Thursday, August 27, 2015

Summit Night… The Microcosm of Life

It’s 1:30 in the morning and you’re wide-awake. And it’s not because you’ve been partying balls and have the munchies. In fact, you’re lying in your sleeping bag, in a tent at 16,000 ft with a slight headache that just won’t seem to go away no matter how many grams of Tylenol you ingest. The guy in the tent next to you is crushing logs so deeply you are convinced he is wrestling a wookie…. which makes your lingering insomnia even more frustrating.
On top of the tossing and turning in your stinky sleeping bag, you are racked with a cocktail of feelings and emotions.
Excitement, Fear, Uncertainty, Nervousness, Self doubt.
All percolating in your sleepy head.

This is a typical scenario for most folks as they prepare for a summit attempt on a mountain with any substance to it. I have seen it play out for over 20 years…including last weeks Kilimanjaro expedition.

This was another good one…

As I typically do, I had planned out the staggered times of departure our team based on observed pace over the previous week. Alpha team would depart at 3am and I would depart with Bravo team at 4am. I downloaded expectations for the clients, established contingency plans for potential evacs, arranged my African guide team in the order that seemed most effective… and so on. Dot all the “I”s; cross all the “T”s.

Then we step off…and it all changes. As usual.

Within 10 minutes from camp I noticed that one of my strongest returning vets from last year’s Whitney expedition was dropping off the “peloton”. I spent 30 minutes with him, trying to get him fired up and coax him into lock stepping with me as I watched the rest of the 24 clients slowly pull away up the hill by the light of their headlamps. His legs just felt heavy and his motor wasn’t firing. We’ve all been there. It just wasn’t his day. We both knew it.
But this wasn’t the guy I expected to drop off early.
Alas… strange things happen up high.
As I left my guy in the competent hands of my assistant African guide, I charged up the hill to join the rest of the team. And all was back to normal. The cacophony of folks pressure breathing. The shuffle of the dirt and rocks. The chant of Swahili song. All sounds that are so familiar to my ears on Kili summit nights.
And then…

“Shit!!! Shit!!! It’s out again!!!”

From 10 meters up above, I knew immediately whose voice it was and exactly what he was referring to.
It was Rick and he was reacting to the fact that his wife, Tina, had her shoulder dislocate. Again. This time at 17,500 ft.

A week before, in the midst of the pre departure excitement of arriving at the gate and preparing to step off on this grand adventure, Tina had lowered herself down from the Landcruiser using her left arm in a stressed angle and suddenly…
It was out. First time ever.

Now I've put a lot of shoulders and hips back in place over my 20-year medical career but never on Day 1 of an expedition at the entry gate, literally minutes before we were to step off on a 7 day expedition.
With about 2 to 3 minutes of manipulation, I was able to reduce the shoulder back in place. She showed her grit and strength during the procedure and once she was slinged up and and her pack was handed off…she acted as if nothing had even happened.
The women are stronger. No doubt.

Back at 17,500 ft the sun had just crested over the horizon, Venus was glowing red in the low sky and the coldest hours were behind us. The backdrop couldn’t have been more magnificent… but the levity of the dislocated shoulder was significant.

We all breathed together. Calmed down as best we could. Situated our bodies to get good position on the shoulder and arm. And I got to work. There are several approaches and techniques for reducing shoulders and sometimes they are all needed to finally get it back in. This was one of those cases. I attempted the approach I was successful with 7 days prior. Nope. No matter how hard I yarded on Tina’s shoulder and how much pain I subjected her to… still out.

She went to a deep place. A deep meditative place that takes skill and experience to reach. A place that most of us won’t know. I watched my wife go there during her 18 hours of natural childbirth.  I’ve seen a handful of climbers go there during rescue operations off of Alaskan peaks back in the day when I was working SAR in the Range.
But a weaker person would have crumbled into a sloppy pile of blubbering shit. Tina did not. She stuck with me as I changed my approach. Again and again.
Thirty minutes went by and it was still out. I had run through my bag of tricks.
Forty-five minutes now and I was getting scared. Every minute that went by meant that the musculature and tissue around the shoulder joint were clamping down and making it progressively harder to reduce. If we would have been in the safe confines of an emergency department, we would have sedated Tina and administered some muscle relaxants to drop the head of humerus back into it’s joint space.
But instead, we were leaned up against a rock in the dirt at sunrise close to the summit of one of the “7 Summits”.

In somewhat of a last ditch effort, I positioned Tina head to head with me, standing, facing me. I held her forearm with one of my hands and with the other I slowly continued to manipulate her shoulder. I closed my eyes. I prayed. And the Great Spirit, she listened.


It was back in.
Slowly I applied a sling and swath and started into the conversation with Rick and Tina about the next steps.
Clearly Tina was headed down. But what about Rick?
Rick is a tough dude. He is like me in the sense that his character is to summit. When he attempts something, it will get done. This is who he is. He was born to summit.
I offered to take Tina down and let him go up with the team on stand on top.
After a quick consult with Tina, he told me there was no question… he would accompany his wife down.
I was more than impressed with this decision. He chose commitment to his wife over his own aspirations. He chose to be a servant leader.
Bad ass.

OK…get them packaged up and set up with an African guide for the descent and get back to work with the team… who were now an hour above me on the mountain.

As the adrenaline of the shoulder incident ebbed from my body, I kicked it into a high gear and caught the team within 20 minutes.
And it was then that I realized I was smoked. My heart pounding out of my chest. My energy levels clearly effected. Not something I wanted my clients to take note of.

I shelved it as best I could and methodically walked the remaining steps to the summit of Africa.

The joy and satisfaction was palpable. Within our coalition we had a blind vet, a vet with 1 foot, several other injured vets, a 66 year old woman that had never camped before and over another dozen folks that represent straight up Americana.

I was proud.

But then came the descent. Often times the hardest part. Physically and metaphorically. We must return home and share the story of the journey with those who weren’t with us. This is not easy. How do you capture the feelings and emotions that are only gleaned from battle with yourself and the elements?

Summit night captures the spectrum of the human condition.
That’s why we keep searching for it. We need to feel alive. And when the landscape changes in spite of our best efforts, we feel the most alive.



Thursday, February 19, 2015

Seek The Fear. Then Pocket It.

I’ve always looked a little kooky at snowboarders as a group.
“Yeah, that’s cute… you in your baggy snowpants and flannel shirt scraping down the mountain and flattening out the bumps that us skiers worked so hard to carve out”. 
Snowboarding has always seemed like a little brother sport to skiing in my eyes. That being said, many of my close friends were/are knuckle draggers as well as my wife of almost 12 years.

But the thought of me, with 35 years of skiing under my belt, strapping into a board and sliding sideways down a mountain was as conceivable as me driving a pink Prius around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Not happening.

Then, last weekend, my 9 year old asked to take snowboarding lessons while in Steamboat. Then that same 9 year old asked me if I was scared to learn how to snowboard.
Dude called me out.
Cool your jets, punk. It’s on.

And before I knew it I was strapped into a board and sliding sideways down the bunny hill right beside him. 24 hours later I was “carving” down a steep slope next to my wife with a big fat grin on my face… all the while trying to contain the fear that was trying to bubble over with each toe-side turn.

Turns out, going toe-side and heel-side (carving from front to back) are pretty sketchy maneuvers when you’re not accustomed to doing so. I suppose it comes from the inert fear of slamming your fragile little noggin down on the hardpacked snow at a high rate of speed.  At first, each turn leaves you feeling exposed. But as with all things… it progressively gets easier. Every time you succeed at a turn you get more and more comfortable with it.

That is, until you catch an edge… and before you can even let out a pathetic, high pitched “Oh, shit”, your ass and back of your head slam into the snow simultaneously causing a resounding shock through your entire body.

Then the fear sets in so that you don’t go and do the same thing again.
Don’t go and do the same thing that just catapulted you into the snow again.
What… are you an idiot?

And thus I was reacquainted with my old friend fear or, as my amigos down south say, “El miedo”.

Fear is an evolutionary response to a threat.
Fear is designed to keep you alive. Epinephrine is injected into your body in large volumes when you’re stressed or fearful. Too much of it is unhealthy. Extended exposure to epi or cortisol is bad for your kidneys, your skin, your hair, and your emotional happy factor.

However, small doses are good. That noteworthy metal-like taste in your mouth just as you commit to a scary action… it reminds you that you are in fact very much alive.

Scary shit has been happening to us as a species for thousands of years. Historically it revolved around being chased and eaten by a saber tooth tiger or perhaps a few thousand generations later, it was running from a pillaging Norseman that was chasing you down with a bludgeoning hammer.

Nowadays… it’s less consequential.

Maybe it’s the threat of your boss firing you from your unsatisfying but necessary job. Or perhaps it’s receiving a $200 speeding ticket for going 55 in a 54 (thanks Jay Z).

Our moments of fear are cordoned off these days. We have to go seek out fear in our sterile society. We pursue activities like BASE jumping, mountain climbing, dirt biking and skydiving to get those archaic moments of true fear. To get flooded with epinephrine and cortisol. Then go home and relax on the couch with a beer in hand.

In my 20s and half of my 30s I sought out every opportunity I could find to get scared on rock faces and mountains all over the world. Fear was my friend. It was a drug and I was addicted. I used to love those idiots from the early 2000s with their “NO FEAR” stickers on the back of their jacked up F-150s. I would always think, “I’ll show you fear, dumbass.”

Then a wife comes along and it changes a slight shade.
Then a kid comes along and whoa Nelly… shit gets put on lock down. For no other reason than “I don’t want my kid to grow up without his daddy.”

As we get older the safety cocoon gets softer and pillowier. It’s easier to accept comfort and complacency. Why mess with comfort? Why risk my life? Why risk a broken bone? Takes 5 times as long to heal as it did when I was in my 20s. Even when it does, the arthritis will be a bitch. Not to mention… my achin back.

It’s easy to feel fear and back down. Our ancestors relied on that reaction to sustain our species. But now we live in a time when fear is designed and once we find it, we have to suppress it. Ironic for sure.

I made a conscious decision when I turned 40 to fight complacency tooth and nail. Even though I knew I would never climb the same scary shit I did 15 years ago, it was up to me if I wanted to keep my instincts sharp and stay emotionally engaged with my environment. I would have to redefine the pursuits that would keep me challenged and excited. Part of that equation was to feel scared when doing an activity.

For me it came down to picking up a new sport every few years.

Five years ago it was kitesurfing.
Talk about fear.
After a half dozen hours of lessons I decided to save money and just figure it out on my own in the dark depths of the Sea of Cortez. I remember physically trembling those first few times out solo.
At first I was holding on tight. Scared of getting hucked around by the kite. Scared of getting dragged under water. Scared of getting chomped on by a sea critter.

Then I let go. I quit holding on so tightly. I embraced the movement and pocketed the fear.

Once the fear was released the joy filled its place.

Five years later… kitesurfing is my absolute favorite activity on the planet.

This year, it’s snowboarding.
I noticed clearly this past weekend that when I held back due to fear, I would promptly be thrown forward or backward. Quickly. Painfully.

I realized after my first bumpy run (read ‘crash filled’), that in order to make these turns, I had to let it rip. I found myself sitting at the top of the run saying out loud, “Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid. Go hard in to the turn. Commit to the heel-side turn.” Once I embraced that, I was off. Carving. Cruising. Fast.

Not to say I didn’t fall and bust my ass a few more times. But I felt the motion and I was hooked.

Clearly there are unhealthy versions of fear. The hours you lay awake in bed worrying about this thing or that. The things that you can’t control. Those issues that seem monumental at 3:00am but are more manageable when you are up on your feet with a cup of coffee in your hand. Fear based culture is disseminated 24hrs a day by mainstream media. Sociopolitical behavior is controlled by the fear mongers  on CNN and Fox News. This is unhealthy fear.

Healthy fear is based on courage. And courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing that thing that scares you the most. Having courage to risk failure. Being courageous enough to fall down. Hard. And then get back up. Stretching yourself whenever you get the chance. Not necessarily with X Games sporting pursuits. It doesn’t have to be kitesurfing and snowboarding. It’s whatever you want it to be. But it has to scare you. Expose you. It has to contain doubt and a sense of the unknown. This is healthy fear.

Fear needs to be healthy. It’s primal. It’s one of the missing pieces of our primitive make-up.
See if you can remember the last time you were feeling absolute fear. That your life or limb was in ‘perceived’ danger. For most of us, it’s been awhile.

Go find that fear. Learn a new sport. Take a chance. Go toe-side. Get spooked a bit. Then pocket the fear.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Pledging Forward

Time to wax poetic about a new year, the passing of time and a new pledge…

I continue to find it fascinating how time actually accelerates as we age.  It just seems as though each year goes by faster than the previous… which flies right in the face of the laws of astrophysics as the Earth's rotation is actually slowing slightly with time. Atomic clocks show that a modern day is longer by about 1.7 milliseconds than a century ago.

What the cosmic hell? I was sure we were moving faster.

Perhaps it’s the markers in our lives that give us temporal reference:

Our kids…  
watching my son grow what appears to be about an inch every week or so gives me pause. As does his burgeoning wit and maturity. It seems his comedic timing becomes more polished everyday. Last week I was cleaning up a poopy diaper, this week I’m belly laughing at his humor-injected diatribe on what gauge gun is most appropriate to take down a “2,000 lb buck”.

Our pets…
watching my old pal Tucker struggle through the doggy realization that he can’t even walk a mile without a struggle anymore. Just a couple of years ago he was charging in the backcountry with me through deep powder. Now he finds it tough to slog his back end up the stairs. One day in the not so distant future he will be gone. And I/we will be heartbroken.  My 13 years with him a fleeting memory.

Our seasons…
Wait, we’re already half way through winter? It seems as though yesterday we were looking for relief from the 95* blazing sun and this morning I’m scraping ice off my windshield. Tomorrow it will be Spring and then Summer will be next week. Can you say Fast Times at Lifetime High?

Our calendars…
Perhaps its because as we age our responsibilities increase and our calendars fill up like your belly on Thanksgiving Day.  Hustle and bustle creates a fast forward environment… always planning and shuffling to and from the next event.

Time hovers over all of us, imposing its will.

If you distil down all that we know as a species… time is actually one of the only constants in life. It goes on, with or without us. No matter your religious or political sways, time plods along; the seconds consistently ticking by while the rest of the universe dances on the ebb and flow of chaos and order.

There is no way to stop time or even pause it. But perhaps there are a few ways to combat the perceived perception of this fleeting journey…

Time to be more engaged in life with the people you value. Make time for these people. Go on dates with your spouse. Go camping with your kids. Less television and video games. More meals together. More road trips. More adventures together.

Time to step away from social media and the narcissism of the gratuitous “look at me” selfie. We know how cool your life is. Go live it.

Time to cull the toxic people from your environment. We all have at least 1 or 2. They pull at your bandwidth. They take you away from the things that are precious. Time is too precious for that.

Time to sit less and stand more. Be outside more than inside. If it’s cold… put more clothes on. Run through the trees and tromp through the creeks.

Time to seek out new adventure. Use your passport. Eat weird food. Pick up a new sport. Take on a new hobby.

The dusty old New Year resolution is so 20th century. It’s time to make a pledge. This is a promise to you. You are accountable for your pledge and seeing it through.

My pledge(s):

I pledge to be a better human. A better spouse. A better father. A better son. A better brother. A better teammate.
I pledge to try 6 things that scare the shit out of me.
I pledge to attempt at least 6 things this year that will most likely end in failure.

All of us at No Barriers have agreed to take the pledge.  It’s your turn…

Once we appreciate the value of time we are better equipped to manage it.
Time will pass by this year just as fast as it did last year…but I pledge to be more proactive in how I live in it.

“Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”
                                                                                    -Bonnie Raitt

Friday, September 19, 2014

It's Not About The Mountain

Typically when a team arrives on top of a well-earned mountain summit, the moment is met with a loud chorus of yee-haws, high fives and bear hugs. I’ve been a part of many of those scenes on summits all over the world over the past 20 years.

Not this time…

The 2014 Soldiers to Summits capstone expedition culminated last week with a summit of Mt Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. At 14,505ft, it stands as the highest point in the contiguous United States. When I first accepted the role as the expedition leader for this years capstone trip, I have to admit that I was a little uninspired with the choice of Whitney. Clearly it doesn’t carry the allure or prestige of a Himalayan peak or the exotic nature of a mountain down in the Andes. However our main sponsor, Wells Fargo, had requested in their support of the expedition that we keep our training and peak objective within the borders of the lower 48 states.  

You bet… we can do that.

In preparation for our final expedition in the Sierras, the team came together for two separate training exercises in the Rockies of Colorado. It quickly became very clear to me and my leadership team that this year’s group of injured veterans was remarkable. We had selected well. Each of them embodied the characteristics that we strive to recruit for each of our S2S experiences… maturity, a willingness to grow and heal as well as a solid, collaborative energy. More so than any of the past iterations of S2S, this team was ready to charge forward with solid intent.

We came together as a team during our trainings… we came together as a family while we were trekking towards Whitney.

The week we spent together deep in the Sierra backcountry gave us the opportunity to embrace the mountains and each other…  learning, growing and healing along the way. The mountains don’t always give us what we want but they always give us what we need.

As the morning of September 11th dawned, all twenty of us stepped on to the summit of Whitney just as the nautical twilight was starting to cast its glow over the horizon. We took those final steps and gazed east, watching the day dawn over a country that is still hurting from those devastating events 13 years earlier. We paused to remember those that were lost both on that day and as a result of conflicts that sprang from the events of 9/11. In fact, the vast majority of the men and women on this trip had enlisted or were brought back in to active duty as a result of that horrific day…. their lives changed forever.

I’ve been on bigger and bolder mountains. I’ve been on tougher and colder mountains. But I have never been as proud as I was that morning standing on top of that mountain with those men and women. Quietly. Solemnly.
We hugged each other… one by one. Very few words spoken. Many subtle smiles exchanged with a knowing glance. We knew why we were there. We were there to remember. To honor. To heal.

Because it’s not about the mountain. It’s about the people.

Climb High