“It was a horrifying feeling. I have started getting some violent flashbacks to the moment I fell. It is a form of PTSD that I am starting to get counselling about….”
© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated
Adam Campbell, a well-known Vancouver-based hyper-fit mountain and ultra-runner has spent several years on foot traversing British Columbia and Alberta trails and high, mountainous terrain. He has likely covered as much super-natural and wild BC trail on foot as just about anyone in Canadian history. He has done so at speeds the average person could not put out for a handful of minutes at sea level, while running on flat asphalt paths.
When I write wild BC trail I am talking about deep into the Rockies, far from civilization, where more than 99 percent of the human population will never, ever venture and shouldn’t. This is Bighorn sheep, Grizzly bear and Gray wolf country.
However, in contrast to the wild mountain-man image, Campbell has a law degree and one confirmed siting of him in downtown Vancouver; he was practicing labour and employment law in 2011. More recently his job title is General Counsel with Integrated Sustainability Consultants Ltd. His life in the mountains contrasts greatly with his suit-wearing, urban jungle practise.
As a competitive runner, he has won or finished in the top-10 of many races including the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc race festival, a 98km mountain run in the Alps with, 5,600-metres of elevation gain and loss. He won the 2012 Squamish 21K, 2013 Squamish 50 mile and the 2014 Squamish 50K races.
He also happens to hold the Guinness record for running the fastest marathon while wearing a business suit. In 2012 he finished the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon sixth overall in the time of 2:35:51, in a gray suit adorned complete with tie and brief case.
Years earlier he had made his way to Victoria to train with the national development centre in the sport of triathlon. He went on to win two national titles in duathlon. But alas, those breathtakingly gorgeous mountains with their snowy peaks and alpine flora and fauna came-a-calling and he hadn’t really looked back.
His life of traversing the Rockies and Coastal Mountains came to a precipitous halt on Tuesday, August 30th while attempting a never-before-completed, single push across Rogers Pass, BC.
Rogers Pass reaches an elevation of 1330-metres and sits in the midst of the steep Selkirk Mountains. The pass is a shortcut across the Big Bend of the Columbia River, part of Glacier National Park. In winter it will snow 10 metres (33-feet). There are so many avalanches from the steep mountains that 31 snow sheds stretched along 6.5-kilometres of track was built to protect the railway that passes through it.
The Columbia River is 2,000-kilometres in length. Fed from Columbia Lake that sits at 820-metres above sea level; it’s essentially a glacier and ice-field fed river that wends its way through BC, into Washington State before dumping 80,000 cubic metres per second into the Pacific Ocean. Its drainage basin is roughly the size of France.
Campbell was running with two fellow mountain goats, Nick Elson and Dakota Jones on terrain that was moderate class-3/4, when all hell broke out. A giant rock that appeared to Campbell to be stable, came loose. Elson and Jones had just passed over the area with no sign of trouble. Not so, for Campbell.
“It sent me tumbling backwards, summersaulting and rag-dolling over 70 and up to 80 metres down a series of ledges and sharp rocks,” shared Campbell in an email from his hospital bed. “The rock came loose and hit me on the way down as well.”
It was ugly.
“Luckily I slowed on a small scree ledge, or I would have kept going several hundred feet more.”
He is lucky to be alive.
Elson and Jones were able to rush down to Campbell, laying there smashed, concussed and bleeding. They called search and rescue, which according to Campbell “saved my life.”
When the helicopter arrived, he was long-lined (dragged underneath the chopper) to safety, where he was then treated and evacuated to Kamloops, an hour helicopter ride away to the trauma centre.
The inventory of damaged goods reads like one of those encounters with a feeding, 1500-pound Grizzly gone horribly wrong, “I ended up breaking my back, several vertebrae, breaking my hip, breaking my ankle, damaging my wrists, shoulders and knees, resulting in severe lacerations across my body. My helmet is shattered and has cracks across all of it, showing the amount of damage. It still has blood and hair caked into it. Without it I would have suffered severe head trauma, instead, I just have stitches and a mild concussion.”
Campbell was in the operating room for eight hours as surgeons worked to put him back together.
“I received amazing care, however I did have severe complications,” his email read. “I reacted to the pain killers poorly and my digestive system shut down. I ended up on a feeding tube for 10 days, where I didn’t eat. This was almost the most painful part of my recovery as I underwent severe bowel treatments. As a result, I have lost almost all my muscle mass. Fortunately, I am alive and I am not paralyzed and am expected to make almost a full recovery.”
What brings families together is stronger than what pulls them apart. Campbell’s parents, who have been estranged for nearly two decades were sharing meals together.
“My girlfriend Laura is a doctor and has been my rock. This experience has bonded us in a way that I cannot fully express. It also gave my family and Laura’s a chance to meet, which now feels like an extended family. They are already planning on travelling together.”
For a person – like any super fit distance runner – who prides themselves on great physical fitness, it is humbling to rely on others for the most basic life functions and in typical understatement that only a fellow runner will fully understand Campbell writes, “Obviously my plans for the fall and 2017 have changed a bit.”
“I am not certain what capacity I will have once I am fully recovered, but the doctors and my therapists are convinced that I will make a significant recovery. I should be back on x-country and backcountry skis this winter and will be running and climbing before the end of the year.”
Campbell is hopeful and optimistic while still mired deep in the funk of recovery from a horrendous fall down the side of a mountain pass. “I am also fighting for day-to-day victories, like walking a step farther than the day before, taking my first shower. Yesterday I walked two kilometres and was able to start swimming. Today I start physical therapy and am excited to start building back up. I still dream of my next mountain adventure.”
He is taking his time with the recovery and respecting his body. “I am sleeping as much as I can and am really using this time to rebuild and recharge. I have decided to take a big mental and emotional break, so have taken time away from social media. I will get back on eventually, but I felt like I needed time to myself and with my close friends and family and it was taking too much energy that I needed to dedicate to healing.”
A few weeks later I was back in contact with Campbell. This time we were in Q & A mode:
Christopher Kelsall: Adam, can you describe what it was like to go from fast, light, smooth and aerobically and muscularly fit to your worst moments in that hospital bed?
Adam Campbell: The week after surgery, I was suffering from an Ileus, which means my digestive system completely shut down. My whole stomach swelled up, followed by the rest of my body due to a dangerously low hemoglobin count. I remember lying there, in a slightly drugged state, not recognizing my body as my own. It was as if my head was disassociated from a body I knew intimately. Just five days before I was one of the fittest mountain athletes in the world, where pleasure came from pushing my limits in some of the most stunning surroundings in the world and where I relished in the freedom and independence that afforded me, to now wanting nothing more than to get an enema so I could get some relief by shitting myself in my hospital bed, entirely dependent on machines, medication, the medical staff and the support of my family to get by.
CK: Anything you wish you spent more time doing? What should you have been doing all this time you have been down?
AC: I love moving through natural terrain and will always do that. It is how I enjoy connecting to places and it is where I have had some of my most intimate and profound connections with friends. However this time of utter immobility and vulnerability allowed me to connect to my girlfriend, family and friends in a truly special way. It’s allowed us to have conversations about life and what we want from it that we might have not otherwise had. I am very aware how this accident has impacted those that are nearest and dearest to me and they are a big factor that I will consider in my adventures and life going forward.
It has also forced me to slow down, sit and take time to truly appreciate the place that I find myself in. I have taken up drawing which has lead me to look at the mountains in a different way, picking out details that I might not have noticed before. On a more practical level, I wish I had done more mountain safety courses. I will definitely be doing those going forward. Moving in the mountains is a lifelong learning process and I hope to have a long life.
CK: I think I saw prognosis that you will be back in full flight, yes? I assume that there are still some unknowns? What sort of goals do you have now after nearly meeting your death?
AC: Yes, the doctors expect a full recovery. I don’t know what full means in terms of ultimate high performance, but it is quite amazing what people can overcome with a bit of hard work, a good attitude and a good medical and support team around them. I got very lucky with the nature of my injuries in terms of being able to run, ski and climb in the future.
I don’t have any real ultimate outcome goals, but I do have some mindfulness goals that I hope to carry into my recovery. I have been forced to really appreciate the daily victories and small moments and I want to keep those connections after my recovery. Sport, travel and adventure are hugely important to me, so I will definitely get back there and will see where I am at and where my motivation is at once I’m recovered. Currently I’m water-running, getting to know the Canmore senior citizen crew and lifeguards at the pool and have started some basic physio to establish a good foundation and avoid too may compensatory and long-term issues from my various injuries.
CK: Can you describe exactly what the heck was going through your mind as you fell? Shock, yes?
AC: It was a horrifying feeling. I have started getting some violent flashbacks to the moment I fell. It is a form of PTSD that I am starting to get counselling about. I am also starting to talk to some other survivors of mountain accidents to figure out how to control those thoughts, as well as speaking to experienced mountain athletes to assess what I might have done differently to avoid the accident and how I can be safer in the future. I think that talking about it is a healthy outlet and will allow me to decide what level of risk I am willing to accept in my life once I am healthy.
I am having a hard time shaking the sound of the rock cracking as I pulled on it. It was like a gunshot in a figurative and literal sense and it makes me noxious just writing about it. I also remember vividly the feeling of free falling backwards, hitting a rock, slowing down a little, then falling again as I tumbled off another ledge and knowing that I was going to die. When I finally settled on the scree slope below the ledge, I remember a sulphur-like smell from the rock. As I lay there, I was face down and could see the blood pooling around me on the ground. It was horrifying, but I knew I was alive. I rolled myself over and did an assessment. I knew I had broken my hip and ankle and could move my toes, but was worried about internal damage. I knew that based on the amount of blood around me that I would die if I didn’t get help soon. I also knew that I couldn’t afford to move or panic, so I focussed on breathing and waiting for the rescuers to come.
Once Nick (Elson) and Dakota (Jones) came down, I focussed on trying to stay warm and hydrate. They were incredible. They acted so quickly and didn’t panic, which really helped me stay calm. Nick ran up to try and get help and Dakota stayed with me, rubbing my shoulder, holding my hand and trying to quiet me. I trusted them completely. Once I knew they had contacted search and rescue, I then focussed on trying to hear the sound of the rescue helicopter. It was incredibly intense given the pain that I was feeling.
CK: Will you stick to the mountains, ultras and trails or do you want more extrinsic feedback now and bang off sub-2:30:00 marathon, for example?
AC: I will likely stick to the mountain and trail side of sport. I’m not overly motivated by extrinsic factors. Even when I was running on the roads more frequently I never really chased times. I just liked to train hard and then raced to try and show off that fitness. If I ran my best given my preparation and what was going on in my life at the time, then I was satisfied.