Why People Return to the Sports That Nearly Killed Them
On going back to the mountains after a traumatic accident
On June 24, 2016, Kendyl Wilcox, 21, and Andrew Herring, 22, were climbing in Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. Herring was mentoring Wilcox in trad climbing. It was the second day of their trip, and Wilcox had felt confident and comfortable on every pitch. Around midday she tied in at the base of a 5.8 route called Barndoor. Wilcox casually climbed the first 15 feet of featured, low-angle quartzite to a walkable ledge without placing any protection. From her stance on the ledge, she set a nut in a hand crack above her head and worked her way upward. The summer heat was sweltering, the rock slippery, and the moves began feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
“The crack started thinning out in a way that, at the time, I didn’t know how to climb,” Wilcox said.
She got her hands crossed up in a sequence that she couldn’t reverse. Herring, belaying 30 feet below, could see that she was panicked and prepared himself to catch a fall.
“I think my feet slipped, and I don’t really remember anything after that,” Wilcox said. She swung down and hit the wall just above the ledge, but the nut that was holding her fall popped out of the crack. She tipped over backwards, plummeting headfirst toward the ground, falling 30 feet without a helmet on.
“I remember stretching out my arms, and we both hit the ground,” Herring said. “I immediately tried to stabilize her head as much as I could and started screaming for help. I could feel blood running down my arm.”
A group of teenagers hiking on top of the cliff heard Herring’s shouts and ran to the road to call 911. Wilcox was in and out of consciousness. When Herring asked her who the president was, she responded, “Ronald Reagan.” Forty minutes after the accident, first responders were on the scene, and an hour after that, Wilcox was transported by helicopter to the hospital at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Herring gathered up their bloodied belongings, drove back to their campsite to clean himself up, and called Wilcox’s family members to tell them what had happened. He spent the next two days sitting at her bedside in the hospital, listening to monitor blips, taking notes as doctors explained her injuries, and continually retelling the story to his injured partner, who would periodically wake up and not know where she was or what had happened.
“I think my feet slipped, and I don’t really remember anything after that.”
Wilcox had a hole in her right knee the size of a quarter, a fractured skull, and swelling in the brain that was so severe it caused damage to her pituitary gland, which regulates nutrients to the body. But after two days, she stabilized and was discharged from the hospital and went to stay with family near Ann Arbor. However, because of the damage to her pituitary gland, her sodium levels dropped to a lethally low level after another two days, and she became incoherent and unable to walk. Wilcox was admitted to the ICU at the University of Michigan Hospital on June 28. After five days, she came to, her condition improved, and she was moved out of the ICU. Finally, on July 4, she was discharged from the hospital.
It took Wilcox two months to fully recover from her physical injuries, but she suffered from severe headaches every day for the next six months. Her long- and short-term memory loss proved to be the worst of the damage, and it was nearly a year before her memory returned to normal.
Yet despite the physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by the accident at Devil’s Lake, both Wilcox and Herring were climbing outside again that autumn.
Adventure sports have a storied reputation for killing or severely injuring their practitioners. But people continually come back to the activity that put them in touch with their mortality. For Wilcox and Herring, climbing again was never in doubt. However, returning to a sport after a serious accident usually requires an athlete to adapt their identity.
In a 2018 study of skiers and snowboarders who took up their sport again after suffering spinal-cord injuries, Andrew Stephens, then a graduate student at Prescott College in Arizona, observed that athletic identity was not fixed but rather an evolving perception. Subjects for his study came from the High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit organization in California that supports athletes suffering from traumatic spine and brain injuries. The 28 participants Stephens looked at overcame psychological barriers of these life-altering accidents by redefining and reintegrating themselves into the outdoor community as adaptive athletes.
For most participants, the biggest hurdle was accepting their new best, according to Stephens, who is now the school and community-groups manager for Sierra Nevada Journeys, an outdoor-education organization. “It’s so important not to compare prior life to life now. It’s recognizing that there is a new norm and accepting that,” Stephens said. Learning from the events that took place, especially if the accident was the result of an individual’s mistakes, and adapting behaviors are other aspects crucial to a person’s psychological recovery.
“I felt a lot of humility about how great I thought I was at rock climbing. Falling hurt my pride and still does,” Wilcox said. “But I’ve learned this lesson in a hard way, and I’m not going to let it go to waste. I’m going to continue to rock-climb and make myself a better and safer climber.”
Trauma-inducing experiences like accidents in the mountains can trigger anxiety or flashbacks associated with the events, symptoms typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even thinking about the activity that injured a person can stir up those fears. That said, returning to outdoor sports can also help accident victims overcome the psychological fallout resulting from their ordeal.
“You know, quitting crossed my mind,” said Herring. “But whenever it would, it was followed by, Well, if you stop climbing, then you let this thing win. You let this traumatic event beat you.” For athletes recovering from a serious injury, going back to the sport and having a safe day in the mountains helps shed the anxiety associated with it.
Wilderness and adventure therapy are becoming common methods used to treat a variety of mental and physical health conditions, including acute stress disorders. According to a 2015 study from the University of New Hampshire on the effects of adventure therapy on stress and coping skills, “In adventure therapy the novel setting or experience makes an environment rich for assessment opportunities and the positive use of eustress supports the belief that change occurs when people are placed outside of their comfort zone.” In other words, outdoor sports can have a healing effect on patients, helping an individual learn to manage a moderate to normal level of stress. Just being in nature can improve a person’s overall well-being.
Wilcox, Herring, and many of the athletes in Stephens’s research felt that climbing or skiing again was a cornerstone of their psychological recovery. They reexamined and redefined themselves as athletes and used their evaluation as a way to come to terms with the mistakes that led to the accidents, vowing to be safer, more prepared, and more present while in the mountains. By returning to their sports, they also proved to themselves that they are still capable athletes, maintaining that integral aspect of their identities.
“The simplicity in that moment, when you’re up on lead and all you have to do is just climb, that is why I went back,” said Herring. “All I have to focus on is this, not on all these worries and fears and anxiety and triggering thoughts and trauma—all you have to do is just climb. That’s the way to recover, to be back and understand why you love it in the first place.”