you about. I'm pretty sure it was Pine Creek. Glad to hear you're psyched to keep after it!

Nice link, Rich. The Herrs, with daughters, joined us on the ice at last year's Paradox Ice event in North Conway, which was the first time for this area.



Trad climber
Feb 19, 2013 - 02:35pm PT
Wendy....Just accepting the invitation to go climbing was a huge milestone. The flood of emotions while at the base of that climb must have been overwhelming. As I see it, the moment of truth came to look you in the eyes, and you didn't blink. That first tool placement was the punctuation on an enormous statement about your character.

Well done!

Best wishes.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Feb 19, 2013 - 05:12pm PT
Sounds like fun. One convenient thing about ice climbing (on thick ice) is that you can often place your tools and crampons anywhere. So usually no forced "high step" moves. And you can always pull on your tools.

Strangely full circle - North Conway is where I got my spinal cord injury, in an ice climbing leader fall (with no pro in). 35 years ago. And where Hugh Herr lost his feet shortly after, due to a winter open bivouac after stream breakthrough. Well, I guess many things happen where there is climbing!

London, UK
Mar 13, 2013 - 04:44pm PT

Women's world para climbing champion Fran Brown trains at my local gym. She's very impressive.

Social climber
Apr 27, 2013 - 09:23am PT
Hey ya'll:

I had the lovely privilege of joining Wendy (thelittleunit) in Ouray this past March for some great ice climbing. I was there with NPR to profile Claudia Lopez, a photographer and the first Colombian woman to summit in the Himalayas, but Wendy's story moved me and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to document a little bit about her comeback.

Have a listen! Keep kicking ass Wendy!




Social climber
Apr 27, 2013 - 09:34am PT
If you like the story -- post it on Facebook or wherever! I'd like to do more climbing related radio pieces :)
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Apr 29, 2013 - 07:51pm PT
One of Juliana's shots of Wendy at Ouray.
Messages 101 - 120 of total 125 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
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