Digit Stories

Editor’s note: In Mountain Gazette #173, I put out, via a Smoke Signals column titled, “Digits,” a call for stories that were, in some way, finger related. To say that I was inundated by a tsunami of verbiage is an accurate observation. When I put out that call for digit-based mountain stories, or mountain-based digit stories, I was expecting a half-dozen or so, 100-word-ish glib recollections about blisters being born while chopping firewood. What I got instead was several dozen submissions totaling tens of thousands of words. I was flummoxed, so say nothing of organizationally challenged. I’ve spent the past several months trying to figure out how to best package and present even a small percentage of that sierra’s worth of syllables. I’ve considered dedicating an entire issue to the Digit package. I’ve considered just punting the whole notion and sending the sagas off to MG’s online editor, in hopes that he can find a way to post them en masse. I’ve considered pretending that I never put out a request for Digit stories in the first place, or pretending that no one responded. In the end, I’ve decided to start moving them into issues of the Gazette as room allows, thus spreading them out, much like the fingers on a person’s hands when he holds them up and shouts, “No mas!”

The Finger on the Barn

It was there when I moved here. Down by the Roaring Fork River, just past Woody Creek. The Woody Creek. Gonzo Country, or so I hoped. It was painted on the roof of a barn, plainly visible from the highway — a rigid 20-foot middle finger aimed at everyone who passed by. I figured it was targeted at tourists, and maybe for newcomers like me. Later I heard that it was directed at an ex-wife.

After the state expanded the highway, the barn was harder to see, obscured below a four-lane concrete butte, beyond the wide shoulder and over the jersey barriers that keep us all safely moving in the proper direction. I could only see the roof when traveling in the right-hand, down-valley lane, and only then from the passenger seat. I believe the property had changed hands at least once. The paint had faded and was repainted at least once. I heard that the barn was torn down recently, something about the unsafe condition of the barn, or maybe it failed the standards for the highest and best use of valuable real estate.

Perhaps it was a practical joke milked well beyond its twinkle. Maybe it was a grudge borne out long past the initial insult. Could be that it was an effort to buy some local bona fides for the cost of a coat of paint. Now it is just another a roadside attraction succumbed along the mag-chloride autobahn. Res ipsa loquitur.
— Malcolm McMichael

My Left Little Finger

I had been cut many times before, with no lasting ill effects other than scars. But this time I would regret my casual attitude to what was happening to me. It’s not that the injury was my fault, exactly. I haven’t heard of another like it, before or since. There was no anticipating it, or trying to avoid it.

I had been an avid rock climber for some dozen years or more, and had hit a plateau at about 5.10d Sport, 5.11 Top-rope, 5.9 Trad. Don’t know what any of that means? Every popular pursuit has its own lingo, to make non-participants feel excluded, and climbers are a particularly excluding bunch. Such stats are based, in this country, on a standard called the Yosemite Decimal System, but, despite its name, that standard is not itself based on decimal numbers, since it includes letters, and it maintains that 5.10 is higher than 5.9.

Whatever. I can say that mine was not a very impressive plateau. Much better than what a novice could do, certainly, but barely a warmup for a serious climber. I knew there would be few promising avenues for improvement as my 40s wore on. I could think of only three. I could drop some of my 200 pounds; even at 6′ 3″, that is a lot of weight for a climber. I could improve my flexibility, perhaps my weakest climbing trait. I could also train more seriously, instead of showing up at the crag or the gym once or twice per week and hitting it like a weekend warrior, my feet scrabbling like the Flintstones under their car and my hands over-gripping like John Lithgow watching a gremlin on the wing.

While waiting for motivation to develop along any or all of those three avenues, I was always on the lookout for an advantage of some sort, a mental or physical trick that would allow me to climb a harder route without actually being a better climber. A bigger chalk bag. Better shoes. Different shoes for different climbs. Different food before the climb. Various resting techniques. You get the idea. My favorite such technique, and one that I invented independently (of the other million climbers who also figured it out) is what I call “slothing”.

Our hands are complicated, with any number of tendons connecting bones in the fingers to bundles of muscle down in the forearm. Climb near your ability limits, and those muscles soon tire, those fingers soon release. But, this same complexity can offer opportunities to grip using different sets of forearm muscles, thereby providing some relief to the most-used muscle sets. The most-popular such technique, called “crimping,” is central to the rest of this tale, and is described later.

Another such technique is slothing, in which, rather than gripping a climbing hold (let’s say in the shape of a doorknob) with your fingers, pretend you don’t have any fingers. Wrap your palm, or even just its medial side (the part you used as a kid to deliver a karate chop) over or behind the hold, extending from the side as if you were wrapping it around the back of someone’s neck as they faced you with bowed head. (If you have ever watched a tree sloth climb at the zoo, you’ll understand where the name comes from.) Some good friction results from the large surface area wrapped over the hold. More importantly, the muscle set that holds the palm in this position is different enough from the muscle set that causes finger gripping to allow a rest for those poor fingers.

So there I was, in a bouldering gym down in Austin, slothing my way up what was for me a pretty tough climb. This particular gym had been designed with a high, very steep, but nevertheless very safe bouldering wall. In climbing terms, “very steep” means well beyond vertical, that is, overhanging, like climbing the underside of a ladder. The inspiration at this gym was to have a padded slope running parallel to the wall some six or eight feet below it. Normally, a boulderer, not being protected by any rope, could safely climb only some dozen or so feet off the ground, depending on the quality of the landing site, but in this gym, the boulderer could keep climbing, and a fall from high up would only mean a pleasant slide down the pads to the ground.

Alas, I must admit, I was not on that inspired high wall when the accident happened. I was in some nondescript corner of the gym, maybe two feet off the ground, wrapping my left hand slothfully around a sharp hold. A very sharp hold. Then I fell off. I probably cursed, then shrugged, then headed to the drinking fountain. But, I noticed that I could no longer curl my left little finger into a fist with the others. There was no pain; the finger simply would not respond to mental commands. And it stayed that way, sticking out constantly like a 17-year-old’s erection.

I did visit the emergency room in Austin. They were mystified, but I waited a few days for my return to Colorado to decide what to do. Taped to my ring finger, the pinkie caused little trouble, and untaped I could actually still type with it. This was my little finger — on my non-dominant hand, at that — so how bad could the outcome be? Little fingers are barely strong enough for a good nose-picking, to say nothing of an ass-scratching, and climbers are seldom called upon to use them much. It didn’t seem necessary to find a doctor who understood climbing and climbers.

Back in Colorado, my primary care physician was of course clueless, but the hand surgeon to whom I was assigned did his best to explain what had happened. Each of the fingers has three bones, and generally speaking one tendon is attached to each of these bones, and each of these three tendons is connected to a different set of muscles in the forearm. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the bone out in the fingertip and the entire finger will curl in towards the palm. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the lowest bone, near the palm, and the entire finger will fold down while staying straight. (This was apparently what I was doing when typing with my hurt little finger; that lowest tendon had not been affected by the accident.)

Then the surgeon’s explanation entered familiar territory. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the middle bone, and the finger will fold about in half, with the outermost two bones staying straight as they fold down. Now, this I understood, as I did it nearly every time I went climbing, knowing it as the crimping technique. It is probably easiest to see with the index finger. Count the knuckles on the back of that finger — one, two, three — then bend the finger only at the middle knuckle. Probably, you can pull half that finger down to about a 90-percent angle, while the other fingers remain motionless. (Hands vary, and it may be harder to do this with the other fingers.)

In serious rock climbing, the tendons going out to the fingertip bones usually do most of the work, but climbers have learned to use this crimping technique to rest those fingertip tendons and the muscles that contract them. To get a feel for this crimping technique, put the finger pads (the spot where fingerprints are taken) onto something like a climbing hold, for example the top of your head. Make all the fingers of that hand be bent only at their middle knuckles, roughly 90 degrees. The outermost knuckles, out by the fingertips, should be straight or maybe even a little hyperextended, that is, bent slightly in the opposite direction to which they usually bend. Exert a little pressure downwards with the arm while holding the pressure with the fingers.

In this crimping configuration, the tendons going to the middle bones do most of the work, giving a rest to the fingertip tendons. By raising the middle knuckles a bit higher than the fingertips, it may even be possible to wrap the thumb over the top of one or more of the fingertips, further strengthening the grip. While a powerful and popular technique, crimping can, if overused, damage the outermost finger joints, which may be too delicate for this kind of reverse stress.

The hand surgeon went on to explain that not all little fingers actually have three tendons. Sometimes, they only have two — one going to the fingertip and one going to the lowest bone, leaving out the middle tendon. In my case, he pointed out, after feeling my hands, I had been born with three tendons in my right little finger, but only two in my left, not an uncommon thing, strange as it sounds. And, in my left little finger, the tendon going out to the fingertip had broken, leaving intact only the one going to the lowest bone. I could swing my whole pinkie down to type, but couldn’t curl it into my fist, because the single tendon it had ever had for curling down was broken. I had apparently never been able to crimp with that finger, not realizing it because the three middle fingers are the important ones for crimping.

Feeling around my poor little finger, the surgeon announced that he could palpate (why don’t doctors just say “feel”?) the broken tendon half an inch or so below the fingertip. It must have broken away at the fingertip, he said, which is where they always break. Of course, he often encountered hands and tendons cut through by table saws and the like, but that was not the case with me. And, he said, by way of giving me good news, since the tendon had not pulled down too far, he should be able to reattach it.

There were a few questions left unanswered by this analysis. Why had the tendon broken away from the fingertip? Why had it not pulled away farther than half an inch? Why had it not hurt at all? In fact, the surgeon seemed very surprised to hear that it had not hurt, since tendons that tear away from the bone generally hurt like hell.

But I didn’t pay any more attention to these nagging issues than he did. As I said, I had been cut many times before, 10 or 12 times in fact, and had always come out OK. I was saved from a short, frail life by open-heart surgery at age five (atrial-septal defect), from a life without climbing by shoulder surgery in my 30s (distal clavicle resection), from a life without running by surgery on a broken leg (spiral tib-fib, from which I still sport a dozen pieces of internal hardware) and from a life without snow shoveling by back surgery (discectomy with laminectomy). This was only my left little finger. Did I really need to be saved from a life without drying out my left ear?

Such thoughts went through my mind as I waited to be wheeled into the operating theater. I had been told that I would be conscious throughout the surgery, and I liked that idea. If the surgeon had to make a decision of some sort — stitches or staples? — I would be there to put in my two cents’ worth, giving me the perception, however flimsy, that I was in control of the outcome. This turned out to be a flimsy perception indeed.

For anaesthesia, I was given a Bier Block, which sounds out loud much funnier than it reads. In this technique, pioneered a century ago by German surgeon August Bier, a tourniquet keeps a local anaesthetic down in the limb being cut while the patient is conscious. Simple, works great, but only good for surgery that lasts 45 minutes or less. The surgeon thought that would probably be plenty of time, having felt how close the tendon was to my fingertip. But he was wrong.

While it was certainly not an epic surgery, it did take longer than what can safely be performed with a Bier Block. I don’t know this firsthand, though. I was told afterwards. Despite entering the surgery fully conscious, I have no memory of entering the surgery at all. How this can be is fascinating, if a bit disturbing

Afterwards, it was explained to me that, at the start of a Bier Block surgery, the anesthesiologist prepares for the possibility that the surgery might take too long. They do this by giving the patient, in advance, the equivalent of a date-rape drug. But, this drug will only become fully effective if they want it to, which they control by giving the patient more of the drug, or another drug, at a later point in time. The upshot is that the patient sits there consciously through the surgery with the Bier Block, but if the operation runs too long, the anesthesiologist twirls a dial on the IV machine and thereby not only puts the patient out for the remainder of the surgery, but also erases the patient’s memory back to the time that the surgery prep began.

Memory is an odd thing, and consciousness is another odd thing, and they are related in odd ways. For example, I have often had the experience of waking up a couple minutes before my alarm goes off (even if the alarm is set at an unusual time) and hearing or even seeing the alarm go off a minute or two later. I used to think that my awesome body clock just knew to wake me up at the right time. Taking into account the fact that one can have a memory of having been conscious, or not, depending on something that happens later, another possibility presents itself. Perhaps a person often lies there in the morning in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking, such that anything that might happen to make him or her fully conscious (such as a loud alarm going off) would cause their memory of the last several minutes to be locked in and available to them in their fully conscious state. According to this explanation, it wouldn’t much matter when the alarm went off, and your awesome body clock would having nothing to do with it. If you were in this nearly waking state, and the alarm went off, you would conclude you had been awake for some minutes, but if the alarm did not go off, you would never have a memory of having been awake during that time — and therefore, you would later conclude you had not been awake. Just as I would have concluded about the Bier Block part of my surgery, had I not been told otherwise.

I was not told whether I was conscious when the surgeon changed the plan

The plan had been to reconnect the tendon to the tip of the little finger, whose end the surgeon believed to be only a short distance below that tip. But this turned out to be impossible. The tendon had not in fact broken away from the tip, but had broken a few inches below. The surgeon had been able to feel the tendon up close to the fingertip, because the upper couple inches of the tendon were still attached there!

In fact, the tendon had broken because of my slothing technique. I had wrapped my left hand in an ungainly fashion around a particularly sharp hold, with the result that the tendon had been pinched between that hold and the bone in the knuckle at the base of my left little finger, and had broken at that spot. It had not hurt because, well, tendons do not have pain sensors along most of their length. (In my admittedly non-expert opinion, this absence of pain, reported during our initial consultation, should have been a clue to the surgeon that his hypothesis about where the tendon was broken might be wrong, and he should have called for imaging before planning the surgery.)

So, the tendon was broken a few inches down, near the base of the finger, and actually more shredded than broken cleanly. The surgeon made an incision near that spot, trying to match the scar that would develop to one of the creases in my palm — a neat trick, that, I have to hand it to him for that one — and was able to observe the top of the tendon hanging from the fingertip. The lower part, unfortunately, was not to be seen. When a tendon is broken or cut, there is little to keep the muscle from contracting to its fullest, pulling the tendon along with it.

The surgeon made another incision down near the base of the palm, where these finger tendons pass through a sort of bottleneck. No tendon end there either — and this scar would not be hidden so well as the upper scar. Finally, an incision several inches down my forearm turned up the end of the tendon — and this scar would look like the result of a suicide attempt were it not for the accompanying suture marks.

Never mind that, but it turned out that the tendon end was shredded so badly, and pulled down so far, the surgeon despaired of reattaching it. The plan would have to be changed.

One possibility would have been to take a piece of tendon from elsewhere, the back of one of the legs say, and use that to replace the shredded tendon in the hand. I was told later that the result of that procedure would probably not have been satisfactory. Nevertheless, I would certainly have chosen it if I had been given the option, which I wasn’t, at least so far as I remember, which I don’t because my memory was effectively erased.

The new plan actually chosen by the surgeon still sounds crazy to me, to be honest, but it does have a good track record. Needing a tendon for my little finger, the surgeon decided to reroute a tendon from the finger next door! Yes, the tendon that used to connect to the middle of my ring finger on that hand now connects to the tip of my little finger. To pull my left little finger into my fist, I have to think about pulling my ring finger down using the crimping technique described earlier. No kidding. Sometimes, with a table-saw accident, they will actually reroute that or another middle-bone tendon to the thumb, so that, to grasp anything, you have to think about pulling a certain finger down with the crimping technique.

How does this work out in practice? In my case, so-so.

My left little finger is certainly less flexible than it was, and has a reduced range of motion. I cannot pick up a handful of M&Ms without losing some out the bottom. But, some of that is the nearly unavoidable result of the buildup of scar tissue inside the hand, and some more is no doubt due to weak efforts at rehabilitation on my part.

A worse problem is that the coordination of the little finger with the rest of the hand is out of whack. I am not a musician — luckily — but I used to enjoy plunking on a piano, and now my left little finger often curls down at the wrong time. I might never play a Scott Joplin rag well again. On the other hand, typing, which requires no fine control of volume or timing in which multiple tendons might become involved, still poses no problem.

What about climbing? Sometimes, I find the left little fingertip rubbing against the wall when the finger should be laying flat against it. At such times, the ring finger is on a hold that the little finger does not reach, and when the brain says to pull on that rerouted tendon, thinking it is still connected to the middle bone of the ring finger, whoops, there goes the little finger being pulled down toward the palm. There is however some consolation for this problem. That left little finger is now quite strong at pure gripping, being connected to muscles that used to control a much bigger, stronger finger.

But hold on just a minute, you say. If the little finger is stronger than it was, but one of my tendons was broken and never repaired, having been left to waste away down in my forearm, shouldn’t something be weaker? Yes, there’s the rub. My left ring finger, which used to be a dependably strong crimper, now cannot crimp at all. It no longer has a tendon pulling on its middle bone. Not only can it no longer crimp, it is generally weaker, having one fewer tendon than it should, as well as less flexible, being itself full of scar tissue. Not to point the finger of blame, but the surgeon robbed from Peter to pay Paul, or in my case, robbed from Ringer to pay Pinkie. (Truth be told, the surgeon did an admirable job of executing the surgery — he just picked the wrong of two options for a climber — and he does deserve a pat on the back for his skill.)

Ironically, if I were an elite climber, this might be less of a problem. I say this because one of the world’s top climbers, Colorado’s own Tommy Caldwell, actually lacks a fingertip or two since a table-saw accident some years back. How he continues to climb at his level is a Djangoesque wonder that I can only rationalize by imagining that the holds he uses on his sick climbs are so small they only accommodate one or two fingers anyway, and he still has a couple good fingers left on that hand.

In my case, I need as many fingers as I can marshal, and as many tendons, and now I’m down one (actually two, since I started life with only two tendons in my left little finger rather than three). But I have accepted the hand I have been dealt.

In fact, this setback has given me some motivation to pursue the improvement avenues that I had neglected for so long. I have lost a dozen pounds in the last year. I recently invested in a home-training wall. As for flexibility — OK, I won’t lie, I still haven’t done anything about that. Maybe after my next accident.
— Richard Allen Berg

My Left Middle Finger

My left hand middle finger saved my life. If not for that finger, I would have walked to my death.

One look out my window that morning should have told me not to bother. After a late start to the winter, the night before had seen a foot of snow dumped on Woodland Park. What had previously been chilly sunshine was now pristine white. And I was going to climb something.

I’d been in town for a couple of weeks. Every snow squall until now had abated in a couple of hours, and pretty much thawed by afternoon. I thought today would be the same. So I set off for the mountain.

This mighty, groundbreaking trek I was to attempt? Pikes Peak, one of the most-visited mountains in America. Every year, half a million folk make it to the summit. Half a million! That’s more people than live in Denver. There’s even a road, a railway and a cafe at the top, for goodness sake. So, pretty straightforward, right?

I can count a fair few things I did wrong that day, but chief among them is going alone on terrain I didn’t know. This wouldn’t normally be such an issue — of the 500,000 that reach the summit, 15,000 do so by foot on the trail I was using. By averages, I should have been accompanied by at least another 40 folk. If I had a mishap, someone would be within shouting distance. In fact, the place was deserted. I had the entire mountain to myself all day.

No help, no backup, no footprints to mark the trail. I lost and re-found the trail several times in the woods, but above the treeline, in what was now three feet of snow, I lost it for good. Most days, I would have turned back, but the saddle loomed enticingly a hundred yards up the slope, and the low clouds that I had climbed through for several hours cleared to reveal the piercing blue sky that only mountains can offer. I was sure I would see the summit from the saddle and make the traverse in little more than an hour. “Sod it, let’s keep going.”

As I rounded the saddle, the clouds and snow returned in force. It was a whiteout. It’s at this stage my middle finger enters the story. Sheltering behind a rock as I waited for the whiteout to clear, I stocked up on food and water, and to do so took my left hand out my glove. By the time I had the glove back on, my hand was numb. And not like when you plunge your hand into cold water. It might be a bit chilly, but you can still feel the hand is there. No, this was like the tissue was dead. Severe frostbite, in other words.

If I found the summit lodge, this would offer shelter much quicker than returning the way I had come. The only thing was whether I’d find it. A closer, uncertain goal versus a longer, certain one. I figured the trail would follow the gradient of the saddle, gradually traversing upward along the ridge. I couldn’t miss it. In any case, I was still hungry for the peak. I set off in search, smacking my hands together to bring back circulation.

The blizzard was still relentless. I came across what looked like the road to the summit, but the snow made it impossible to tell. By this point, I had trouble opening my mouth as the icicles from my moustache met those on my beard. Slowly but surely, I felt my hand again. For all but one fingertip, that is. It was at this moment that I realized what state I was in. This one digit showed me what was happening to my whole body. I could barely lift my feet. I was exhausted and frozen. And it hit me: “I have get down. Now.”

I turned and headed off the saddle the way I had come. Or so I thought. After some yards down the slope, I hit sheer cliff. I scrambled back and made my way round, before descending again. More cliff, which shouldn’t have been there.

I was lost.

I’m from Scotland. Well over 30 people die on the mountains there every year, in much the same whiteout conditions as I was in. That’s more than Mt Kilimanjaro. The biggest mountains in Scotland are around 4,500 feet. At 14,000 feet in Colorado, the altitude becomes a factor, and it gets even harder to fight your way back up a sheer slope through knee-deep snow.

Eventually, I found a route off the saddle, though where it would lead me, I couldn’t be sure. I prayed that what little sense of direction I still had would lead me the right way — if not, I could be walking for days into wilderness. My phone was long dead.

Though I’d left the snowstorm above me, the light was fast disappearing as I made my way below the treeline again. I followed streams downward — the lower I was, the more likely I’d hit a road. Incredibly, well after dark, I stumbled into the same campground I had started from that morning. Some miles down the deserted road, my white-crusted figure was hit by car headlights. My friend pulled up, having come to look for me before he called Mountain Rescue.

I turned out to be wrong about the frostbite. No part of me fell off, or even stayed a funny color. If not for that middle finger, though, I would have died on the mountain. I’ve since looked at maps and photos of the area. It seems I had indeed come across the road to the top, buried under the snow, but despite being on the saddle, I was still well over two miles from summit.

I would never have made it.
— Rob Sproul-Cran

How not to cross a mountain stream

I’ve mashed three of my fingers in the mountains. My two pinkies move off at unnatural angles, and the top half of the ring finger on my right hand hangs down at about 10 degrees, incapable of straightening to match its middle finger mate. Boutonniere Deformity is the medical term for that funky digit’s appearance. All three were mashed in my somewhat restless pursuit of a life in the Colorado mountains, one designed to spend as much of my free time in the out-of-doors as possible. Two of my three unusually shaped digits were permanently altered above timberline. Two were the result of lapses in concentration, tipping over on easy ground and breaking falls and fingers on both occasions. The third started differently, and arrived at its unusually angular position at a slightly lower altitude, and in a dissimilar manner to its siblings.

The tale of my funky pinky begins on a June day in 2007, near about where the end of spring greets the beginning of summer. I have spent a lot of time on the high ridges of Park and Summit counties. On several occasions, over my wanderings in these high places, I have had the pleasure to overlook the north face of Mount Democrat while that great face was covered in snow. There was never an occasion as I studied that steep and lovely rock-strewn expanse that I did not wish to ascend the mountain and make a ski descent. Wheeler Basin and its surrounding heights had provided me views of the various aspects of Democrat’s north face. On the day before this incident unfolded, I had mounted a short reconnaissance up the trail from Montgomery Reservoir to confirm a line that fell sweetly from a small col on the east summit ridge, very near the mountain’s true summit. There was the small matter of a very narrow passage fairly low down on the face, and from the basin I couldn’t determine the quality of the snow or the feasibility of ski descent through the passage, but the uppers were clearly magnificent. I would resolve that narrow couloir from a vantage point directly above it on skis on descent.

The next day dawned cold and clear, with my beloved Amy and I getting on the trail beginning our climb at a decidedly casual 8 a.m. Delight filled me as I crossed yesterday’s melt water turned to ice by an overnight freeze just beginning to thaw. A freeze at around 12,000 feet was the best of news, ensuring the maximum margin of safety on a slope that could reasonably be expected to avalanche if conditions were wrong. The tourist route to Democrat’s summit is mainly a casual highway, and by 10:30 a.m., we were enjoying the bluebird views from the summit. From there, like a clairvoyant, I was trying to divine the perfect moment that the snow would turn to corn on the longest elevation zone of the face. About one-half hour later, I had either decided the moment was ideal, or had become sick of waiting in the hope of intuiting the inscrutable.

It had been a good year for snow, or the north face would not have been in condition from top to bottom so late in the season. In addition, the ridge between the summit of the mountain and the col I had scouted as my entry to the face was completely snow covered. On the summit, I clicked into my skis, bade my companion adieu to begin her down-climb, and began my descent.

The turn through the col and onto the face was a defining moment for the quality of the descent. East and north aspects are different worlds in the high mountains. If the snow wasn’t pretty firm at the start, by the time I got halfway down the face, it would likely as not turn to deep mush, and dangerous deep mush at that. Luck and fate would have it that, on this day, I had hit the sweet spot. The cold snap that prompted my little adventure had left a thin veneer of breakable ice crystals atop the snow’s surface that had just begun to soften. It was crème brûlée with a delicate caramelized surface.

Lower down, the crème brûlée turned to creamed corn. For at least 1,000 vertical feet, the feeling under foot was sublime. The sustained steep nature of the skiing made what would otherwise be somewhat slow snow continuously exciting. As I descended lower onto the face, the dark couloir came closer and the essential unanswered question of the descent would brook no further delay.

It was, unfortunately, unskiable. The narrows showed evidence of free-running water, washout down to bedrock and conditions too severe to be either descended by skis or on foot. Lugging along a rope on this lovely day would have added unnecessary weight to a heavy-enough pack, so rappelling the narrows was not an option. My only reasonable choice was to cross the mixed talus and scree field to the east, not my favorite mountain terrain, rendered even more distasteful in ski boots. After a short but miserable traverse, I had linked up to an adjacent tongue of snow sticking up from the maw of Platte Gulch.

Once past the scree, it was an uneventfully slow, slushy and low-angled conclusion after the steep face relented and yielded to the gentleness of the valley. Finally, warm temperatures and the loss of altitude conspired, in the way of the warm season’s agents, to turn snow to brown meadows, with the raging Wheeler Creek armored with willows at its center. Crossing the creek was an essential component of my descent, as my reconnaissance from the day before had revealed this as the most efficient escape from the snow-covered meadow on a warm early afternoon.

I attach my skis to my pack A-frame style, boots clicked into bindings and on this day I carried hiking shoes in my pack. My ski boots were filthy from the walk along the creek scouting a reasonably safe crossing, and negotiating the creek with boots attached would be slightly more unstable and dangerous. I put on my shoes, deciding to toss my boots across, intending to follow with my skis attached to my pack.  I would then attach my boots to the skis on the far side of the creek and slog on out.

The first boot sailed long, into tangled willows on the opposite side. Realizing what a pain in the ass it would be to retrieve boot one, I concluded to toss the second boot to a small but lovely flat spot, free of willows, just short of where boot one had landed, and just long of the creek. It was an admittedly tough shot. Taking careful aim, I loosed boot two, an underhanded toss that traced the same delicate end-over-end spin of a horseshoe as it heads for the stake.

A ski boot, unlike a horseshoe, has a foam interior, and that foam protrudes above the hard plastic outer shell at the back of the boot. The English I had put on the toss of boot two allowed it to land (with superb aim I might mention) about two feet past the roiling Wheeler Creek. Unfortunately, it hit foam side down, contacting the ground at the perfect angle to ensure that it bounced and reversed course — directly back at me and into the creek. I never before considered that ski boots float, nor did I have time to consider it as the boot took off downstream at the pace one would expect of flotsam on a runoff-swollen creek.

I never again expect to cross a raging waterway at the velocity at which I bounded across Wheeler Creek in pursuit of my boot. Hugging the narrow islands of ground that had not succumbed to willow colonization, I despaired. I would eventually be closed out, as my beloved (and only) right boot hurtled its way to Montgomery Reservoir. At the nadir of my despair came salvation. My boot had been carried into an eddy, where it gently whirled. Victory! Within striking distance of my errant footwear, the mystery that is moving water merrily spun the boot into the eddy line that segregates the whirling eddy from the main current.

My lunge wasn’t exactly panic. It was the sort of carefully reasoned reaction one would take to reflexively avert impending disaster. It was a lunge, however, and, as it developed, not carefully enough orchestrated. As my arm shot out desperately for the boot, before downstream momentum could overcome it, my right pinky jammed into the boot, and although I made the grab, the damage was done.

Ski boot safely moored, I stuck the finger straight into the creek, and later I harvested some snow to pack around the poor fellow. The first knuckle was swollen large, and the limited range of motion confirmed for me that the finger was injured rather than simply hurt. Boots (two) now cleaned and clicked into skis on pack, and pack shouldered, I walked down to Monty Res to find Amy, she having long-since retraced the ascent route and driven the car around to collect me. Some whining no doubt ensued; me decrying my fate at having such a marvelous ski descent end so ignominiously.

My injured finger healed, after a fashion. It occasionally plagued me throughout the climbing season (it’s a special move freeing an oversized pinkie knuckle from a hand jam). It wasn’t all better, but rather much better, as the aspens graced us with their annual golden display. Again, Mount Democrat lured me to its flanks, this time to climb its south ridge from Mosquito Gulch and over Mount Buckskin.

My pinky was not on my mind as I viewed Buckskin Ridge — its long and graceful line leading from the summit of Mount Buckskin, down into a saddle and then along a lightly crenellated section that gradually swept upward to meet Mount Democrat’s summit. It is a singular feature of our planet, and forms a portion of the generally arbitrary boundary defined by cartographers as the dividing line between Park and Lake counties. Not technically demanding as a mainly second- and third-class endeavor, the more closely one hugs the crest of the ridge, the more interesting the climbing becomes. The technical difficulties ease significantly as one moves ever closer to the summit of Democrat.

I have mentioned that my hands bear testimony to a certain carelessness, perhaps a proxy for clumsiness, when moving over easy ground high in the mountains. I had cleared the crenellated section of the ridge under high clouds late in the afternoon, enjoying the views while still in motion, generally a poor practice. This day on Buckskin Ridge would be another stark lesson in paying attention at all times, not only when a lapse in concentration could lead to a gravity-fueled trip through the air terminating with an abrupt re-encounter with Mother Earth. Down I went, and out shot my right hand. The nearly healed pinky finger of that trusty appendage took much of the energy generated by my fall. The tendon that had nearly healed after the sacrifice made to rescue my ski boot was now completely and irrevocably ruptured. Mount Democrat had finished the job.

Were I to be transported back to that place and time, I would likely change my behavior. I would look down, be certain of my footing and return my tenth digit to the shape and function with which it was initially endowed. That little finger is nearly fully functional. It leans in to greet its neighbor at about a five degree angle at the top joint, the knuckle permanently twice its original size, and its curl into a fist is less natural than its geometry prior to the spring and summer season of 2007. It has traveled with me since to many wild places. We will visit many more, bearing angular testimony to those days of joy and clumsiness and solitude, my oblation to the insatiable quest for ever-greater mountain passages.
— Peter Lubin

Thumbing Home

Thirty-seven years ago, I arrived in Silverton on my thumb (and, yes, the inimitable long-time friend of Mountain Gazette and nationally acclaimed avalanche expert Don Bachman was my buddy). I have been gone, except for visits, for several decades as I raised a family and made a living. Five years ago, I bought a house here and now stay in Silverton year round. Have just about earned a reputation as a local, although many are skeptical, but may warm up in another five or 10 years.

Hitching outside of Ann Arbor a year before making it to Silverton, I was heading off the road at dusk to sleep under a highway overpass when a VW bug pulled over. The woman driving actually got out of the car and ran back down the highway to get us. I believe that her date was either threatening or really creepy. She unloaded her date and took us to her home to spend the night, share food and showers, and otherwise provide welcome hospitality to weary hitchhikers.

That evening, her housemate was showing pictures of a house he bought in an obscure Colorado mountain town for $2,000. We struck up a correspondence and, newly divorced, a year later I rented the circa-1900 “shotgun” house for $20 a month. The next several years of splendid beauty, and exhilarating activities, replaced my hitchhiking sojourns and tied my heartstrings to the mountains.

Now, my thumb is used less for hitching, is a bit wrinkled, features several sun spots, aches occasionally from arthritis, has improved cuticle care but can still clutch ski poles, a shovel and a kick sled. I am fond of and dependent on my other digits, but give my thumb credit for getting me to the Rocky Mountains.
— Alicia Sharp

Thumb Done Wrong

Skiing has been a passion of mine since late grade school. My career in fabrication and mechanics has had the occasional satisfying moments. I had become frustrated in my current position and wanted to advance to the next department. Second shift in that department was my only option, and seemingly, a right of passage by those already working there. I accepted the second shift and the rewarding challenges of that new work cell.

Once I had settled into the new routine at work, we were being blessed with some large and frequent snowstorms. I realized that a few turns should be possible before punching in at work. Loveland Ski Area had that great four-hour ski pass, good for any window of time during the day. I was eager to take this opportunity for a quick adventure.

It was a powder day, low visibility (low wind!) and the middle of the week — what more could I ask for? Snow was dumping from the sky so heavily that the turns and mistakes from the previous run were no longer evident. Riding up the lift with my chin firmly tucked behind my raised collar, I noticed a potentially nice line curving around one of the many sculpted alpine bonsai trees. I turned around on the chair to memorize the route to get to that point. Off the lift, I cleared the goggles and headed toward that blissful scene. I settled into a rhythm of turns, with the tree coming into view just ahead. I paced my next few turns to make sure that final turn of grace through that cache of powder would be timed perfectly. Yes! Made the turn, tree passing to my left.

What I couldn’t see from my lift perch was the drop-off immediately past the tree. I tried to come to a neutral stance to jump down, but it was too late. I fell hard on my left side, creating a deep snow pit. Pulled myself up and out of that mess (making sure I was alone in my embarrassment), brushed the snow out of previously warm spots and recovered my poles. Goggles were caked with snow and worthless for the rest of the run.

My left shoulder was aching and the left thumb was absolutely screaming in pain. The right hand carried both poles down the rest of the run, tucked firmly under the arm. These were no longer turns of grace, but turns to get my sorry ass off the hill.

I knew that thumb needed some immediate attention before I could drive to Arvada and my obligatory second shift. The clinic had a welcome ice pack and suggested further treatment once in town. First aid treatment didn’t include dispensing of the much-needed ibuprofen; the café did. Once at work, I headed to the on-shift first-aid employee. He provided me with another ice pack, additional ibuprofen for later and a congratulatory “good job!” I was more worried about my work performance that evening in a new department than the nagging injury

Assembly of components and gripping a welding gun for the minimum expectation of nine hours a day had begun to take a toll on my hands. This injury wasn’t a welcome addition to ever-increasing joint stiffness. Many years after that injury, the left thumb and shoulder still perform the many tasks I ask of them. There is the occasional ache and even an unwelcome “ouch” moment associated with those movements. A friendly massage of my hands is always welcome.

I’ve skied Loveland many times since that snowy, overcast day. Riding the same lift, I’ve wondered how I could’ve missed the obvious drop-off to the access road.
— Gary Rossmiller


It was because of a trip to the mountains that my wife, Emily, and I finally tied the knot. It was because of that same trip to the mountains that our son was born. Finally, it was because of that trip to the mountains that we were willing to essentially give away our house and jobs so we could get back to the mountains. The ring that I have been wearing on my finger for a little over three years is a constant reminder of that trip and what led up to it.

My hometown had a population of 107. My parents lucked into finding a cheap, run-down resort that had been operating as a hippie commune in the Chippewa National Forest; it was small and run, for the most part, by my parents, brother and I. My parents had taken motorcycle trips across the country before settling down and that urge to travel never left them … so we traveled every chance we got. My family happened to be one of those ubiquitous Midwestern families that show up in Colorado for a week at a time to visit the ski resorts or the trails. We were, however, a family that never repeated trips; we were always visiting different areas in different seasons, so I was at least able to picture the different areas of Colorado, as varied as it is, despite having limited time and a great distance to travel to these places from home. When added together, the time that I had spent in the mountains was already impressive by the average Midwest-to-Mountain-Family-Tourist-Unit standards when my parents decided to take an off-season/late-fall/winter sabbatical to Estes Park.

The township and county I had grown up in was very poor economically and it was a big deal to many kids my age if they were able to get as far away from home as Duluth; my parents, while relatively poor also, were the type of poor people that used their meager resources to travel. This is the sort of distinction that accounts for the very divergent images conjured in educated minds when the word “hobo” appears in print versus the word “homeless,” and this distinction also means a lot more fun and adventure … the positive kind of adventure, not the kind you have when ill-prepared and things are going wrong … although there was that kind of adventure, too … but things are better for the hobo. There was a very peculiar way of thinking among the stationary families. I guess they would be the homeless in my metaphor … hmmm … too harsh — the ones that complained loudly and often about the rut they were in but never really did anything about it. Some acquaintances of mine were somehow unable to understand that the same money they spent in the bars and on cable television could get them someplace new and exciting, if they just held on to it a bit longer— in other words, money was not the real obstacle. When we moved to Estes Park, I was surrounded by kids whose parents had crossed the devil-take-the-hindmost line in thinking as well, but they had stayed. The kids did not come from wealthy families with summer homes on cliffs and three-mile-long paved driveways leading up to them; they were families that had decided they had to live in a small mountain town at any cost, and … BAM! … they had done it. They were much closer in the way they lived to the way I had come to view the way small towns should function. The people that lived there were not the types to seriously make remarks like, “Oh, I could never afford to live there,” before hopping in a shiny new car.

My brother and I were enrolled in Estes Park High School, and we both felt at home immediately. Estes Park may get gazillions of visitors when the roads are open in Rocky Mountain National Park, but life there is a lot different in the winter, when the tourists leave and the elk come down to seize the town. “Whose streets?” ****elk bugling**** “Whose streets?” ****elk bugling**** The elk know where the power lies when they take their turn to block traffic, litter on the sidewalks and stick the local police with herding responsibilities.

It was amazing being able to experience Estes Park strictly as a little mountain town — an actual town as opposed to an amusement park for tourists. Sure, it was a place with some major criminal minds at work, for instance it was a town where all of the copies of “On The Road,” “The Dharma Bums” and The Monkey Wrench Gang” had disappeared from the shelves at the library. Really, though, those books going missing was probably the biggest rip in the social fabric of the town that I experienced. When I walked around town during those six months, I saw it for the simple beauty, as a place where real people lived, some of the nicest I had ever met, and the laid-back attitudes of even the most high-strung people I met made life there even better. I saw it as the kind of place that I could spend the rest of my life in, and that meant a lot to me, because I was always very restless; it was not just a crowded destination that I would be dragged away from kicking and screaming by the howling demands of beating the interest on student loans and paying the bills. The immense herds of elk that set up camp alongside the houses during winter were one of the only-in-the-mountains-type of things that I got to experience that year, but also the acceptance of it was a heart-warming little quirk: “I’ll be there at 7 … if the elk let me past.”

Mountain life changed something in me forever. That late fall and winter were like crossing a burning bridge; all of the earlier trips had meant a lot to me, but actually being a part of a small mountain community would come back to me constantly — while driving, hiking, in the bedroom … whatever, it was a part of me now. It knew it was possible to live in the mountains. I just had to find a way.

In the years that followed, and as I worked through college and the immense debt that resulted, the dream of moving to Colorado never died … but I also now had a bride-to-be to convince that moving well over a thousand miles away from anyone she knew was a good idea. I mixed in Colorado trips with Boundary Waters trips, but the times when both of our potential vacation times coincided — winter — we went to warm places, as my wife formerly preferred to hibernate during the winter.

Emily and I had been together for five years and had broken several wedding dates. Life was too hectic. We were stuck. We were in the Twin Cities still, though we had been talking about moving for years, along with getting married. Life in the big city, even though the Twin Cities Metro area is not that big, was too much for me to handle, and, once I was out of college, and my friends started settling down, I was pulled toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and all that the North Woods had to offer. My wife very rarely had two days off in a row, and my spontaneous nature meant that I was traveling alone. I had been leaving every weekend to go out camping, hiking and paddling in the North Woods — to keep my sanity, really.

Life in Minnesota was not right for us, but we did not realize what was wrong at the moment. Emily loved being surrounded by lakes, trees, moose, wolves and bear, but, in the end, it did not inspire her the way that the mountains in Colorado do.

Some of my acquaintances that have been to an AA meeting or 10 often say that problems cannot be solved by a change of geography, but I have never been able to follow that logic, because, every time I get away to the wilderness, my problems are solved, as if by magic … temporarily anyway. Maybe some types of problems, modes of thinking, habits and on and on, will follow you wherever you go, and the teenage logic that “well, there isn’t anything else to do around here” sticks with some people who have a hard time finding inspiration, but it seems to follow that, if you live someplace that excites you, you will be able to easily rise above whatever self-loathing mire you get stuck in.

We took a break from each other. I quit my job and moved North to tramp around the forests I had grown up in. My experiences that summer led to me to start writing and formed the skeleton of my first book, “Heading North — A Novel.” As I tramped around for six months, Colorado was on my mind, and, when my wife and I started talking again, I mentioned that I was planning a trip to the mountains.

Anyway, when Emily and I got back together and finally went out to the mountains, loaded up with sleeping bags and provisions in my little Ranger pick-up truck, things fell into place quickly. As we drove along the Big Thompson River she turned to me and with a twinkle in her eyes like I had never seen before and asked, “So when are we moving here?” I showed her around Estes Park, then we hiked up to Gem Lake, which had essentially been in my backyard when I had lived in town. Though it is a short, easy hike, we did not encounter too many people. Once we got to the lake. we surprisingly had the place to ourselves for at least 45 minutes. Amazing. We continued through to Grand Lake and the White River National Forest to Glenwood Springs, then to the Hunter-Frying Pan and Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness areas.

Emily was enthralled. The bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, moose, bear and the mountains won her over completely. Okay, so the bear and moose not as much, because of our lives in Minnesota, but they definitely contributed to the overall feeling of the trip. I proposed again during the trip, and we vowed that we would finally follow through and get married as soon as possible.

We did some quick planning once we got back to Minnesota and, as quickly as we could coordinate everyone in our immediate families getting a few days off, we flew to California. It was only weeks after we had returned from Colorado, but the weather forecasts for the Rockies looked ominous, and not everyone in our wedding party had much leeway with their jobs if flights were cancelled. We were married near Monterrey and honeymooned along Big Sur.

We had a surprise not long after returning from our honeymoon. Around nine months after our trip to Colorado, we were to have a new expedition member, our son. Our actual move to Colorado came at the end of a month-long, 6,000-mile road trip that found us starting a descent south around Pompey’s Pillar to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and found us as far south as Perdido Key, Florida. While en route to our southern destination, we stopped long enough to scour the Western Slope for employment opportunities. We were contacted while on the beach that we were needed back in Gunnison, and so we began the trip back West; the wonder of modern cellular telephones finally clenched onto my skull, and I have since taken the step in selling out to “convenience” by getting a cell phone. I flew back to the Twin Cities, rented a monster truck and car trailer, drove up to the North Woods to collect our belongings, including furniture, kayaks, dinghy, canoe, bikes and everything else that we did not have time to find new homes for  — had to beat the storms — and began my harrowing 50 mph journey back through weigh stations, snowstorms and meowing cats with my trucker rig.

Now our son is two and a half years old and enjoys every minute of tramping through the mountains around our Gunnison home. We could not see living any other way. The people we have met here are the nicest we have found anywhere, despite what is said about “Minnesota Nice,” and the two huge mule deer bucks that stopped for a visit earlier this afternoon at our living room window were nice to see as well.
— Joseph Van Nurden

Little Black Dress

Fresh out of the gate for the season, and I was on the soft end of the rope on an exposed and thin ’10C face. Even on TR, for the first route of any season, I would really rather be on something I can lead. Warm up, please. A familiar 5.9 would be nice. Give me some dynamic moves I can use to muscle my way to the next hold. Finesse is not one of my strengths.

Below me, Geoff Childs  — who had gunned up the rope and set up the anchor —  hollered out necessary beta and encouragement. The air had the sharp chill of early season. The rock was not any warmer. The sky was all gray and gloom, and there may have been a little residual snow packed down at the belay station. Climbing is fun, but I was feeling surprisingly grumpy and gripped. It was silly.

I was also experiencing a touch of performance anxiety: Childs was one of the first to establish routes on this local crag. I had a copy of his book, “Stone Palaces,” had read it and dreamt of living the fairytale. From pages yellowed and fragranced by the incessant tick-tock from countless clocks, I enjoyed his piquant and plucky essays from the early days of Mountain Gazette. Childs really is a very good writer. Childs is kind of a hero of mine.

Here is some irony for you. The route we were on? “Fractured Fairytales.” Of, course.

So this is what Childs called out to me to help get my head around the thin nubbins generously referred to as holds, to ignore the possibility of a wide and painful swing, and to haul my still winter-weighted arse up to the anchor. Childs said, not really hollering now, “You are wearing a little black dress and holding a martini. Because your dress is very tight and you don’t want to spill your very dry drink, you must take very small and delicate steps. It will also help if you extend your little finger when you move to the next hold, like you are holding a martini. Grip the hold lightly with your little finger extended … and don’t spill your drink.”

Good god, I thought, I haven’t worn a little black dress in years. I have a sensationally smoky one (is there any other kind?) that remains in my closet. She is shunned by whatever else is draped on the hangers at either side. Jealousy. I had a small collection of others, but passed them along as the years progressed. I can still recall slowly pulling this last remaining dress over my head while wearing little to nothing underneath. I would work it carefully down by body; it wouldn’t fall along my curves on its own. Also, the too-high heels to complete the affect.

It feels like a lifetime ago. Because it was.

I now have little use for little black dresses. I wear ski boots and rock shoes, but no too-high heels. Maybe I could still pull it off, wearing the little black dress that remains in my closet, but I wouldn’t want to. It would pull even tighter across here and there. Most certainly it would not be age appropriate. But for some reason I will not part with her, she falls so lovely and lonely from a pink silk hanger in my closet.

I have paused about halfway up “Fractured Fairytale” to slowly and carefully pull on my little black dress. I take a small and delicate step up and slightly to the right, lowering my heel and smearing so I am able to gingerly grip the next hold, my little finger properly extended. I blush a little when I think of Childs below me, adroitly meting out and taking in the rope. I am confident he won’t gaze up my dress, both because he is a gentleman and because he is happily married to a bright and beautiful woman. But still.

A few more moves and I have finessed my way to the anchor. Finessed. A smile has found its way to my lips and a few clouds part, allowing a glimpse of some much needed sunglow. Climbing is fun. I clip into the chains, break down the anchor and, feeling lazy, ask Childs to lower me. The taste of gin is on my tongue and my skin relishes the familiar cling of the dress. Slowly untying from the rope, my little finger curiously extends.

I haven’t spilled a drop.
— Tricia M. Cook

How to screw up an entire weekend

I remember when Mike lost his. When it finally happens to you, it’s not like you would imagine it. The timing isn’t perfect, the pain isn’t as bad as you’d think and as always it isn’t like it happens in the movies. You know, the blood, the waving it around like you’re some sort of tough guy. Mostly you’re desperately trying not to succumb to shock. I also remember how, as a teenager, my Dad mentioned that he was surprised I hadn’t broken a bone or done something stupid to my body yet. But, as I was saying, I remember when Mike was supposed to come visit me in New Hampshire and never showed up. What’s even weirder is that the two of us have missing body parts and have been best friends since we were kids.

I got a really messy phone call from him on Monday. Long after he was supposed to show up on Friday. It was something all gargled like, “I had an accident. Hurt my foot. That’s why I didn’t come.”

“What? What are you talking about?” He just hung up on me. A week later, after the heavy-duty drugs wore off, he called back to explain how he went up to the barn to get some money from the Bank of Jim. Instead of dolling out the cash right then and there, his Dad made him help for a minute. It only took a second for the hydraulics on the hedgehog to give out, crushing Mike’s foot. The giant brush cutter also took with it some toes that decided to stay in the sock when he went took his shoe off.

I always smile when the story of Mike, Dad’s bankroll, the hedgehog, and the missing toes comes up. That was until it was my turn. It was the last year I bought a pass to the ski area. The last year I could take waiting in lines, having people with no skill cut across double blacks instead of turning, and mostly the stupid conversations you had to have with total strangers on the lift. Like the jackass who started out with the normal junk questions. “Yes I live here.” Which leads to what do you do here? “I’m a carpenter.”

“That’s great,” the doofiss remarked. “As long as you keep all your fingers.” Then he laughed, as if it was funny.

“Too late.” I said, drowning him out by turning up my favorite album, “Born Again,” on the iPod. I’m pretty happy with the fact that people don’t point out that I’m missing a finger. I like that no one asks me what happened when they see my hands. I actually don’t like to talk about that day or anything that has to do with the fact that it’s gone. Mostly, it’s because of embarrassment; there is nothing honorable about crushing your hand and losing a finger. Sometimes, I do imagine people asking about it, and I come up with things like I was born that way, I got it stuck in a lawn mower or a horse bit it off. Unfortunately, it happened 20-some years after I started my career as a manual laborer.

It was one of those amazing late-September/early-October weekends that was on tap. Dry, sunny and warm … a last hurrah before the snow starts flying and everything changes. I actually can’t remember the date or the month. I’m by far not interested in commemorating the anniversary or anything. I had the three-day weekend all planned out. It would start with a relaxed road bike ride from Breck to Vail Pass and back. Then Saturday was going to be a six-hour epic mountain bike ride. Followed on Sunday by a short little mountain bike ride. All surrounded by a little firewood action in order to stock up and keep warm that winter. This big weekend all became a far-fetched fantasy on that stellar Thursday afternoon.

My hand was squarely somewhere it shouldn’t have been, under a log that was part of a log-shell home. The sky was in perfect condition and the temperature was nothing to complain about. I took one look at my messed-up hand and new it wasn’t good. At the truck, I yanked the first aid kit and swapped out the bloody rags I first stopped the bleeding with. I took a second look and knew for sure it was done. There was no choice but to go to the hospital; this wasn’t something I could tape back together and walk off in a week. The bizarre thing was all I could think about was how my epic weekend was all but done. The snow was going to fly, and I was going to miss out on some prime grade-A mountain biking.

The hospital was a nightmare. I paced around this room they put me in wondering why a guy with a mostly detached finger wasn’t being attended to. After an hour went by, some assistant of an assistant came to look. I explained that, if she didn’t have a bandage to rewrap me, there would be blood all over. Let’s just say she ran out of the room in a hurry to get help. Finally, they had some clown of a hand specialist show up to take care of me. He somehow was convinced that he could put it all back together and I’d live happily ever after. I’d only seen the mess twice at this point and I knew there was no gluing it back together. Getting irate at this point, as well as disagreeing on the future of my finger, someone felt it was a good idea to dope me up before I backhanded one of these so-called medical professionals. Dope me up they did; then it was lights out.

The weekend was ruined as I sat inside staring at the perfect weather outside. I wanted to circumnavigate Guyot, ride the Colorado Trail for miles and hang out on the bike sucking up that last bit of summer. Within a week, I was on the road bike, but that wasn’t any fun. My buddies were telling me all kinds of tall tales about their epic fall rides while I pedaled in circles on the bike path. Feeling every bump along the way, riding one-handed at times and hoping not to catch too much speed on a downhill because I had only one good hand to brake with.

It took a couple months and many lame road bike rides, but I healed. Now I have to deal with my hand getting colder than it used too; my stub seems to attract cold. I was once able to brag about not having to wear gloves that much. Now I need gloves on the cold days so my hand doesn’t go numb. My buddies harass me, because I like these mountain bike shifters that are considered a failed design and are hard to get because no one makes them or sells them any more. The common mountain bike shifters are known as “index shifting.” The idea of index shifting while missing parts of your index finger is a little harder than you’d think. I’ve never tried to explain that to them.

Mike and I sat back and laughed about what was worse. Walking around with a dumb hand for a couple months or hopping around on crutches for a couple months. He complained that he had to regain his balance and countered that I can’t pick up anything normally with my index finger and thumb. Maybe toes and fingers are expendable, we both thought after a few beers. If they were, wouldn’t they grow back though? I just didn’t know it could take 20 years of farm labor, playing with power tools and man-handling heavy objects for it too happen. All it took was that one moment when I was day dreaming about that perfect bike ride the upcoming ski season. After it was all said and done, I wondered why? Why couldn’t it have happened on a Monday?
— Jason Komph

68 thoughts on “Digit Stories”

  1. didn’t know “this” was here! feel like i’m wandurring the haulwaize of a labyrinthine old hotel complex.
    but fun to read, hidden treasure.

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