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Category Archives: Alpine Climbing

Climbing back from Cancer

June 2017

I slowly awake out of a deep anesthesia-induced slumber. I have a massive tube shoved down my throat emptying my stomach contents. My mom is there.

“What happened?” I ask her. I’m still hopeful that when they did the exploratory surgery that they wouldn’t find anything. “They found a tumor on your appendix. They removed it as well as 6 inches of your large intestine. They hot soaked all of your organs with chemo.”

I can’t control it. I start crying. Tears and emotion are flooding out of me. I’m angry, sad, afraid that my body has failed me. I hold my mom’s hand as the reality sets in. I have cancer.

Just a few months before

I’m at the top of my game, projecting hard rock climbs above the Andaman Sea in Thailand. The world is my oyster, as I traipse around the planet, only pausing for a part time job in Western Africa. I feel strong, lean, and fit.  I’m beginning to mentally heal from some recent accidents in the mountains, so am very excited when Bruce Normand asks me to attempt a new line with him in Pakistan on Gasherbrum 4 that spring.

I have a little discomfort in my abdomen, but chalk it up as a muscle strain. Over time, the pain increases. Thinking it’s due to a recently diagnosed hernia, I opt to get it fixed before considering a trip to the Himalaya. How quickly things can change in our lives. After the hernia operation, I’m dumbfounded when my surgeon says, “We found something off during the surgery. It looks like cancer.”

Three weeks later.  June 2.

D-Day.I’m on the operating table for what doctors call the MOAS (Mother Of All Surgeries). I spend a week in the hospital and then five more bedridden. My climbing muscles atrophy away day by day. The combination of coming to terms with having cancer and not being able to exercise leads me into dark depression and anxiety. With the pain, I also find perspective. By chance, I befriend a Tibetan monk. He teaches me that the suffering is all in my mind. He teaches me internal peace is possible through meditation and mindfulness.

I think the worst is over by week six, and I’ll be able to start slowly climbing again. Boy, am I mistaken. Next up is oral and IV chemotherapy. For the next few months I feel like I am dying.  Fatigue, exhaustion, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. It’s pure and utter hell.

August 14th

A few of my good friends rally with me to the City of Rocks for my birthday. I am struggling something fierce on a 5.8.  But the beautiful, high desert rocky landscape inspires me.  I look at the guidebook and decide, against the wishes of all my friends, to attempt Terror of Tiny Towna beautiful 5.11 technical corner.

“To hell with cancer,” I say. I want to prove to myself that I am still strong.  I slowly make upwards progress using every trick in the book. Side pull, smear, edge, lock off. For a moment, it feels incredible to be free of the nightmare I’m living and be completely lost in the movement. My heart is racing and my breathing is out of control.  For 25 minutes, I battle tooth and nail to total and complete exhaustion. I lower down, pulsating with endorphins and euphoria.

Then I get dizzy. Then I start to dry heave. By the time I get back to camp, I am running a fever. I lie in the fetal position, moaning like an animal just hit by a car.

Once I get home, I proudly recount the story to my doctor with a big smile on my face!  She promptly scolds me!

“Look Skiy, this is life and death. You need to take it easy!”

Finally accepting that it’s all real, I start taking my health very seriouslyeating right and resting daily. It’s a few long and slow months, but finally the doctors say I’d had enough chemo and I am cleared to slowly start rebuilding.

Thirty days post chemo.

I go visit my good buddy Dave Allfrey in Las Vegas.  Dave is a bona fide hard man and all-around crusher.
“’I’m pretty under the weather” I tell him. “Oh, no problem,” he says.  “I have the perfect climb for us. A three pitch 5.6 with a short 20 min approach.” His enthusiasm is contagious and for a moment I have forgotten how low my blood counts are.  “Heck ya, perfect!” I say. I jump out of his Sprinter and for five minutes I feel like a million bucks!  Then I start to slow, and pretty soon the uphill feels like the Hillary step on Everest.

“Dave,” I say, trying my best to hold back the tears, “it’s too far.” So humbling to have to bail on the approach to a 5.6!  Dave is a trooper though, and sets up a top rope on a 5.8 nearby.  After my fourth take we are laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of the situation!  “You’re making that look like 5.14” he says. “Trust me, I know!” I reply.

But I don’t care. It feels so good to touch the stone and to move on it.  To be tied in with a good friend.  It’s a reminder of how healing climbing can be.  But still, I am terrified with thoughts that I would be weak and frail for many years to come.  Will I ever get my life back?

A few more months go by.

Finally, I start feeling strong, exuberant, full of energy, but also restlessness. Ignoring the advice of friends and family, I buy a one-way ticket to Thailand. I need the sun. I need the ocean. I need my climbing community to help heal my mind. I land in Bangkok and promptly head for Tonsai. I spend 5 weeks clipping bolts and making new friends from around the world.

It’s strange to brush your own mortality. As scary as it is, it’s also awesome and powerful. Every time I make it through to the other side, whether in the mountains or in life, I strangely feel more alive. More in touch with my true self. More able to appreciate the simple things and not take stuff for granted. I’m always amazed how much each new experience teaches me.

It’s hard to emotionally digest what has happened, but I move forward each day with optimism and stoke. What else can I do?  I continue to follow my passion as a climber and continue to set goals. I feel lucky to live in Bishop CA, where I am able to look to the mountains that color the skyline and find continual inspiration and joy.

Today is a new day, and I will enjoy every second!

Be a Climber: Quitting (and re-creating) Your Day Job

The juxtaposition of my life does not go unnoticed by my closest friends and family. On one hand I love order, control, routine. Type A personality stuff. On the other hand, the well-defined and fully explored bores me to death and I crave adventure, the unknown, something new and ever-changing where the outcome is uncertain.

While those seem to be at great odds with each other, they come together in perfect harmony for me in the form of calculated risk. It’s the best of both worlds really. Let me give you a few examples. Before children, I free soloed and did X-rated routes up to 5.12. I can’t actually think of a single case when the route wasn’t an onsight. It had adventure, the terrain was unknown (to me) and the route was new (again, to me). But anyone who has done much of that kind of climbing also knows if it’s too adventurous, too unknown, and the outcome is too uncertain, well then, you can’t do it for very long and live to tell about it. Free soloing for me was equally about control and order. I was intimately familiar with the rock type and the climbing area. I felt, tested, and retested every hold before committing. I never climbed up something I couldn’t climb down. In fact I’ve backed off 5.7s as many times as I’ve backed off 5.11s. Yes there was risk. Yes I could have fallen. But those odds were slim. They were calculated risks.

Here’s another example. I received my Master’s degree in Special Education and found a knack for working with students with emotional disabilities in impoverished neighborhoods (the “ghetto” to you layman folk). Real-deal gangbangers with rap sheets and weapons charges that were known for violence. Most had given up on them so in turn, these types of students were quick to dismiss others (often violently). Calculated risk. I had the educational training – the strategies to diffuse the situation. I also have the personality to relate to them on their level, gain their trust, and push them toward a more positive direction. But it’s not without challenges and sometimes real dangers. I’ve had students get extremely angry – try to punch me, throw chairs at me, and worse. But I had the tools and mindset to get out of those situations (mostly) unscathed. The flip side is that teaching in a public school offers security and routine on some levels, yet every day was different. What worked with a kid yesterday won’t work with that same kid tomorrow. You must always adapt, constantly learn and improve. It kept me on my toes and was a good balance for me for a long time.

Fast forward and here I am, smack-dab in the middle of my thirties. I crave a change – a massive life shake up. Perhaps just ahead of the curve on a mid-life crisis. My mom always said I was advanced for my age. Anyway, teaching has given me so much and I hope that in return I have given something back to the kids I’ve worked with over the last 12 years. But it is too routine now, too “safe”, too familiar. My adult obligation of financial security I owe my family pulls me in one direction while the desire to take a risk and choose a new career path pulls me in another. I could not find balance between the two.

But I’m not a risk taker. While what I wrote above would seem to contradict that to some – what I mean is I’m not an “unknown outcome” kind of risk taker. Imagine this scenario for a minute: You flip a coin. Heads I win a dollar, tails you win a dollar. I do not see it as a 50/50 chance of winning a dollar. I see it as me losing a dollar. The odds are too unfavorable – there is too much risk. I would never agree to flip the coin. The risk must be low. I’ve built too much of a life to gamble any of it. Yet to some degree, there needs to be a little risk to entice me. Where is the balance? It’s different for each of us and it’s taken me a long time to finally find it.

I’ve been a rock climber for more years of my life than not. I’ve worked in gear shops, climbing gyms, for gear manufacturers, and even own a climbing publishing company called Fixed Pin. I have no formal education in “climbing business” but I know it better than anything else, perhaps better than I even know teaching. Climbing is my religion. I’m not a zealot but it is how I decompress, how I commune with nature, and how I rebalance myself. When I’m out of whack, my wife tells me to go climbing and I come home happier, more patient, and a better life partner and father overall. Some drink, some pray. I climb. Climbing is all I want to be around. I want to talk about it, write about it, and well, just do it. Enter Gravity One Climbing + Fitness.

I had always thought starting a climbing gym would be incredible but it seemed a bit too unrealistic for me. They cost millions of dollars to start up after all. But I have found that, perhaps through happenstance, I have been building up to this moment my entire adult life. I have the right experience (work and personal), the right connections, the right motivation, and the right amount of risk tolerance to venture off into the unknown – quit my government job as a public-school teacher that I virtually could never be fired or downsized from and start my own business where I am my own boss. All decisions directly affect me, good and bad. I could win big or I could lose it all. But it’s calculated. And isn’t that what being a climber means? Taking calculated risks. Isn’t that the lesson we all experience every time we go out to the crags? We leave the safety of the ground, where yes, we could fall back down to it. But we have ropes and protection and a trusted belayer to catch us. Things could go wrong – a piece could pull, a clip could be botched, a belayer could give too much slack. But rarely do we experience any of those things. We fall but only a little bit. We take comfort in both the risk itself as well as knowing that those risks have been greatly mitigated. Our partner has us. Our rope and gear will catch us. We push ourselves sometimes to places that are uncomfortable but we revel in that feeling once back on the ground, sometimes hours, days, or even weeks later. We retell those events over beers and around campfires trying to recapture that feeling. To me, that’s what it means to be a climber. Leave yourself exposed just enough to feel uncomfortable but not be in danger. I just feel so fortunate that I’ve finally learned how to carry that over into my professional life and to be able to experience a feeling of balance of calculated risk outside of climbing itself.

10 Alpine Climbing Tips

Are you dreaming of high alpine peaks? Beautiful sublime faces of rock and ice? Surreal corniced ridges and crimson sunsets? Alpine climbing is one of the most committing and unforgiving forms of climbing, but with a little practice and solid game plan it can be safe and extremely rewarding!

Here are a few tips that will help make your next alpine adventure enjoyable and fun!

1. Pick your partner wisely.

It’s one thing to go cragging for the day with someone. But going to Alaska for 21 days to attempt a nail-biting alpine climb is another story. The last thing you want is to argue and bicker like an old married couple. You might be the best of friends at sea level, but after a few days shivering on icy ledges, tensions can spin out of control quickly! I like to do some warm up climbs with potential partners–see how our personalities mesh, and how the vibe goes. I seek partners that are solid as a rock, cool under pressure, and can find comedy even in the most rugged and challenging of situations.

2. Leave your comfy lightweight inflatable mattress at home.

As tempting as it is to splurge on the expensive blow up mattress with a high R-value, you’ll be left trying to care for it like a fine piece of china. It will more than likely pop when you need it most, and leave you shivering and sleepless all night. Take a closed cell foam pad cut down to just provide coverage for your body.

3. Take extra gloves

Your glove quiver is the single most critical item on the mountain. By day’s end, after brushing off snow and belaying wet ropes, your gloves will be wet and soggy. And if your hands get cold, frostbite can set in quickly, rendering you almost useless, a very dangerous place to be. Gloves never dry out, not even in your sleeping bag, and will freeze over night. It seems ludicrous to bring 5-8 pairs of gloves for a 5 day alpine mission, but I do!
4. Drink your water cold to save critical fuel

Water is very important when you’re working 12-16 hours a day. It will help prevent cold injury and ensure maximum athletic performance. As delicious and soul-warming as it is to sip hot tea at every stop, save your hot beverage for the bivy. Remember fuel is heavy! I ration one medium 250 gram can of gas per day for two.

5. Mitigate objective hazard

I scrutinize a route for hours, days, even months! I am careful to note potential terrain traps and loose rock, keeping in mind prevailing winds and snow pack. I do my best to avoid climbing under seracs and am always considering my retreat options.

6. Bring at least one adze for the team

After climbing all day, the thought of spending two hours chopping a bivy platform is agonizing. But comfortable sleep won’t come until you do. Having an adze will streamline your efficiency and get you off to dreamland sooner so you can be fresh for your next day of adventure.

7. An iPod Nano or Shuffle can boost moral like no other!

I usually download half hip-hop and metal to get me fired up, and than some mellow reggae to cool me down. Additionally, my small point and shoot camera goes on a tether off my micro zipper and lives in my left chest pocket near my skin in a base layer. This ensures the battery stays warm and functional.

8. Take a lightweight sleeping bag and wear all your layers to bed

Sure, I strip off wet Gore-Tex if need be, but often I just crawl right into my bag with my whole kit on excluding my boots. This provides an extra layer of warmth and saves precious time. Often I want to stay tied in, so I sleep in my harness or use a sling around my waist. I sleep with my boot liners in my bag to keep them from freezing.

9. Master the art of the descent

Rappelling a 5000-foot face can seem daunting and downright terrifying. But with creativity and ingenuity, descending can be fun and rewarding. Often it’s safer then slogging down avalanche prone slopes. Slings and cordelettes can be cut up and equalized. Nuts, if placed correctly, can be bombproof and much cheaper than leaving a cam. V threads in the ice are the most efficient and low impact. I simply tie a loop knot in what ever I’m rapping off to avoid leaving costly carabiners. And remember, the Prusik back-up is paramount in the event you’re hit by falling stones or must fidget with your next bombproof anchor.

10. Most importantly, bring your positive attitude and be ready to adapt and overcome to what ever is thrown at you

The mental challenge is what I like most about alpine climbing. Like in life, things do not always go as planned. Successful people are good at improvising and can stay motivated even in uncomfortable and difficult situations. Stack the odds in your favor before going, and practice pertinent skills – ice and snow climbing, dry tooling, aid climbing, rope ascension, self-rescue, and first aid. And remember, if things start to go wrong, and you feel like you’ve gotten yourself in over your head, retreat and come back to fight another day!

Pata-pnemonia

Fitz Roy in early morning from Niponino camp. 
Sunny.  Warm.  Breezy.

Chalten, Argentina.

Still coughing, been a week.  It is not awful but it is not desirable.

Jon Schaffer, Clay Kennedy and I hiked up to Niponino Thursday amidst hanging clouds and snow.  The mountains looked wintery–and they were.  We made pretty good time on the hike with our more than 40 pound packs, dodging the obscene amount of trekkers and only a minor route finding snafu or two along the way (5 and 1/2 hours).

The homestretch across the last rock strewn glacier, I took a digger in a slushy pot hole.  Minor wetness that dropped me onto my knees.  Five minutes later I took another digger, this one almost thigh deep.  Soaking.  I hurried over the last few boulders and plopped down at a sandy bench to change my socks and into my boots.  The boys scouted for a prime campsite.

We found a place to nestle the tent between to boulders and the three of us packed in.  It was warm enough, the winds subsided and the peaks finally revealed themselves.  Cerro Torre staring at us–caked in snow and ice.  Full winter conditions.  El Mocho was our plan, Todo y Nada was the route.  Sounded so good in theory.   Upon approaching the following morning the rock sandwiching the steep snow gully was a blanket of white.  The top of the gully was teased with spindrift.  The 300 feet or so of rounded granite was dripping with ice and water.  Dampening my soul.  We needed to surmount this ‘easy when dry’ obstacle to gain access to the gully.  My eyes widened as I looked up 1000 feet.  My knowledge about climbing drifted into the thin blue air.  Clay and I both hesitated.  Jon remained cool and composed as we discussed ‘bailing.’
Which we did.
The winter conditions had me doubting that I should even be in Patagonia.  I don’t want to be guided up El Mocho, or any other route.  My fears before coming here seem to be true.  Last season and the season prior were a little friendlier, warmer, and drier.
Perhaps this is not my place.  Perhaps just not yet.

Approaching, the Torre Valley.  Cerro Torre strutting her stuff.  

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