It still astounds me that of all the things crazy and sane I have done while backpacking, I have only suffered one debilitating injury. But as this photo shows, once was quite enough.
In the Spring of 2001 I was taking a bunch of Lincoln students for a 4-day hike through the Argentine Andes. On the third day we were climbing a scree slope to a ridge that overlooked our final campsite, the refugio at Laguna Jakob. I was walking about 30 feet behind a student. Her foot loosened some small rocks, which then allowed a slab of slate the size of a card table to cascade down the slope. It crashed into my leg right above the kneecap. Had it hit that bone I would have been crippled for life, and my backpacking days would have been over.
I yelped in pain, but still managed to make it to the ridge only a minute away. The pain seemed manageable. Unknown to me that rock had crushed tissue, nerves and blood vessels. The wound left only a small exterior mark, but under the skin the damage was extensive. Blood spilled out into the surrounding tissue and began to press beneath the skin, slowly ballooning my leg into a nightmarish shape.
The refugio was one hour away straight down. Most of the students headed down as I followed behind. After ten minutes it was clear that I could not go on. The pain in the leg had immobilized me. To put any pressure on it at all was to feel something like an electric jolt course through my body. It was the most intense physical pain I had ever experienced. I had a walkie-talkie and used it to call the students already at the refugio. A group headed back up the mountain and brought me down with a stretcher. The next day I arranged for a horse to carry me off the mountain and into the town of Bariloche.
A doctor in town told me that the bruise on my leg was the largest he had ever seen.