What Are You Whining About?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

What Are You Whining About?

Enough with the war stories about your scrapes and tweaks. Meet the people who really give it all to their sport--again and again and again.
By Paul Kvinta

So, you've taken a bad spill on your new in-line skates, and you've got a long, crusty ribbon of road rash to prove it. Or you've just returned from a ten-day Grand Canyon hike with an oozing case of trench foot, but you're determined to smile through the torment and show up for that Saturday morning fun run. Ouch! Clearly, you have experienced agony, a term that Webster's defines as "extreme pain of mind or body; anguish; torture."

What you probably haven't experienced, and we hope you never will, is the other definition of agony: "the struggle that precedes death." Has Mother Nature disrupted your rock climb by whimsically raining boulders on your head? Has a finned beast with Dorito-shaped teeth added a new dimension to your afternoon snorkel by using you as a chew toy?

The plucky outdoorspeople celebrated here have not only experienced this level of agony--they've come back for more. Some of their biographies involve ghastly, one-shot bang-ups that would send lesser mortals to the couch forever. Others are ongoing sagas of crash, grind, and groan that make Job's travails look like a mild case of diaper rash. Their stories both amaze and instruct, and all of these stitched, broken, whomped, chomped, and flattened folk deserve a silent nod and our awestruck respect.

In fact, the next time you find yourself yanking up a pants leg to show your office mates the scar from that "gnarly" mountain-bike wreck, remember these names. Then take a long, deep breath, limp back to your desk, and hush up.

Grace under fire: the day the walls came tumbling down

"I guess I blew everyone's mind in that clinic," recalls Katie Kemble with a grin. Yeah, probably. Six years ago, Kemble, a diminutive climber with a feathery voice, came bursting through the doors of the Telluride Medical Center, barking orders to nurses for IV needles and a blood-pressure gauge. Not especially amazing feats, except that Kemble was holding her own left leg, which had been detached below the knee in a climbing accident. For the composure she displayed that day--Kemble reportedly never even howled in pain--the staff awarded her an honorific nickname: Iron Lady.

For Kemble, a 40-year-old critical care nurse from Aspen, Colorado, the nightmare began late on the afternoon of May 27, 1989, when she and her climbing partner, Ric Hatch, were making their last pitch of the day on Ophir Wall, a tricky granite face near Telluride. A rock slide started about 800 feet above Hatch, and though he shouted a warning, it was too late; garbage-can-size boulders were exploding all around Kemble, who was on the ground belaying Hatch. She tried to run, but one boulder bashed her from behind, its force hurling her 30 feet across a field of stone. Dazed and in a heap, Kemble looked down and couldn't believe what she saw: seven inches of shattered tibia and fibula sticking out from the bottom of her left knee--and not much else. Her lower leg and foot lay to the side, connected to the joint only by a thin band of skin and muscle.

Kemble's first reaction was, "Oooh, this is not good." But, as she quickly noticed, a tourniquet wouldn't be necessary: As sometimes happens in cases of severe trauma, the leg's major arteries closed up. Never losing consciousness, she clutched the severed leg in her left hand as Hatch gamely hauled her across a boulder-strewn field. Forty minutes later, he loaded her into a truck and made the 20-minute dash to a clinic in Telluride.

There, Kemble started kibitzing about her treatment and didn't stop until a helicopter whisked her off to a hospital in Grand Junction. Before going under the surgeon's knife, she made her final recommendation: that the doctors please keep the amputation below the knee. Fortunately, they had more ambitious ideas; after several hours of work, the surgeons successfully reattached her leg.

Following years of physical therapy and over a dozen operations, Kemble is back at it: biking, telemarking, sea kayaking, and climbing. Last month, in fact, she was on her way to tackle Yosemite. "I'm not as worried about my leg as my arm strength," she said. "I'm worried about getting my ass off the ground."

In the mouth of the beast, no one can hear you scream

Great white sharks, unfortunately, tend to hang out where Rodney Orr does: the kelp beds off California's northern coast, where the 54-year-old free-diver carries on his relentless search for abalone. "They say your chances of being attacked by a great white are 14 million to one," Orr says in a blasé monotone. "It's like winning the lottery. I've 'won' twice."

Orr's curse may be his inexhaustible fixation on the sea. Almost every weekend for the past 35 years, the gray-haired, barrel-chested diver has paddled his 19-foot dive board off the coast near his hometown of Santa Rosa, tied off to a stalk of kelp, and then gone down with mask, fins, and iron bar to pry the tasty mollusks from the rocks. "I rate about third with Rod," says Marie, his patient wife, "after the ocean and our dog."

Orr pooh-poohs the first of his two attacks, which occurred in 1961 about 25 feet down in Tomales Bay. "It was nothing, really," he says, meaning no disrespect for the 12-foot great white that swooped in and chomped him in the breadbasket. Luckily, Orr's weight belt prevented the shark from gutting him. As the monster swam away, Orr bolted to the surface and rowed home with only minor scratches.

He didn't get off quite so easy on September 8, 1990. That day, as he floated on the surface preparing to dive, something jolted his head. "I heard this crunch, and then it got dark," he says. "I thought a boat had hit me. Then I reached up and felt a head the size of a dinner table. I knew what it was." An 18-foot great white had taken Orr's head in its mouth. Keeping a firm, toothy grip on Orr's neck, the shark lifted him out of the water and began cruising along the surface as he flailed away, trying in vain to jab an eyeball. Miraculously, the creature carried him only a few furlongs and then spat him out.

With his cheekbone protruding, half his nose dangling, and his right side paralyzed from the lacerations, Orr somehow managed to paddle to shore, where the sight of him--"I was a sheet of blood emerging from the ocean"--made sunbathers shriek in horror. Despite receiving 60 stitches in his neck and head, Orr reported to his electrician's job the next Monday and was diving again in a week. Regrets? "That I didn't get a tooth. That would've made a heckuva souvenir."

Twist me, break me. Then, please, put me back on the lift.

Half man, half stainless steel, Steve Sheridan has never let a little bone-shattering mishap keep him off the slopes. Known to his pals as the General, the 42-year-old co-owner of Performance Sports in Vail, Colorado, has broken 20 bones and received three plates, six pins, and 22 screws in 35 years of skiing. "I probably have the largest stack of X rays of anyone in Vail Valley Hospital," he beams. "They should name a wing after me."

Of course, lots of skiers hurt themselves--that part's easy. What defines Sheridan as Sisyphus-in-a-cast is his heroic resilience after a lifetime of mishaps that has enshrined his very name in the medical lexicon. "I use a scale of zero to ten to measure the severity of knee fractures," says Dr. Peter Janes, Sheridan's orthopedic surgeon. "Steve Sheridan is the ten. In fact, I call it the Sheridan Scale."

Obvious question: Is Sheridan a lousy skier, a clown on slats? Nope. He's a first-rate amateur downhiller who was once hired to test the runs at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail. But his friends agree that Sheridan's tragicomic flaw is that he's really happy only when barreling down the toughest terrain--double black-diamonds on Vail's back bowls, mostly--and that he never knows when to quit.

In 1976, for example, Sheridan finished a run after a spill thrust a ski tail into his face and pulverized his cheekbone. The following year, after smashing his collarbone, he skied the rest of the season with one pole and a shoulder brace. His nearest near-death experience occurred in 1978 during an annual Vail medley relay called the Great Race, a "multidiscipline" team competition in which he handled the inner-tube leg. After applying ten bars of ski wax to his tube, he blitzed down a bumpy slope, hit a mogul wrong, sailed into the air, and belly flopped onto another mogul 25 feet downhill. The impact ruptured his spleen, and during the helicopter ride to a Denver hospital doctors lost his pulse four times before finally reviving him. Half his blood had to be replaced.

In 1991, Sheridan took a tumble that shattered his tibia, fibula, and knee into 50 pieces. Unbowed, he returned from rehab in late 1994, promising himself that things would be different. Alas, they weren't. In a spill last February, he snapped his left leg cleanly below the knee. Even so, talking as if he were living a bad country song, he vows to press on. "If it wasn't for bad luck," he says, "I'd have no luck at all."

Biker, bleeder, needlepoint buff

Steve Tilford has suffered big in both of cycling's main arenas. As a top amateur and professional road racer from 1975 to 1990, he broke 14 bones, sustained what he claims were "dozens" of concussions, collected acres of scabs, and in 1985 was nearly killed in a collision with an automobile during a race. Now, as a professional mountain biker, the 35-year-old Tilford has, accountantlike, accepted the fact that wipeouts are a part of doing business. Hence his signature gesture: Tilford is the only racer on the pro tour who cuts out the middleman and carries his own suture kit. "I've never finished a race without blood on me somewhere, so this seemed like the way to go," says Tilford, who adds that he's suffered "hundreds" of gashes and puncture wounds.

Tilford realized the need for self-doctoring after a 1993 World Cup mountain-bike race at Hunter Mountain, New York. On one particularly hairy descent, he hit a tree root and somersaulted over his handlebars, flying 45 feet down the mountain into a pile of rubble. He ripped open an elbow, shattered his helmet, slashed his forehead, and suffered a concussion. After retrieving his pretzeled bike, he loaded up to drive to Philadelphia for a road race the next day. On the way, he stopped at two clinics and two emergency rooms but was unable to get anyone to stitch his still-trickling wounds. "They were too busy with life-threatening situations, so I was low on the priority list," he says. The next day, a race doctor in Philadelphia finally patched him up--and gave him his first suture kit and some do-it-yourself tips.

Now, after particularly bad spills, Tilford cleans his wounds, injects them with a local anesthetic, pulls out a sterilized needle and sutures, and starts making like Betsy Ross. Although he's offered his services free of charge to other racers, no one will come near when he waggles his needle. "It's really not that big a deal," he insists. "It's like cutting butter. My one rule is never above the neck. Only doctors get to touch my face."

Time's a-wastin'. Where are my new legs?

On February 6, 1994, Sergeant First Class Dana Bowman, A member of a U.S. Army parachute team known as the Golden Knights, was practicing a maneuver called "the diamond track" over Yuma, Arizona. The precision dive called for Bowman and his partner, Jose Aguillon, to jump simultaneously at 12,500 feet and float a mile apart before switching directions and then flying toward each other to execute a dazzling crisscross. With smoke brackets attached to the men's boots, the maneuver would form a red diamond visible to the air show audience below. "It's difficult," says Bowman, "but the crisscross always has an impact on the crowd."

The partners jumped and split apart. Then Bowman made a pinpoint turn, pulled his arms to his sides, and started hurtling toward Aguillon head-first at an estimated speed of 150 miles per hour. But instead of the planned near miss, the two men slammed into each other. Aguillon died almost instantly. Bowman's legs were ripped from his body--one above the knee and one below, with the billowing smoke bracket still attached to his left boot. The impact caused his chute to open, but he landed unconscious and face-down in a parking lot. A helicopter sped him to a hospital in Phoenix, where doctors patched him up.

Only six days later, Bowman--a muscular Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based Green Beret who apparently has little patience for lollygagging--was loudly demanding his release so that he could attend Aguillon's funeral. After two months, when infection had not cleared from his left leg, he ordered reluctant doctors to remove two additional inches so that he could get on with his recovery. I hated the wheelchair," he recalls with a mutter.

He then spent 17 frustrating weeks fumbling through eight subpar knee sockets and several pairs of ill-fitting prosthetic legs at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before visiting an artificial-limb expert in New York. There, Bowman secured a cutting-edge pair of shock-absorberlike legs and several "high-speed flex feet" made of lightweight carbon fiber. In August, just six months after the accident, he was jumping with the team again at the wedding of a friend. He then used a video of the jump to persuade Pentagon brass to let him back in the service--making him the only double amputee ever readmitted to the army.

Today, the 32-year-old Bowman, whose medical bills totaled $250,000, is diving with the team again. He can also switch to different pairs of feet to run, bike, ski, and dance. "I really like to two-step," he says, "so I have a pair that fit into my cowboy boots."

Paul Kvinta, a frequent contributor to Outside, was once nipped on the ear by a chameleon during a Boy Scout camping trip.

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