Rising from the Dust: A Free-Solo Accident

By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure. She is currently on an epic climbing roadtrip around the American West. Look for more blog posts and photos from Sara coming soon!

Sometimes life asks us to begin again, and those fortunate enough to be given a second chance often find themselves dealing with a whole lot more than just a clean slate. From stroke victims to those who have lost limbs or become paralyzed, the stories of how people deal with reforming their perspectives and self-worth sometimes go unheard. So here is the story of my close friend, Alain De La Tejera, who escaped death by a seemingly perfect execution of physics, or more likely, pure luck of the draw.

Alain De La Tejera and Andrew Vaughan on Freerider, Yosemite NP (2013).
Alain and Andrew Vaughan working parts of Freerider, Yosemite NP (2013).

It was December 26th, 2014, and I imagine the sun shining harshly on his back, his head a mess of brown hair, his arms and feet delicately navigating up Candy O, a 5.11b sport climb in New Jack City, CA. His movements were controlled, his mind calm. He had already warmed himself up on several easier routes, and when the idea came to him to free-solo this 68 foot vertical wall, there was no question, it was just a matter of following through.

Photo: Jesse Ray
Alain is taken away by helicopter. Photo: Jesse Ray

All he really recalls from Candy O was that his hand placements felt amazing. But suddenly the ground was speeding towards him, and for 50 feet he somehow rationalized how he was going to land. With knees bent his body bounced upon impact, much like a rubber ball, and he fell again, face first into a bush. He sustained multiple fractures in his feet and lower leg, with tissue loss that alarmed doctors enough to question amputation. He also damaged vertebrae, but was not paralyzed thankfully, and broke an arm and a wrist, not to mention numerous scrapes and cuts. Dozens of surgeries later, he barely remembers anything from the first month of recovery. But he had vivid dreams of falling, abandonment, of car bombs he couldn’t diffuse, or of winter slopes from which he was left to watch the sun set, fearing the inevitable night with only a t-shirt. He mind was of course undergoing a tremendous amount of stress and self-reevaluation.

Alain peers down into a crevasse in the Cascades.
Alain peers down into a crevasse in the Cascades.

See, Alain had always been an advocate for living life to its fullest, jumping into the void, facing fear, and pushing limits. He trained hard, almost religiously, utilizing strategies from his cross-country running days. Each day was a new adventure for Alain, from a trail run to laps on his many climbing projects, like Cosmic Debris, a slightly overhung 5.13b finger crack, which he finally redpointed in 2014, along with The Phoenix, a 13a. He was strong, motivated, and did everything in his power to bring his dreams to reality. He was working on freeing parts of Freerider, a 5.12d mega climb on El Capitan, as well as the nearby Salathe Headwall. He had completed the Astroman/Rostrum linkup in just over 9 hours, finished the El Capitan/Half Dome linkup in 28 hours, and over in Zion National Park he was working on freeing The Moonlight Buttress, a 5.12d.

Alain on Cosmic Debris, 5.13b. Photo: Mark Andrew Wilson.
Alain on Cosmic Debris, 5.13b. Photo: Mark Andrew Wilson (2014).
Norte Vista High School Climbing (NOVI), the third official climbing club of California, created by Alain.
Norte Vista High School Climbing (NOVI), the third official High School climbing club of California, created by Alain, a substitute teacher for the city of Riverside, CA. Photo: David Macias (2014).

Before his accident, Alain was seemingly invincible. He was rising to new limits, chasing dreams that only seemed to multiply. He always joked about how, being in his early 30’s, time was running out. The more he got, the more he wanted from climbing, and the more adventurous and passionate he became, often to the compromise of some very important relationships in his life. Many friends and family were seeing him slowly drift further and further into his athletic endeavors. But I can’t blame him for wanting so much. His passion was contagious, his character, incredibly humorous and kind.

Alain on Separate Reality, 5.12a in Yosemite NP. Photo: Adam Prieto.
Alain on Separate Reality, 5.12a in Yosemite NP. Photo: Adam Prieto (2014).

My dreams prior to the accident were generally revolving around the theme of ultimate freedom and self-control.

A few months ago, I asked him if maybe he had become too impulsive and he couldn’t help but cry. The truth was, yes, his raw passion finally backfired. Everything in his life, from his trip to Central America to better learn the effects of civil war to a sudden desire to conquer Mt. Shasta and Rainier, had played out so wonderfully. Like any person whose passions seemed to only provide a life-enhancing reward in the end, he became addicted to those sensations of sublime adventure and pure joy, not to mention grand satisfaction from having conquered his own fear.

But he walked a fine line when he picked up the habit of free-soloing, and while his actions proved, again, to be beneficial to his happiness and mental strength as a climber, he realized (after his accident) that he had become too engrossed, tunnel-visioned, and could no longer truly see how his pursuits were affecting others, let alone his well-being.

Alain’s original wrist operation went very wrong, and a specialist noticed his hand was slightly crooked, resulting in yet another surgery.

There is a feeling that this was a natural progression, that free-soloing was inevitable in my life and that regardless of my pursuits, I would have found what was the most beautiful and surreal feeling ever experienced, to control your heart rate, the sweat from your pores, and of the ability to stay so focused despite the inevitable consequence should failure of the smallest mishap occur. The mind performing under these circumstances is meditative, not adrenaline seeking. It became a drug […] Maybe life had to slow down…things were progressing too fast and I was thinking too little. Reflecting now on what is truly important, I was naïve. A rock is a rock, but my relationships with others, I can’t stress enough how that’s what really matters.  – Alain

Alain was one of my climbing mentors and had
Alain was one of my climbing mentors and had “forced” me to rope-gun Snake Dike, 5.7 R, to the top of Half-Dome when I was barely leading, but it was an unforgettable experience (2012).

After three casts, a back brace, and a circular external fixator for his left leg, it has been a long journey, and there is still so much more to endure. His mind often daydreamed about putting on climbing shoes again, but then he’d find himself getting angry, unsure as to the right balance between acting on motivation and accepting the rest he needed. For him, it’s a struggle that he’s never had to deal with before. And without climbing, without running, he feels that he wouldn’t be quite Alain anymore.

Alain cheers from atop the Eichorn Pinnacle in the high country of Yosemite NP.
Alain cheers from atop the Eichorn Pinnacle in the high country of Yosemite NP (2014).

He questioned his intentions, questioned whether he should quit climbing altogether, but recent visits to Yosemite have thankfully helped reignite his passion. He can’t deny an integral part to who he is. People were upset with him for his unrelenting enthusiasm to workout soon after the accident, saying he’s too ambitious, in denial, or impatient. But most of us support his anxiousness, and truthfully, the same stubbornness that got him into this mess is going to be what gets him out of it.

Alain Jugs. Photo: Louie Anderson (2012).
Alain Jugs. Photo: Louie Anderson (2012).
Alain hops on the bike to jump-start physical therapy.
Alain bravely hops on the bike to jump-start recovery earlier this year.

So after eight months of falling apart and being pieced back together, from depression, to lapses in consciousness due to medications, to awakening inside a body that doesn’t quite seem to fit his identity anymore, Alain’s spirit remains surprisingly unbroken. Friends tell stories of how he’d mess with the nurses by pretending to be in pain and when they’d ask what was wrong, he’d respond with something akin to, “Ohh, why am I so handsome?” He always loves telling stories and is silly for the sake of making people laugh. Alain has inspired dozens of people, including myself, to pursue life and live out their dreams, and he strove to share his passions in the purest of ways. What can be more beautiful than that? And now, he’s begun climbing again, but with a new outlook on his actions and his relationship with fitness altogether.

Soon after this photo was taken, Alain's left leg was freed of its external fixator.
Soon after these photos were taken, Alain’s left leg was freed of its external fixator.

What does it mean to have life? To be given the ability to breathe in the air around you, to see the sights that you see, to be able to touch the skin of those you love and experience feelings of pain, love, and happiness? What does it mean to cry, laugh, communicate with others, to develop life-lasting, as well as losing, relationships throughout our lifetime. We all have been given life and with it these amazing and surreal abilities for which to experience the world within and around us. It is truly beautiful and indescribable in words, as much as we try, to know that each and every one of us has been given life…- Alain

Have a similar story, or know a friend who endured severe injuries? Share a comment below.

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