Getting Back Up
A climber survives a massive fall in the Andes to bike from Monterey to New York.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
A fall from a 1,300 foot ice face temporarily took Isabel Suppé’s mobility. It permanently took her climbing partner and friend. But it didn’t take her life – and it gave her the resolve to not only endure, but keep climbing.
In 2010, close to the summit of Ala Izquierda del Condoriris southeast face in the Bolivian Andes, Suppé’s climbing buddy Peter Wiesenekker slipped and fell, ripping his anchors out of the ice, then her with him. Belayed together, the two skidded and fell 1,100 feet onto the glacier below. Peter Wiesenekker couldn’t move from his head injury and broken leg. Suppé’s foot was shattered. Her tibia and fibula pierced the skin.
She spent a hallucinogenic night beside Wiesenekker, seeing rescue torches instead of stars. The next day she tied her trekking pole around her ankle and scooted herself feet first, lifting the pole and her foot forward with every push – and set off for base camp a couple of inches at a time.
The search crew had nothing hot for Suppé to drink when they found her, three quarters of a mile from Wiesenekker, because they hadn’t expected she’d be alive. By then, her partner had died of hypothermia.
Ten surgeries later, Suppé will cycle across the country to raise money for yet more surgery, a rare ankle replacement practiced only in the U.S., half the globe away from her native Germany, and a continent and a half from her current home in Argentina. She’ll launch a fundraising bike trek from Monterey to New York, and before she goes she will talk about the fall and her recovery, and how she explores the will to climb in her Spanish-language book, Starry Night, at REI Marina June 23. (For a look at other REI events, see sidebar, below right.)
Doctors told her she wouldn’t climb again, but in the two-year window between her injury and now, she’s already climbed everywhere from Mount Cachi in Argentina to Mexico’s tallest volcanoes.
She’s cycled from Europe to Morocco – where she climbed its highest mountain – and then pedaled over to the Sahara.
The ambitious U.S. bike trek won’t be the first time she’s cross-country cycled to meet surgeons. Last time she rode from Germany to Spain in winter.
“I don’t do anything normal,” she says. “I’m always climbing, preparing to climb, or coming back. I don’t prepare for surgery; I don’t have any options. I will do everything to get my foot back in shape.”
Suppé grew up climbing barefoot in the Alps, evolving instincts that led her, while studying in Argentina, to put money toward expeditions to Patagonia instead of, say, a refrigerator.
Since the fall, Suppé’s endeavors have transcended outdoor enthusiasm. Three weeks after the accident she was back climbing, on an outdoor rock wall in Madrid, harnessed, with one rock-climbing shoe and one leg dangling in a knee-high cast. Gripping ferociously with her toe, she stretched her left leg across to secure right footholds.
Suppé celebrated the one-year anniversary of the accident by reaching a difficult ice route in Bolivia on crutches modified by her brother as hiking pole/ice axes. Ankle deterioration makes climbing painful, but the pain is worth it, according to Suppé: “I pay [in pain] for the way I want to be there.”
“In those moments you don’t think of injury,” she continues. “You could die; it’s just a fact. You don’t need to go to the mountain for that.”
Her peers in San Diego joke about her being Forrest Gump on a bicycle, but she styles herself more after John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Her companion will be Rocinante II – her bike – and her launch point will be Custom House Plaza in Monterey.
In the run-up to the mission, her medical advisors have learned to skip cautioning her altogether.
“Doctors don’t say anything to me anymore, after I showed them the picture of me climbing with my cast,” she says.
But for all Suppé’s success, she is still healing.
“After [the trip],” she says, “I will give a deep relieved sigh, keep climbing as much as possible and enjoy every moment I’m pain free.”
STARRY NIGHT: ONE WOMAN’S INCREDIBLE STORY OF SURVIVAL IN THE ANDES happens 5-6:30pm Saturday at REI Marina, 145 General Stillwell Dr., in Marina. Free. 883-8048, rei.com/outdoorschool To raise money for Suppé, visit www.transplant.org