This is a true story I’ve always wanted to put on paper and never have….
Its a story about adventure, good friends, and tempting fate…oh and chance…the chance of something that is apparently less than being struck by lightening.
I’d played with rock climbing before. I wasn’t good, but I was a decent athlete and I loved the little bit I had done. I remembered watching climbers on the cliffs overhanging the turquoise blue waters surrounding Lion’s Head on Georgian Bay. They clung to the rocks like dancers dangling from ropes. It was beautiful. It was incredible. I wanted to try. My dad told me don’t you dare. Dare I did.
13 years later I was a confused and unhappy Officer Cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston going into my second year. During a two week training phase in St. Jean at the beginning of the summer with my hair in a bun, and sweat dripping through my army fatigues I had struck up a conversation with Chris. “Do you climb?” he had asked, or something of the sort. “A little,” I had responded, “but I’d love to do more”. “We should do a trip then” he had said. “I’d love that” I’d responded. We then went our separate ways for the summer. I to the West Coast for navy training, and he to New Brunswick for Infantry training. The conversation was buried as my brain got scuttled with naval terminology and basic navigation and ship handling skills.
I returned to my parents house between Barrie and Orillia with a few weeks to spare for the summer. I had made no plans and was itching to do something fun, something exciting, something adventurous.
I don’t remember who called. It could have been Chris, it could have been our friend Bjorn. The next thing I knew Chris was driving up from Toronto, I was hopping on the back of his motorcycle, and we were heading to Montreal to meet Bjorn. We traded the bike in for Bjorn’s beater and headed south. First to New Hampshire, then on to New River Gorge, West Virginia.
We took turns and drove all night. We bought cheap beer, and camped wherever we could without paying. We had a Costco sized bag of pasta, and another container of sauce and had the same dinner every night. Chris had spent time in Africa, and had brought Maggi Cubes that were popular there. We sprinkled these on every meal. Food cooked on a camp stove in the sparsest of parking lots had never tasted so good. We talked about anything and everything. Life at “Mil Col” and how we were dreading going back. Chris’s life in Africa, and, for some reason, we talked about snakes. We talked a lot about snakes. I don’t remember everything we said, but I do remember Chris informing us that you could shock the body with a spark plug and it would slow the spread of the poison. I learned about the Black Mamba and how it was the most poisonous snake in the world. The Black Mamba became a sort of bogey man of the trip. I filed all of this “snake info” into the “useless facts that I would never need to know” folder in my brain.
We climbed for a few days in New Hampshire, then headed for West Virginia. New River Gorge was known for great Sport Climbing. Not ready to tempt lead, this would be a perfect playground for me. We had never seen Washington, D.C, so we made a detour, and got in at midnight. We ran around the city, climbing on statues and snapping pictures. It was a different world before September 11, 2001. Always forgetful, I remember putting my camera case down in front of the White House. We went on our way, and an hour later, I’d remembered where we had left it. We returned. It was still there. We got hopelessly lost leaving D.C. We crossed the border into West Virginia as the sun was coming up. The boys slept. Chris in the front seat, Bjorn in the back. I drove. The air was crisp and cool and fog floated in the valleys like it was hiding what lurked beneath.
The boys woke, and we talked excitedly about the climbing in the area. I was nervous about knowing my knots. The old navy adage “If you don’t tie knots tie lots” was not necessarily the best motto for a new climber. “Do you think there are snakes here?” Bjorn had asked at one point. Clearly all the black mamba talk had started to get to him. I laughed. “Really Bjorn? Snakes? We are in West Virginia, its no different than Canada!”
Hours later we arrived at our destination. We piled are gear on our backs and began the 5 km hike to the cliffs. I hadn’t slept all night, but I was excited about the climbing we would do. As we made our way from the car, a bird had chirped cheerily in the woods. “Ooh Bjorn,” I had taunted “Its a rattle snake”. I can’t remember what he had replied, but I hope that it had been along the lines of “shut-up Nicole”.
I did my first climb, and the boys scouted out a cliff a little farther down the trail. They started climbing and I offered to grab the rest of the gear. Chris was climbing, Bjorn was belaying. I walked along the dirt trail which lined the cliff with out a care in the world, gear in my hands, and my eyes watching the boys.
Suddenly, I felt a prick in my ankle. It felt like a needle. Damn-it, I thought. I must have stepped close to a prickly bush. I’m such a klutz. I looked down. There, coiled in the dirt, and ready to strike for what I would learn was the third time was a snake.
I stood there and looked at the snake. It looked at me. Time moved slowly as I began to comprehend that I probably hadn’t stepped on a prickle bush. The boys weren’t far away. I looked up at Chris on the rock and said calmly “I think I just got bit by a snake”. At this point, the snake was still coiled and ready to strike, and I hadn’t moved. “Get away from it” Chris, who had a birds eye view had shouted. Oh yah. Right. Move. Chris quickly repelled down. Bjorn took hold of me, and Chris went after the snake. “Does it hurt?” They had asked. “Not really” I had replied, although I could feel my leg starting to throb. “Try not to move too much” Chris had said.
Within seconds, Chris had killed the snake. Bjorn hoisted me over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. They left their gear. All that gear! It was worth so much. “I’m fine” I protested. “I can walk”. “Don’t leave the gear”. They ignored me.”Walking will spread the poison, and we want to reduce that” they had informed me. To start, Bjorn carried me, and Chris held the snake in case it needed to be identified for anti-venom purposes. They rushed through the trails, and I remember feeling dizzy and nauseous at being held upside down. At this point, I don’t remember my ankle hurting, or if it did it was minimal to being held upside down and hoisted from sweaty back to back. Every few hundred feet Chris and Bjorn would switch me for the snake and we would continue on our way. I remember Bjorn at one point offering to carry me the whole way rather than be stuck with the still twitching culprit. At one point, we passed another climber with a phone. We used it to call an ambulance. The other climbers, they were from Israel if I recall correctly, helped in the evacuation effort. I was sweaty, and hadn’t showered or slept for days. I remember thinking I probably stunk and these poor boys, all of whom were good looking were stuck carrying me. What would they be thinking!
We reached the cars and an open field. An ambulance was waiting. The attendants were lazy and waited for the boys to bring me to them, rather than meet them part way across the field with a stretcher. They dropped the stretcher as they loaded me in the ambulance. They put oxygen on me. I protested. “You probably won’t die” one of them told me. Probably wouldn’t die? I thought. Really? the thought of dying hadn’t even crossed my mind. Why had they had to bring that up?
We arrived at the small town hospital. The nurses were cute and spoke with the drawl we had been mimicking since entering West Virginia. The town doctor, who was also the town preacher and veterinarian wasn’t there. She had been attending a calf birth, but we were assured, she would be there soon. She arrived with mud on her jeans and wearing big rubber boots. The first thing she asked was, “Do you believe in God?” Is it a good time to start? I wondered.
They did an allergy test for anti-venom. As we waited for the results my ankle continued to swell, and it began to throb. The boys left to fetch the gear, and promised they would be back as soon as they could. I had been brave with them around, but I remember the moment they left, bursting into tears.
They began to administer the anti-venom and morphine. By this time, my leg was so painful that I didn’t notice a difference with the morphine. Every 15 minutes a nurse would come in and measure my ankle, drawing a line with a felt permanent marker to indicate the swelling. I remember the feeling of the marker on my skin. It was the most searing, intense, burning, pain. Many say a snake bite is worse than child-birth. I actually refused to take any pain medication during Max’s birth to see how true this was….I’d say the verdict is still out. They both hurt like he@(#. For the next three days I became show and tell at the hospital. Many of the nurses had never seen a snake-bite patient before. They huddled around my ankle. Most of them told me I was stupid for prancing up and down a trail in my flip-flops. They were probably right.
My ankle swelled to 27 inches, the size of my waist. Yes, I am prone to exaggeration, but I promise you, and I have the doctor’s notes to prove it, I am not exaggerating in the least. My ankle looked like an alien body part attached to my leg. It resembled a balloon more than anything that had once been part of me. The antivenom began to take effect. The next morning the boys returned. A rainstorm had hit that night, and they were soaked. The hospital told them they could have the bed beside mine. I craved coca-cola and apples. The boys went out and tracked them down, and then we laid around watching T.V. At one point, I remember that all that had been on was “The World’s Most Deadliest Snakes”. How ironic. At least, I though, it could have been worse, I could have been bit by a black mamba, and even spark plugs wouldn’t have saved me. After three days in the hospital I was released. My ankle still throbbed, but the swelling was down and I was on the mend. I remember stopping in a town 30 minutes away. “Ain’t you the girl who was bit by the snake” an old man with a kind face, hunched back and suspenders had asked. “I guess so”. I’d replied.