Recently, I decided to partake in a project that will hopefully benefit an organization called First Descents. They are an organization committed to helping cure young adults of some of the harsh emotional effects of cancer. I attended one of the climbing camps in the capacity of camp photographer, but in the end, the entire experience turned into so much more.
There are three elements to my project, a technical alpine ascent in Bugaboo Provincial Park up in Canada, a tough 17-mile uphill trail run up and over Mt. Werner in Steamboat Springs, CO, and a beefy trail marathon near Ft. Collins, CO. Although these will certainly be challenging endeavors, they are all things that fall well into my range of skills and capabilities. I’ve climbed remote high peaks before, run lots of challenging trail runs and done plenty of physically demanding trail marathons and ultra marathons.
Though I’m totally committed to doing these things for my new First Descents family, I have to confess that I’ll be doing one of the elements to help heal, or maybe a better word is “purge” myself of some lingering demons. Let me back up and explain.
In November of 2009, I, along with my two good friends and climbing partners, Jon and Chris, were climbing up in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is an area up there called Glacier Gorge and at one of the farthest reaches of that area is the Andrew Glacier. Above that, Otis Peak (12,486 feet). I’d been back there a number of times and climbed most all the peaks along that exposed ridge including Hallett Peak, Flatttop, Russell Peak and Taylor Peak, but I still lacked Otis. So that’s why we were there.
Climbing the Andrew Glacier that day was much tougher than any of the previous trips we’d made back there, so we already knew we were going to have our hands full of physical challenges. The grade is only moderately steep, probably no more than 30 or 40 degrees, but with a raging wind and ground blizzard hammering us directly in the face, we were constantly having to shield our faces and check our balance as we kicked steps into the steep snow and ice. And because it was so difficult, we naturally took turns leading out the ascent to prevent any one person from completely exhausting themselves.
As we topped the small headwall at the top of the glacier, we discovered that the wind we’d been battling up to that point was nothing compared to what was happening on top of that open ridge. We’d seriously have to drop to our knees at times just to keep from getting blown off. We’d even have to wait for lulls in the wind gusts to talk because it honestly sounded like a we were standing next to a freight train. When we could talk, we jointly evaluated the conditions and decided that while it was definitely on the border of being a little too dangerous to continue, we’d push ahead just a little farther and then reassess again. From there we figured the summit of Otis was roughly an hour away.
With the wind now at our backs we were actually able to move rather quickly despite climbing a steep summit ridge filled with large icy, talus. After about half an hour, we stopped to evaluate the weather and we decided that since we were probably no more than fifteen minutes from the summit, we’d just go for it.
Then, when were only about ten or fifteen vertical feet from the true summit, I was scrambling up onto a large rock when a ferocious gust of wind hit me from behind. We later decided that it had to have been a gust approaching 60-70 mph. Since I was mid-step and only had one boot on the rocks, and the one on the rock had a crampon on it, I lost my balance and went down hard. To quickly sum up the result, I fell face first into the rocks and subsequently bounced around in the talus for a few feet.
I was fortunately able to collect myself rather quickly and sat up. The first thing I noticed was that there was a lot of blood flying all around, hitting my goggles and pouring from my face and mouth. I also had an acute pain in my left ankle and foot as well as some curious holes in my pants and gaiters. Chris and Jon were there with me immediately to assess the damage and take control of the situation. And for that, I’m thankful. It was brutally cold anyhow, but given the fierce wind we knew we had to move quickly and get down from that exposed peak where we could get warm and better assess the situation.
Being so damn close to topping this thing out and honestly being a little pissed that this had happened, I quasi-hopped up to the true summit and touched the “official” peak marker. Given that that was my third try at Otis, I damn sure wasn’t coming back so I wanted to finish the job. Then the real work began. Climbing down through the icy talus was awful. My ankle wouldn’t support my weight unless I hit exactly flat, which was never. I was dizzy from the head shot, I was bleeding like crazy from my face, I was cold and the windchill was absolutely punishing to any exposed skin. It was also super frustrating to me because under normal circumstances I would have flown down that ridge.
Once back onto the glacier, I began to get a little more worried about the situation. My ankle was throbbing like a mutha’ and the blood letting from my face hadn’t seemed to have abated at all. Chris and Jon were constantly asking me how I felt and up until then I had feigned the truth a little about how dizzy I truly was. Given the steepness of the glacier and risk of falling and possibly taking them out with me, I finally ‘fessed up and mentioned it. With that knowledge, we systematically worked our way down with each of them keeping a close eye on my footwork and overall balance. Fortunately we got down with no problem other than being painfully slow.
Getting off that higher ridge and out of the direct wind helped ease the misery, but we still had hours remaining to trek out of there. My ankle was beginning to become a concern so Chris tightened my boots for me to keep things as stable as possible. We then wasted little time getting moving but we were soon post-holing through the deep snow so the misery continued. But I figured that as long as I was still moving, I at least “thought” that I was going to be okay.
Still about an hour or so from the car I had yet, another scare. I starting throwing up blood. I’d been nauseous since about an hour after I fell, but I figure the cold had probably kept me from actually hurling. Jon and Chris both immediately asked if I’d thrown it up or coughed it up (and there was a lot) and fortunately I had thrown it up. Coughing would have meant something completely different! In actuality I had just swallowed so much over the past few hours that my stomach had finally just rejected the invasion.
When we finally reached the car, I was pretty used up. I had waved off the thought of going to the hospital when Chris and Jon mentioned it on our trek out, but when they asked again, I acquiesced. I was not feeling good at all but I think much of that was the fact that I was dehydrated, hungry and still reeling from yacking up all that blood. So off to the Estes Park hospital we went.
After that initial hospital visit, I had to have a few more visits to the medicos and dentists in the coming days “for further evaluation”. In the end I wound up with a concussion, some loose teeth, a bruised jaw, some nasty cuts and abrasions on my face, a fractured ankle, fractures in my foot, a fractured finger, lots of punctures from my crampons and some bruised ribs. I was pretty much a mess.
The funny thing is that I was never really concerned about going back into the mountains, that is until a few days later. I was on the way to Santa Fe to visit some friends for Thanksgiving and it sort of hit me out of the blue just how serious that whole ordeal could have been. Had I not been able to move on my own, the harsh weather would have become a force that could have determined my outcome…and not in a good way. We had no phone service and it was a solid five-six hour walk out to get help. That meant probably 12-18 hours before anyone could have gotten out and gotten back to me…then another 6-8 hours out, minimum. Simply put, I was lucky, very lucky .
However, a few weeks later I was right back in action, ice climbing in Ouray and a week or two after that ran a tough trail race out in Moab. I had no problems with doing those things, other than some lingering pings in my ankle and jaw, but then again, those activities weren’t really in places where remoteness could be a determining factor if things went wrong.
Now here I am, getting ready to head to one of the most remote areas of the Canadian Rockies to climb a 1,500-foot, technically challenging granite spire. Head games? Not really, but I’d be lying if I said that my accident wasn’t still lingering around inside my climbing helmet a little.
I think what trumps everything though, including fear, is that I do find a tremendous amount of inner peace when I’m in remote and solitary places. I honestly feel like I need to go back out there and find that solitude again and not let fear take away what I truly love. I enjoy people and most social situations, I do, but I find something incredibly peaceful within my soul when I’m isolated. And then, when I can physically challenge myself in those remote places, knowing that the consequences could be harsh if I make a mistake, I find out so much about my spirit, soul and inner strength. It definitely brings a nice level of perspective back to all the trivial bullsh#$ that happens in our daily lives.
I am truthfully very excited about climbing in Canada this July and am consequently training like a maniac every day. I know that standing atop that granite spire will give my soul exactly what it needs and that’s the inner peace I crave so much. And I also know that when I’m standing atop that spire, looking out across an ocean of glaciers it’ll probably purge whatever small demons I have lingering from my accident.
I know a lot of people don’t understand “why”, and that’s okay. But this is who I am and this is what I consider “living”…and not living is, well, it’s dying.