"Are you okay???"
I had never heard Indy sound so concerned for someone, and as I turned around to see who was hurt, my mind ran through the possibilities. There were four of us left from the larger party that had been out at White Rocks that day, now finishing up at a less traveled block of cliffs just over from the main area. One of my group had just been belaying me from the ground, while two others watched from a blocky ramp that projected from the side of the beautiful quartzite face.
Had my belayer rolled an ankle on the uneven ground? No, he looked okay.
Had someone on the ramp fallen off or been bitten by a rattler catching the late afternoon sun? Why was there blood dripping from my glasses?
"You got hit by a rock."
With my body still riding the adrenaline from the climb I had just finished, I didn't notice that a softball sized rock had glanced off my head as I looked down to check my footing or start untying my knot. Still not convinced it had happened, I put my hand to my scalp and could feel the blood filling my hair.
"Keep your hand there and try to slow the bleeding until we can take a look."
Grateful for the direction, I pressed down on my scalp (why didn't this hurt?) while John Kelbel untied me from the rope and helped me to a seat. As Indy lowered the first aid kit to us, I noted again how disturbing okay I felt. Not just free of pain, but coherent and not feeling even remotely dizzy or faint.
"Head wounds bleed a lot," they told me. It was a fact that I found oddly reassuring, but with a mile hike out and an hour drive home ahead of me, I would take any reassurance I could get. I also knew that calmness was the key, and calmness would come from relinquishing my control of the situation and leaving myself in their hands. If something like this had to happen, those were good hands to be in.
They patched me up, belayed me back up the hill in case dizziness took me, and by the time we got back to the cars they were comfortable enough with my functioning to let me drive home if Indy followed behind me. An hour later, he turned me over to Emily and we went down the road to the urgent care to get me checked out. No concussion, no skull fractures, still calm enough that my pulse rate set off the alarms on the machine, and only two stitches needed.
I was lucky.
I've said this a few times in the past week, but this was really an ideal kind of accident to have. With a rock of that size, the smallest change of position could have drastically altered the outcome, and yet here I am a week later typing this on my deck with only the itchiness of a healing cut to remind me that it happened. Scary enough to get my attention, but with the right people there to guide me through it, and minor enough that I can get back out and apply the lessons I learned while they're still fresh in my mind.
On the off chance those lessons will help anyone else, here are the three biggest:
1) Head wounds bleed a lot. It looks scary, but it's normal, so stay calm and do something about it.
2) Put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. Probably the first thing we learn in any first aid class, but in the moment I still had to be reminded to do it, and I'm glad there were people there to give me that reminder.
3) Wear a helmet! If you take nothing else out of this, wear a helmet. If I had been wearing one at the time, I wouldn't have any stitches in my head right now. So why wasn't I wearing one, especially when I had one with me? Because I had just come down from a toprope climb, and very few of us ever wear helmets on toprope. I can't even use the "helmets look stupid in photos" copout, since I was already wearing socks under my upturned climbing shoes when one of my partners was there for the sole purpose of taking guidebook photos. No, my lack of helmet had nothing to do with a misplaced sense of fashion, and everything to do with the complacency that arises when we think we've minimized the most likely dangers. Yes, helmets protect us when we fall, and falls resulting in head injury are unlikely on a toprope. But helmets also protect us from falling objects, and I should have remembered that an undeveloped rock face is likely to have loose pieces at the top that may be dislodged. Even on well-traveled cliffs, most climbing in Maryland is accessed from the top, meaning there are likely to be people above who may knock or throw all manner of objects over the edge. Please, if you're reading this, take my experience as a communal lesson and avoid learning it firsthand.
Stay safe out there!