In late March of 2012, a group of climber friends brought me to the famed crags of New York's Shawangunk Ridge, a.k.a. the “Gunks,” to touch real stone for my first time. The weather was just right—crisp enough to get a good grip but warm enough to keep blood flowing through your fingers. Just a few days later, word came to us that Corey Stewart, a wiry 21-year-old climber from New Jersey, had fallen in the same area and was now barely clinging to life. Nobody was sure he'd survive, let alone fully recover, but today, I'm happy to say, he's back at the sport he loves. Here's the story of how he did it.
On April 3, 2012, Stewart went climbing at the West Trapps area of Mohonk Preserve in the Gunks with his friend Max Lasky. He was lead climbing a 5.9 route called “M.F.” when, mid-climb, he inadvertently deviated from his intended line and onto a route that was a full grade higher. Stewart braved forward, using a safety technique to aid his ascent through a difficult crack in the route. He fell twice, rattling his nerves, but not enough to persuade him from the challenge. But it was his third, and final, slip that would change his life.
That time, Stewart fell off the wall in an unusual manner—headfirst rather than feet-first. He cracked his skull on the rock face, and dangled from his rope lifelessly with blood pouring from his helmet. Lasky, a trained wilderness first responder, lowered him to the ground and stabilized him. An emergency room doctor, who happened to be nearby, kept him alive until he could be loaded into a truck for transfer to an ambulance and, eventually, to a helicopter.
After being airlifted out of the mountains, Stewart underwent a risky surgery known as craniectomy, where a skull fragment was removed to take pressure off his swelling brain. Afterwards, he was put into a medically induced, 48-hour coma. The doctors couldn't say whether he would come out of it, but if he did, they warned, he would likely spend whatever life he had left in a vegetative state.
Beating the odds, though, Stewart did come out. Bedridden, he read books and rested while his body healed. Three months later, on June 23, he underwent surgery to restore the previously removed skull fragment, which doctors had sewn inside his abdomen, allowing his body to nourish the living bone cells. Following that second surgery, Stewart continued stretching his neurons with books, video grames and training with lumosity.com.
In January, Stewart moved to Fort Collins, Colorado to pursue a degree in science at Colorado State University. Today, he happily suffers no lasting side effects from his head injury, and has since been rebuilding his climbing skills from the ground up at nearby crags.
In an article in the Watershed Post, Stewart said, “I can never be thankful enough that I still have a mind to call my own, to be independent, to be the same Corey I was on April 2 .”
As a fellow climber, I'm thankful for it, too, not to mention inspired by his incredible recovery and determination to once again reach for the rock.