Wendy Ong is the only person to have fallen nearly 200 feet (70m), survive, go on to rock climb, ice-climb, and ski at high levels with a T-10 Spinal Cord Injury; survive sepsis and climb her hardest trad route as a paraplegic (5.12- Cloud Tower, Red Rocks, Nevada) a few months later; ski her way across North America; and be the only para to ski, ice-climb, and rock climb in the space of less than ten days. Her schooling at Stanford, Yosemite, and mountains all over serve her well as she continues to pursue her outdoor passions around the world, manage work and life with a disability, and live a life worth living. You can find her at wendyong.org
September 22, 2017 · by C. J. Leger · in Mountaineering, Notable People, Rock Climbing. ·
This month, the star of the end of our September month is Wendy Ong, a Spinal Cord Injury survivor who has defeated the odds and continued to pursue her passions of climbing and skiing some of the most difficult passes. Wendy gives Base Camp Magazine and its readers a glimpse into her life, telling us how she was injured and how she overcame her greatest tribulation. Without further ado, here’s “The Road to Self-Discovery” by Wendy Ong.
Eben and I topped out on Cloud Tower (5.12-), a route considered one of the best of its grade in the country, as darkness was setting in. The last few pitches were particularly spectacular, with the classic Red Rock setting on one side of the tunnel-through, transforming into a totally different ecosystem that could have come out of an Indian Creek scene. Quick selfie and then the rappel descent – by the light of an iPhone, since one of us dipshits forgot to bring her headlamp – followed by what felt like a very long reverse approach back to the vehicle. For a lot of climbers, getting on, completing and safely coming down from such an amazing route would feel pretty darn great. For me, it was a much bigger deal.
“What happened to your knee?” This is the most common question people ask when they see my knee brace, limited use of my left leg, and lots of pogo-ing, high-steps and contortions with my right leg in the climbing gym or out on rock. When I am skiing on one ski, wearing one ski boot, the question is “Are you training?” My response is usually brief. “Yeah, I was in a bad climbing accident and my left leg is mostly paralyzed now.” But that is just one tip of this iceberg of a story. This article reveals a few more points, but if you want to know about everything below the waterline, you’ll have to ask me in person.
My introduction to climbing came by way of ski mountaineering. Once the ropes started to come out, I figured it would be sensible for me to learn how to actually use this gear. I quickly got sucked into the world of Yosemite Valley rock climbing and other trad climbing areas in the Sierra Nevadas, Idaho, Wyoming, and British Columbia. The clear goals of a route or of even a single move were a welcome respite to the other uncertainties in my life. I loved seeing beautiful places from high up and from different perspectives, and I loved the climbing lifestyle and the strong friendships that develop between partners and climbers. Climbing was a pillar in my life; it was my home.
In October 2010, this pillar was smashed – literally and figuratively. I accepted an invitation from Bob, a route-setter in my climbing gym for a weekend of sport climbing in Owens River Gorge. My climbing had been almost entirely trad, so switching up styles was an interesting prospect. I assumed that since he was an older gentleman, he would be an experienced and safe climber. As I found out the very hard way, this was not the case. From the beginning, I was a little bothered by how quickly Bob wanted to get back to the ground, and I rejected some of his suggestions that seemed unsafe. But I continued to climb with him because I was his partner and committed. On the last day of our three-day trip, I got on a rope stretcher of a route, linking two pitches together with a 70m rope.
I belayed Bob up to me; once there, he asked to be lowered to the first belay because it was too far to one side to rappel to. Bob would then lower me to the first belay, with me clipped to the strand of rope he was tied into. I lowered Bob, but with the wind and river running in the gorge below, it was difficult to communicate with him. I hung out at the top belay for ages until I was sure he must have reached the first belay and was ready to lower me. Still clipped in direct to the anchors, I tested and tested the rope, leaning back repeatedly and feeling the rope tauten between us. But the rope didn’t join us; for reasons that still escape me, Bob had decided to untie from his end of the rope. Certain that Bob had me, I unclipped from the anchors, leaned back – and then free-fell nearly 200 feet to the ground. I didn’t hit anything else on the way down.
A lot of people imagine that their life will flash before them as they hover between life and death. My thoughts were not so profound. It was, “Oh shit, I’m falling.” What likely saved my life was that one end of the rope coiled around my left leg about 40 feet from the top, momentarily breaking my fall, and perhaps, orienting me so that I landed on my pelvis instead of on my head. While it saved me from brain damage, my pelvis and spine took the full impact and crumpled like the hood of a car. Two nearby climbing parties, which included trained medics, likely also saved my life. I kept telling myself, “Don’t close your eyes Wendy, don’t close your eyes.” The intensity of my will to live surprised me. A fraught evacuation effort ensued, and I still vividly remember the unspeakable pain I felt as I was transported on a flat-bed pickup truck with no suspension to the waiting ambulance. I begged the paramedic for morphine, but he had to refuse me until he could get into cellphone range of a doctor. As I got the first dose, I thought of soldiers in Vietnam – and why people get hooked on this stuff. The first hospital I was brought to was not equipped to deal with the severity of my injuries, so I was air-lifted to the trauma center in Reno, Nevada.
It was only months later when I read my doctors’ notes that I realized just how close I had come to death. The first few surgeries needed to be stopped at one point because I had lost too much blood. My friends later told me they were not sure if I would make it through the night. I still have these discharge notes, which is one of the only things I kept as a reminder of this period. The surgery to crank the broken parts of my pelvis together and collect the collection of pebbles I now had instead of a sacrum was especially brutal.
My fall left me with a T-10 Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), fusion of nine discs, a cage instead of an exploded vertebra, a paralyzed left leg up to the low waist, all the SCI issues around broken internal plumbing, and a lifetime of chronic pain. The discipline I developed from years of sports and training made me approach occupational and physical rehabilitation as strict training that had to be done to the greatest extent possible. I applied a laser-like focus to getting through my surgeries; learning basic things like how to shower, how to go to the bathroom, dress, and try to get out of the wheelchair I was confined to. Basically, trying to live as an independent adult again. But unlike an able-bodied athlete, the outcome was not directly proportional to the extreme diligence and effort put in. Staring at a limb, trying your hardest over and over again to get it to move a centimeter with all your neuromuscular willpower, and not seeing it budge is extremely disheartening. The unpredictability of how my body will react to certain things still frustrates me.
The process of emotional and physical recovery has almost broken me multiple times. My identity as a physically strong and mentally tough independent woman, climber, mountaineer, and all-around, hard-(wo)man had been stolen from me and I was not accustomed to relying on others for help. I was astonished at how my accident brought so many friends together to rally around me and celebrate every little milestone, from my very first outing to a cinema and negotiating an escalator, to being able to carry a teacup from the cashier to my table. I remember being so pleased the day I was able to wriggle out of the huge sweatpants I had been wearing for months, and manhandle my leg into a pair of jeans.
Throughout all of this, I had set climbing and the outdoors to the side, trying to tell myself I could be happy leading a more “urban” lifestyle. Without physical activity and sports, I wondered what do “regular” people do on weekends? Sit around all day and brunch?? I had anxieties about traveling, but decided that since my upper body still worked, my first travel experience after my accident would be a self-supported kayaking trip around Kauai. Aside from the beautiful scenery, I learned that I could manage in locations without amenities, like very remote beaches. But kayaking did not fulfill me in the same way climbing did and after a few years, I could no longer ignore the gaping hole in me that ached to be filled.
I had never ice-climbed before, so I decided that would be my first foray because I would be less likely to hold myself to a previous standard. One ice-climbing weekend in New England turned into an ice-climbing trip to the ice-climbing epicenter of Ouray, Colorado a fortnight later. A month after that, I decided that I had to find out if I could climb on rock again, so I bought an airline ticket to head to Yosemite. My first attempts at climbing, in particular, sucked, as I struggled to use my new body. Multiple climbing trips out West soon followed and finally, I overcame my self-consciousness and joined a nearby climbing gym. For a while I wore a sneaker on my left foot, but I decided that climbing would be the best rehab for my left leg, so now I wear climbing shoes on both feet. The deal I strike now with climbing partners is that if they carry the heavy gear to the climb, I’ll lead any or all of the hard pitches.
Skiing came back into the picture later because I thought there was no way I would enjoy skiing if I wasn’t wetting my pants staring down a narrow 50-degree couloir. I decided to give it a go, and in the space of a few months went from linking a few turns on the bunny slope to being on heli-skiing standby in Alaska. I ski on one leg, wearing a ski boot on my right foot, a snow boot on my left foot, and clipping my left foot to my waist with a carabiner and quickdraw to get that foot/leg out of the way, especially in deeper snow. And I don’t balk at the steep stuff – Alta Chutes on one ski in shitty conditions, anyone?
Some people express amazement that I am climbing again. But given how integral climbing, skiing, and being outside are to my identity and sense of well-being, I felt like I almost did not have a choice in the matter. But of course, one always has a choice; from deciding whether to do that extra set of rehabilitation exercises to risking “failure” and trying to climb or ski again. I could have decided not to fight my family’s vehement, but understandable, objections; or overcome my initial fears of rappelling and leaning back at an anchor again; or decide to get back up every time I am knocked back down again.
Strength and fortitude are very individual qualities, and the issues I deal with are deeply personal and can be very isolating. But it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the invaluable support I received, from friends and strangers alike. I find it very easy to feel like a small, insignificant speck in this universe; so I was amazed by the outpouring of support from so many people when my accident happened. Even when I was lying incapacitated in my hospital bed, I knew I wanted to thank the people who helped with my rescue, but only if I could do so walking towards them and not seated from a wheelchair. One particularly rewarding and emotional moment was when, almost five years to the day, I met one of my rescuers in Tuolumne. Our first encounter since the day of my accident began with a very long and emotional hug in the parking lot of the Tuolumne grill. Climbing together in the High Sierras for the next few days made our reunion all the more poignant.
I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself if my accident changed me. I posed the question to a close friend who said, Well, your circumstances have completely changed but you’re approaching things in exactly the same way the old Wendy would have. So… no.
Some changes, to different degrees, are attributable to my accident, just getting older, or a bit of both. My perspectives on time, what it means to be in good health, and life/death have certainly changed and there is a heightened consciousness of issues around disability, mobility, and privilege of all sorts. Perhaps the most important thing I took away was that you can’t have a single failure point in your life, like climbing/skiing were because when that link is broken, the entire person crumbles. I’m still trying to find new things that will engage, fulfill, and maybe even define me. At times, I can be kinder to myself and acknowledge the qualities that got me through my accident and the tough times now. But I still hold myself to the same standard as anybody without a significant physical disability, and my old tendencies toward self-flagellation have returned. I have always had an incredible capacity for empathy but sometimes, having endured so many hard things, pre- and post-accident can make me feel less sympathetic to a lot of people’s complaints.
Nobody – not myself, my friends, family, or doctors – could have imagined I would be back climbing and skiing in the mountains, let alone the breathless pace of my constant travel for it. Not many able-bodied people, let alone ones with disabilities would decide to throw her stuff into her car, drive from the East Coast to ski/ice-climb across the entire North American continent. Or ski and ice-climb in Chamonix, and rock-climb in the south of France in the space of fewer than ten days (multiple Trans-Atlantic round trips included). In the past year alone, I’ve rock climbed in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, France, and Portugal; ice-climbed in the Canadian Rockies and the French and Italian Alps; skied across Canada, the U.S., Chamonix, and South America; and made non-sporting trips to Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean. It is important to me that I am an all-around mountain woman, and not just a gym rat, or a sport climber, or ski racer.
Most people think that the paralysis is my biggest problem. No fuckin’ way. It is all the other unpredictable issues that come with having an SCI.
or example, my SCI indirectly caused another near death from acute renal failure and septic shock last year. Some of these issues can be managed and do not take too much of a toll on your psyche; other issues and conditions arise or worsen over the years, and these are the ones I have the greatest difficulty with. The time and energy that goes towards dealing with this stuff quickly depletes a person’s reserves, no matter how large the reservoir is. But even small triumphs, or a moment of serenity on a rock ledge, or realizing my story had an impact on someone for the better can help replenish my tank. And so I will keep working on gratitude, human connections, and pursuing the outdoor adventures, grand and small, that nourish me and make me feel so alive and at peace with this world.