What’s it [Worth] to You

March 16, 2017

My life, for as long as I can remember, has been deeply rooted in the outdoors. I owe this to my father, who is an archer, a bowhunter, and was for much of my childhood a very active member of conservation efforts in the state of Missouri. Because of my dad, I had a strong understanding of the interconnectedness of the nonhuman and human worlds, long before I knew the buzzwords that others had been using to talk about that relationship in books and poems and academic research. The first time I read a deep ecology essay by Gary Snyder, it was like returning home, but with different words to describe it. Since my childhood, wilderness areas have continued to provide me with the most spiritually, emotionally, and physically significant experiences of my life. They have challenged me, taught me to be strong in ways that defy expectations, and taught me to be as indifferent to adversity as adversity is to all of us. Wilderness areas have taught me about commitment–weighing risks against possible outcomes and understanding that if I begin, I must see it through to whatever end may come. My skill and my will are worth something in the wild. They’re tangible. There is no faking it, no free rides, no good ‘ol boy system, no name-dropping, no buying a successful summit. It’s just me, stripped down to the core of who I am, instinctively, and that matters.

If you let it, the wild will tell you who you really are. And each time you go out, you may very well find that you are different, that you have grown, or maybe even regressed, spiritually, emotionally, physically, or in a combination of ways. When your body is physically pushed to its limits, your spiritual and emotional stamina take over. You realize very quickly if either of those things is out of shape. We spend countless hours preparing our bodies to endure, but far less time preparing our minds. The strength of our bodies isn’t everything.

Several years ago when I was still in the Army, an instructor for the Combatives Trainer Certification course I was taking told me I was “tougher than hell.” I laughed and said thanks, but I didn’t understand at the time. I had lost more matches than I won. My opponents always had at least twice the physical strength that I had. It was frustrating. In hindsight, I get it now. I never gave up. Even as I was twisted and pulled and thrown and ribs were bruised and cracked, I never tapped out. I kept fighting. While most of us are so focused on preparing our bodies to win, we forget that what keeps us in the fight is our inner strength. Call it survival instincts. Call it will. Call it heart. It’s worth much more than we think, because sometimes “winning” is nothing more than being able to get back up at the end.

Physical strength is needed, skill is needed, but knowing (and testing and growing) our inner strength is absolutely crucial. The last two times I’ve gone out on a mountain, I’ve questioned whether I still had heart. Back in mid-September, I’d attempted to complete a segment of The Colorado Trail that crosses over the Tenmile Range. I had an asthma attack at over 11,000’ and developed symptoms of AMS some time after, causing me to abandon the trail and head for lower ground. By the time I reached the trailhead, my body was in poor shape. It was my emotional reservoir—and my dog—that got me down, but the experience of physical failure planted a seed of doubt in me. Upon my return home, I recommitted myself to a new cardio regimen to see if I could improve lung function by getting myself in better physical shape before my next attempt. Seven weeks later I successfully summited a 14,154’ mountain, but I nearly turned around multiple times on the ascent because of lack of oxygen and extreme fatigue. I could hardly make my legs move. I again developed symptoms of AMS, this time on the descent beginning a couple thousand feet below the summit. My confidence faltered. For the first time ever, I considered quitting these “crazy” outdoor activities, and soon I started noticing something about my inner self that I didn’t like: my spirit was weakening. I felt myself giving up.

A doctor’s visit, lots of contemplation (and some cardio), and eighteen weeks later, this past weekend I headed out to another mountain, 14,265’ in altitude, with prescribed acetazolamide in my pack. Acetazolamide allows the blood to carry more oxygen and minimizes symptoms of AMS, including fluid retention. I also carried a pulse oximeter around my neck, which measures heart rate and SpO2 (oxygen saturation). The climb was hard, and multiple times yet again I thought about turning around. I was stopping a lot to catch my breath and I could feel the oxygen going straight to my legs. At some point during the first 1300-foot .9-mile incline, a woman climbing with oxygen passed me. I didn’t ask her about the condition that required her use of supplemental oxygen. I just looked at her in amazement and said to myself, “If she can do it, I can do it.” And as luck would have it, the snowfall and clouds dissipated late morning, allowing me to make out a slightly more optimistic inner voice. “The weather is perfect. The acetazolamide is working. There is no reason to not slow way down, breathe, and climb this mountain.” And so I listened to that voice. And ten hours later, I was at the car celebrating another successful summit.

It has taken me a few days to process the experience, as it sometimes does. There are lessons and growth to be had in times like that, and if I don’t take the time to process, it’s wasted. I posted a couple of summit photos to social media, however, and someone commented that I “seem to have such an awesome life!” I thought about how misleading our social media activity can be. But then I thought, “I really do have an awesome life.” It was not always so, and will not always be so, and I’ve become so much more aware of that lately, to the point that I am finally starting to see through some of the shit that held me back before, and I’ve decided to take it out of my pack, because I don’t need any extra weight on my next climb.

The question that a lot of the elite climbers get is “why?” Why do they want to climb Everest, or any other mountain? What makes the risks and the uncertainty worth it to them? I get asked why I drive 8.5 hours on a two-day weekend in order to climb mountains. The best answer I can offer is this: I do it to push myself to the max in an environment that is conducive to both success and failure without discrimination. I do it to test my skills (and learn additional ones), but most of all I do it to see who I am after shedding the layers of complex human “stuff” that tends to build up after awhile, to see how I’ve changed… to check myself and to prevent my very real core being–the one who comes out when nobody else is around–from regressing or disappearing completely… to feel my roots and grow stronger, ever upward… and then to return, back to the house, to the job, with a renewed understanding of who and what I really am.

That’s what it’s worth to me.

And, well, as Doug Hansen’s character said in the 2015 Everest film, “Because climbing that high and seeing that kind of beauty that nobody ever sees, it’d be a crime not to.”

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