A Year of Battling Injuries & Climbing Psyche

Saturday 13 October 2018, 9:47am -- gemmawilson

Gemma climbing "quality" choss in the Dolomites, Italy

Creator: 
Daniel Joll

This year I experienced a number of accidents, medical illnesses and burnouts that prevented me from climbing for weeks at a time. As an obsessed climber whose life is centred on climbing this was a real challenge for me. I have learnt so much this past year including acceptance, coping with highs and lows and having to deal with low climbing psyche.

Last year with the death of my close friends Conor and Sarwan I naturally turned to climbing as a coping mechanism. I climbed 4-5 days a week from May to October, pushing myself to my mental & physical limits. I ended up really fatigued and burnout towards the end of the year. I took a recovery month in October knowing I was going to have a busy winter working full time as a ski patroller and training for an Alaska expedition.

I continued to push myself through the winter with ice climbing and training but was continually battling fatigue, stomach pains and the winter flu which in turn played with my motivation. I was worried about the Alaska expedition and my overall health. My gut feeling was not to go on the Alaska expedition. As fate would have it, my decision was made easier when I broke my thumb in a skiing crash and could not go anyway. I secretly felt relieved.

With four shiny pins holding my thumb together, 6 weeks later Rose Pearson and I rocked up to Yosemite for the scheduled team big-walling trip. After a winter of ice climbing, skiing and a broken thumb, rock climbing proved to be pretty tough. Rose was amazing, leading everything and providing huge amounts of positivity & psyche.

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Rose and Gemma in Yosemite

Creator: 
Jaz Morris

But after about 10 days into the trip while attempting the Steck-Salathe on the Sentinel, a sand-bagged 15-pitch offwidth & chimney fest, I finally cracked. “Rose this is Bullsh*t, I want to go down!” I had been trying so hard but at last I burst into tears. My head was fried; I was lacking the psyche needed for these tough objectives and was happy to go back to Canada for the summer to relax.

Back in Canada, I had 8 weeks before another expedition I had arranged the previous year to Baffin Island. I had been suffering back pain in Yosemite and the diagnosis revealed that I had kidney stones. These final weeks turned into a rush of diagnostic tests and an attempt to remove the stones before the trip. The doctors told me it was too risky to go to Baffin with kidney stones due to the remoteness of the area. I couldn’t get them out in time and had to pull the pin at the last minute. As a consolation, I decided to climb in Europe with Daniel Joll as there was close access to medical care if I needed it. We headed straight to Italy and the beautiful area of the Dolomites. After a few days we were racked up and ready to climb the 950m south face of the Marmolada. My climbing pysche had slowly begun to return so I was pretty excited to do something big.

This was the worst day climbing I have ever experienced. The climbing was sand-bagged; the rock extremely loose. I was fighting on every single pitch. I was really scared. All I wanted to do was get to the top and get out of there. I even told myself that this would be the last alpine climb I would ever do.

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Chris Warner enjoying a brief moment of good rock on the otherwise loose south face of Marmolada

Creator: 
Daniel Joll

I was climbing in a team of five. Daniel, Fredricke (Dan's Finnish friend) and I in one team and 2 Australian friends in the other. Around 100m from the top I was seconding and heard a worried scream ...”ROOOCK!”

I protected my head under a small overhang and heard it coming. A microwave size block had been dislodged and it was coming straight for me. It smashed into a couple of pieces and impacted against my knee. The pain was excruciating and I had blood rushing down my leg. I immediately went into shock, shaking and crying.

I was still hanging on the rope and had to get up to the belay. I managed to climb up another few metres to the belay. My Australian friends cut my pants open to see what the damage was. They told me not to look at the wound while they dressed it and gave me some pain killers. We had no reception at the time so to go up was the obvious option as we only had about 100m to the summit ridge. Over the next four hours we slowly made our way up the mountain towards the summit. Dan and Fredricke would climb and haul me up. My Australian friends would keep me warm and try to get hold of emergency services. It felt all very calm and safe once we established our system. Read here on hauling an injured climber and keeping safe in terrain that has a lot of loose rock- by Daniel Joll.

After three pitches we managed to get cell phone reception and call in a rescue. The helicopter arrived 15 minutes later, and at approximately 8.45pm I was scooped off the mountain by a long-line and flown straight to hospital.

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Gemma recovering in Chamonix after the accident

Creator: 
Daniel Joll

I was really lucky that the rock landed where it did. The rock only damaged my soft tissue and I narrowly escaped having my patella smashed or injury to any ligaments. The Italian doctors cleaned my wound and stitched my muscle back together in three layers with a total of 40 stitches. I hobbled around on crutches for the following three weeks and uncomfortably made my way back to New Zealand.

I was unable to climb a lot this year due to my injuries and illnesses. At times it was depressing and frustrating. I felt like everyone around me was climbing and progressing while I was going backwards. I had to pull myself out of these low periods by focusing on what I could do despite being injured. Acceptance was another thing I worked on.

I have also learnt to listen to my body more. I realise now that I can’t be climbing all year round at my full potential. I had to realise that it is normal to go through fluctuations in motivation and pysche especially when you are pushing yourself and learning all the time. I did not want to let my climbing partners down so I kept pushing myself to train and climb, whereas I should have listened to my instincts and taken a break and looked after myself better. I now know that for the future I will only go climb in the mountains if I’m feeling 100% mentally ready for it.

I have recently moved to Hobart, Tasmania and look forward to a fresh new start. My injuries have all healed now and my back pain from my kidney stones seems to be improving. My drive and psyche for alpine climbing is still not outrageously high as it has been but I believe it will return in the coming months. I look forward to the summer and the rock climbing here in Tasmania.

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Back in NZ, enjoying a relaxing tramp up the Copeland Valley, recovering & taking it easy.

Creator: 
Gemma Wilson