Late January and early February brought weather that would have made the Iceman do a jig. Unfortunately, not everyone is as graceful on a sheet of ice and he is. I grew up in Maine and have learned how to walk on ice on flat, hilly, and uneven surfaces. But sometimes you walk on ice, and sometimes it - SLIP! THUD! CRACK! OWWWW!!!
I sat on the sloping entrance to the driveway. My left ankle remained straight up, as if I were still standing, and the rest of my body was crumpled on the ground to the right. I knew I had heard a crack. Was it broken? It had to be. Ankles don't crack if they aren't broken do they?
The last time I had slipped on the ice was two winters ago, and that was walking down the stone steps of my apartment building. My feet came out from underneath me and my airborne back landed on the sharp edges of the stairs. I have never had back problems in my life, but my father has and his pain never seems to fully subside. Thirty-three years old was not the age where I wanted to start having a lifetime of back problems. I was lucky that it was only a muscle spasm. My good doctor and his prescribed relaxants made the problem last less than a week.
But this was different. I was convinced that I was done. Climbing for the winter was over. I was going to have to shut down completely for at least six weeks. Walking on ice with two good ankles was hard enough let alone with a cast. But even as those cruel thoughts shot through my brain like pulses of pain, I had a more immediate concern - how to get someone's assistance on the empty street, because you can't walk on a broken ankle, right?
I waited a few minutes, and when the pain seemed to subside, I pulled in all the hope I could muster that it not a break but a sprain instead, and stood up. I took one limp forward, then two. Pretty soon I had limped to the corner. Fifteen minutes later and I was standing on the subway platform praying for an open seat.
I went climbing later that week believing that if my ankle was broken then I surely wouldn't have been able to walk on it. It hurt like hell when I torqued it, and so I said that I'd give myself two weeks of rest before climbing again. I could live with that. Two weeks of rest would surely beat six weeks in a cast. I kept telling myself that it was only a sprain, and that time and rest would take care of it. But then I went climbing again near the end of February, it hurt still, and so I went to a doctor. The diagnosis was clear: high and low ankle sprain, recovery was two to three months. I learned that it is possible to walk on a broken ankle, too. I was dumb to have not seen a doctor sooner.
- Phone: ring, ring, ring...
- Me: Come on...
- Phone: ring, ring, ring...
- Me: Answer the phone...
- Phone: ring, ring, ring...
- Me: Come on man! Answer the damn pho-
- "Jello": Hello?
- Me: Hey, what's up?
- "Jello": Not much, just at work. You?
- Me: Oh, slowly killing myself via spreadsheets. You know, living the dream...
- "Jello": That sucks. So what's up?
- Me: So this trip to Moab...
- "Jello": Yeah?
- Me: So you remember when I told you a couple of weeks ago that I slipped on the ice?
- "Jello": Yeah?
- Me: Well, I'm out for a couple of months.
- "Jello": Yeah?
- Me: Yeah, so that means I won't be climbing for the next couple of months.
- "Jello": Uh-huh.
- Me: Yeah, so...
- "Jello": So I was thinking the last week of March to early April. Does that fit into your schedule?
Two hours later I had purchased a round-trip ticket not into Salt Lake City, which is closer to Moab, but to Denver instead (near where "Jello" lives) for a Thursday, March 26 flight. That's me, the gimp with a high and low ankle sprain, flying four hours to Denver, getting picked up in "Jello"'s, erm, old and rickety?, car and driving six hours to Moab. Did I mention his car has problems?
Despite the frustration of being injured, and as my annual work project slothed into March, I was looking forward to the trip. I knew that by taking this trip I was putting myself into a very difficult situation at work; meetings that were normally difficult to schedule were going to have to be squished even more than normal, and late nights were going to be later. This isn't one of those projects where the work can be spread out over time. Instead, regardless of when the work is done, it has to be done before certain deadlines. I was going to be taking seven work days out of the process where five days is often the difference of a half percent of a few billion dollars. Despite this, I started telling folks on rockclimbing.com sometime in early March that I'd be out there. I knew one guy in particular, "Sungam", who was on a one-year rock climbing tour of the U.S., was going to be in the Moab area at the same time, and so I told him that "Jello" and I would be climbing with him. He was excited to meet us, and we were also looking forward to meeting him. Life was good.
- March 15 - I call "Jello" to start talking about gear. He mentions that his friends want to go to Joe's Valley instead of Moab, so that means an extra three hours of driving on top of the flight to Denver and the drive from Denver to Moab (so about 13 hours altogether). I tell "Sungam" that we aren't heading to Moab. He asks for a ride. We aren't sure if we can give him a ride. He starts making plans to head to Joe's to meet us.
- March 17 - I learn that Joe's Valley has a lot of bouldering. Bouldering has never been kind to me, and I'm even more leery with a sprained ankle. "Jello" considers this and tells me that he'll get back to me.
- March 18 - I look at my frequent flier statement and realize that I have 127,000 miles. It's 15,000 miles for a one-way upgrade to first class. With all this flying and driving, I figure the extra comfort will come in handy. United Airlines tells me that they can bump me up to first class for the flight out, but that I'll need to be put on a waiting list for the flight back. I'm OK with that.
Things are starting to line up pretty well considering the changes in plans, my ankle, and work. Work is at its full thrust of pain, but it is so numbing at this point that I hardly notice. It helps that Boston's shivering winter is lingering into spring. The temps are colder than normal, we've still got ice on the sidewalks, and we've had snow recently. Good weather would certainly make this more difficult.
But even so, my ankle is getting better from physical therapy. I'm going a couple of times of week right now, so you'd think that would be expensive. Well, it is to a certain degree. My work place participates in financial savings accounts (FSA), account where one can set aside health care costs tax free. I have money in my account, both from 2008 and 2009, so I'm spending it this way. Still, I'm in no shape to climb.
- March 19 - I confide in "Jello" that I don't think my recovery is coming along fast enough. My ankle is still sore, and it feels weak, even after several physical therapy sessions. I ask him about aiding, and he mentions it is much better on the ankles than regular climbing is. This gets his head spinning with ideas.
- March 20 - "Jello" calls to tell me that we aren't going to Joe's Valley anymore. I'm relieved because I wasn't looking forward to the extra three hour drive and the pressure that I'd be putting on my ankle. Instead, he mentions that his girlfriend, "Iowa", has friends in Vegas.
"How about Zion and Red Rocks for a few days?" he asks.
"Sure," I say, and then he tells me that Zion is another two to three hours farther than Joe's would have been (except in a different direction). "Great," I say, "I can't wait for a 15-hour travel day. Since "Iowa" is going, and since her car is normal compared to yours, can we at least take hers?"
"Jello" considers this plan and tells me that he'll get back to me. I tell "Sungam" that we're going to Zion, and that we can pick him up on the way. He is ecstatic. And oh yeah, we toss out the idea of hitting Red Rocks in Vegas. That's only a couple of extra hours from Zion. Why not? Actually, the better question is, why didn't I fly into Vegas to begin with again?
- March 21 - "Jello" e-mails me and says that "Iowa" doesn't want to put that kind of miles on her car. Bummer. Since she can't drive a stick, it looks as if the drive time is going to split between he and I. This also sucks because we're going to have 10 days worth of gear for three people in the car, and his car is smaller than "Iowa"'s. "Oh yeah," I say, "and we're picking up "Sungam", too."
We've also started talking about my first aid-climbing experience. While we've been warned that Zion isn't the place to learn, that kind of thing has never stopped us before. In fact, if "Jello" wants to cross a pond full of hungry alligators then he'll find a way. This seems less imposing than the alligators, but we admit that we'll likely be very, very slow and how we'll probably need to spend the night on the wall. He starts looking around to borrow a port-a-ledge, we both start looking at purchasing a haul bag, and he starts thinking of ways to make belay seats if we can't find a ledge. I'm actually excited about this, and so is he. "Sungam" can't wait.
- March 22 - "Jello" calls and tells me that "Iowa" isn't happy about us spending the night on the wall and, thus, leaving her alone in the campground. Zion is out. We're heading to Moab where the towers are smaller. "Sungam" is even more excited about this because now he doesn't have to move anywhere. He'll already be in Moab as originally planned.
- March 23 - "Jello" and "Iowa" are negotiating the terms of the vacation. She may not be going now. That means we can go to Zion after all. "Sungam" is OK with this. He was kind of looking forward to doing a wall anyway.
This day is also the first day of back-to-back-to-back meetings at work all day all week. I basically arrive at work, head straight to a series of meetings that don't end until the end of the day. I then go back to my desk and spend several hours in the evening getting ready for the next day's meetings. I'm also taking time to get ready for the back-to-back-to-back meetings I'll have on the first day I get back from vacation. And I still need to fit one more day of physical therapy in somehow.
- March 24 - "Iowa" wants to go after all, and we can take her car if we go to Moab. This means we can split the driving between the three of us. "Sungam" says, "Cool, I'll see you in Moab."
My last day of physical therapy is strong. I do well in all of the exercises, but when it comes time to pay I'm flabbergasted. My FSA credit card is denied. I wonder how this can be and become very stressed because I know there is an up-coming deadline for using this money. I pay with cash and walk out somewhat frustrated.
- March 25 (the day before I leave) - "Iowa" is sick and may not be able to go. I ask when they'll know if she can go and if they'll still be picking me up from the airport and heading straight to Moab. "Jello" isn't sure, but the plan is to still leave right from the airport. I tell "Sungam" that Moab vs. Zion is a game-time decision. We may not know what our plans are until we get there. He's fine with whatever we do. I believe this is a good attitude to have.
I manage to steal a free moment at work and call my FSA company. They tell me it denied because I ran out of money. I tell them I'm confused because I had money left over from 2008. I had until March 31st to spend that. They realize there is an accounting error on their part, and they didn't give me credit for having spent that money. I tell them that starting tomorrow I'll be out of cell phone reach until after the deadline. They tell me all is well. I'm nervous, but I document the phone call and choose to believe them. My flight leaves at 10am the next morning and arrives at noon in Denver. It's the perfect flight itinerary, and so I'm focusing on the good things instead of the bad.
Finally, the end of the day arrives. I'm packed, fed, and starting to relax. No more work for 10 days. This is going to be good, whether we end up in Moab, Zion, Alaska, or Fiji. I check my flight status. All is good. I get an e-mail from Travelocity and figure it is my final confirmation for my flight. Just to make sure, I click on the link and read this:
- "Below is your confirmation. We're sorry, but one of your flights could not be confirmed. Below is your entire itinerary:
- Sat, April 4: Leave Denver at 4pm and arrive in Boston at 10pm"
"Um," I think to myself, "where is the flight from Boston to Denver?" This can't be. I mean, seriously, I fought an ankle sprain, I fought work, and I fought my FSA benefits company. I'm going on vacation tomorrow. I'M FLYING FIRST CLASS!!!!!
- Phone to Travelocity: ring, ring, ring...
- Me: Answer the phone
- Travelocity: Please listen to the entire menu as our options have chan-
- Me (hitting zero repeatedly): Fuck your options
- Travelocity: transferring you to an operator
- Operator (with a thick, non-English accent): Hello, how can I help you?
- Me: Yes, I had a flight from Boston to Denver tomorrow at 10am, is that cancelled?
- Operator (after taking my info): I have a flight at 7am would you like that instead?
- Me: Was the flight at 10am cancelled?
- Operator: I can do 7am if that works for you.
- Me: I don't mind the 7am flight, but I want to know what happened to the 10am flight first.
- Operator: I don't have a 10am flight.
- Me (slightly more annoyed than I was when I opened the e-mail): Was it cancelled?
- Operator: Hold on sir, let me check something.
- Travelocity on hold: Did you know you can check the status of your flight on line, just go to...
- Operator: Mr. Burns, I do not have you for a 10am flight, but I can do 7am if you'd like.
- Me: OK, look. I want to know if the 10am flight is cancelled. I spent 15,000 of my miles to get an upgrade to first class. I don't want to lose that.
- Operator: You want to buy first class on the 7am flight?
- Me: NO! I can't afford that. I had upgraded. UPGRADED!
- Operator: Do you want me to upgrade you to first class on the 7am flight?
- Me: I want to know what the hell happened to my miles that were spent to upgrade on the 10am flight!!!!
- Operator: Hold on one moment sir.
- Travelocity on hold: We'd like to let you know that changes in flights do happen. We're happy to work with you when this happens but we can't always guarantee...
- Operator: Mr. Burns, did you make changes to this flight with the carrier?
- Me (a light finally goes off in my head): Yes, I called United and upgraded using my miles.
- Operator: OK, well, I don't have a 10am flight. Do you want to book the 7am flight?
- Me: Is that my only option?
- Operator: I can send you to the actual carrier if you'd like.
- Me: Yes please (oh God, yes, yes, yes please!)
- United Operator: Hello, Mr. Burns?
- Me: Yes, hi, I had a 10am flight that was upgraded to first class. I just want to make sure that I still have that flight and my miles or the upgrade.
- United Operator: Yes sir, I can confirm you for first class at 10am on the 26th. Did you also request an upgrade for the return flight?
- Me: I did, but I was put on a wait list.
- United Operator: OK, sir, I can confirm that you have been upgraded on your return flight, too. Have a nice flight.
I turned to the window and looked out. It was raw - twenty degrees with a wind chill down to zero. The bare trees were shaking as the wind whistled past. The desert sounded so warm. Mid fifties in the shade would be fine for me. I was happy to be leaving this stress, this cold, this world. If I didn't already know that I could never live in the desert then I'd swear at that moment I'd never come back.
- March 26 - It was cold again, but the trip to the airport was easy. That might have been because of my state of mind, or it might have been the easy travel time. I didn't care. Once I was on the plane, it was only four hours to Denver, and six hours to sunshine. Unfortunately, things don't always work out as hoped. We missed the the runway in Denver on our first landing attempt due to this:
Denver was in the early stages of a white-out blizzard, and I was on one of the last planes to land. "Jello" drove up to the curb in his beat up car alone and I figured "Iowa" wasn't going. I also had heard that I-70, the road from Denver to Moab, was a serious pain in the butt during bad weather. Driving his car in this mess wasn't going to be fun.
He told me when we got out of the car that we weren't heading to Moab that day due to I-70 being closed. We'd have to wait until the next day, and even then the drive would be an adventure. "Great," I thought. "All this way to get away from winter and stress, and I land in a fucking blizzard."
Stayed tuned for Part Three coming soon...