From the beginning I had to earn to climb: my harness, my belay, the
rock. It wasn’t until the tent sat staked to the ground, our therma-rests were left to
expand, and the delicious scent of burning logs wrapped through the tall trees that
my dad would grab an old alpine rope he’d strapped to an already bursting
backpack, a figure eight and some water-knotted webbing, and we’d hike the
narrow path to some mesmerizing piece of rock late in the afternoon. We’d pass
small ponds that pockmarked alpine meadows and see the small tadpoles, their
shadows tattooed upon the tan depths, and let our exhaustion pass into excitement
as we searched a new cliff that skirted one pristine lake or another. Jefferson Park,
Beacon Rock, Hurricane Ridge, I explored these areas of the Pacific Northwest with
my dad guiding the way. Slowly, with countless creek crossings and endless
bushwhacking, the realization bloomed that weary legs and sweat stained backs
were an undeniable part of the prize. That hardship is directly connected to success
and climbing is inherently linked to nature.
Long hikes were the norm, along with biting flies and mosquitoes and food
stealing marmots. These things permeated the infancy of my climbing and became
the images I grew to expect as I approached from one crag to the next, the crystal
streams splashing through strewn talus and gigantic trees and wild vistas. At an
early age I learned that the rewards and lifestyle of climbing are not just upon
the rock, but also in the experiences—climbing being inextricably linked to the
sweet scent of mountain blueberries and the sting of nettle and the spirit-soothing
gusts tumbling through canyons. Wonderfully, with each new season the defining
characteristics of the mountains and cliffs changed, even the ways my dad and I
climbed them changed, and this created an awareness that there were endless ways
in which to experience life.
As I drifted through the natural world I found I could be choked by dust or
exhilarated with lung-gripping clean air. Certain streams would be swollen on one
backpacking trip and on the next I would see nothing but beautifully rounded grey
stones. Nature’s relentless transformation captivated my thoughts; lone trees in
the midst of ancient lava flows and at the edge of giant, water-carved precipices, or
ancient root systems up-heaved in the mildest of winds. Without a doubt the 5,000-
year-old twisting riddles of the Bristlecone tell stories filled with change, witness to
the trials of those living millennia before, everything and everyone eternally in flux.
Yet, this does not mean instability or unrest; the act of changing entwines with the
act of growing and learning and ultimately living. The beautifully knotted limbs of
the Bristlecone twist through the present while holding onto the knowledge of the past.
In my early teens I read zealously about climbers like Peter Croft and Lynn
Hill and Alex Lowe and Todd Skinner. What was synonymous with them all was
their wild hair and fierce eyes. In the pictures I cut out and tacked to my wall I could
feel their uncertainty and imagined their fading energy, in awe at how they could
seemingly continue to expend it forever. Immense granite towers erupted out of
Pakistan’s Karakoram, 3,000 feet of never before free-climbed rock ascended in a
day, miles of exposed ridgelines traversed solo, the ropes tossed aside and left to
play with the wind in the ultimate display of freedom and acceptance that what we
do as individuals is okay and worthwhile, that climbing is something to be
Of course, numbers and grades were published, but these arbitrary
allotments were secondary aspects to the articles I ripped from the magazines. It
was the depiction of exploration, of individuals utterly exposed and yet smiling, of
human feet standing for the first time on top that captivated my thoughts. An
immense rock climbed is inspiring. Unbelievable. Free. A climber’s dream is to
stand on top. And when this is done a transformation takes place. When you climb
a change is taking place. You grow. You learn. You adapt.
I was diagnosed with diabetes among climbing magazines. I threw up beside
my harness and climbing shoes, my blood sugar at some inconceivable number.
700? 800? 1000? It was late in the night and a blackness curdled with the already
dark world. I had hid my sickness as long as I could, as long as a 14 year old knew
how, and suddenly it erupted. It was like the wind snagging the rope on a rappel,
a cold chill fast approaching with ten more pitches to the ground and the trees still
look like scattered poppy seeds. What else can you do but keep going? What else
can you do but learn along the way and know that afterwards, if you try, your eyes
will tell of something special—something achieved. Success comes with every climb
through the act of learning and evolving with this new education.
I’ve been thinking about the Wind River trip for a few months now. Thinking
about new summits and first ascents, of ways to keep going and pushing. I visited
twice, years ago, with my dad. It’s definitely a sacred place. The exposed vertebrae
of the Continental Divide S’s for more than a hundred miles through the range,
mountains rise like giant stegosaurus plates, the rich scent of piñon pine and wild
flowers stir with each soft breeze. Towering above the alpine meadows that are
audibly defined by gravity, water rumbling between boulders and rushing through
lush pads of green, are the Goliaths, waiting to be climbed, waiting for the soft sand
or gravel on their summits to receive our footprints.
The mountains and rocks, diabetes, it’s all a trial, all a learning process.
There are Goliaths everywhere. There are the insurance companies and doctors and
the public that try to define diabetes; it’s a money maker and an oracle for ailments
to come and it’s easily misunderstood…just go for a jog and watch what you eat. But
really it’s only me, only me on the rock, only me testing and injecting. It’s always
in flux. I’m always learning. I don’t think about diabetes when I’m in the midst of
climbing or under a mountain’s shadow. I think about adapting. How many units
for a 24-hour push? How many carbs should I pack for ten pitches? Twenty pitches?
It’s interesting; the dichotomy that’s exists between the great ones and the
Regular Joes disappears when you look back at your own pictures. There are images
of my dad and I standing alone on rugged summits and half way up long multi-pitch
routes. Our looks are intense and exhausted, but we’re smiling with nowhere to go
but up. Or back down. In either instance it was the journey, the freedom to choose,
which made us happy.
I could turn my back on a blank wall and say, impossible, or I can forge
upwards like those in the images I cut from the magazines. A Bristlecone strives
for thousands of years, a Redwood for several hundreds, and humans for eighty or
so. Climbing like life, like diabetes, revolves around our ability to accept change and
adapt. I can turn my back on the world because I have diabetes and shelter myself,
saying, too dangerous, too unsafe, or I can take diabetes, and everything it scares me
with, and use it as a step to push into the ground and propel myself forward. At the
end, the rewards will appear: Nature’s endlessly vibrant backdrop and the smiles
of success, of just going for it, and the overwhelming idea that failure doesn’t really
exist, just change. And that’s why I go for it. That’s why I climb.
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