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Rise Up: Recovering from a Free Solo Accident

WARNING: Some of the content and photos in the interview are intense and graphic at times. Read at your own risk. Free soloing is extremely dangerous, and FrictionLabs does not recommend or endorse it.

This interview is with Alain De La Tejera, a climber, teacher, and youth rock climbing coach in California. Until 2014, he was another daredevil climber out of California. But, in 2014, his life—and perspective on climbing—was permanently altered when he fell 50 feet, face first, while free soloing in New Jack City, CA. This is his story of how he came back from near destruction, and lessons he learned during his recovery. It's a long one, but well worth the read.

Alain De La Tejera

Tell us about yourself. How did you get into climbing? How many days a week do you climb? What type of climbing do you do?

After hiking to the summit of Mt. Whitney in 2007, I witnessed two climbers make it to the top having climbed it instead of hiking the route. I saw a lot of shiny gear on them and wondered what it was for and couldn’t help but think about how amazing it would be to do similar adventures. I guess you could say this is what inspired my love for traditional climbing, the adventure and high-level commitment required for it.  Before even climbing, I purchased a whole rack and hiked around Mt. Rubidoux in Riverside for hours plugging gear in cracks along trails to measure sizes. It was a lonely endeavor since no one was willing to take me under their wing. I began in 2009...

Because of my long-distance running background (running cross country and track in high school and college), I’m pretty methodical about developing a foundation of endurance training and am strict about when to rest. Runners would build a “base” of endurance training before jumping into interval workouts and I used sport-climbing to do exactly that, rarely “projecting” and instead accumulating a lot of miles. Once I felt ready, I’d try to go hard. As such, I would rarely climb more than 3 days per week but would completely exhaust myself, not just physically but also mentally, during each workout.

You suffered an injury recently that’s set you back, to say the least. Can you explain what happened?

Those who have known me over the years have seen how focused and determined I can become when setting goals, often just going for it when it feels right, at all costs. Many of my life’s objectives were faced with that philosophy in mind.

This mentality finally backfired in one of the worst possible ways imaginable when I fell about 50 feet free-soloing, only to hit solid rock, bounce back up, and fell again on a lower ledge below me, pretty much face first. The injuries were staggering.

The Buildup

The summer before the accident, my climbing partner, Jesse Nichols, and I climbed El Cap and Half Dome in 28 hours. It was a spontaneous decision that led to, admittedly, not the best strategy to approach that link-up. Still, it opened the idea in my head to try to climb El Cap solo and then Half Dome solo on separate days.

To train my mind, I free soloed a lot more than in previous years. To prepare for the mental calmness required to accomplish such a big objective, I did many long climbs and long days of free solos. Eventually, free soloing became as much of a standard practice as it was a mental practice.

I developed a sense of understanding that, so long as the correct calculations were made, many climbs were possible to do on my own. The focus was intense and very real. Free soloing was kept mostly to myself, doing so in Yosemite, Red Rocks, and in Joshua Tree. Inspired by John Bachar and John Long, I tried to do a few Half Dome days in Joshua Tree, with the goal of maintaining composure even when feeling tired. Those were beautiful memories of solitude that will never be forgotten. At the end of a Half Dome day, I remember calmly free soloing up a climb called Clean and Jerk, under just the right amount of moonlight, sans head lamp. It was so relaxing and I was so happy. Once atop the climb, it was such a beautiful feeling to look up at the stars after such an amazing day.   

An Unexpected Turn

Fast forward a couple of months and fresh from an endurance session on Moonlight Buttress, my life took the most unexpected turn. The day of the accident, the idea entered my head to free solo a climb I had routinely done over the years and never fallen on: Candy O, a 5.11b sport climb in New Jack City, CA. I felt very comfortable leading it that day, compared to when I first spotted it six years earlier when I first started climbing, and it was routinely my warm-up before hitting the harder climbs.

The crazy thought entered my head that if I didn’t do it that day, it would never happen, so I had to jump on the opportunity—It’s now or never. That was same mentality that led me to do a lot of awesome stuff in climbing: Just go for it. Looking back, doing so was very selfish, although that was not my intention.

The climb is 68 feet tall, and I was just below the anchors and the final bolt when—to my shock and surprise—the ground was speeding up toward me. My famous last words were, “Oh, shit,” and thinking very vividly, in that split second, that it didn’t make sense that I was falling. Almost instinctively, I tried to bend my knees upon impact.

When I woke up after being unconscious for about 30 seconds, I thought everything was okay. After several attempts to stand, I felt pain on my left glute and nowhere else. Little did I know that blood, tissue, flesh and pieces of bone had blown out of my legs. I tried to add comedic relief, emphasizing the pain on my left butt cheek to let everyone know that is what truly hurt.

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The Aftermath

At that moment, I had no clue of the severity of the injuries and was actually upset when I was being helicoptered out, wondering why I couldn’t move and look out the window to enjoy the view.

The result? Fourteen or 15 broken bones, including three broken limbs, a broken back, severe internal bleeding in the abdominal and groin area, as well as a permanently altered jaw.

It’s an understatement to describe the injuries as “broken.” It’s a discomforting feeling to say that my limbs exploded, with my tibia and fibula exploding out of my left leg, leaving my foot completely unattached to my body—not to mention the countless fractures in my calcaneus and talus bones. My right foot suffered similar breaks with fractures, snapped tendons, and pieces of bone exploding from its heel. Both ankles were fused as the cartilage was completely gone, and doctors encouraged a double amputation at first. I was in the hospital for 31 days and laid almost motionless in bed for at least two months, only able to sit up with a back brace on. At three and a half months, I was able to start sitting up and being carried pretty regularly. My entire body atrophied.

To this day, it’s hard to comprehend that a total of 16 surgeries have taken place since, as the complications of the injuries were so traumatic.

Some of the operations were also very complex, not repaired with screws but through the work of three different teams of doctors. Sadly, I wish this was made up. So much was going on at the time that it’s hard to remember that any of it even happened.  

On February 8, 2015, I went back to Candy O, led it on rope, and redpointed it pretty comfortably on the first go. It was anti-climactic—I was somehow expecting to suffer flashbacks of the incident. Nothing happened, as it felt like just another day at the crag. It was a bit disheartening that even then the redpoint felt too casual, but it goes to show that nothing is guaranteed when you free solo, even if something feels easy. Mostly likely, upon every visit to that crag, it’ll continue to be a climb that I use to warm up on. My students have made it a mission to redpoint that climb as a form of solidarity together.

One of Alain's students attempting to redpoint Candy O.

Since your fall, what has your recovery process been like?

Because I couldn’t move any of my limbs, I laid in bed for about three and a half months. I had to be carried in and out of a wheelchair or carried onto a reclining chair to take a break from staring at the same walls and ceiling for days on end. My entire body atrophied. There was a tremendous fear of getting bed sores because I couldn’t move, so under doctor’s orders, family and friends moved me from side to side every two hours, even in the middle of the night. My mind did not understand that along with the injuries, many of my muscles would lose their function. There were moments when sitting up out of bed required so much effort that I would pass out because my heart had forgotten what it was like to function in an upright position.  

There was such relief when my arm cast came off for the first time, imagining the joy of gaining some form of mobility back.

Unfortunately, a hand specialist noticed my hand was put on crooked and as a result, my arm had to be re-broken and put back together, adding another six to eight weeks with only one functioning limb.

It was devastating to say the least, especially since there had been a couple of other surgeries performed incorrectly.

A community worked so hard to keep me lifted and I would pretend I was okay in front of most of them. Unbeknownst to most, the desire to give up was incredibly overwhelming, causing my mind to enter into a very dark state. It’s so sad to think that I didn’t wish to live any longer. In the greatest twist of events, I was given hope. Through a conversation with someone close to me, they uttered words that gave me that hope to keep living and to keep fighting. To this day, she probably has no idea of the magnitude her words had in my recovery. I wanted to give up because it was just so horrible, but that hope, that ability to believe, kept me going the entire time, day by day, week by week, month by month. Pretty soon sitting up became possible for short amounts of time. It was boring lying in bed so long, believe me.

Standing for the first time was such a fight and very spontaneous. There was such anger developing inside me as a result of being immobile for so long. The memory is still very vivid, as I recollect standing up with my body sweating so profusely, breathing heavily, and my legs shaking. It was only about a minute before I was forced to sit back down, and immediately blacked out.

In the days and weeks after, I practiced mostly on my own to stand up again and eventually would begin taking my first steps, walking with baby steps in circles in the room where I was at, often for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, pretty obsessively. I practiced stepping up and down on a step outside my parents’ home and would practice squats—one night I did about 400 because of the excitement of being able to move. There was no understanding of what atrophy really was, and after doing all those squats from sheer excitement, I cried all night in hiding because of the excruciating amount of pain my muscles were feeling—which is ironic, because that night I felt more pain than the day of the fall or any time after.

Getting Stronger

I had a Lasarov Fixator on my left leg for nine months to re-grow the bone on my left leg. It wasn’t until it was removed that I was able to practice walking instead of taking baby steps or using crutches. Shortly after, I took my Tia’s bicycle from Southern California and tried to ride it to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway for physical therapy during a break from work, making it to Big Sur before needing to come back home to work again. That bike ride made my muscles strong enough to start walking up steps comfortably.

During the winter break, a friend took me to a regular fitness gym for the purpose of physical therapy, as she was undergoing her own recovery as well. Since then, I’ve been pretty obsessive about strengthening my legs and my feet, which has resulted in me walking normally and even building up to hiking up to an hour and a half. There has been much improvement but still a long way to go. I had two more surgeries in March so my climbing and physical therapy was set back...again. There will be two more in the coming months.

Physical therapy was pretty much done on my own and, as a result, has inspired a possible career transition to help others in the way that I wish I was helped. The wonderful thing about this incident is having been given the honor and privilege to be invited to give motivational speeches at different schools, different grades, from the classroom to the gymnasium, in my district. It’s beautiful to see so many kids tell me they were so inspired by my speech.

 

So anyone reading this that needs motivation because they are in a dire situation or would like to reach out about similar situations, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would love to help in any way that I can.

What’s your pre-climb ritual like these days compared to before your injury?

My most successful build-ups and mileage workouts were when I was well-rested, so sleep is a priority. Generally, a bag of apples or pears with a health bar of some sort with a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water to fuel my workouts were also mandatory.  

Why do you climb? Keeping it simple is fine, but don't be shy about taking this answer as far down the rabbit hole as you want to go. We'd love to hear it.

There is a philosophy that climbing heightens every one of our senses. The focus is intense for everyone who experiences climbing on the sharp end. Your body’s sense of awareness skyrockets, and mental calmness and absolute focus become almost second nature. You also begin to have a million excuses to travel and to be healthy, all of which I have loved even before climbing, only this sport has significantly amplified those desires. Can anyone who participates in this sport not share a moment when they want to enjoy the view to admire the incredible positions that they are in? It’s absolutely beautiful.   

It’s hard to not acknowledge how special the climbing community can be as well. There is a passion with many in our community to venture out and explore just as much. Seeing their successes and happiness is very inspiring to see.  

Why do I climb? To be on a desert tower, or to sleep on a big-wall, or to have real-life commitments to adventure with those you love. The experiences are amazing.

We hear you’re a youth climbing coach and founder of the Norte Vista High School Rock Climbing Team. What differences do you see between today’s youth and the previous generation of climbers? What excites you most about the future of climbing?

This club has got to be the most beautiful and amazing thing to come out of climbing as well as teaching. Most youth teams are competition teams, whereas mine does teach and coach climbing, but the philosophy revolves around the education and appreciation of the outdoors, with an emphasis on the National Park System. As such, Zion, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree are the three main parks we visit.

Various locations across Southern California, as well as Red Rocks and Bishop, are two other premier spots I introduce them to. Along with these locations, mountain ranges, such as the Sierra Nevadas, are taught while listing significant peaks throughout. Canyoneering in Zion and the San Gabriel Mountains is another activity that is also taught and introduced.

Are the Novi climbers put in competitions? They are, but mainly as an introduction to that facet of climbing. However, I do hope to put more students in competitions in the upcoming school year. Lastly, because my greatest inspirations are Lynn Hill, Steph Davis, Mayan Smith-Gobat, and Tommy Caldwell, I focus on trying to develop the most passionate students into all-around climbers, just as my biggest influences are.

My community of students are Latino/Latina and truthfully, do not have access or the resources to participate in these activities. As overwhelming as it can be at times, I’m inspired to be the resource to these activities. Most everything was self-taught, through a lot of pain and sacrifice, so to give them the knowledge and this access is truly an honor that matches the great level of responsibility behind it.

While I was always someone who accepted taking risks for myself, I will never take risks with them. Each one of them is a very unique and amazing in their own way and it inspires me to see how they will take this sport and how it changes their lives for the better. The climbing community of Hangar 18 and The Factory Climbing gyms in Southern California have been a big help with helping these amazing young students. Alumni also continue to train, assist with trips, and help the younger members of the club with the sport. It truly is a blessing. I still hope to take one up with me up El Capitan. Again, those that know me, know when I’m fixated on a goal, I’m going to try my hardest to make it happen.

The thing that excites me most about the future of climbing is the increasing number of people that are big-wall free climbing. Watching Nina Williams and Sasha Digiulian making the transition to traditional climbing, as well as Adam Ondra talking about free climbing the Dawn Wall, brings about such excitement that I only hope increases. It baffles me how most people do not participate in traditional climbing and I wish it would be mixed up with all the other forms of climbing. The views, the quality of climbing, and the exposure is just heinous. I’m excited about climbing being part of the Olympics, but seeing what the world’s best can do outdoors excites me much more, especially on El Capitan.

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What's your favorite climbing gym?

Hangar 18 in Southern California. The Upland and Riverside gyms have a community of amazing individuals who are truly supportive and caring. They have helped tremendously with my recovery as well as helping my students gain access into the crazy world that you and I love so dearly.

What's your favorite place to climb outside?

Yosemite or Zion. The main reason I got into climbing was to climb these absolutely beautiful walls. It’s just so amazing beyond belief to interact with the world’s natural wonders in such a physical, mental and spiritual way. I also absolutely love, love, love Mt. Rainier National Park. Mountaineering always had a strong appeal and was on the cusp of pursuing it before I fell in love with El Capitan. With two fused ankles, I may not ever get into mountaineering again, but with the possibility of returning to climb on the big stone, it’s really something I do not mind at all.

If you could give a single tip to a new climber, what would it be?

What I’m about to share falls in line with my philosophy on the capabilities of every human being out there. What I share with colleagues, students, and especially my climbing students, is that everybody is capable of achieving great things, whether it be academically, artistically or athletically. It can be really disappointing for me to see people impose limitations on themselves because they do not believe they are capable of working toward a better education, or improving their athletic or artistic abilities.

Should one accept that the fight toward a great goal requires an acceptance of a long journey, as well as the arduous and consistent fight toward it, one can achieve more than believed possible. I truly believe this. People need to be believed in and encouraged.  

If there is a single tip I would give to a new climber, it would be that each of them can do amazing things in the sport. Believe it. Accept that with proper training, nutrition, rest, and acceptance toward the fight to succeed, the sky's the limit to what you originally believed you can do.  Believe in yourself and do not allow anyone to cast doubt on your goals and ambitions, whether it be in climbing or anything else. The rest is up to you. The question is, how bad do you want it and will you fight for it?

What has changed in your mental approach to climbing since your injury? What have you learned that you could share with readers who haven’t been through something like this?

My mental approach before the accident was an obsession to focus on the regulation of my heartbeat or the calmness of my mind when performing on the rock. After suffering such traumatic injuries, you can’t help but understand firsthand the consequences of what could go wrong in this sport, whether on a rope and especially without. I honestly feel that many people who participate in the sport can be oblivious to the very real risks that we take when we engage in it. The beautiful thing about the practice of mental focus before the accident is that I still remember what it is like to remain so acutely focused when soloing, and that there is a tremendous amount of reassurance when I’m on gear. Was it scary the first time I climbed outdoors after the injury? Yeah, but it was very short lived. There is no thought about falling when performing on the rock, as it should be. To maximize performance, you need absolute concentration and dedication to the movement and commitment required.   

Surprisingly, people have either emailed me or approached me for advice on free soloing AFTER my accident. Free soloing is glamorized in climbing media as being the most “pure” form of rock climbing and it makes me wonder how much influence it has on people’s decisions to do so. In the end, it is so high-risk to do so that while there is a temptation for most climbers, they do not end up participating in it anyways.

 

What was your "aha moment" with FrictionLabs?

Many Norte Vista High School climbing students were asked to try the chalk from FrictionLabs during their weekly training sessions and everyone loved how soft the Unicorn Dust was. One student specifically mentioned how they feel they need only so little of it because it stays on your hand in comparison to other chalk. My gym now carries FrictionLabs for sale and the youth climbers are ecstatic to know that it can be purchased. They absolutely love it.

Anything else you want to share that you think readers might be interested in?

Most of my major influences in climbing were women. I saw a video of Lynn Hill free climbing the Nose, which introduced my love for El Capitan. Steph Davis introduced my love for Desert Towers as well as free soloing Castleton Tower. Mayan Smith-Gobat inspired me to try and free climb the Salathe headwall. As a result, I talk about this to the students in my club, highlighting women as some of my biggest role models in climbing. I also highlight Ashima Shiraishi as an example of how gender should not be a predisposition to athletic potential. Especially in the Latino culture, women are generally subservient to men. I teach to both the boys and girls that women are as strong as men, as highlighted by the accomplishments of two of the youth team members Kimberly Martinez and Lucy Brito, who have developed quite tremendously as a result of their enthusiasm and dedication to the sport. As such, “climbing like a girl” carries a positive connotation, whereas in other sports it is seen as condescending toward men and women to make such a comment.

Also, I love making people laugh, usually at my expense…but it’s okay, as long as it brings a smile to their face. :)

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Follow Alain and his high school rock climbing club on Instagram and Facebook.  

Want to read more? Check out this interview Dirtbag Dreams did with Alain.

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