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.
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 Town—a 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 seriously—eating 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!