Worth the Risk
If you need a dose of stoke, Craig Gorder is here to give it to you.
I interviewed Craig a couple weeks ago for an article on wilderness first aid, after getting referred his way through an unlikely string of Facebook acquaintances. The lead was simple: "You should talk to my friend Craig. He's currently recovering from a massive accident in Indian Creek." I clicked through to his profile, and found a picture of a grinning, bespectacled dude in a hospital bed— slapped on the front of his full-body, plastic back brace was a black sticker that read "Safety Third."
The story of his accident is a testament to how even the most well-prepared adventurers can sometimes have the worst luck— read these pieces for a full account of what happened that day on Hummingbird Spire, in his own words and in mine. But here, I want to share some of the bright, unexpected optimism that shone through in our conversation, stuff that didn't belong in an article on wilderness first aid, but certainly belongs somewhere.
Craig was taking himself for a walk while we talked on the phone, and the slow click of his crutches served as a metronome as he poured out the story of that day on the sandstone. When he answered the phone, we were strangers— our connections tenuous at best, no real reason for him to open up or dig deep for the sake of our conversation. But right away, he was all in: ten minutes into the call, he confirmed that shortly after taking his big fall, he shit his pants— and that his first thought was, oh man, I've got a crush on my climbing partner, how am I gonna tell her this? I laughed, surprised by his forthrightness. "You can put that in there, I'm not ashamed," he said.
After walking me through the accident, the moment of impact, and the epic rescue by his partner Kelsey (who handled the news of the pants-pooping like the hero she proved to be,) Craig turned philosophical. Below, you'll find an excerpt from our conversation-- the parts I still find myself thinking about. These words been reorganized slightly for clarity, but otherwise, this is all Craig:
"For the first few days I couldn't move anything and they thought I might not be able to walk again. It was wild to experience; I couldn't be myself, I couldn't wipe my ass— I couldn't even go to the toilet to wipe my ass. You're totally dependent on others.
I was in a hospital bed for 34 days; there's so much desperation and humility and time to reflect on yourself, you learn a lot. Half the time I was in incredibly dark places. I was never in the middle. You're either somewhere you've never been on the bad side, or the good side.
Even if I was better spoken, even a poet, even if you could put it into words, it's not like other people can absorb the insights you've gained. It's something you can only get by doing. So, do I want to be laying down 18 hours a day, do I want to be stuck in a wheelchair most of the time? No, I don't want this. But I never would have been brave enough to humble myself like this, so it's kind of like the universe forcing you to do something you didn't want to.
I've connected with a lot of folks who've had crazy traumas, and the common denominator with these people who should be dead is overwhelming sincerity. One thing I struggle with a lot in the world is there's so much ironic behavior. It's just a defense mechanism. You can't put up defense mechanisms when you almost die. It's just like, I'm gonna be here and if it's weird or scares people off, oh well.
I don't think I did anything wrong in the accident. Things go wrong sometimes. I have friends who've died. I'm maybe considered bold by some, but I'm also very serious about safety. Even when I'm sport climbing— sometimes I'm the only one at the crag wearing a helmet, I'm always double checking knots... so I don't know what to change. Things can go wrong, and if you're out there without deciding if it's worth it, then you should really re-evaluate.
I made the decision that yes, climbing is worth it, because I get so much out of it. For me climbing isn't a thing I do, it's how I get my metaphors for understanding life. And something like this, this is the thing that makes you stop climbing. But I have all these experiences and community that are linked to climbing, and I don't know how else to get that. So shit, I have to go back to climbing, because that's the greatest part of life that I know.
After the hospital, I was in an acute rehab center in Seattle. Almost everyone in there was angry at the world. They were victims. And I felt that way a lot, I'm not some enlightened being who's grateful for breaking my back, but what else are you gonna do? They saw no light in the world... like, something bad happened, so I'm going to make sure that I'm never happy again. It was sad to me, it was like: you're in this hole, and you're not trying to get out, you're just digging in further.
I worked at a desk job two years ago; I wasn't miserable, but I was an ambivalent city slicker. And I think if this accident happened to me two years ago, I would have dealt with it like most people-- being a victim, not finding the light in things. But that's what climbing gave me, climbing brought me around people and places that taught me how to find the light.
I wouldn't be bent over crutches in my parents' neighborhood, with my sacrum hurting so bad, if it weren't for climbing. But I also wouldn't be this psyched to be staring up at the sun.
I mean, I'm so psyched. I have the biggest shit eating grin on my face right now."
Craig is doing his own writing about his recovery, and it's good stuff-- the same clarity and hopefulness that sparkled in his interview comes through on the page. Check out his blog, and, if you're feeling inspired, consider sending a couple bucks to the GoFundMe his friends started for his medical expenses-- helicopter rides, it turns out, are not cheap.
Doing research after our conversation, I clicked over to Mountain Project and found Hoop Dancer, the pitch where Craig took his fall. At the top, next to the climb’s name and location, a grade: 5.11 X. The 5.11 for climb difficulty— in this case, challenging. The X for difficulty to protect— X generally means a fall could lead to death. Scrolling past the photos of sweeping sandstone walls, warm gold corners and smiling faces under crooked plastic helmets, I arrive at the comments section. And there, dated December 26, 2016, just a few weeks after his accident, I find a comment from Craig:
“As a guide, I’d like to downgrade the rating on this climb to X-. I’ve taken the guide’s whipper, and it won’t quite kill you, but it will get you close.
Climb safe up there, y’all.”