As he lay under a giant boulder, its weight crushing his right leg and the blood seeping from the shattered limb, one thought kept running through his mind: “I just want to live. I just want to live.”
Jethro Watson focused on those words for 12 hours, from the time the rock pinned him to the ground in the climbers’ paradise of the Cederberg in the Western Cape until he was wheeled into an operating theatre for life-saving surgery.
“I knew if I lost consciousness, it would be the end,” he says.
Jethro had been in Cape Town’s Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital to recover from his accident and adjust to his life-changing injuries.
The rock-climbing fanatic’s right leg was smashed beyond repair and surgeons had to amputate it to save his life.
His left leg was badly broken and it’ll be weeks before he can leave the hospital. But Jethro (35) isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor does he want his story to focus on the trauma of losing a limb.
“I’m not out to seek pity,” Jethro said.
“Yes, what happened is a tragedy for me, but there’s a lot of good that’s happened around it as well.
“People have been amazing and pulled out all the stops. The doctors did incredible things to help me survive and hopefully give me a good quality of life.”
But if there’s one person who deserves most of his praise, it’s Nick Muehlhausen, the guy who wrenched the rock from Jethro’s leg with his bare hands. The two climbers had known each other only a few weeks before that dramatic day – but now they have a bond that will last a lifetime.
Jethro fell in love with bouldering eight years ago and has spent the past four years immersing himself in the extreme sport.
He moved from Pretoria, where he worked as a project manager for a construction company, to Cape Town to become what he calls a full-time nomadic rock climber.
He changed his diet to one rich in complex carbohydrates and green leafy vegetables for maximum strength and brainpower, and he quit smoking. He started supporting himself by doing online project management, allowing him plenty of time for his bouldering.
The sport involves climbers scaling boulders without ropes or harnesses, using only special climbing shoes to secure footholds and chalk to keep their hands dry.
Jethro’s climbing technique significantly improved so he decided to go to Rocklands, an isolated rock-climbing camp in the Cederberg where climbers from across the world gather.
He set up camp on 20 April and planned to spend winter in Rocklands as it presented the perfect weather for climbing.
The area doesn’t get much rain and is cool and calm in the mid-year months. Jethro met Nick, a climber from Arizona in the USA, soon after settling into the camp and they hit it off instantly.
On the morning of 13 July, they set off in high spirits to tackle another climb. “I was climbing well,” Jethro says. “I had good people around me. It was a fantastic time and I was in paradise.”
Little did they know the ordeal that awaited them.
The friends headed off after breakfast in perfect climbing conditions. Jethro carried his camera equipment in his backpack, along with a bouldering pad – which is laid on the ground in case of falls – climbing shoes, water, and food.
While making his way up a rounded hill, he encountered a shelf about 1,5m tall and tried to navigate his way around it.
Nick, a more experienced climber, had moved a few meters ahead of him. Jethro says because he was moving upwards, he didn’t notice a boulder had dislodged.
“I’m not sure how it happened – it could’ve been the vibrations of my walking or I could’ve nudged it. But the boulder came loose and started moving down.”
As soon as he saw it, he turned to his left and tried to push himself out of the way. But the rock was rolling too fast and hurtled towards him, crashing into his legs and pinning his right leg under it.
“I remember the snap of bone and this intense weight crushing my leg.
He yelled to Nick who came running down the mountain. Nick dug around Jethro’s right leg but couldn’t make enough room for his friend to pull his limb out, so Nick prised the boulder from his leg enough for Jethro to pull free.
His left leg was clearly broken – but his right leg was a mess.
“It was completely crushed and there was a lot of bleeding. The leg looked flat, let’s put it that way.
“Nick and I are both level-headed. We understood the severity of the situation and we both knew what we needed to do. There was no drastic panic.”
Nick ripped off his shirt and tied it around Jethro’s leg to diminish the blood flow – an action they later learned saved his life.
“Nick looked at me and said, ‘My God, you’re broken.’ Then he ran down the mountain to find a cellphone signal and called the campsite, where people alerted the paramedics.”
Jethro isn’t sure how long it took for help to arrive – he was too focused on staying alive. But he does remember Nick running up and down the mountain: up to check on him and down to be visible to the paramedics.
Once they arrived, they stabilized Jethro and gave him pain medication before he was airlifted to Mediclinic Milnerton in Cape Town. He was later transferred to Christiaan Barnard for more specialized treatment.
Dr. Kirsten Bischof told Jethro his right leg was dead and that it needed to be amputated in order to save his life.
“All I could think of was that I wanted to live. I never considered what the quality of my life would be or even if I’d climb again. I just wanted to live.”
Jethro’s left leg was broken at the head of the tibia and will take months to heal. But he hopes to regain enough mobility and strength in the limb so he can become mobile and perhaps even climb again.
“Even if it’s in some limited fashion,” he says. “I want to return to climbing and hiking and I’m placing my bets on the fact I’ll build the muscle to support the knee properly.”
Jethro, who’s single, acknowledges rock climbing is an inherently dangerous sport but says he was always careful and before this, he’d had no major incidents.
“I’m not angry at the world. I’m sad this happened and it’s certainly difficult to deal with. But I believe it’ll have a good outcome – one way or the other.”