How an ice climbing injury led to an exploration of Mesa Verde in winter

Sometimes the best trips are the ones that don’t go to plan. Not that I enjoy tragedy or suffering, rather, going with the flow and seeing where the wind takes me is a quiet kind of joy that I rarely get to experience with my overplanned life. Of course, I wish it didn’t take a concussion and a sprained ankle to get us there. It’s not about what goes wrong, it’s about what you make of things when they go wrong. In our case, exploring Mesa Verde in winter turned around our trip and made things right.

Before I tell you about the kivas of Mesa Verde, I imagine you want to know how we got there. Not just the literal roads we took but the steps that brought us to this decision and itinerary. The plan, that you already know didn’t work out, was a Utah and Colorado ice climbing trip sprinkled in with some quality family time. My husband Marc and I were itching to climb some waterfalls and hunt for fresh ski tracks. A recent snow storm had created avalanche conditions at our first destination so we had already altered our plans once and we found ourselves dragging my mom to what would be her first, and likely her last, ice climbing adventure with us.

This is a significant part of the story only because for two of the big climbing falls I’ve been a part of, my mom was there. Now I’m not blaming her, not at all. But if we have to blame someone, it might as well be her. But seriously, as if any mom needs more reasons to be nervous every time her baby girl goes climbing.

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Marc near the top of Hidden Falls right before the fall that changed the direction of the trip.Brenda Bergreen

When we climb together, Marc rarely, if ever, takes a big fall. A better climber than me, he is rarely pushing his limits when I’m planning to follow. When we ice climb, Marc never falls. After all, isn’t that the number one rule of ice climbing? 

The Fall

The ice looked beautiful and the route intimidating. The best belay spot would have me slamming into the ice if Marc were to fall. So I tied myself to a tree. Marc looked strong and smooth, he placed a few ice screws before getting to a rest ledge. He rested and I waited. Then he made a move, reached high to place a screw, and climbed back down to his rest spot. As he continued to rest, I realized that he seemed scared. This surprised me because his mental game is usually pretty strong, I’m the one who struggles to climb past my gear.

Finally, Marc made moves to climb past his ice screw. A few feet from the top, he paused as if wondering if he should place another screw. In the instant he decided not to, I realized the mistake I had made. I had misread the signs. Marc was not scared, he was pumped. His arms were tired and he was anxious to be finished. 

That same moment, he reached over the edge with a tool and as his weight shifted forward his feet popped out from under him. I watched it happen. Unable to hold himself, he came flying down toward a ledge he was bound to hit. The crampon on his right foot caught on the sling attached to the ice screw causing him to flip upside down. It happened too fast and yet felt like everything was in slow motion. Then, I was yanked up. Hard. My knee hit something and then I jerked to a stop, held fast by my anchor to the tree. Marc stopped falling, his head only a few feet from the ledge. But he had hit his head when he flipped over. I froze, waiting for a response and afraid there wouldn’t be one.

 “Lower me.” 

The stern words restarted my heart and I rushed to obey. Once he was on the ground, I tried to run to him and was once again yanked backward by my safety tied to the tree. On the hike out, I asked Marc his name every few seconds. The emergency room trip determined the worst of his injuries were a mild concussion, a sprained ankle, and a sprained wrist. Marc’s crampon was mangled and his helmet cracked. I can’t imagine the state of his confidence because I know mine was shaken.

Suddenly, our adventurous vacation became a sightseeing excursion. What were the hikes we could do and things we could see with a sprained ankle? If there’s any upside to falling, it’s that it forces you to slow down and appreciate opportunities. 

Alternatives

Mesa Verde National Park was an obvious choice for somewhere to go. Of course as we visited the most popular and accessible of the cliff dwellings, we dreamed of returning and snowshoeing to more remote and less visited ones. Little did we know that soon after our trip, Spruce Tree House would be closed for the foreseeable future due to threat of rock fall.

The benefit to sightseeing in winter is that the crowds dwindle allowing for the quiet and solitude required to immerse yourself in the spirit and history of a place. A self-guided tour for most of the year, a visit to Spruce Tree House in winter meant joining one of three daily tours. Marc limped along the half mile trail and we explored the majestic cliff dwelling grateful to find ourselves there. 

After that trip, we became intrigued and inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Southwest. The architecture, the way of life, and the natural surrounding beauty all suck you into the story of the place. We have since visited many archeological sites from Canyon de Chelly to Chaco Canyon. We’ve learned about the balance between our ability to visit and explore these sites and the desire to protect them. And we’ve committed to teaching our children about these places.

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A desolate open road in Utah leads to many possibilities for exploration around the Four Corners.Marc Bergreen

We carried on the empty winter roads of Utah, stood in Four Corners, and marveled at Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon. Who would have thought that being forced to slow down and adjust our plans would change the direction of our life, not just our vacation.

BRENDA BERGREEN is a storyteller and photographer living in Evergreen, Colorado, with her husband and adventure partner, Marc Bergreen. As a Colorado native she loves exploring all that the state has to offer both through adventure and relaxation. For more from the Bergreens visit www.bergreenphotography.com and www.thebergreens.com.

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Natural Bridge Arch as seen in winter in Bryce Canyon.Marc Bergreen