Editor’s note to issue 26 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
There is a famous story about a young climber who developed scurvy when he was living at Araps in the ‘80s. It goes that he was scrounging what food he could when he was told by a Horsham doctor that he had scurvy, that disease of history books that killed millions of sailors during the age of exploration before people realised it was caused by vitamin C deficiency. It could be apocryphal, a way of gesturing to how serious the dirtbaggers were back then, but I could also see it being true. I always thought it was a funny story, because scurvy was funny.
In 2011 Jason C. Anthony* wrote something incredible about our bodies that has had me waking in fright since I read it. ‘Without vitamin C we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.’
The unsettling implication is that, in one sense, there is no such thing as healing. Even your oldest injuries, the faintest scars and most faded memories – the ragged cross-hatching on your shins from your bike pedals, the white slash from your ankle reconstruction, the roughened patch of once-scorched skin on your forearm – are merely waiting to burst open again.
The beautiful horror of that astounded me. Our bodies are just catalogues of now dormant but never-done-away-with wounds.
I have a grisly line in the hollow at the side of my thumb, it’s all but invisible but you can feel it. I roll my other thumb over it all the time. Rubbing it for the pleasant discomfort. A crinkled scar cuts down the bridge of my nose. A thickly filled hole rises like an angry buboe on my left shin. A one-inch jagged ridge is buried in the fold where my right buttock meets my hamstring.
None of these are really healed, the holes are just temporarily patched. You carry with you the symbiosis of the results of past trauma and the promise of future disaster. Not just in the hesitancy to drop knee as your MCL is always a bit tweaky or the clicking in your gammy right shoulder whenever you raise your arm above your ear. The scars you thought were healed, all of these can burst open again.
But wounds also happen to the mind and to the spirit.
One time I flew through a car door window and cannoned head-first into a power pole and it changed me. For a time I couldn’t be around more than four people or I would get agitated, my brain was injured. A friend had a rock fall on his head when he was climbing and now he can’t read maps like he has forgotten where in the world he is. When I forget things now I wonder if it’s the brain injury or if it is me getting old or if I am the brain injury. Aging is injurious. It’s terrifying to realise how feeble your grip is on that which you consider to be essential to yourself – one loose rock and I might not be me.
Ruptures in your spirit can be even harder to contend with. There are no Therabands to work out the trauma of things that have happened to you or that you have seen happen to others. Climbing can have brutal consequences, terminal consequences. Even though climbing is broadly safe, I’m often struck by the dissonance of how close the mundane and the catastrophic on[JD1] any given day climbing. You are utterly gripped on a trad onsight, above a dodgy piece, facing a ground fall and a few metres away two other climbers are carrying on a conversation about their latest Tinder dates. A site of ongoing trauma can come from the attempt to rationalise the risks of adventure when you have been in close proximity to the visceral aftermath of catastrophe. This is especially so because we do not have great internal or societal mechanisms for dealing with a battered spirit.
Our culture valorises commitment. ‘Going for it’ is seen as the ultimate determinant in success. But going for it can have drastic consequences if you don’t make it, and leave you adrift trying to understand the relationship between commitment, risk and aftermath.
Acceptance of your injury is said to be key, but it can be difficult to separate what you should accept from what you fight against. This goes equally for asking how much ache in your elbow is normal, as[JD2] for trying to disentangle the natural fear of self-protection from the darker stain of anxiety. Injury forces you to change, change your goals, change your approach, recognise that you have to work harder than everyone else. Injury then can be transformative. It can be a spur to correct what is dysfunctional, it can force you to fix the way you are going about living.
Perhaps, though, the best thing is to not get injured at all. You can make your body bulletproof. You can be smart. You can be conservative. You can place really good gear. And even then you will not succeed. You will damage your body or your spirit. You will be there when someone craters and have to deal with the bloody aftermath.
It seems of late that I am injured all the time, always something holding me back. Sometimes I shake my fist at the sky, anger rising up from my throat to redden my face. Another season spent going backwards. But sometimes I can flip it so it doesn’t enrage me, sometimes when I am sitting quietly rubbing the inside of my thumb, the blood drains back down from my angry face and I realise that injuries are not a curse, that no malevolent forces are marshalling against me, that the scars and the aches are just the price that we all pay for being alive still.
*Jason C. Anthony. ‘The importance of eating local: slaughter and scurvy in Antarctic cuisine,’ Endeavour, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2011)