When the Healing is Done, Challenge Begins

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 3, 2011      

Tony Nitti

Tony, in the healing zone.

Tony, in the healing zone.

I’ve learned what fear of death can do to a man. How visions of a foreshortened future can elevate one’s instinct for self-preservation above all others, tempting a person once brimming with life to spend his remaining days in a self-imposed protective bubble. To die without dying.

Recently, as I stood atop the summit of snow covered Independence Mountain and soaked in the spectacular 360 degree vistas that are the hallmark of a cloudless day in the high alpine of central Colorado, I took a moment to look over at my two backcountry skiing partners. My smile grew large at the unlikeliness of the moment, as the three of us had each endured a long climb, both literally and metaphorically, to overcome fear and reach that summit.

To my right stood snowboarder Chris Klug, whose well-chronicled battle with liver disease saw him evolve from transplant recipient to 3-time Olympian, turning him into a local hero and national celebrity in the process.

Standing aside Chris was skier Scott Nelson, who while not the public figure Chris is, commands equal respect and admiration. Just two years ago, at the age of 42, Scott suffered a near-fatal myocardial infarction, a medical history few would suspect when watching him hammer up the slopes of Marble Peak on a seemingly daily basis this spring.

Chris and Scott’s struggles made mine look almost benign in comparison. In April 2008, just days after spending a day backcountry skiing on Ski Hayden, my three-month battle with unexplained headaches culminated in a terrifying diagnosis: a 5 millimeter wide aneurysm had formed deep within the confines of my brain.

Thirteen days later, I underwent eight hours of surgery to open my skull and clip off the offending artery. Like Chris and Scott, my recovery was long and painful, but in the end, complete.

As we shared our summit on that perfect morning, I was overwhelmed with the realization of just how fortunate the three of us were. Fortunate not for all we’d overcome to stand atop that peak (though that’s part of it), but rather we were fortunate for the gift of the mountains. It was our passion for these peaks that forced us to overcome our respective obstacles in the first place.

Chris (left) and Scott atop Independence Mountain, Colorado.

Chris (left) and Scott atop Independence Mountain, Colorado. A liver and a heart.

When recovering from a life-threatening ailment, the real challenge often doesn’t begin until the healing is complete. As your legs and lungs regain strength, the temptation to return to physical exertion becomes overpowering, as your subconscious seeks to allay the fear that things will never be the way they once were.

But sadly, as your heart rate rises and that familiar burn permeates your muscles, the self-assurance you seek remains elusive, replaced instead by a silent war that wages within your brain. For every moment you find yourself celebrating, “I’m doing it again!” you spend exponentially more time questioning, “Should I be doing it again? Will my liver fail? Will my heart fail? Will I get another aneurysm?” It is a cruel and tortuous dichotomy of emotions.

During the early moments of our recoveries, Chris, Scott and I all felt the temptation to give in to that fear. We questioned whether it was all worth it, or whether we should do the sensible thing and opt for a more sedentary future in the hopes of a prolonged lifespan.

But as the first winter of our post-operative lives arrived, we each realized that the answer to “Should I be doing it again?” was an unequivocal “yes,” for one reason:

We love the mountains. We really, really, love the mountains.

That is why three men with every reason to live out their days from the safety of their living rooms found themselves enjoying the views from 13,000 feet on a crisp, clear May morning.

For each of us, returning to the mountains was, to put it simply, non-negotiable. We derive an inordinate amount of pleasure from the seemingly inane act of climbing up a mountain only to turn around and slide back down. It’s an endeavor that allows our souls to flourish, providing a reminder that there’s little point in being alive if you can’t do the things that make life worth living.

“If I had one wish — once a week, for eternity, I would climb a mountain” is one of my favorite quotes. I often wield that epigraph as evidence to friends and family that I am not alone in my thinking, as I attempt to explain that continuing to climb the magical mountains I love was never a choice, no more so than continuing to eat, breathe, or sleep was a choice.

Standing atop a summit, having reached its apex solely as a result of your own effort — as gratifying a moment as a person can experience. This is where we enjoy a front-row seat to nature’s unparalleled beauty. It’s where we redefine what we’re capable of, our fears and limitations shattered with each successful ascent. It is where we feel most alive, where we think most clearly, where even the most confused and conflicted among us can quiet our minds for a moment and simply, be.

Scott on north face, Independence Mountain.

Scott on north face, Independence Mountain. Cardiac healing.


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24 Responses to “When the Healing is Done, Challenge Begins”

  1. Stevve June 3rd, 2011 8:21 am

    Wow…excellent, just excellent. Thank you for sharing. I lost a friend to a sudden aneurysm when I was fairly young — it made a huge, memorable impact and makes “seize the day” much more important, every day.

  2. Glenn Sliva June 3rd, 2011 8:43 am

    Who’s the winner now? The CEO that sits behind a desk all day making great money but missed the first hit his son made in little league and the beaming grin he sports standing on first base. Or. These fine gentlemen from this guest post/story?

    My glass is raised to you guys and damn I wish I was in that photo of you guys. Here Here.

  3. naginalf June 3rd, 2011 8:47 am

    Living in fear ain’t no way to live. We all stand a 50/50 chance of surviving the next instant, from natural disaster to medical problem, there’s always something just around the corner. Being alive is excuse enough to have fun without worrying about dying. You’ll die when you die, but for now, FUN.

  4. Lou June 3rd, 2011 8:52 am

    When Tony sent this over, I was super excited to share it. Really excellent if I do say so myself! Thanks Tony, and Chris, and Scott… After some health issues (mine, orthopeadic) I’ve experienced that exact fear and lack of self confidence even after the healing was done. I’ve been embarrassed about those feelings, if not frustrated. Reading this really helped me think all that through and realize this process is something to embrace and complete.

    I think Tony is out skiing (grin), am looking forward to when he returns and chats with you guys. Perhaps Scott and Chris as well.


  5. Nick June 3rd, 2011 10:34 am

    Absolutely great post!

  6. Michael Kennedy June 3rd, 2011 12:07 pm

    Great post, Tony … thanks for sharing!

  7. Tony Nitti June 3rd, 2011 12:40 pm

    Chris is in Hawaii, and the last time I saw Scott, he was somewhere under the northwest face of Blue Peak, so it looks like I’ll be going it alone for a while! Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

    Even three years removed from my surgery, I still deal with fear on a daily basis. As the climbs get bigger and my pace quickens, I always find questioning if I’m doing the right thing, but as I noted above, what choice do I have? I have a two-year old son, and the only thing I fear more than dropping dead is using my one negative experience as an excuse to my son for the rest of my life, essentially telling him, “Daddy had to quit living out of fear of dying.”

  8. Ted Mahon June 3rd, 2011 12:44 pm

    Tony- thanks for the perspective.

  9. Mike Marolt June 3rd, 2011 1:38 pm

    As i read your comment about relating this to your 2 year old son, for me having lived with a father who was only givne a few years to live at age 37, but ended up with over 30 years beyond that, your words made me cry in a really good way. A truly wonderful post!

  10. Tony Nitti June 3rd, 2011 2:06 pm

    Thank you Mike. From one CPA to another!

  11. Scott June 3rd, 2011 4:13 pm

    Really well written Tony. I didn’t know CPA’s had that artistic side. You do!

    Yeah, I had to ski one of those miscellaneous couloirs of the back of Blue, so I hiked back up after you left this morning, just to make sure my heart got enough vert for the day ( tongue in cheek grin).

    I don’t want to sensationalize myself regarding my experience that Tony mentioned above, nor respond with a tome on the signs and symptoms of a heart attack (you’ll know, trust me…or look here) but I did want to share a few things from my perspective, which is really not unlike Tony’s.

    The biggest hurdle to my cardiac event was, really, a mental one. Yeah, physically I had to start from square one again, and I chose to move slowly. I could deal with that, one step at a time, that’s easy. But mentally, I was torn up inside. I didn’t want anyone to know what happened to me. I didn’t want to be seen as weak and unable to keep up, inferior in some sort of weird way. I didn’t want people to look down on me. Sounds weird, but that’s what was filling those cerebral folds in my brain, constantly. A bit neurotic, but that’s the way it was for a long time. My confidence was gone, cut down in the prime of my life, what would I do now?

    Thankfully, I had a few other voices in my life that challenged my pitiful, whoa is me thinking. My faith in God, which consequentially has been really challenged through all this, has helped me to keep fighting on, not to give up, but rather, to move forward, entrusting whatever outcome to Him. And then my wife Jenny. After my heart attack, the last thing I remember before I was being loaded onto CareFlight for the first heli ride of my life, was the look of total despair on her face. I didn’t think I was coming back. She didn’t think I was coming back. It was over. But when I woke up in the cardiac care unit at St. Mary’s in Grand Junction, she was right there, smiling and already trying to encourage me, which to this day has not ceased. I owe her a great deal for hanging in there with a neurotic, brooding male idiot for so long, while we walked through all this together. She encouraged me to pick myself up and get back out there and do what I love. And one step at a time, that is what I decided to do.

    It was like having a new challenge in life. Start from zero. So what? Who cares? See what you can do. Just do it (sorry Nike). Before the heart attack, I ran marathons, biked centuries, skinned endless miles blah, blah, blah. After the big one, I barely could walk a mile. But that’s where I started. So be it. One step at a time. Very humbling to say the least. But at least I was alive, so I’m gonna make the most of it.

    After meeting and being out in the backcountry with Tony, I often wonder if I should stick a tap and bit in my repair kit, and if he should strap an AED to his pack just in case something happens to either one of us out there. Seriously, its been a very cool experience to be able to share the incredible gift of backcountry skiing with others who’ve overcome obstacles to be out there. And I’m so thankful that they’ve not looked down on me, but rather they just want to share their stoke the best way they know how…..Let’s go ski !! See you out there.

  12. Glenn Sliva June 4th, 2011 7:42 am

    Scott your comment is better then the article! You can’t blieve how inspiring and warm we mortals feel reading this. I think you guys were extra special before all this happened in your lives. These events allowed the rest of us to know. Thanks so very much for sharing this and I want you guys to know we care.

  13. Bill B June 4th, 2011 11:29 am

    Great article

    I had a major heart attack at 50. It shocked everyone around me including the doctors. No one could understand how someone so fit and eat so good with a low cholesterol count, could have it happen. The only reason I survived though was the fact that due all the aerobic activities of biking and skiing I had built up alterior arteries that fed my heart, so little or no damage was done and made the experience not so bad . It stll worries me some and I do not push it quite as hard, but I know my future survival is probably dependant on keeping on going at it.

  14. Scott Nelson June 4th, 2011 5:00 pm


    Yeah I’ve read some studies on those alterior or collateral arteries that suggested exactly what you said. I really wonder if that is what happened to me as well. Unfortunately, I waited too long before getting help, so I lost a bit of myocardium. Sorry to here about your experience, but sounds like you’re moving forward and that is totally encouraging. I really like hearing about these cardiac success stories amongst athletes, because there doesn’t seem to be very many. We are a few of the lucky ones.


    Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I just want people to know that yes you can survive these things and you can go on living and also, to let people help you in the process. I’m really thankful for the guys I’ve been able to ski with this last Spring, as without even realizing it, they really helped me get my confidence back. There really were some special moments out there. Tony spelled that out pretty good in his post.

  15. Alex Baller June 5th, 2011 11:53 am

    Great article Tony! I wish you all the strength while continuing your recovery. It’s great that you’re mentally and physically strong enough to do something like this. Keep it up 🙂

  16. Chris Klug June 5th, 2011 1:11 pm

    Thank you Tony. I love getting out together. We make a good team. Thanks for sharing the article and including me in your adventures. Can’t wait to get back up there with you. Make a few turns for me while I’m kiting and SUP’ing in Maui! See you soon. CK

  17. Bill B June 5th, 2011 6:08 pm


    I was able to get to help prettty quick. It was my own hard headedness that delayed much. I was really thinking of sucking it up and dealing with the pain, but was around some snow patrolers and they suggested differently.
    It ticked me off that I had done so much to avoid a MI, but was still having one.
    Later a doctor told me that if I was a vegetarian marathoner, it still would have happened and with looking at cases my wife comes across, I guess it is true.
    Now when I run into some of the guys I rode mountain bikes hard with I feel strange. Kind of like i am no longer the same human being. I also think about the fact I was riding with them with an LED that was clogged 60-90%.
    With time, I do not think about it that much. I take a little more relaxed attitude about my sports, but that comes with age too. I am not so eager to pound the snot out of myself. With all that, I think my life is better than ever.

  18. Scott Nelson June 5th, 2011 7:15 pm

    Being a vegetarian marathoner doesn’t sound like much fun anyways (grin). Funny how it takes others to make you deal with the signs/symptoms. It was my wife who did that in my case. I still like to ‘pound the snot out of myself,’ just at a little slower pace, and likewise take a bit more relaxed attitude toward everything. It is actually pretty “freeing” to be able to do that in a weird sort of way. Thanks for sharing Bill.

  19. gtrantow June 5th, 2011 7:26 pm

    Keep eating elk, aerobic ski workouts and loving your wife and your life will be good. I hope to see you on more BBQs this year.

  20. Lou June 5th, 2011 8:53 pm

    Eating more elk is key.

  21. Scott Nelson June 6th, 2011 7:30 am

    Yeah, guess I’m going to have to learn to hunt. That elk burger was really good. Thanks again George.

  22. Lou June 6th, 2011 8:25 am

    The thing about elk hunting is if the meat doesn’t clear your arteries, the 16 hours a day of hiking sure will.

  23. Glenn Sliva June 6th, 2011 10:12 pm

    Elk hunting is a piece of cake once you realize you have to be a tree line at dawn. It’s after you drop him when the real work starts. Dale and Gale (D&G) outfitters will save you with pack horses though.

  24. Ging June 21st, 2011 6:56 am

    A Wonderful testimony Tony, and you are such an inspiration to all of us who have aneurysms. Keep climbing and celebrating , you and your friends are living and not letting any fear keep you from it. Kudos to you all, Ging

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