I feel as though I’ve been given a gift that is so precious that I don’t deserve it. I almost feel guilty being able to experience these moments on the edge of my comfort in some of the most spectacular places on the planet. It’s not just being there that is so meaningful it’s the price we pay to dance with the fear. The people that we encounter on this hard road to nowhere become friends and mentors. The price is high but fair.
I set out to climb Tower of Babel in Banff National Park (near Lake Louise in Alberta) with Martin Fuhrer–a good friend and Type 1 companion since Project365 serendipitously brought us together. His father, Hans, who is now 80 had climbed this same formation many years ago and he recommended it highly. As a lifelong climber and former head of SAR (search and rescue) for Parks Canada, his suggestions always carry significant merit because many of todays classics were pioneered by Hans and his friends in the 60s and 70s–and he has many unrepeated first ascents in the backcountry that are staggering feats of effort even by modern standards.
Waking up at 4 AM is never something I enjoy. “It will be worth it” I keep telling myself as I stagger around trying to get some semblance of breakfast together that will be fast, easy and compatible with my Ketogenic diet. A quick blood sugar check and I can see that I’m already off to a sub-optimal start. I’m higher than I want to be on waking (150) so I trim the meal to the bare essentials and take one unit of rapid acting insulin which will hopefully have left my system before we start the uphill grind to the base of the tower. Peppermint tea with coconut oil, cheese, almond butter and hemp seeds are my rations. I pack some eggs and more cheese for later on the climb, along with some Brazil nuts–which will ultimately stay in my pack for the entire day without being eaten.
A two hour drive puts us in the heart of Banff and we begin the approach. My blood sugar is still high (178) but I don’t really care–it will come down soon enough and I’d prefer a little cushion with the steep hike ahead that will ultimately deposit us at the base of the 1,250 tower. Trying to describe a day of climbing is hard–and possibly not worth my time or yours beyond a certain point.
It was hard at first and then it became easy. I think that’s the heart of the matter–which is worth literally ALL of my time. Doing hard things is how we make them normal. Normal becomes easy and our limits shift. I keep thinking about this on the wall as I look repeatedly at my CGM watching my blood sugar–concerned about a shift or a drop that ultimately never comes. I wonder what it would be like to live without that concern, that fear. It’s with me everywhere I go.
The illusion that I’ve transcended that fear because I choose to dance with it in the mountains sets my teeth on edge. I’ve read some misinformed bloggers who think that my climbing is about demonstrating conquest. In truth it’s about the ritual of confronting my weakest self and watching the myth of conquest evaporate like morning mist. Here on the side of a cliff my fear is nearer and more present than ever. I hear it on the wind and it whispers worst-case what-ifs in my ear. The day that I conquer my fear is the day I will have no more use for climbing. I have no concerns about such a day ever arriving.
From the dance with fear comes joy. The gift. This is real–as real as high blood sugar. As real as the fear.
We push through to the summit and find Hans waiting for us–he hiked up a grueling gully to meet and congratulate us. We share details and memories of the climb in the way climbers do. I feel so much joy at the completion of the ascent, our ability to bring type 1 diabetes into the vertical world and our escort down the mountain. I joke with Hans that it’s not often one gets escorted off a mountain by the (former) head of SAR under such pleasant circumstances. His laughter drifts back over his shoulder as he is already out and away down the trail, ahead of Martin and I.
I hope that I can find that much joy and strength in the mountains when I too am 80 years old.