The Fall in Zion
To almost die is to be reborn. Some of us have it happen too often for comfort. Somewhere, not too far from where I stood deep in the slick-rock chasms of Utah’s Zion National Park, a boulder tumbled and crashed into a ravine, shattering grey stone into shards like safety glass on impact and adding to the scree pile littering the base. The crack and crash slowly echoed up the sides of the canyon and made me involuntarily crane my neck from it’s already dangerous place to try and see.
My rock climbing shoes with their thick rubber slipped on the stone underneath, but I caught myself from a fall without ropes, without help. This slippage was nothing new, as the evidence all around the bottom of these ravines suggested time and erosion has always been present and natural. Time and erosion are the only truths and constants these canyon walls can depend on.
The strata of sandstone in Zion tells of tens of millions of years of buildup, upheaval, and destruction with the world we see now as just another in a line of changes, a link to the past inked on the walls for us to read. Geologic changes and boulders slipping are nothing but the trimming of dead cells to these canyons. Shallow seas, deserts, rivers, all added to and taken away from the soft stone leaving their marks like signatures carved deep into the flesh of the earth—a geologic calligraphy visible from space. It’s a way of saying I was here and even more so to say I am always going to be here, somewhere in the background.
Explorers hike these canyons each year. Inevitably—though not often—some die deep in the heart of the park and are usually found (though sometimes it’s quite a while until discovery) and the park and erosion and time are somehow to blame. They sit on the lips of the family of those lost. But for those who almost die, a piece of the park is carried under the flesh and into the bone, sand deep in the subcutaneous places deep enough to affect DNA. It builds up from all the spaces we almost die creating osseous layers under the skin until it works its way free of the constraints of the human vessel, an armor of experience and stupidity.
I have always been interested in geology, and when I used to rock climb daily in Joshua Tree National Park clambering up pockmarked surfaces, my interested was piqued. Arguably, I got too excited about geology at times, my attention wavering on the task at hand when I was hanging of cliff faces a hundred feet off the ground, often without ropes. It’s not normal for a young twenty-something Marine infantryman to love geology, but strange things are possible anywhere. But the strange stones have always been flowering oases of beauty to me, crystals and geodes jutting from the faces, huecos and pit marks telling stories no person would remember.
Back in the early 2000s, I was stationed in the Mojave Desert while in the Marine Corps, and besides climbing, drinking, and watching unhealthy amounts of pornography there was little to do in the time off. I bouldered the great granite mounds in Joshua Tree almost every evening, my fingers quickly hardening and tearing on the protruding quartz crystals, the pads on my fingertips ripping on the glass-like rock. I sport climbed up the volcanic faces of New Jack City near Barstow, and bummed around the bars and the traditional climbing spots in Bishop. I drank with bikers in Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown bar hidden in the shadow of the San Gorgonio mountains. Each place added a strata of experience as pebbles lodged into my body.
In March of 2006 I had just returned from my second tour of duty to Fallujah, Iraq. It was a rough one as the bullets pounded around us and the shrapnel from roadside bombs peppered our vehicles. I cringed in my makeshift cover while sweeping killing zones with my rifle, swearing I’d embrace a quieter and easier life if I made it home.
I was done with war.
My first tour to Al Anbar in 2004 was early enough in the war. We were one of the first units after the invasion forces left and the Iraqis were still mostly happy we were there. Our interpreter, a former Baghdad University professor told me stories of torture and killings as he nursed his withered arm and explained the dark thinking of the old days. Hearts and minds. That’s what we were told we were accomplishing. And perhaps we were, then. The tide quickly turned as Marines who were promised war grew bored and insurgents flooded Fallujah and Ramadi’s streets, blending in amongst the surprised locals. They said it was a Jihad—the older locals just wanted them out. It wasn’t good for business or their families. But, they came and made war on us, and we fought back, trained by youth and boot camp to racially profile and to hate the other, the animals who made the desert their home. Quickly (though not as quickly as I would like to admit), my idealism and patriotism wore thin as the tatters of my uniform became sandblasted under hundreds of patrols, ambushes, and offenses. By 2006, I just wanted peace. I wanted a life outside, a life surrounded by the sweet tang of Douglas fir and cedar.
Back in the barracks in Twentynine Palms, California with my two tours behind me, my unit prepared for a three-day weekend and I racked my brain as to the best way to take advantage of it. Too often, long weekends meant liquor, hazing, and lazy hung-over days and loud busy nights. I was lounging on my bed while an episode of Cops played on the TV. It was one of the many episodes that was set in King and Pierce Counties in Washington, and my roommate, Slavins treasured those episodes that brought him an inch closer to home, even if it featured criminals. I was perusing a back issue of the magazine Climbing and saw Zion showcased as a rock climbing and hiking paradise. For the previous seven years I had been obsessed with climbing and contrived to do so whenever I had the opportunity.
I quickly settled on going. The park was several hours away from base and just outside Las Vegas. I gathered all my gear and—with the help of the magazine spread out on my government issue wool blanket—I planned my route. I got up and looked over some maps online seeking out an older, less-traveled trail.
I have always hated crowds; my time in Iraq skewed that aversion, making it worse, but I especially hate them while hiking, fishing, or hunting. This peculiarity is so frustrating that I will often scrap a trip entirely if I see overuse. But this trail I saw and read about had promise. After telling a few friends my plans—which I am positive were promptly forgotten as soon as I walked away and they cracked another beer and saluted my raised eyebrows—I hopped into my SUV after evening formation around five and drove into the endless desert, desperately hoping for adventure, or even a bit of misadventure should it come along.
I arrived at the park gates around ten after a long and caffeine-fueled night. As I slowed down at the gates, the clink of energy drink cans announced my arrival. I went into the park and found a pullout. My car had a distinct advantage over many other SUVs. The back seats folded level and the bed gave me a comfortable yet snug six feet of room. Stretching out, I felt warm and safe. Following several deployments and countless nights sleeping under a ground sheet waiting my turn to spend hours watching a desert road for long awaited bomb makers left me skittish in tents or other sleeping systems open to the air. After only a few hours of excited sleep, I got up at first light and drove out looking for my trail. I had coordinates written down on my map and had measured out where the trail should be. After driving back and forth a few times in the general area, I found my mark.
The entrance to the trail was overgrown and filled with blown-down trees and remnants of past floods, a wet winter just on its way out. It looked fairly treacherous and ominous as the dead scrub pines and juniper let off a scent similar to gin as I brushed past them on my way in along the hidden path. This was just what I wanted. On either side of the trail, sandstone cliffs jutted up in terraces leveling out at the tops of ancient pines.
Over 250 million years had passed since the upheaval that created Zion. As water rushed through the canyons those years were remembered in the geologic remains mapped out along canyon walls where the sandstone had slowly broken down, helped by granite boulders and various other detritus careening down to the lowlands. Over time, the lithification of sediment compacted into layers of varying hues of red, brown, and yellow that consistently stun the millions of visitors to the park. It’s amazing how we drive and walk by strata of stone and calcium that took millions of years to create, yet we give it a moment’s glance in between road signs, other cars, and the needs of the day. The earth’s geologic changes mean nothing to us in relation to our pettiness. Though I consider myself an observer, I have to remind myself to care about the world that is so beautiful and so unyielding to our suspected needs.
I began walking, carrying all I would need for a weekend trip. I had all these objects organized into a new pack that gave me the freedom of easy movement but maintain the ability to carry a lot. I love wandering on my own. I blame my penchant for recklessness exploration and adventure from watching Indiana Jones. He seemed to make it easy to run into a situation without thinking of the consequences. As a kid in Idaho, I would watch Indiana Jones and run into the forest to find buried treasure, scrape my knees, earn a few bruises, and not worry about reality. But if I ever meet Harrison ford, I may kick him right in the sac.
Winding through the slot canyon I took my time jumping over water rivulets as spring run-off kept the trickles alive. I poked my nose into pools of water to look for aquatic bug life, and lifted rocks and waterlogged logs to find insects and mice. I had fun slot canyoning, climbing over boulders, and jumping over and wading through pools of murky water. It was childish exploration at its finest. After deployments of hiking, wearily, waiting for the enemy to pop out from behind a building or canyon and shoot at me, it took a surprisingly short time to get back in the frame of simply hiking without fear. If something were to attack me, I’d die in a happy place.
I followed an old stream bed. It led me up on top of rocks and down into little rainbow colored canyons—the sandstone showing eons of history through layers of multicolored majesty and mystery. After two miles, my trail petered out and I was left with a dilemma. Do I go back and deal with the potential groups of people on an adjacent trail, or continue to find my own path through the solitude and shifting immortality of my sand specter neighbors? I was more than confident in my ability to stay un-lost in Zion, even with no trail. After all, there was only one way to go now: up. The trail seemed to continue after a climb of ten to twenty feet. I tightened my shoes and stretched my calloused fingers, the cold rock feeling comfortable as I found holds and pockets on the wall face. My feet splayed out to chimney—a climbing technique where your feet act as a camming device between two close walls—and I made my way up almost too easily.
As they say: “pride cometh before the fall.”
I was right. The trail did continue, and I kept walking feeling very proud and cocky. Little did I know at the time, it would become quite the obstacle on my way back.
I stopped at a particularly beautiful, clear, and deep a pool to have a beer and some trail mix. I thought about the upcoming deployment. I had just returned from my second, but given the fact that the war was going to continue into the unprepared future, I knew another deployment was creeping up on me. I knew my number would eventually come up and I would be forced into a body bag if I continued this way. I know that sounds dramatic, but when one watches their brothers die and get wounded all around them, positivity and optimism don’t come easily. I couldn’t see my way out of the problem, and I wanted nothing more than to see a solution. This was partly why I went into the wilderness. There is a clarity of mind that is only available when surrounded by the smell of wet pine and the silent hooting of owls moving from one tree to another.
I continued a few more minutes until I broke out of the canyon into a sloping valley of brown cliffs, the bottom of the valley riddled with smashed boulders of granite and weathered sandstone. The slick rocks above me had waterfall trickles cascading down them in miniature cataracts that competed with the wind for a hushing white noise. Above me was a vein of granite that stuck out of the face by a foot or so. It seemed, from what I could see, that I needed to go all the way up to the top. My map told me there was a trail at the top, so...
I decided to climb the vein.
I can laugh about it now. When I tell the story to friends I laugh when I tell it. I chuckle because given the chance in my never ceasing obliquity, I would probably do it again—this time with gear and a partner. The cliff went up at an angle of about sixty to seventy degrees for roughly two hundred feet, and between my experience soloing slab faces like this, and my sticky approach shoes, I knew, not felt, that I would have no difficulty.
There are defining moments in all our lives that indicate whether we have brains or a useless mass of grey matter occupying the hole in our domes. This was the latter. I started climbing and immediately began to get that rush of fear and excitement I always get when climbing. It is a burning and tingling of all the nerves in my body. It’s the feeling that keeps me coming back to climbing over and over again. I love the adrenaline, the tingle, and mind tightening fear. Ten, twenty, thirty feet up, no problems. The vein of protruding crystals still looked good and I told myself out loud, to make it seemingly official, that I would stop as soon as I saw the vein peter out. But by then, I was sure I could scramble to the top and walk away to find an easier way down. It was a plateau, after all.
The inevitable happened sooner than I would have liked. I found that I was starting to run out of hand and foot holds. I am sure that you know, reading this, what was about to happen; but on that wall, I was as oblivious as could be. I watched the world around me through a tunnel vision only seeing the top and that which was immediately around me. I was inexperienced and naive. I thought I was being careful and watchful. I missed the foreshadowing that was starting me in the face like an Odyssean fall from grace. I got myself in that classic conundrum that surprises us all at least once in our lives. I found that I could neither move up, nor down.
I can’t begin to explain to you how I got myself into this. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in starting in the first place. I can imagine the safe and surefooted (and self-righteous) shaking your collective heads, saying things like “Damn idiot! I could see it coming a mile away.” Or “What a dumb ass. How do you get into a place you can’t move from?” Well, your indignation is well-founded, and when I tell the story to groups of friends there is almost always a look on someone’s face that silently asks how I could have been so stupid.
I was about a hundred or more feet up and out of luck. So, instead of dwelling on my misfortune and misadventure already playing out, I decided to do what any good, young, and dumb Marine would do: push forward.
There is a saying that Marines run toward the sound of gunfire. I ran towards the whispering of stupidity. I scouted the rock around me and found a little tree stuck into the rock about five feet to my right and a ledge that connected to the vein farther on. This poor little tree. I still don’t know how it was possible that it was growing out of the cliff, let alone it being possible that my mind would jump on the idea of attempting to grab for it. I guess when we are panicking and try to rationally weigh our options, we inevitably choose the worst one.
I grabbed for the tree. And slipped.
I imagine that the fall looked like a Looney Tunes scene. My body was suspended for the briefest instant before my body fell
My feet had slipped first, and I tried to steady myself by reaching out my hands to grasp the sandstone. It was just long enough for one of those comic Ha, I did it! moments before all hell breaks loose and you might as well keep laughing because there is really nothing else to be done. Except I didn’t keep laughing.
I don’t remember much about the fall itself. There are only a few things I remember before crashing into the base of the cliff. First, I seemed to be doing the YMCA the whole way down, not just with my arms, but with my legs as well. Second, It was as if I was watching myself in third person. I remember this vividly: it was like in a dream. I saw my limbs flailing wildly, my eyes tight shut, and how very far down I had to go.
I went and went and went...
I found out earlier in my life that when I’m truly in a panic or shrouded in a dark primal fear I want nothing more than to get the incident over with, but yet time conspires against us. Not only does time slow down to undoubtedly show contempt for our petty lives and problems, but it almost seems as if it stops entirely. This phenomenon only happens once in a while—no more than once or twice in the average life. I have experienced it twice so far. Once on my first combat tour to Iraq when bullets were flying all around my head as I was pinned down behind a stone for no longer than ten seconds...or an eternity.
And time stopped when I fell. For a moment that seemed immeasurable, as time laughed at me and I had no choice but to push through it.
Eventually, the cogs bit into each other and began their usual and inexorable ticking again. I hit the bottom. I slammed back to earth with my back against a large boulder, my backpack absorbing the impact. I bounced off the rock and lay face down, breathing in red dust. There was only one outcome from the fall: I hit my back hard and felt sure I must have broken it.
I laid there, no air my lungs, and moaned loudly trying to catch my breath. It had to come, or I would die there above a little forgotten slot canyon, only to be found when my bloated waterlogged body washed out onto the road after weeks or months trapped under a blowdown. I shouted in desperation. I had to catch my breath. I must. I would. Eventually air entered my aching lungs and I laid there breathing shallowly.
It was time to test whether I was really paralyzed. I slowly felt for my toes and tried to will them to move. First the left foot wiggled and flexed stiffly and slowly. Then the right foot. The toes would not move, though, and it was sheer agony to attempt to move both feet. Knives made their way up my leg, flensing me all the way. So, no paralysis—not full, at least. I sighed with relief. Maybe I would not die here.
In the Marine Corps., the goal is to become trained not only physically, but mentally. In fact, there are few schools of mental preparation quite like the Marines. No other branch can compare, and the mindset created lasts much longer than the duration of enlistment. It seeps into the consciousness and becomes muscle memory. Gingerly, with much heavy breathing and wincing, I rolled over and sat up against the rock that had just broken my fall. I took off my backpack slowly, trying not to twist or move much. I opened the top pouch to take out the first aid pack. Looking at my feet I saw that my left shoe was still on, but my right was bare. It was beginning to swell up and was metamorphosed into a mass of throbbing torn meat. The toes stuck out at odd angles and it was already at least twice the size as it should be. Blood oozed in thick rivulets and dripped in long tendrils to the dust. I took out my medical bag and wrapped my foot in bandages, if for no other reason than to cover up the mess. When I bent over to touch my toes, my hand shook and I caught my breath as a pinching pain shot into my back and up into my brain. My knees wouldn’t bend so I had to endure this awkward posture as I gasped for breath.
My left leg had a hole torn in it about the size of a nickel, and I could clearly see my tibia through the hole. From the hole to my knee, there was a line that was bubbly and lumpy and stretched the skin in places, distending it sharply out like little flesh-colored mountain peaks. I had no feeling in my lower left leg, but no bleeding had started here, so I put it lower down on the list of importance. Moving up, there were all manners of cuts and scrapes on my legs and hips, including some deep lacerations and blue bruises surrounding both of my knees. They flexed unwillingly but were already becoming stiff. I knew that I needed to get up and get going or I wouldn’t be able to move at all. I forced the rising fear down to finish assessing the damage before making another blunder. As I moved upward, I noticed there was more bruising around my thumb and first finger on my right hand. I was worried that I had broken my back or some ribs; but more than that, for the immediate, I was worried about my head. If I got a concussion on the way down—which was certainly possible, if not probable—I was in a bad state. It was all that much more important to get out of here and get some help.
I steadied myself on the rock and stood up on my left leg. It was wobbly and numb but somehow could take the weight. I tried to put some weight on my right foot too, but one step in I heard, rather than felt, the grinding and crunching of bone on bone. I collapsed in a white-hot sheet of agony. I screamed out in pain and everything went black.
When I regained consciousness the panic came again, but was somehow forced down. I would not be able to walk easily out of this predicament. Snow had started drifting down in a spring storm, convincing me that the time to move was now or never. I noticed the dark clouds when I was in the canyon before my climb, but had thought nothing of them. I slunk into my pack and started shuffling off in the direction I had come. Progress was desperately slow. Movement was in inches and agonizing feet as the snow came down in big fat pillows.
I had to get out of that canyon.
I passed the pool I had lunch at, and slithered my way down slopes and bounced from boulders. I found a large stick that had a crook at the top. I used it as a makeshift crutch. My bandaged leg and foot were holding up decently and I kept to my path. Something wet began to creep into my legs. I stopped and looked over them for blood. Nothing new. I felt the backs of my legs. My pants were torn and in shreds trailing behind me.
Two hours in, the snow was accumulating and became an inch or two deep. I had moved about a mile. I thought I was making good time and blessed the adrenaline that was still surging through me, insulating me and making all but the deepest pains unnoticeable.
After about four hours of shuffling, crawling, and hobbling on a makeshift crutch, I made it out of the canyon and passed through the juniper Torii gate.
Looking back over my shoulder, the path I had followed suddenly seemed less inviting and bright than it had before. It was snow covered and dark pressed.
The snow cover was growing but it was warm, and the road turned to slush beneath my feet. I stowed my bag in the backseat of my car and gritted my teeth to hold the pain back. I made my way into the driver’s seat. Panic came in waves around me and I wanted so badly to cry, give in to fear and breathe relief—all at the same time. But I was not out of the park; I had a drive in front of me.
I drove off the mountain and passed the gate. No one was there. I kept on going. I began to feel good with my right foot over the passenger seat and my left using the pedals. It took some getting used to, but I ended up getting pretty good at it. In my mind, I needed to get to Vegas. It was about a five-hour drive and when I thought about it, I knew I could make it. I began to focus and obsess on it. I passed town after desert town and stopped only once to get gas.
Getting out of the car for gas was more difficult since my knees and back had stiffened, but using the same adrenaline that took me through the snowy path, I got out and pumped gas. Families openly stared at my pained face and at my white ass hanging out of torn, blood-stained clothes. If I looked at them, they shrunk into cars and sheltered their kids as if I was asking “Could I kill and eat them?”
I called family, friends, command, and my girlfriend and explained to them that I was going to the hospital in Vegas. I would let them know how it went. My family didn’t believe me at first but then convinced, called family friends in Vegas to meet me out-of-town and drive me the rest of the way. My squad leader, a good friend I had gone to boot camp with and shared both deployments with, flatly told me he thought I was trying to get out of training. (Come to think of it, I probably would have tried to pull something like that!)
Eventually he told me he was on his way down and would meet me at the hospital. Say what you like about the animalism and stupidity of Marines, we are nothing but loyal and thoughtful when it comes to the suffering of our own. He stayed with me even when my dad came down, sleeping in his car out in the parking lot. Even during my surgery he was reluctant to leave me. I had a strange relationship with Zull. We had been through a lot together and it has always been a love/hate relationship. We are bound by war and constantly annoy each other as if it’s a deeply seated ambition. We are both know-it-alls and were at each other’s throats almost constantly in Iraq. Yet when he was needed, he thought only of our friendship and what loyalty meant. Out of all the ideals and ethos the Marine Corps establishes in its members, this is the one thing I miss the most. That unthinking loyalty means the most to me, and is the hardest to find in non-marines.
Four years later I made another drive out to Zion. This time I puttered in slowly from the north, wanting to drive through the park on the way to somewhere else. It was daytime, and I was on spring break set out to visit my old base and one of my climbing friends. I was planning to spend a few days in Joshua Tree soloing and climbing old routes with the same locals as I had before. Before I got to the base, however, I needed to see if I could find the place of my fall.
A part of me needed to revisit the spot and see if it lived up to memory. I think I needed some closure as well. I am not sure if one can have closure with a cliff, but there has always been some level of trauma that has remained long after the surgeries on my foot, the year split between a wheelchair and crutches. While nothing seemed to keep me from climbing, I knew that the result of that fall was years from being simply a story I enjoyed telling. I still felt the knife slitting my leg open as the doctor rammed a tube from the puncture wound up along my bone into my knee to irrigate the gravel, bark, and dirt from my newly exposed innards. Really, what I hoped to find, I think, was some evidence that something did in fact happen, and that the world recognized my stupidity. I’d spent years telling the story as my back ached chronically, my knees popped, and my joints ground together after days spent standing at the front of a classroom, teaching high school students. My feet still ached as the bones, brittle now, groaned under my weight. I told my story to new friends and at parties, and I was conscious that with each telling the story changed slightly with time and my poor memory for the details. Only when I put pen to paper, did the tale stop changing. It was only when it became a tangible history that I could look at what it had done to me.
I drove away from Zion that night after searching all day for the spot. I walked up several familiar tracks that petered out randomly, or were blatantly not the right trail from the beginning. I drove back and forth over tracks, all of which seemed like they could be the trail. No dice. The spot where I fell, the trail that led to it had seemed to vanish into the undergrowth, a secret memory I was allowed to access only once.
Maybe it’s better that way. Who knows if I could have escaped it again.
Paul Warmbier lives, teaches, and writes in McMinnville, Oregon. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho where he also served as Associate Nonfiction Editor for Fugue. He writes essays based on place, trauma, and the value of craftsmanship in our new world of replaceable and throwaway objects. He is a writer, high school English teacher, custom furniture maker, and co-founder of the Dauntless Wine Company.