Difficult ascent: Chattanooga climber uses prosthetic leg, foot to regain lost ground
By Christina Cooke
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 23, 2005
As Chris Chesnutt, 35, of Chattanooga ascends Little Cedar Mountain with his one-eyed pit bull, Obie, he stops periodically to admire the grooves that the wind and rain have carved into the limestone boulders strewn about the trail.
Mr. Chesnutt is tall and thin, has startlingly blue eyes and wears a wool hat and an untucked red shirt with a few holes in the back. He carries a backpack full of climbing gear and walks with such vigor that you would never guess he has a prosthetic leg underneath his army green pants and black leather boots.
Five years ago, Mr. Chesnutt was climbing in Prentice Cooper State Forest when he slipped at the top of a cliff and fell 85 feet,breaking almost every bone in his body. He underwent extensive reconstructive surgery and had no choice but to get his right leg amputated below the knee.
Despite the trauma of the fall, Mr. Chesnutt continues to climb. About once a week, he sets out with a prosthetic foot he has adapted for climbing.
“I had done it over half of my life,” he said. “It’s something I’ve devoted so much time and energy to, it’d be almost criminal to give it up.”
Mr. Chesnutt taught himself to climb when he was 13, after a friend’s father introduced him to the sport.
“He was incredibly naturally talented,” said his friend and climbing partner, Jerry Roberts. “He seemed like he always knew where the next hole was, and he had a good flow about him. He was very bold and very straightforward. He’s also really smart, so he was working out the sequences really well.”
Mr. Chesnutt worked as a tree surgeon after high school but sought out new climbing challenges during his time off. He tackled routes in about 20 states, including Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, Wyoming, Oregon and Texas.
At his peak, he was climbing routes rated up to 13-C, which in those days was about as difficult as you could get, said Mr. Roberts. The climbing community noticed his talent; the March 1993 issue of Climbing magazine featured Mr. Chesnutt on the cover, ascending a route near Dayton, Tenn.
“I like the sense of freedom and adventure,” Mr. Chesnutt said of the sport. “I like the feeling of elation that you get when you get to the top of a route that’s right at your edge.
“Plus, the relationships you develop with your climbing partners are the best friendships you’ll ever have. You’re taking each other’s lives in your hands.”
In April 2000, Mr. Chesnutt, Mr. Roberts and another friend, Travis Eiseman, were climbing previously unclimbed routes in a secluded, old-growth section of Prentice Cooper State Forest. It was nearing dusk when Mr. Chesnutt and Mr. Eiseman decided to climb one more route before meeting Mr. Roberts back at camp.
Mr. Chesnutt ascended the route perfectly. At the top of the cliff, he untied himself from the rope and was passing it around a tree to set up a rappel when he slipped and fell. He remembers the feeling of acceleration and the sound of the wind in his ears as he fell toward the ground holding a rope not tied to anything.
He landed feet first, breaking both legs, his back, pelvis and left arm. His head hit the ground between two rocks, crushing his face from his eye sockets down and knocking out all but 11 teeth. “I couldn’t tell what was broken and what wasn’t because everything hurt,” he said. According to wilderness medical experts, most people cannot survive falls of more than 30 feet. Mr. Chesnutt proved an exception; he had fallen 85 feet, and he was still alive.
While Mr. Eiseman ran to call a rescue squad, Mr. Chesnutt lay bleeding on the ground, forcing himself to stay composed in order to ward off death. “I wanted to panic so bad, but I knew if I did, my heart rate would increase and I would start to bleed faster,” he said. “I knew I had to stay calm. It’s one of those things that you either do or you don’t.”
A few hours after Mr. Eiseman returned with a sleeping bag to warm his friend, a group of rescue workers bushwhacked onto the scene. They gave Mr. Ches- nutt some morphine and valium, started an IV to replace his lost fluids and used a Leatherman tool to give him a tracheotomy that would protect his airway during transport. Then, they carried him several miles out of the wilderness to a LifeForce helicopter that flew him to Erlanger hospital.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Mr. Chesnutt spent two weeks in the hospital while the surgeons tried to repair his broken bones and reconstruct his face, which was “like trying to put back a wet piece of tissue paper,” according to one. Mr. Chesnutt said that several reconstructive surgeries later, he has 25 plates and 72 screws in his face alone.
Two months after the accident, with no alternative, Mr. Chesnutt decided to replace his right leg with a prosthetic. Knowing how much Mr. Chesnutt loved to climb, Kevin Gardner, a prosthetist at Orthotic & Prosthetic Associates, offered him a collection of extra prosthetic feet he had lying around the office.
At home, Mr. Chesnutt stripped the feet of their outer coatings to reach the compacted foam with- in, which he carved into shapes that he could balance on ledges and fit into cracks. Then, he glued on climbing-shoe rubber to pro- vide friction. With his specially crafted feet, he climbs as often as he can and works for tree services sporadically, he said.
“Recovery has been really long and really hard for him because he never really has recovered,” said his mother, Sherry. “He’s still in a lot of pain. His face hurts him all the time. It’s been a long ordeal for him. He has really bad days sometimes.”
“I approach things a little slower now,” he said. “I can still do everything I used to do, but I have to do it differently, and I have to think more about it. I used to be clumsy, reckless. I have to pay attention more now,” he said.
CLIMBING HIS WAY BACK UP
Once he reaches the top of Little Cedar mountain, Mr. Chesnutt untangles his climbing rope and ties it around the base of a fir tree on the edge of a cliff overlooking Nickajack Lake. He adjusts his harness, replaces his walking foot with one of his climbing feet and attaches himself to the rope. Then he steps to the edge of the cliff, leans back and lowers himself down to the ground in order to climb his way back up.
The accident has taught him the value of life, he said. “You have a great day one day and the next thing you know, two weeks later, you wake up in the hospital and your life has changed,” he explained. “I’ve got a deeper appre- ciation for life and the things that make life fun. All of life is good, even the rough parts.”
“I’m just glad to be here,” he said.