Friday, September 25, 2015

Sometimes a 60ft Barrier Is Stronger Than What’s Inside You

I felt the joy drain out of my body as soon as we rounded the wall and I laid eyes on it. Suddenly, reaching the summit with our 2015 No Barriers Warriors to Summits team seemed painfully out of reach.

Josh, Margaux and I had departed the team’s high camp earlier in the morning to scout the upper section of the route for our summit attempt the next day on Gannett Peak.  The previous day had been spent eyeballin the upper crux of the route, a left slanting couloir that appeared from a thousand feet below to have an anemic amount of shitty ice protecting it’s access. Even from our camp perspective we were skeptical of the upper flank conditions.  If that ramp of ice wasn’t safe to climb, the summit would be unattainable.

Gannett Peak is about as remote of a worthy climbing objective as any in the lower 48 States. Our team of 10 veterans, 5 guides and 2 photojournalists spent the better part of 5 days trekking deep into the Wind River Range of Wyoming, passing through some of the most breathtaking alpine terrain I have ever laid eyes on. Every one of the 26 miles of the approach were well-earned… not the least of which was the final mile leading into our high camp.  The “boulder field” was a linear mile of uninterrupted, VW Bug sized boulders that had the look of middle earth meets the album cover of Houses of the Holy. Our 2 amputees and 1 super-blind dude got their money’s worth climbing up, over and down each of the hundreds of massive rocks.

But in spite of all the fireball terrain and big-ass boulders, we arrived as a complete team into our high camp…. tired but satisfied and excited about what lay ahead.  All the lead up work had been done. Training was complete. The long approach was behind us. Only thing left to do was power through a solid summit day and stand on top of our objective.

That being said, my concern for route conditions grew deeper with each glance I stole of the upper route. As the sun cast down on the upper snowfield, the reflection off the snow mirrored a sheer face of what appeared to be very old, desiccated ice with a potentially broken up snow bridge leading to the climbable ice. The inexperienced eye would see it as shimmering beauty, beckoning for boots and traffic. But those of us with dozens of years climbing in variable alpine conditions knew better. We knew that weeks of higher than average temperatures would have melted the seasonal snow away, leaving only the thousands-of-years-old ice exposed. This is the kind of ice that is hard, crumbly and tough to protect. It’s the kind of ice that a few of the leadership team could handle with some minor effort… but the thought of putting our 10 participants on this terrain made my hands sweat and my spidey senses tingle.

Each of our hard charging participants have proven themselves competent and experienced in the theater of war… but their alpine climbing training consisted exclusively of our 3 training trips we had facilitated over the previous 4 months.

Not a lot.

Remember, our goal all along with No Barriers Warriors is not to make these men and women mountain climbers. Our mission is to provide them with a transformational experience that uses the mountains and rivers as a backdrop. Even from a half mile away I knew it would be tough to get everyone up and down that section of mountain safely and efficiently.

It was clear that we had to go up and lay eyes and feet on the route. As the expedition leader I knew that the ultimate “go or no-go” decision rested firmly on my shoulders, so I would need to go.  So on the morning of our “rest day” Josh, Margaux and myself departed high camp to go explore the upper reaches of the mountain.

Fun… just straight up fun. The climbing was complete with low 5th class scrambling, glacial traverses, low angle snow climbing and splitter blue-sky conditions. We had a blast over the course of a few hours gaining an upper position. We rounded the corner of the “gooseneck” headwall and finally got close and personal with the upper couloir.


The first obvious eye catcher was the 20ft deep, sunken bergschrund that separated the upper ice from the lower glacier. Bergschrunds are the features that form as the ice that is pasted to the steeper flanks of the mountain separate from the lower angle glaciers. Often times there is a snow bridge that exists that provides easy access on to the upper slopes. The same little snow bridge that existed when Charlie and Josh reconned the route 2 months prior still was in place. But now it was a sad little 1ft thick, droopy, unsafe marshmallow.

Well OK, we can get over that. Will take some work to get everyone over and back across that thing… but we can do it.

Then we looked up.

Above the gap we could now clearly see the condition of the ice that protected the summit ridge. Just as I had guessed...stretching from side to side of the couloir was 60ft of glistening, boilerplate hard, 10,000-year-old ice. Dripping water cascaded down its face. Once again I thought of a handful of ways we could get our crew up that section of ice but I continued to stalemate on how we would safely get everyone down this terrain.

But damnit…we knew that if we could just get by that 60ft of terrain we would have a fairly cruiser ridgeline all the way up to the summit.

Might as well have been made of 2ft thick glass.

I sat deflated as I contemplated alternatives. Each one ended in the same comment, “We might be able to get em up that way but there is no way to get them down that same section safely.”
In typical Josh fashion, the 27 year old ex SEAL continued to suggest multiple alternatives…. the best of which was climbing around the ice… “maybe we can circumvent the entire headwall. Let’s go check it out.” An hour later and some fun rock-block scrambling lead us to the edge of the headwall… and a 1,000ft sheer cliff.

No go.

Down we went… occasionally blasting out a “Fuck!!!!!” with disappointment. We had worked so hard to get here as a team and we would be going home without a summit.
Back through the sweet terrain and into camp to join up with the rest of the team. Ultimately to tell them that their much desired summit… the same summit that they had worked for and dreamed of… would remain out of reach.

I wasn’t bummed for my own summit aspirations. Over my 20+ year climbing career I have been turned around countless times due to unsafe conditions. I was accustomed to dealing with the “no summit blues”. All of the common axioms were a part of my long developed alpine mentation…
“The summit is optional but coming home is not.”
“The mountains make the music, we simply listen.”
“It’s about the journey…not the summit.”

And yes, all of this is true… but when I broke the news that we wouldn’t be able to summit, there was no cute little quote that would quell the disappointment the group clearly felt. As much as we had tried to frame up the possibility of not touching the summit, this was still a massive body blow to the group. Tears, frustration, disappointment. We all felt it. For many, it was just another one of the many obstacles that was keeping them from completing the ever-elusive “summit.”

Then the magic happened…
The team requested a participant only meeting… all the leaders were asked to step away.

Thirty minutes later we rejoined the team and listened to them request an opportunity to venture up, as a complete team to this high point… to go as high as they could… to lay eyes on this piece of unsafe terrain… to feel the power of the mountain and let it judge them for who they are… to conclude that they had done nothing wrong in this journey and to confirm that they had done everything right. It was just the mountain dishing up a shitty sixty feet of ice protected by a big ass moat.

Then I knew we had done our work. We had set the table appropriately. We had invited our guests and they had joined us for a lengthy feast. The appetizer was good… it whet our appetite and made us hungry for bigger things. The main course was delicious… we took in all of the miles and smiles and felt full. But alas there would be no desert…. the cake would not be served. We wanted to end on a sweet note but would instead have to reflect on the fact that our bellies and souls were full.
We had feasted.

The next day I began what would be a 2-day evacuation of one our participants that was sick as a dog and spiraling towards full kidney failure. He warriored through all 26 miles back to the trailhead on 1 foot, 1 prosthetic, a horse and a shit ton of grit and will.
That same day, September 11th, the rest of the team climbed up to my same high point, took a look at the bergschrund and 60ft of ice and said, “Yep, I get it. Don’t want any part of that.”  Although there was still disappointment within, the team had now faced that barrier, looked it square in the eye and said, “F You!!!”
I heard stories of how each of the team yelled out names of their friends, fellow warriors and family that had been lost or deeply effected by the events of that anniversary 14 years prior. Powerful to say the least.

My best bro and long time adventure partner, Erik was the founding father of No Barriers. From the beginning the tagline has always been “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way.” I know that’s true most of the time.

But sometimes 60ft of shitty, unsafe ice IS in your way. And it IS stronger than you. And it IS blocking you from reaching your desired summit. And it IS NOT moving.

This is a fact of life.

When we encounter these immovable objects, it’s critical to be resourceful, look for work-arounds and think outside the box. Then, once we have exhausted all alternatives we have to come to grips with it. It’s not that I’m OK with it. I just have to acknowledge it’s existence. It’s not going anywhere. But we are. Moving on. Setting our sights on the next summit… the next objective.

And so we climb on.

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.