Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why I climb ice...

I wrote this for an Alpinist Magazine sponsored writing contest called "Why I climb ice..." limited to 500 words or less. Inspired by my friend miss Sarah Uhl ( I have once again begun messing around with watercolors and photographing my old ones.

Why I Climb Ice -

Walt Whitman, while working as a nurse in Union hospitals during the American Civil War wrote that “death loses all it’s terrors” after seeing “so many cases where it was welcome and a relief”.  Those words swim to the surface of my conscious as I walk the halls of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. A hundred or so people crowd the waiting room of the Leukemia Department and I recognize myself in all of them: their grey skin, their yellow eyes, their thin frames and bald heads. These are my people. Fifteen months of facing death and being surrounded by death has only embellished my cynicism and eroded my bitterness. Still, at my home in Colorado I abide to a resolution of delusional optimism by sharpening the picks of my ice tools (I haven’t swung my tools into anything other than two by fours since I was diagnosed with Leukemia fifteen months ago). I’ll likely never feel that satisfying “thump” of placing my tools into plastic-ice ever again, and still I sharpen my picks and study photographs of the ephemeral ice smears I admire. In retrospect I feel fortunate having learned to climb by driven and competent men, allowing me to have climbed as many lines as I have. Still, I dwell in my disaster and fixate on the one’s that got away. A whole lifetime’s worth of melt-freeze, melt-freeze, season after season, defeat after defeat, the miles walked over talus and through drifts accumulating to a distance equal to that of walking to the moon and back, all for the chance to climb something beautiful and dangerous, impermanent and unique.

Things can always get worse. There really is no bottom to the depths of suffering, but I have learned that through it all we somehow find within our selves the courage, strength, and humor needed to carry on. We can dig so deep, and then deeper still when facing our personal tragedies, and we have the ability to view those tragedies as opportunities to grow as individuals. We seek out the lines on mountains that call to us in search of the same opportunity, and by accepting risk, overcoming discomfort and hardship, we are allowed fleeting moments of Nirvana, of grace. This is why I climb ice. My wanting for more routes, more fruitless treks, more screaming barfies, more defeats and occasional moments of success has kept me going day in and day out through what feels like a lifetime of suffering. A slow death is calling me and I know she’ll be a welcome relief when she arrives - whether that be in this hospital bed or years from now in the mountains where I have searched for and found dazzling smears of ice that appear for a number of hours on the flanks of granite walls and then disappear in a matter of minutes beneath a fierce western sun… I hope it’s the latter. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Thoughts from the Garden

I was sitting in my family’s garden, the shade of a twenty year old evergreen obstructing the sun's warmth. I’ve grown up with this tree and it is as wide as it is tall, the territory of birds – Finches, Stellar Jays, and Northern Flickers. It is healthy and perpetually thriving; I’ve never seen a limb brown nor bare. This tree will outlive me, my mother, my father, our pack of adopted Labradors. It will likely outlast the next inhabitants, and those after them. The tree gives me a feeling benevolent familiarity, a friendly fixture and a symbol of nature in an otherwise bland suburban neighborhood.

Eventually the November sun crests the evergreen's form in a blinding glare and I feel the warmth of that glowing mass and the sting of a crisp fall air, the cloudless sky that fine Colorado blue… I love the feeling of warmth that rises in me and I am reminded of days of my youth when that same warmth filled me with joy and longing - I couldn’t get enough. There were days spent wading through the cold and dark depths of slot canyons in Escalante country where I’d wade with my friends through icy water, carrying our packs overhead or floating them along on inflatable air-mattresses we covered in garbage bags. Once we were in a canyon notorious for epic sufferings, deaths, and the rescues of parties who underestimated the seriousness of the remote forty some mile long descent. The guidebook recommended wetsuits and dry-bags and a week’s length of time for the journey – we had neither and swam / waded nearly hypothermic from one ray of sunshine to the next, where we’d lay naked on sandstone slabs and worship the warmth that was carried such great lengths from that distant star.

While sitting in my garden the warmth of that same sun refreshed me with a feeling of happiness that has become increasingly rare in my life. To quote Edward Abbey, “I want to stare at the sun. I want to stare it down, stare it down until it turns black”. I believe he meant to face life honestly, as a materialist and naturalist – as a man. I feel similarly these days, I want to face life and its tragedies as honestly as I can. On my finer days I am a materialist, believing in that evergreen, those birds, that sun… and on my lesser days I am on the brink of believing in nothing. In his excellent and highly regarded book “Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul”, Nietzche scholar Paul Leslie Thiele notes the three challenges that face any individual : Indolence, Cowardice, and a “Lack of Belief in the Self”, and affirms that Nihilism is indeed the bane of modern existence. But as I sit here in this garden, weak and pale and full of angst following months of struggle with my own tragedies, the warmth of that fine sun on my skin, the smell of pine, and the chirping of finches is enough to remind me that I once loved life, that I still love life, and I will continue to love it until that sun turns black. To quote Albert Camus, “In the depth of winter I found, that within me lies an invincible summer.”

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Tightrope To Nowhere

My doctor described the situation to me. Steady disease, five to ten percent chance of beating this (“just a guess, of course, just a guess”). Patience, chemotherapy, more patience, more chemotherapy… “you’re walking a tightrope now” is how he worded it - I forgot to ask what awaited me at the end, but I know there is no end. As Camus so finely put it, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of feeling my body reel from the chemo, I’m tired of feeling so goddamn weak. My body isn’t producing enough blood or platelets so every couple of days they put me in a hospital room and pump me full of the stuff. My mind is tired too. Some days I go up canyon to sit by the river and sip coffee and remember that all’s well in the grand scheme of things – the sky is blue, the water is clear, the rivers sings it’s timeless song and I’m comforted by my own insignificance, I’m comforted by the sun on my skin and the smooth polished stones. I see myself as a river stone, slowly being worn down to sand, down to nothing. The river kindles memories of countless days spent up canyon, bouldering on the beautiful granite blocs or ski-touring in the high-peaks. I’m grateful for these memories, for a youth well spent in treasured landscapes, out in the wind, sun, and spindrift.

Now I’ve retreated into myself and turn my back on the people in my life. Heartbroken, my dreams shattered, I allow myself to slide further into despondency because I am weak, lazy, and a coward. If I beat this shit, I tell myself I will live as a hermit in some lonely cabin deep in the mountains and I will live out my days climbing nameless routes on nameless peaks, and I will be content if not happy.