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.
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.