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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!

The Blessings of Jesus and Tequila

A lot of people tout that Jesus and Tequila 12b (aka “J ‘n T”) is the best 5.12 in the New River Gorge (and I wouldn’t disagree.)  Some people even argue that it’s the best route in the Gorge, period. I’ve even heard more than one person say it is the best route they have EVER touched.

Well, with that introduction, you know it’s not gonna be a gimme for the grade, right? While grades are of course highly subjective, J ‘n T has a pretty solid consensus that 12b is a big fat sandbag (unless you are my one friend that downgrades everything ;))  12c gets tossed around a lot, and I’ve even  heard 12c/d.  I can’t really weigh in that much, as I don’t have enough mileage at the 12c level to compare, and honestly I don’t really care.  Regardless of grade, it’s exposure, position, rock quality, movement, and overall “badassity” make it a worthy tick for any climber.
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And for me personally it feels far more doable than a lot of other 12b’s I’ve tried, but that probably comes down to the style of climbing.  There are multiple cruxes, but individually none are insanely hard.  It’s the New, so there are of course some long reaches, but they are set up well for shorter climbers (and if anything, the high feet required for some of the moves might actually favor the vertically challenged.)

Although it’s been on my radar ever since I toproped it once a couple of years ago, my recent obsession with J ‘n T actually only began a week and a half ago. After unsuccessfully trying to tick New World Order 12a, I took a few toprope burns on it while my friend was working it.  It was pretty intimidating (hence the toprope), but darned if it didn’t feel like it might go…and soon!  And with that, what was supposed to be our last NRG trip of the season turned into our second to last, and just 6 days later I found myself standing atop the giant boulder at the base of the route once more.

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I warmed up by going bolt to bolt.  It did not go well.  The rock was really cold, and the opening moves felt really slippery.  The crux felt scary, and I had a lot of trouble committing to the move.  But eventually I got to the chains.  Considering that performance, I didn’t have my hopes set extremely high for my next go – I would have been happy to get a 1 or a 2 hang out of it.

But you guys! (or ya’ll, if you’ll indulge my southern roots.)  I almost sent it.  I SHOULD have sent it.  (And actually, if the original anchors would have still been in place, I WOULD have sent it.)  It wasn’t pretty.  The first half went well, but i struggled with the heady 5th clip (next time longer draw!), and completely botched my beta for the crux.  I still have no idea how I managed to hang on.  The very next move almost spit me off as well, and the deadpoint up high was not a sure thing.  But miraculously I found myself stemming precariously under the final roof. I took some deep breaths and visualized the final sequence, which involves tiptoe-ing out across a wildly exposed face 80 feet off the deck, grabbing a pair of terrible sloping crimps, and lunging for a pretty good sidepull.  I DID IT!

All that was left was for me to get an awkwardly high left foot onto a point and rock up to a standing position, and the send would be mine.  Now the problem with that foot is that my body is so extended on those terrible sloping holds that I can only lift my foot so high before my butt is too far away from the wall and I lose purchase with my hands.  Going bolt to bolt I’ve always been able to do it, but barely.  However, any time I’ve come in even the slightest bit tired, I’ve had to smear my foot on a lower, much worse hold, then slide it over real quick once my momentum starts moving upward.  It’s more insecure, but it’s always worked…until this time.

I tried at first to get the left foot in the “right” spot.  One, twice, three times.  My toes were scuffing just left of where I needed to be, and I was starting to get pumped.  I needed to retreat back to the dihedral where I could stem and regroup at a no hands stance, but now that my left hand was up above the roof, I couldn’t reverse the move.  The clock was ticking, so I put my foot on the consolation smear and committed my weight to it.  And I slipped off.  Less than 10 feet away from the anchors, after having done every single hard move but one, I slipped off.  I was THERE…and yet I found myself dangling helplessly below the roof, looking up at that blasted foothold that had thwarted my send.

After taking a moment to collect myself, I jugged back up, finishing the route easily in a very awkwardly anti-climactic way.

“That was a great burn, I’m proud of you for going ‘a muerte’” one of my friends said (the same one that downgrades everything.)

At least one of us was psyched about waking up to snow the next morning.

At least one of us was psyched about waking up to snow the next morning.

He was right.  It WAS a great burn, far better than my expectations.  And I WAS proud of myself.  And since we still had a few more hours of daylight I was optimistic that I’d be able to get redemption before the day was out, but on my next attempt I fell at the crux…and by the time I got on it a 4th time I was too exhausted to even get to the crux clean.  The next day featured sub-freezing temps, gray skies, and even some snow flurries, so after exploring around under the bridge, we called it an early day and headed home.

But hey, at least I’m in good company.  The description in the guidebook reads like this:  “Getting pummeled on Jesus and Tequila is a rite of passage for every New River climber…the route used to finish at a station under the final roof, but Jonny Woodward moved it to the top, adding one more insecure crux that has foiled many redpoint efforts.”  

In a lot of ways, my performance on Jesus and Tequila pretty much sums up my fall climbing season.  I came back from Ten Sleep with psych that was out the roof, ready to take my east coast game to the next level.  But while I’ve nabbed a few good sends here and there, I feel like I’ve mostly had a lot of almost-sending-but-not-quite-putting-it-all-together moments, which had left me feeling frustrated at climbing, especially at the New.  (#firstworldproblems I know, just trying to be authentic here!)

But all that said, my almost-send of Jesus and Tequila has ended my NRG season on an ironically positive note that makes the entire season feel worthwhile.  I put in a lot of work on routes that have pushed me out of my comfort zone as well as taught me a lot.  Techman, for example, forced me to get creative to maximize my reach, whereas New World Order improved my coordination and agility skills.  Jesus and Tequila boosted my confidence and brought back some of the fight and determination to my climbing that I hadn’t even realized was missing.  And the most encouraging part?  Those routes will still be there 4 months from now, primed and ready to be ticked.  It’s gonna be a fun spring!  But for now, it’s time to get fat and happy with the fam over the holidays.  Happy Turkey Day everyone!

Related Images:

[See image gallery at cragmama.com]

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