Kelsey Brunner was enjoying a sunny August day of climbing in Boulder Canyon with her boyfriend. She was about to climb off a slab onto the top of the gray granite cliff at Happy Hour Crag. Then she woke up on the ground, confused and in pain.

"I remember just waking up on the ground and them telling me that I fell," Brunner said. "I was like 'no no.' I didn't really understand. When I came to, I could only really see two inches in front of my face."

Brunner is a sophomore majoring in photography and environmental studies at the University of Colorado. Her climbing accident would completely disrupt her life, making her unable to participate in physical activity and her classes, and killing her artistic inspiration. But eventually, the incident would become her inspiration for a photo series that expresses the core of her traumatic experience.

When she fell, Brunner was leading a traditional climb, placing gear in cracks in the rock, relying on their own technical skill to set the gear safely so that it will hold a fall. Brunner was new to traditional climbing. But she had led a more difficult route earlier in the day and was so confident about this one that she had joked it was "too easy."

But something went wrong.

"I put my foot somewhere wrong and I fell," she said.

When she fell, the rope should have caught on the gear she'd placed below her. Instead, that gear tore out of the wall. This left her with 35 feet of air between her and the ground with nothing to stop her fall, except her boyfriend, Matt Cochran, who was belaying her.

"He figured out that I would still take a ground fall even if he took slack up. So he tried to catch me," she said. "I think we fell backwards. So I hit my head. But I mean the paramedics say he saved my life."

Despite absorbing the blow of catching her fall, he was uninjured.

Rocky Mountain rescue arrived within 20 minutes and took her to the intensive care unit at Boulder Community Hospital. Brunner had broken one vertebra in her neck and cracked her skull. She had surgery the next day. Then she began the five-month recovery.

University of Colorado sophomore Kelsey Brunner sets up a tripod on Tuesday at the Visual Arts Complex on the CU-Boulder campus.
University of Colorado sophomore Kelsey Brunner sets up a tripod on Tuesday at the Visual Arts Complex on the CU-Boulder campus. (Jeremy Papasso / Colorado Daily)

'Pretty sure I scared children'

Brunner said that the recovery was difficult for her.

"I had a little bit of depression, in a way, that I couldn't do anything that I wanted to do," she said. "It's a lot of watching TV. A lot of people driving you around."

Brunner said that part of the difficulty was the way people reacted to the injury, and the neck brace.

"You know it was hard going out in public. Interacting with other people was different. It used to be like: 'What happened?! What happened?!'" Brunner said. "I'm pretty sure I scared children. You know, 'cause it's freaky, it's a cast.". It's a brace on your neck. It's weird.

University of Colorado photography major Kelsey Brunner blended X-rays after her climbing accident into self-portraits she took during her recovery.
University of Colorado photography major Kelsey Brunner blended X-rays after her climbing accident into self-portraits she took during her recovery. Brunner says the photos are works in progress. (Kelsey Brunner / Courtesy photo)

"People don't walk around with things like that. I hated it. I didn't even like looking at myself in the mirror in a neck brace or much less being in one, taking pictures in one, showing other people that I was in one."

During her recovery, Brunner continued studying photography with Melanie Walker, who worked with her remotely. Brunner was happy she could continue Walker's photography class, but she had trouble getting past her funk and finding inspiration.

"I encouraged her to try and use her artwork to try and deal with the healing process," Walker said.

This semester, creativity returned. Brunner decided to use her X-rays in a project. She took self-portraits, then superimposed her X-rays over them.

"I guess it was a way to use my injury as inspiration instead of as a negativity," Brunner said. "It helped to express it. To inspire it, maybe. I wouldn't say it helped cope with anything. Photography is different. If I painted or drew, then maybe I could get those feelings out. But photography, it's more of like capturing the moment, capturing the image."

Bruner said that the images in the series seem powerful to her. The injury and the neck brace made her feel weak and small, but being able to use the injury to create something powerful counterbalanced that. Although Brunner did do some climbing photography while she was in recovery, she feels this is different.

"This series of work describes who I am and comes from something in me. I mean, it's technically my bones. It's something personal. I think that's what Melanie was trying to tell me."

"I'm glad she's embracing that horrific accident to make art," Walker said. "I think it's really important for people to embrace their life experience and incorporate that into their artwork."

Brunner says that she is unsure of how people will react to this series of photos. It's not finished yet, it's still a work in progress. But she hopes it will make them think more than her outdoor photography does.

Now, seven months later, Brunner has started climbing again on safer terrain — and with a helmet. She is taking a course at Colorado Mountain College that teaches traditional lead climbing to be sure she doesn't repeat the accident.

Her memories of the accident and the recovery seem surreal.

"It's hard for me to grasp still. But for me it was kind of like an out-of-body experience. I didn't really see it as something that happened. The brain does funny things with trauma, it kinda blocks it out. So now, when I think about it (the accident), I think about it like I'm looking at myself."

Contact Jake Kincaid at jacob.kincaid@colorado.edu.