A few years back, I was kneecapped playing soccer. I was about to clear the ball when a guy carrying an advantage of 30 pounds and 12 inches of height body-checked me. When he struck, my foot was planted in the turf with my full weight on it. My body twisted, but my foot remained firmly where it was. Something had to give: my knee. I suffered the most intense pain I had ever felt. My leg pointed 90 degrees in the wrong direction. I may have screamed a bit. The upshot was that I couldn’t walk for a few weeks and spent months in physical therapy to heal the damaged tendons.
My knee healed but it was never a 100%. It fatigued easily under heavy usage. I certainly felt all its flaws hiking the descent from the top of Sealy Tarns in New Zealand.
Sealy Tarns was the first major hike of my New Zealand vacation and I discovered my knee wasn’t up to the terrain. In preparation, my wife and I had walked several tough trails in Northern California with similar elevation changes — with no knee problems — but New Zealand was much meaner than California, with steeper inclines, rock-strewn trails, and rapid changes in elevation. The weather complicated matters, too. Although it was summer, conditions were more like winter, with snow a distinct possibility. The wind was severe enough that I had to climb on all fours at times so not to be blown off the mountain. Although the peak provided a stunning vista of a mountain range carved by a glacier, the wind and cold curbed our enjoyment.
Going up hadn’t been too bad — tiring, but I hadn’t felt any ill effects. Coming down was a different matter. A few hundred feet down from the mountain’s 3000-foot summit, I realized my leg didn’t have the strength or stability to support my footfalls. After only 300 feet, I could see the hike down was going to be a lot slower than it had been going up…
Or maybe not.
Rounding a switchback on the footpath, my knee lost all sensation and strength. I pitched forward with my hands out in front, but as soon as I started falling, I knew I was going over the edge. I watched my hands glide past the 18-inch-wide ledge toward the abyss.
Faced with death, you’re supposed to have your life flash before you or relive an old experience. Well, this was my third close encounter with the grave and I’m sorry, but none of the above is true. As I went over the edge, my thoughts focused to a singularity with the coherency of a laser. I developed mental tunnel vision; all nonessential thoughts dissolved into the periphery. Only one thought obsessed my mind: No, not now, not today, I will not die. I didn’t know what I was going to do to save myself, but I was going to do something.
Instinctively, I snatched at everything. To my shock, my left hand latched hold of an inch-thick root belonging to a shrub. My descent stopped dead after a fall of only a few feet. I was left dangling by one arm against a sheer wall of sharp rock and loose dirt, which was held in place by wild grasses and shrubs. If I lost my grasp on the root, my fall would be some 300 feet to the next shelf, but with the severity of the mountain face, the jutting rocks would flick me beyond the narrow ledge. Where I would land next would be impossible to tell — overhangs, terrain changes, and trees blocked the rest of the mountain. I was pretty sure that, once I started falling, there was little to halt the 2500-feet descent to the bottom.
My problems were compounded because my back was to the cliff face. The backpack I wore pushed me away from the cliff wall as my legs flailed to find a foothold. Since I didn’t know how long I could keep a grasp of the root — or the root could keep a grasp of the cliff face, my heart rate went through the roof.
Julie dropped to the trail to aid me. She grasped my wrist on the hand that held the root. “Let go. I’ve got you.”
There was no way I was giving up my only strand of safety. I couldn’t see her, but there was no way she had me. Even though I know she’s strong, she ain’t that strong. There was a good chance I could take her over the side with me.
“Let go,” she repeated.
I didn’t answer. I thrashed my feet against the rocks and shrubs for a foothold. Julie said something else that I ignored. My feet found an edge in the rocks, but kept slipping off because of the awkward position I was in. After several attempts, my heels dug into something solid. I hitched myself up an inch to get the full strength of my legs under me. With three points of contact with the cliff face, relief washed over me. I breathed again, not realizing that I’d been holding my breath. For the first time, I believed I was going to get out of this one.
Julie still fought to take the hand clasped around the tree root. I thrust my other hand at her. “Take it,” I ordered.
She took it.
I was supported, but — with my back to the cliff wall — it was nearly impossible to climb up. To do it, I needed to be facing the other way.
“Pull me up,” I told Julie.
She heaved on my arm with both hands. As she dragged me back to safety, I turned my body, helping myself up by finding a new foothold in the rock. I never let go of my trusty root. I believed in that root more than anything on earth. Without finesse, Julie hauled me back onto the trail. I let go of my root and clawed at the footpath’s dirt. Once safe, we just lay there, catching our breaths.
Adrenaline coursed through me. My legs had been immensely strong during the rescue, but the moment I was safe, my crippled leg was useless. I could barely stand on it. For the remainder of the decent, I struggled. Where several rockslides had wiped out the footpath, I was forced to butt-scoot across them. I applied a similar technique to the numerous steep drops, where the path fell four or five feet rapidly. Unable to find a makeshift staff, Julie tried to be my crutch, but the needle-thin paths made it impossible. For much of the hike down, I leaned against the mountainside for support. My feeble stamina meant I couldn’t go more than 10 minutes without a stop. It was a torturous couple of hours. Limping back to the parking lot, my knee was mush. I stripped off my weatherproof and thermal layers and Julie bandaged my leg. I hadn’t let her bandage it on the mountain; I’d just wanted to get down.
A few days later, Julie admitted something to me. “There was no way your hand was coming off that root. Your knuckles threatened to burst through your skin. I tried to peel your fingers off, but I couldn’t get one to budge. I couldn’t believe your strength.”
Neither could I. It didn’t feel like I had held on that tight. I know for damn sure I was holding on for dear life. In all honesty, my grip felt light — although in that frantic minute or so I fought to hang on, my hand never slipped a millimeter. To compound my miraculous strength, my arm and shoulder suffered no muscle strain or bruising. I’d had a Bruce Banner/Hulk moment, echoing the belief that we all possess superhuman strength we call upon in times of extreme stress.
It’s not the first time I’d experienced these tendencies. When I raced cars, I reacted quickly to avoid accidents. They seemed to happen intensely slowly to me, but later spectators remarked on the speed of my avoidance. Something sure gets awakened in me at times like this. I’m grateful for this survivor’s instinct. I’ve learned to trust it when it kicks in.
An event like this only reinforces my own belief that, irrespective of technological advances and perceived superior intellect, we humans rely on and use our primitive instincts a hell of a lot. Three millions years of fight-or-flight reflexes are hardwired into our brains and aren’t going anywhere fast.
If you don’t believe me, let me push you off a mountain.