San Juan Mountains, July 2007: The boulder is the tallest obelisk in a field of tabletop-size stones, seemingly undisturbed by the passage of centuries. I must have brushed the boulder with my right elbow as I looked back to check on Jake.
It happens so quickly. Inhale, exhale, a turn of the head. I hear an ominous rasp. The boulder is moving, and suddenly I’m on my back—flailing, drowning in a tsunami of pain—my right leg caught below the knee in a tightening vise. My calf is pinned between two boulders, the one that just tipped over and the one underneath.
Suppressing a scream, I sit up and push. The boulder doesn’t budge. I push again, encouraged by a shudder of lessening resistance. The vise responds with a nauseating squeeze. I lean back, pressing my buttocks into the boulder underneath to maximize my leverage, and ram the boulder on top with a hip and shoulder butt. The rebound knocks me flat, and the boulder bears down, crushing more calf muscle.
I could hear Jake’s curses below me as I scrambled up the chimney to the summit ridge. He had to duck to dodge some flying pebbles. Can he hear my shrieks now? We hooked up via Match.com, and this is the first serious test of our compatibility in the mountains.
Somewhere in the maze of gullies between the summit and me, he is making his way down in running shoes with no ankle support, a cliff below him if he slips on the loose rock.
My other companion, Arlene, a speed demon of a mountaineer, has long since disappeared over the rise below, probably clocking her pace with her watch as she sprints for the car. Will my shrieks reach her? My throat clenches, overcome by the strain. With every muscle in my chest I force the screams out into our mountainous echo chamber. Surely they can hear me now. Precious minutes pass. I’m trapped, my calf slowly and surely being crushed to death. Where the hell are they? We shouldn’t have strayed so far apart. Clawing at the boulder, I plead for help, shout every obscenity I know.
The click, click, click of advancing hiking poles announce Jake’s rapid approach. Panting, he drops his poles, kneels beside the boulder, and shoves with all his might. The boulder tilts toward me. I curse in three languages and wail from the pain, the panic. Arlene arrives and kneels by my side, helpless as I flop on my back, exhausted by the pain and futility of a one-sided wrestling match. The slightest movement on my part increases the pressure on my leg.
Arlene barely weighs 100 pounds—a lightweight in a contest against a ton of quartzite. We are three-and-a-half miles from the car, 2,800 vertical feet. It will be dusk by the time my companions hit the road, hours after sunrise before a search and rescue team can reach me. The steep, rocky, wind-raked terrain rules out a helicopter landing.
Jake studies the position of the boulder from every conceivable angle. Then he squats as if competing again in a collegiate wrestling match. Relying on the laws of physics rather than blunt force, he braces himself with his muscular thighs, hugs the boulder tight, and pushes with his arms and chest. The boulder gives slightly, shifting in the right direction until finally, at last, there is just enough space to drag my leg out. I roll up my bloody pant leg, expecting to see snapped fibula. No bone protrudes. But my calf has swelled into a grotesque mutation of its usual shape. I feel nothing below the knee, nothing at all, even where the skin is ripped and bleeding. I swallow a Percocet from Arlene’s first aid kit and another from Jake’s, and they get me up on my left leg. Leaning on their shoulders, I hop on my good leg across the rest of the boulder field, to the snowfield below. They pack some snow in my rain jacket and wrap the jacket around my calf.
I limp out on the crutches of my friends’ shoulders. Three hours later they bundle me into the back of Jake’s pickup for the one-hour drive to the only medical clinic within fifty miles.
Next morning an orthopedist in Gunnison examines the X-rays. “Lucky you. No broken bones. One inch higher and I’d be scheduling a knee reconstruction with plates, screws, and a bone graft. An inch lower and I’d be reconstructing your ankle joint.”
“My leg was under that boulder for no more than 15 minutes. How long could it have withstood so much weight?”
“Hard to say. An hour maybe. Then we’d be scheduling surgery for sure.”
He shows me, with a pinch of my big toenail, how to check for impaired circulation, a side effect of massive swelling that could result in gangrene, amputation, kidney failure. “If the nail doesn’t turn pink within five seconds, or if you have any chest pains, go straight to the emergency room. A blood clot could kill you.”
Two months later I’m back in action. Despite the dent, my calf is surprisingly flexible. If I push too hard, though, a dull, persistent aches takes hold, infusing me with caution.
To those passersby who tease me—“Did you get kicked by a moose?”—I take no
offense. My encounter with the boulder provides a cautionary tale. Do not hike off trail alone.
Excerpted from Jane Parnell’s Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies. Photo by Amanda Sandlin on Unsplash