“Is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse asked.
“I’m sorry. Excuse me?” I replied.
“The mass in your scrotum, is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse responded. She stood above me at the end of the emergency room bed. “Just to give the doctor an idea of what to look for.”
“No, it’s bigger than that.” I said.
“A walnut?” she asked.
“What?” I was confused.
“Is it about the size of a walnut?” She asked, holding her up her fingers, curled like an “okay” gesture.
“Oh, no. It’s not that big.” I said, shaking my head.
The nurse stood with her left arm folded across her stomach, her fist supporting the elbow of her right arm which angled up toward her face. Her outstretched index finger tapping her her chin lightly, as she glanced toward the ceiling in thought.
“I’m trying to think of another food item,” she said with her faint eastern European accent.
I furrowed my brow, cocked my head to the side, and my gaze joined hers upon the ceiling. I played along, but I wasn’t puzzling over like-sized food items. I didn’t have much of an appetite.
“A grape!” She exclaimed triumphantly. Swooping her index finger toward me with a smile.
I looked at her with a faint smile and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yep. It’s about the size of a grape. That’s about right.”
“Okay, I’ll let the doctor know and he’ll be in shortly to examine you.” She turned and walked out of the cubicle, and gently slid the curtain closed behind her.
I had pain in my private parts after a long bike ride the day before. I had examined myself later that night and found a mass between my testicles. I felt horrified and nauseated. Was I ruptured? Was it cancer? I went to the emergency room first thing the next morning. My mind raced with worst-case scenarios. I thought of losing my fertility due to testicular cancer. I tried to think positively, as I often do. I thought maybe it was God’s, or Zoroaster’s, or Odin’s, or Zeus’s (or whomever or whatever it is that decides these types of things) way of cutting me a break. I imagined some almighty power standing arms crossed in admonishment, looking down at me, stating sternly, “Dude. You’re an idiot. That was your ninth life, sonny boy. But, in spite of myself, I kind of like you. Or, maybe I just really feel sorry for you. But, regardless, your world does not need any more of your hay-wired genes, for obvious reasons. I let you live last week, but I’m going to have to sterilize you. Consider yourself lucky.”
It seemed fair to me.
One week before I stood alone on the shattered snow-ice pedestal of the fifth belay. Ben had left twelve days before. Chelsea had left before dawn that morning. I had planned to aid the sixth pitch while simultaneously jumaring the stuck rappel ropes. I was concerned about the anchor, a single v-thread which had been baking in the sun all morning. It was well below freezing, but the sun was intense. I knew the thread had been bomber two days before, but I am extremely conservative with respect to anchors, and so the thought was prominent in my mind. Also, I was concerned about ascending two ropes, threaded through an anchor (through two opposite-and-opposed carabiners that I had left—not directly through the v-thread cord). I could have fixed one end at the anchor of the fifth belay and jugged the opposite single strand. But, the ropes were iced in where they crossed the lip of the roof to such a degree that I couldn’t pull either side. I was afraid if I started jugging a single strand in this way, the ropes might suddenly slip through the ice encasement, shock-loading the system, the suspect anchor, and perhaps shredding the sheath of the skinny-dynamic rope, which are not well-suited for this application.
I figured, perhaps wrongly, that the best way to ascend the ropes would be to put both strands through the jumars. This method works, but can cause the ropes to bind a bit. Jumars are designed to ascend single strands of rope. The problem with my plan to aid and jug simultaneously lay in the fact that the sixth pitch begins with a wide leftward traverse out ledges with no protection. This would have been essentially a quasi-solo, because the stuck ropes I would have been attached to from above hung from the right side of the ice roof. Though unlikely, if I had botched the traverse, I would have swung far out beyond the pedestal in a giant pendulum, which would have left me hanging in space, likely necessitating simply ascending the stuck ropes without the protection of aiding the pitch anyway. Also, the rope management logistics of dealing with aiding on the tag-line while keeping the long coils of the unused portions of the stuck ropes untangled would have been time consuming and exhausting. Furthermore, aiding the sixth pitch was difficult even with a belay. It had taken me and Chelsea two days of effort to get it done.
I was exhausted. The preceding three weeks had taken its toll. The efforts me and Ben and Chelsea had put into this route had tapped my reserves, frazzled my nerves and left me with a case of the thousand yard stare. I didn’t want to deal with the ropes. I was over it, I needed a break from this wall. The Cholesterol Wall is one of my favorite places on the planet, but I had already had my fill for now. However, I could not accept the idea of leaving ropes hanging from this wall, which had become sacred to me. I knew that if I left these ropes, they would likely hang from the directional, after the v-thread melted out, all year. We would have left a giant dangling mass of trash hanging from one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas I have ever beheld. I just couldn’t deal with the idea of being responsible for such a violation of this beloved place.
I was scared. Being alone up there amidst all of the overhead hazard, dealing with an ad hoc mission to sort out this seemingly unique SNAFU in my physical and psychological state was daunting. There was no instruction manual. I was improvising, and I was anything but certain of what to do.
I stood there in the direct sun, with the waterfall coming off the lip of the roof beside where the stuck rappel lines hung encased in freshly formed ice. Below the lip of the ice roof, the ropes draped inward, clipped through the directional rock gear cluster, out of the line of the falling water. I felt like the clock was ticking. The sun was too bright, the prospects of the ridiculous seat-of-the-pants aid-jumaring seemed like it would take too much time, and too much effort, and perhaps itself cause another hazardous stuck rope situation from the lines below. I left the unused portions of the stuck ropes coiled and short-fixed at the fifth belay, and started jumaring the double strands. I tried to ascend smoothly to minimize the inherent bounce of dynamic ropes, and thus, in my mind at least, the strain on the v-thread anchor. I held my breath at first, praying that the anchor was solid.
I reached the directional, clipped in directly to it with a runner, and moved my jumars, one at a time, above the draw clipped through the ropes and above the knot connecting the two ropes, which I had pulled down to this point two days before when I had realized my mistake in clipping both ropes, joined at the anchor with a knot, through the directional, thus making it impossible to pull the ropes. I looked over to my left at the torrential waterfall that poured down through the air.
“Ugh.” I thought. “This is going to suck.”
Ben, Chelsea and I had dealt with lots of spray over the preceding three weeks. This rig was a high-water-volume formation. We had grown accustomed to being doused with freezing water, our soft-shell jackets becoming encased in ice, rigid, like shells of armor. I figured I would just deal with it, get up the ropes quickly, chop them out of their encasements of ice, and be up to the anchor in no time. After all of the peril we had contended with, I felt a certain cavalier invulnerability. I thought dismissively: How bad could it possibly be?
But, just seconds later, as I pulled myself toward the anchor to take the tension off the runner clipped between it and my harness, unclipped the carabiner attaching it to the anchor, and was about to let go of my hold on the slings of the directional anchor, and swing away from the wall directly into the center of the waterfall of freezing water, I had a sudden sinking feeling that I was making a grave mistake. I paused for a few moments, looking over my left shoulder at the waterfall, and thought, “Fuck it. I’ll deal.”
The water poured over me and I immediately started jugging the ropes as fast as I could. Within seconds I started panting as the ice water soaked through my clothes, taking my breath away. Shockingly, the ropes started to ice up within seconds. My jumars started to ice up. I have long had a sense, as an ice climber, that there were certain conditions under which water would make ice more readily, but I never really understood it, and I still don’t. It’s as if it were some strange Mpemba effect, the phenomenon whereby hot water freezes faster than cold. It was as if the sun had heated the ropes and my metal jumars to such a degree that the water instantly accreted layers of ice before my eyes, like a deadly rendering of Aristotle’s antiperistasis: “the supposed increase in the intensity of a quality as a result of being surrounded by its contrary quality.”
The freezing water poured off the lip of the ice roof fifteen feet above my head and pounded upon the hood of my soft-shell jacket which covered my helmeted head. The ropes were icing up, my jumars were icing up, my insulated gloves were like saturated sponges. Each time I grasped a jumar, I wrung gushes of water from my gloves which increased its frigid flow down the undersides of my arms. The numbing water streamed across my armpits, down my chest, stomach, through my groin, and puddled in the seat of my pants when my stirrups were high. The water sloshed down the inside of my pant legs and into my boots when I stood up in the slings, trying ferociously to push the upper of the two seized jumars up the pair of ropes which were icing up like dipping candles in wax. I gasped for air with every breath, shivering uncontrollably now.
The frozen jumars were bound up on the frozen double ropes. In horror, I stood up in my aiders and screamed and roared and pushed upward on the upper jug with all of my might, feeling the strength in my arms waning, the dexterity draining out with the cold water running down them. I became light-headed from the effort. I bounced down into my harness, wrapped the icy ropes below my lower jumar around my left wrist and clasping them with my left hand. I grabbed the lower jumar with my right hand and pushed upward on the frozen jug while pulling down on the slick ropes with my left, screaming, guttural roaring, to recruit all of my power. My neck muscles quivered violently as I pushed and pulled in opposition, trying to force the frozen jug up the ropes.
This was a shit fight. I lost most of my capacities for fine motor movements. I knew I lacked the dexterity to stuff the frozen ropes into my rappel device, unweight the frozen jumars and remove them from the ropes, let alone pass the knot. I hung twenty feet from the wall. I was trapped. The only way out was up. With absolute rage I thrashed, screaming, standing up in my aiders, pulling down hard on my left jumar, I pushed upward on the upper right jumar with my right arm belting out power screams like I had learned breaking boards in Tae Kwon Do training in Korea. I fought with everything I had. As with close combat, gross motor skills are the only reliable tool. Close combat, a type of melee combat abandoned ostensibly by the US Army decades ago due to its excessive brutality, is utterly basic and lethal. My Great Uncle taught me about it, and I trained this way later in life. Drive forward, use basic movements, know how to strike and where to strike, do not hesitate, attack relentlessly, ruthlessly. DRIVE FORWARD. Smash the adversary backward and into the ground.
I dropped down hard into my harness, attached by a sling to the upper jumar. Jumping up and down in my aiders, I slammed myself down into my harness as hard as I could, trying to jar the ice from the ropes and free the frozen clog of my upper jumar. My body was convulsing uncontrollably in violent shivers from the cold. My energy was ebbing and flowing, every minute or so I would start to feel like I was drifting toward unconsciousness. But, then I would surge again, violently screaming and thrashing my way up the frozen ropes inch by inch. I was screaming crazy utterances, recruiting all of my rage, all of my power. I was going to chin-jab this motherfucker into oblivion, or I was going to die trying.
This experience was a unique one. It was not like having an avalanche sweep over one, or cutting a cornice with one’s axe when unroped, leaving a precipitous edge dropping thousands of feet merely inches from one’s crampons, or many other experiences in my life that I perceived immediately to have been “near-death.” In all of my previous close-calls, there has been this immediate self-conscious reflection. As if I said immediately to myself, “Holy shit, that was fucking close!” This experience was the process, it was on-going. I was experiencing the process of my body shutting down. I was experiencing dying. I was drifting from the most entirely, completely conscious fight mode I have ever known into vague grey vision and awareness. My arms would surge with adrenalin-laced ferocity and then fade into impotent, flaccid appendages.
Finally, miraculously, the bottom of the ice roof was within reach. I unclipped my axe from my caritool on my hip, breaking the encasement of ice over the tool’s head. I grasped the icy handle, squeezing as hard as I could with my numb arms, I knew my grip was faint. I swung at the ice overhead, barely within reach. I swung like a novice, mainly with my shoulder. After many desperate erratic swings, my tool found purchase. I knew it was a bad stick, but I pulled on it anyway, feeling a glimmer of hope as the waterfall pounded only on my left side as I pulled myself to the right. I hooked the biner from the runner that still hung from my belay loop to the lower pommel of the axe. I tried to unclip a draw from the gear slings on my harness but the carabiner was too iced up. I reached behind me and struggled to remove my third tool from its holster. I wrestled it free and smacked the biners on my harness, knocking off the accumulations of ice. I smacked my third tool’s head into the gate of a lower biner of a draw and let it hang. With both hands I squeezed the upper biner of another draw with numb, nearly impotent hands, finally snapping it open, freeing its bounds of ice. I clipped it to my belay loop and grabbed the placed axe again, hooking my right elbow around the upper pommel, I pulled my body toward it as hard as I could, trying to get close enough to hook the biner of the draw onto the lower pommel. The tool ripped out and I swung back into the center of the waterfall of frozen water, screaming and gasping for air, still violently shuddering uncontrollably.
Again, I swung the axe ineffectively with my shoulder, into the bottom of the ice roof, this time I felt the tool sink properly, the head making the distinctive quiver of solid purchase. I repeated the process of hooking the runner, then fighting to hook the draw. After digging as deep as I ever had, with brief pauses as my consciousness greyed, I pulled, screaming at my numb weakened arms. Kill! Kill! Kill! Or be killed! I hooked the pommel with the draw and found myself out of the waterfall, dripping, numb, shivering and shuddering so hard the axe bounced and flexed slightly along to the erratic rhythm of my quaking body.
I was out of the waterfall, but now in the shade of the underbelly of the ice roof. A slight wisp of a breeze wafted over me and my shuddering became incapacitating. I hung there unable to move, in a state of complete convulsion, seizure, every muscle in my body involuntarily tense. After a few moments, I broke myself free of this paralysis and managed to unclip a screw from the caritool where my axe had been. It was encased in an inch of ice, covering the head and the shaft, threads and teeth. My screws are always razor-sharp, and I have never been so grateful for my obsessive compulsiveness. Utilizing the last vestiges of my dexterity I managed, after several desperate failures, to get the screw started. I spun it in slowly, taking breaks to regain my last remaining strength. I freed another frozen draw from my harness, clipped it to the screw. I freed another draw and clipped it to my belay loop. I pulled hard, repeatedly, trying to hoist myself up to clip the two draws together. I failed. I grabbed the lower jumar and lifted it, heavy with the weight of the ice covered ropes, hooking the rope below it with my left elbow. I clamped my chattering teeth over the ice covered screw gate of the locking carabiner that housed my aiders. The ice thawed and eventually I was able to open the gate, which was thankfully unlocked, and remove my aiders from their attachment to the jumar. I clipped my aiders to the draw on the screw, pulled hard on the draw, stood up on my front points hooked on the slings, and managed to clip the draw on my harness to the screw.
I repeated this process three times, placing four screws in total, each about two feet above the last. I was completely out of the spray of the waterfall, but entirely in the shade, and my convulsions remained as violent, periodically rendering me unable to move, leaving me hanging from the screw quivering like an epileptic. As I got higher into the right-facing corner of ice, the same ground Chelsea and I had covered three days before on the send, I started to reach out left with my axe and chop wildly at the ice encasement of the ropes. I swung with reckless abandon, hitting the ropes themselves squarely with my pick on several occasions. I whacked the rope with the side of the head of my axe, freeing it from ice. I fought the jumars up the ropes, inch by inch. Finally, I abandoned trying to get the jugs higher, I placed my tool in the ice out left, above the lip, and eventually managed to free my second axe from the caritool on my left hip. My swings into the supple, crumbly fresh ice were pathetic chopping motions. My sticks were shallow, out of square, and I didn’t care. I pulled on their handles, swinging myself to the left. I hooked a draw to the pommel of the left tool and placed the right tool again, higher above the lip. I hooked my aiders to the lower pommel of this tool and stood up on my front points hooked to the slings. I managed to disconnect the two draws attaching my harness to the top screw and climbed up the aiders, placing my left tool higher, knowing that if I fell I would slam down onto the jumars that were now below my feet.
I hooked myself to the upper tool with a draw to its pommel and placed my last screw. I clipped directly to the screw and hung from it, slumped over forward in the sun, shuddering in a taut ball, feeling like the tendons in my neck were going to snap. Eventually, I returned to violent consciousness, and chopped out the remainder of the ropes, pulled the rope up from below till all of the slack that the short-fixed bottoms of the ropes at the fifth belay below allowed, and frantically smacked the frozen jugs and ropes with the side of the head of my axe and worked the jumars up the ropes. From shortly above the lip to the v-thread, the ropes were off the surface of the ice, and were dry and supple. I slid the jumars up the ropes and slumped on the sloping snowy ice ledge exactly where I had stood extended below the anchor, belaying Chelsea three days before.
Over the next period of time I slowly recovered, the convulsions still came in waves, but to my utter relief and joy I started to slowly regain my composure. Eventually, I shook off my backpack, the straps frozen to the fabric of my soft-shell. I sucked on its zipper to free its encasement in ice. Finally, I removed my soggy insulated gloves and was able to unzip it and don my parka. I found my dry dry-tooling gloves, each roasting with a hand warmer inside, tucked inside my shell in my armpit, where I always keep them when wearing my belay gloves. Eventually, when I was pretty sure I would survive, I removed my phone from the inside pocket of my parka and filmed myself, trying to speak to my daughters, just in case I did perish up there. I faded in and out and couldn’t speak. I stopped filming and returned to the erratic shivering and hyperventilating. Over time, I freed the stuck ropes and dropped them, hauled up my tag line and set up a rappel after tying double fisherman’s stopper knots to each end. I made it down the wall, slowly, cautiously, regaining control of my body gradually as I went. I made it down, and ran, staggering and tumbling down the talus water sloshing in my boots. I reached the snowmobile, grabbed my extra warm clothes from under the seat, removed my boots to put on my puff pants, poured out the water and put them back on, put my second smaller parka over my big belay parka, and fired up the sled. I rode full-throttle back to my rental car parked along the highway four clicks from town. I threw my pack in the trunk and drove back to the cabin at about 150 km/hour. I rushed into the cabin, stripped, and emptied the hot water tank with one long shower.
The doctor swept open the curtain and walked into the emergency room cubicle smiling, followed by two young women bearing stern expressions, one holding a clipboard. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and explained that his accompaniment was his PA and a medical student. I was mortified. They examined me while I wrapped my head in my arms to bear the embarrassment and the pain.
“See!” said the doctor to the young women, grasping the mass in my scrotum, “It’s free from the testicles! It’s not attached to anything.”
He asked me if I had had any recent accidents or injuries. Uncoiling my arms from around my head, I briefly explained my experiences nearly dying from hypothermia a week before, explaining the violent, repeated bouncing in my harness.
“Um-hum,” he said. “I think it’s just epididymitis or hydroseal. Not a big deal.”
“Okay,” I replied, without a clue what he was talking about.
The doctor and his entourage left after explaining that I would have an ultrasound.
Shortly, an old man wheeled the ultrasound machine in, and set to work. He told me all about his twelve grandchildren while I stared at the ceiling.
He wrapped up his exam and confided smiling, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to take your testicles. But, I have to show these images to radiology and the doctor will be in soon with an official diagnosis.”
I thanked him and wished him luck with his grandkids.
Soon, the doctor returned with one of the young women entering behind him.
“You’ve got a scrotal hematoma.” he said.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“No, not a big deal. It’s just a mass of blood, sort of like a huge blood blister. Your body will likely just reabsorb it. It was likely caused by your harness from your, ah, sport.” he said grinning. “You’re free to go! No restrictions! Just come back if it starts hurting more or you get a fever.”
He shook my hand, and walked out of the cubicle. His PA followed him, her face bore a glowing smile as her gaze became fixed on mine. I felt like dying for a moment from embarrassment. I dressed quickly, put the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, pulling it down over my eyes, and darted out of the cubicle, thanking the nurse as I passed, and b-lined it for the door.
I walked briskly to my truck, fired it up, sped out of the parking lot, rolling through the stop sign, thinking how wondrous and strange my ninth life had been. I said a quick thanks to God, Zoroaster, Odin and Zeus as I felt the surge of the supercharger launching me at full throttle down the road and into the rest of my tenth life.
Back at the cabin in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, after the world’s longest hot shower, I recovered with massive quantities of hot Skratch Labs Apples and Cinnamon and several pots of coffee. I returned that evening to the Cholesterol Wall, hiked up the talus to retrieve the coiled ropes from the base of the wall that I had pitched off the fifth belay and again at the fourth belay on my way down earlier. The next morning, I returned to finish cleaning the remainder of the fixed lines from the lower portions of the wall, and caught a flight home from Deer Lake at five o’clock that afternoon.
It has been somewhat difficult to write this story, but I have been compelled to share it nonetheless. It is embarrassing. It was intensely personal. But, it’s a part of the tale of this year’s Newfoundand traditional mixed adventure. I don’t really have much desire to enter into a forensic analysis of what when wrong when and how it could have been avoided, but others are more than welcome to Monday-morning-quarterback these events. And, though certainly possible, it’s somewhat hard to imagine someone finding themselves in a similar situation. But, generally, I suppose, there may be some instructive value in the mistakes I made.