Rewind the film. Further. Three summers ago. All the way to before college. You will see someone who resembles me a great deal. An 18-year-old, fresh out of high school, who headed up to his future university for orientation. After a day of forgettable seminars and ice-breakers, he took a break with Luke and Avery—new-found acquaintances and friends of necessity—to go check out the school’s exercise center…
“We really need to try out the rock wall,” I said as Luke, Avery, and I passed it. We had been shooting pool (I say this in a loose sense as none of us really knew how to play) and playing ping-pong for a while and were heading to the exit when we passed the rock wall.
“Eh, I don’t know about that; it’s pretty high,” said Luke. “But…Avery and I will stay and watch if you want to do it!”
A minute later, I had equipped myself with a protective helmet and strapped my legs into the harness—somewhat uncomfortable but highly secure. The attendant who helped me strap in, a tall, lean man in a blue shirt, motioned upwards, “When you’re ready.”
So I began to climb. Quickly, and mostly with my arms—I had been doing pullups that summer, and I was skinny and light to begin with. A few of the holds on the beginner’s course were tricky, but I managed to climb a few dozen feet up, Luke and Avery were talking inaudibly the whole time and would occasionally call encouragement. Finally, looking up, I could see the buzzer—my target—only 6 feet away.
The problem was that the nearest hold was positioned in such a way that I couldn’t reach it, even if I stretched. What’s more, I didn’t have the lower body strength or flexibility to reposition my legs. So instead, I did the only thing I could—I threw myself towards the nearby nub.
The world spun around me as I swung away from the wall. I was upside down, looking at the ceiling, then the far wall, then the ground. And then I landed, touching down to earth just as the cable swung me back towards the wall. I collided with the wall, a plastic protruding rock hitting me directly in my lower back.
Rock wall: 1. Me: 0.
I climbed quickly to my feet. The attendant ran over. “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said automatically, still analyzing the truth of that statement.
“What was that?” the attendant asked.
“I just…lost control,” I said, trying to act nonchalant as I unstrapped the harness and removed my helmet.
The attendant nodded, “Yeah, you’ve got to use your legs to control your fall—bounce off the wall as you rappel down.”
“Oh,” I said. That hadn’t occurred to me. I could imagine it now—what real rock-climbers do when they rappel down a face.
As we left the fitness center, Luke said with a laugh. “Avery and I were wondering why they made people wear helmets,” said Luke. “Well, you showed us why!”
I grinned. “Mmm, my back’s a little sore,” I said, twisting experimentally.
The night that followed was unforgettable. The dorm was cold, I hadn’t brought a blanket, and every direction I turned myself made my back hurt. When I would wake from brief dozes, I would wonder whether my spinal cord was injured, and how permanent the pain I was experiencing might be.
(Fortunately, this wasn’t the case, and my back was completely healed in a matter of days.)