A lively beginning, a serious test and a sweet return

A lively beginning, a serious test and a sweet return

Catherine Zirker, 26, is an avid rock-climber. So is her husband, Chris Zirker, 24. In fact, they pretty much live outdoors—climbing, backpacking, running, kayaking or launching off ski jumps together.

The couple met in the fall of 2005 while climbing—of course!—at Rocky Top in Charlottesville.

Catherine Anderson and Chris Zirker
May 22, 2009
Photo by Sarah Cramer

Chris was belaying a friend, and Catherine was standing nearby eating her lunch. Chris noticed the confident, athletic woman beside him, and began precariously hopping on and off the rock face while tied to another climber several feet up.

“I knew he was trying to be Mr. Cool,” says Catherine of the chiseled climber with the infectious smile.
The ploy for coolness backfired because within minutes Chris had been dumped on his butt, skidding in the red clay. He looked over at Catherine beaming. “She was laughing,” says Chris. “I had already decided I was going to pursue her.”

Catherine was hesitant. After all, he was still an undergrad at UVA while she was already working as a middle school teacher. But he persisted.

So in an attempt to ward him off, she invited him to join her at the grocery store, “thinking he’d turn down such a riveting date opportunity,” she says. He didn’t. So she threw another curve ball: They both had to dress in full climbing gear (shoes, harnesses, chalk bags) and play Marco Polo in the aisles. When the idea was met with even more enthusiasm, Catherine became intrigued.

The date ended eating frozen yogurt illuminated by blinking headlamps.

From that point on, they were nearly inseparable. They made plans for a big ski trip that January.

But a month before they were scheduled to depart, the couple went skiing at nearby Wintergreen. Chris, a snowboarder, went off a jump at just the wrong angle, and ended up going over backward.

“I saw the whole thing,” says Catherine. “I was kind of laughing because he ate it so badly, but he didn’t roll over. I yelled, ‘Can you move?’ He couldn’t. I immediately signaled for a rescue.”

Chris broke his neck and had to spend the next five months in the hospital.

“Catherine ended up doing the lion’s share of taking care of me,” he says. “I can’t imagine going through what I did without her. I feel very lucky that she decided to stick around with me.”

“It was an easy choice,” she says. “It was Chris. He hasn’t changed.”

Catherine was so inspired by Chris’s rigorous rehabilitation and subsequent recovery that she abandoned teaching, and is now a year away from earning her degree as a doctor of physical therapy.

Chris, who (amazingly) only missed one semester of school throughout the ordeal, is set to earn his master’s in mechanical engineering in 2010. Even though he still walks with a cane, he started skiing again in December 2008, helped in part by Wintergreen Adaptive Sports, a program that helps injured people return to their favorite outdoor activities.

“It was so liberating the first time we were able to ski again,” says Catherine. “It was the first time Chris felt like he didn’t have a disability.”

The couple was finally able to take their long-awaited ski trip last January, and Chris has gradually returned to rock-climbing, kayaking and hiking.

Catherine and Chris tied the knot on May 22 at King Family Vineyards in Crozet. Instead of going to the Bahamas or taking a cruise like a lot of newlyweds, this outdoorsy twosome spent their “honeymoon” at Wintergreen with 16 of their favorite friends, hiking and grilling and soaking up the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where so many of their memories were made.