“Life comes from water,” my friend Erich explained at the kitchen table over a beer. “Everywhere you look is something” he quipped, describing the lushness that fills the banks and surrounding terraces along the Colorado river as it carves through the Grand Canyon. Although Erich had made a month-long voyage through the canyon by boat before, this conversation was just 22 hours after our visit there. A journey that made an immutable impression on me as I traversed on foot from one side of the canyon to the other and then back — doing something known as a Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim.
To know something, I must dive in, get my hands dirty and commit. This was my first adult trip to the Grand Canyon so I set my bar high. Always an eager ear to listen to my river-loving friends’ tales of the months of their lives spent exploring this place, one of the seven wonders of the world, I came away with a sense that the canyon was quite large and almost guaranteed to free you from the technological and municipal tangles of daily life. It has walls that are five-to-six-thousand feet high, hidden trails that can only be reached by water and tales of explorations in rugged environments as variable as winter and summer in the same day. My friends always echoed that planning is critical to success, keeping it in check is critical to success and luck… well, that would be a part too. I had that this weekend, that was the most critical piece to my success venturing into this stunning terra firma — not for a month, but for a very long day.
At 5:06 AM in sub freezing temps on November 19th, 2013, the three of us, Erich, Heather and I, dropped over the South rim of the Grand Canyon via the South Kaibab trail. A feathery wave of warmer air softly invited us to descend into the chasm, guided by a full moon and anticipation of our long day. The trail was wide and well worn, with each foot strike powdery bursts of red dust erupted and sent a misty cloud into the follower’s headlamp beam. Massive jagged shapes — like those drawn in Dr. Seuss’s books — slowly rose above us as Gotham-esque outlines. In an hour we were warmed up and dropping 4700′ of vertical to the Colorado river minute by minute. Then suddenly it happened…”Ben” Erich exhaled from behind me “I fell.”
I knew how he felt, the day before I had stepped off a snow-covered front porch in Telluride, Co and ate it so hard. I fell directly onto my butt and took a diagonal impact across my entire lower back and sacrum to the point of some immediate swelling, bruising and an occasional pinch since then. Content to carry on and visit the canyon anyway, I iced it in the drivers seat, took some ibuprofen and figured that a six-and- a-half-hour car ride was plenty of time to determine how it would play out.
Unlike my klutzy self, Erich made it to the trail before going down. He caught a foot step in a powdery pocket of dust, hyperextended his right knee and sent his body hurtling forward. Starting from 8 mph and ending at 0 with a white flash and nausea, a crumpled red dust covered being barely set atop a rock is a tough place to be 5.2 miles into a 42.4 mile day. I walked 150′ back up to Erich and helped him assess the situation. His gear lay strewn about the stark landscape like a gypsy yard sale at a Phish show. The impact had been “big” and he sat on a rock, reeling from mild shock.
“Man, what do you think?” I said. “I think I blew my knee and I’m seeing white” he said. Ughhh, I thought, THAT sensation, when you have cratered full-on superman style into a pain cave, disorientation and a sense of despair so low, so ominously coursing through every inch of your body that retching is all that sounds good. Erich was going to need a few minutes to recover, then we would see where he was at. He is a strong dude with a solid chassis.
In a little time, Erich shuffled to his feet and walked 100′ downhill and it was clear that he could move, but rather than take that as a sign to continue, he wisely chose to use his energy to get himself out of the canyon less injured. He was finished. We both knew Heather, tactfully descending somewhere above us, would be a solid back up as she was doing a burly 14 mile day with 9400′ in vertical change, turning around at the bottom of the canyon and heading back up. I cleaned his shades, put his visor back on him and said good bye with his confidence I could still complete the day alone.
Off I went into the dark maw until dawn. I crossed the Colorado river and arrived at my first water break at Phantom Ranch some seven miles, 4700′ of descent and two hours into the day — a slow setup to a long sustained effort. Forty extra minutes of darkness and low temperatures were absorbed in the scenario above and it was important to cruise with a little urgency in the cool morning up a 6200′, 14.2-mile climb to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had time thanks to the early start and I wasn’t bothered at all about being off schedule, just aware that the sun would be up soon. I took off from Phantom Ranch after hastily replacing the half liter of fluids I had consumed and had a nice time running a little harder on the North Kaibab trail’s lower reaches and seeing the life Erich had spoken about, the life that comes from water in the depths of such a stark and craggy stack of monoliths.
As I strode through a broad section of opening valley, a hole burst in my hydration reservoir, right at the bottom of the pack and like that, at mile 13 — I had potentially blown this attempt. I had fumbled around in my pack in the dark and placed a sharp object too close to the durable plastic. When I filled the bladder to capacity at Phantom Ranch it put too much pressure on it. My jacket, gloves and two McDonald’s cheeseburgers were soaked in an orange solution of gatorade and fresh water. I was super pissed, this was my fault and now jeopardized successfully completing the traverse to one rim, making running back to the other nearly impossible. All I had left were two gels, three blocks, one granola bar and 29 miles to stretch it out.
I have not had an episode like this in a while, where a total meltdown could be so imminent, with nearly no solid food and no water or way to carry water. I was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, six miles from people in one direction and going to have to pull off 22 more miles with what I had with only two chances for mere sips of water in between. This was a moment for contemplation as a bright wave of sunlight slowly pushed silhouttes of the enveloping 5000′ canyon walls down into the valley and soaked into my bare shoulders for the first time. I made my decision and went for it; I like to finish things, and figured that if had to hike out to conserve energy — I would, I could — even if it meant going into darkness.
This was my sixth “ultra marathon” distance run. I went into it expecting to just cruise it, albeit with a partner, food and water. I had strategically wanted to run hard from miles 21.2 to 35.4 for training, but other than that, I had no real goals other than finishing before dark and having a nice day on the trail with some friends. This was not a race, it was a day out. I had never set foot on a trail in the Grand Canyon so it felt like I should allow time for photos as well, you know, like a tourist. But now this, a chance for an epic draw on my deepest reserves instead became part of the experience. I hadn’t explored that kind of distance totally alone before and this was my last run before a mandatory prolonged break for a few weeks in between seasons.
Without belaboring the point or disrespecting the canyon, I will say the eight miles and 6200′ of uphill in the sun were hard with no water! As I neared the top and mile 21.2, I felt the pangs of desperation uncoiling from within and sequestering my brain to intervene and stop this messy attempt if I saw anyone at the parking lot. When I arrived, there in the frost-covered shade of a stone-planted National Park sign were three spigots of water I had planned on seeing. I strolled up, tried all three and not a trickle flowed. “Shit, no water, oh man, it’s over,” I thought! I sat down, it was cold, my clothing was soaked in my pack and I sort of zoned out and was trembling from the still, cool air in the shade. Moments later, a trio of climbers I passed on the way up appeared and I asked them if they had any disposable water bottles. They gave me a fresh 24 oz. water bottle that I opened and chugged. Damn I was lucky. Flat out, that gesture took this from being the longest day ever to the longest day on empty.
I crammed the awkwurd bottle in my pack and had revitalized my hydration to a manageable point that could be recovered. Cramping in my side due to dehydration and the fall off the porch from the day before inspired me to jog down the trail a little easier until it abated and soon the trail was flowing singletrack and a river ran nearby. I was never afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it and even got to push the 14 mile section I wanted to, not a ton, but enough to feel like I really “ran” the rim to rim to rim.
By mile 35 I had been through everything, I had lost my partner, my water, my solid food– but I gained the confidence I needed to carry forward and I took a chance that paid off because of luck. As I sat at Phantom Ranch the second time passing through, seven miles and 4700′ below the South Rim in post lunchtime sun, I wiped my salt covered face off with a wet handkerchief. Autumn’s golden foliage flowed from side to side and I sat undisturbed at a drinking water spigot outside the ranch’s canteen for nearly a half hour. Wow, I thought, it’s nice to sit down for a moment and reflect at the actual lowpoint of this trip. I had almost totally crossed this huge feature on foot with the bare minimum and couldn’t really complain about anything. It was all working out, just with some readjusted expectations. I was fast enough to get it done and slow enough to see it for an experience and not just an achievement, it was real and not just a blur.
With this in mind, I departed down trail to the Colorado River and stopped to observe portaging boats as they made their way to and through the beach at Bright Angel campground in the midst of their own three-week journeys through this magnificent feature — the same journey my river-loving friends were always bating me with. I thought about how still and tranquil it must have felt for them at times and how glad I was at the time to know my compressed journey was almost done and it was long before sunset. I was ready to head back to the world to friends and family.
Ascending out of the valley and up the South Kaibab’s 4700′ trail winding through dreamscape and postcard views, I soaked up the last of my water, an 80 calorie espresso flavored gel and just plodded along on empty. In perfect light above wild steppes and crumbling mountainsides carved out of a vastness so immense, I could understand now that which can only be understood after 42.4 miles and 22,000′ of elevation change in a place. My expectations were totally vanquished, I couldn’t help but revel in the sheer magnificence of this iconic National Park and at the same time still obsessively eyeball every 10th of a mile on my GPS watch until the end — about 54 in a row on the grueling return uphill. There is no way to come here and say it should be called, “pretty big canyon” or “yeah that’s a nice canyon.” This thing is the definition of Grand to the core. The running part, totally secondary.
The final four-tenths of a mile at the top were steep but Heather and Erich were there cheering as I approached the end of my first journey through the Grand Canyon. With sunken eyes and waning energy I was thankful for hearing their voices, the jug of water they handed me… and sitting down. Life comes from water, sharing a few sips and scanning the horizon for the last rays of the sun dappling the many features of the sterile and parched upper canyon, life indeed was coming back.
That is what I am doing most of the time these days, riding the couch, so to speak. With a slowly mending new ACL (which is apparently one of the longest recoveries!) I have become really good at sitting on the couch. Slowly but surely though, my former life is trying to usurp me from this comfy throne. Every day a little more strength is gained and with it, a little more confidence to sneak back out into the wide open world and grasp at my favorite things in life.
Having an injury like this is like slamming on the brakes in your life, especially when your livelihood (mountain guide) and all of your recreation depend upon working limbs. Adding to that is the fact that my entire social structure is centered around going outside to play. Skiing, climbing and mountain biking are my passions, and changing to a sedentary life has been akin to a heroin addict stopping cold turkey. No more endorphins flowing through my veins from natural highs of endless cold smoke in the hills or sending a splitter crack. Nope, now it is time to watch everyone else do it on Facebook.
As I have said before, I don’t think there is a silver lining in this injury, but my one major observation is that there is beauty in hitting the reset button HARD. A month ago I couldn’t really walk too well. It took me 40 minutes to take my first stroll outside in the rainforest for 1km walk around a lake. And I was basically in tears. Not from pain, but from joy, the pure elation of realizing that I would someday get my life back.
And the beauty of everything lately is that it seems like every day is another medium to large size victory. So many of my daily ‘mundane’ activities are now seen through the eyes of a beginner. On one of my first bike rides up the highway from Squamish toward Whistler, I noticed a car slam on the brakes in the other direction and then do a big about face and track me down. It was a buddy of mine, and he was going toward town when he saw this big lanky guy with the grandest smile he had ever seen on a road biker. Quickly he realized that it was me and he was so psyched to see me out there back at it again.
However great the hikes and road rides are, climbing has been gnawing at my consciousness. If you are a climber you might understand. I can’t quite quantify it, but for me climbing is as close to meditating as it gets. The focus and determination it requires just can’t be matched by my other pursuits, and consequently the rush of climbing cannot be replaced. The other day I had dinner with some of my best friends and main climbing partners. As chance would have it, all three of us are on the climbing disabled list. Between pregnancy and an injury, the three of us have been finding some other things to focus on life. But, as my pregnant friend Mandoline put it the other day, ‘I’m sick of talking about babies and kid stuff, I want to go climbing and shoot the shit about routes and places to climb already!’ I couldn’t agree more, and finally, whether it was poor judgement or not, I gave in.
No one has really given me a real NO about going climbing at this point in my recovery. I know the facts, that my new ACL graft isn’t fully reconstituted yet, and my leg is weak. But again and again I ask my self, if I am doing easy uphill hikes, how different is going climbing? I try to convince and fool myself again and again that it will be safe to go climbing. My physical therapist, a climber herself, was hinting that a really controlled return was imminent. I know I would not be going for it on the sharp end and taking falls for a while, but to be back out on the rock all day, and hanging with my friends again is what I am really missing. Besides, the only people I knew who had blown ACLs (both new and old) climbing did so bouldering when they fell off and landed. It’s easy to scratch bouldering off the list; as a big dude, people love to boulder with me because I am an all-star spotter, but when the big guy falls, everyone runs! No need to take part in an activity where every time you fall you hit the ground!
So where did my logical reasoning then take me for my first day back on the rock? To some super easy single pitch climbs of course… but without a rope. Now I am sure this won’t make sense to many of you, but in some weird and twisted way it was the perfect way to get back at it in my mind. If I am soloing I won’t try things too hard and I won’t fall. One of the things about my recovery has been that I have been by myself for so much of it. Most of my walks, bike rides and training sessions are in my own solo world, so to me, this was a continuation of my own journey to rehabilitation.
Just like the first hikes and bike rides, I had found a way to bring total joy into routes I had climbed, guided and soloed hundreds of times. The purity, focus and total body awareness were things I hadn’t had in my life in months. I ran into friends who were out climbing. The dogs got to run around the cliffs for a bit. I played in the sun and felt the hard rock crushing my toes in my shoes again. And 6 pitches of 5.6-5.7s have never been so much fun for me in so long. At this point in the journey it is as much about rehabbing the mind and soul as it as about healing the body. I just really hope that I can keep this fresh and renewing perspective on my passions for as long as possible, because if I can do that, then I will have really found the silver lining in this injury, the ability to find pure joy and a fresh bliss in things I have done so many times.
ARVE Error: no id set
Well, whether or not I can comprehend it, my season ended two and a half weeks ago. If you follow my posts at all, you’ll remember that it was a questionable start, after getting an ankle joint infection from a cut from climbing that required surgery and three weeks on the couch. I fought back more slowly from that than I had anticipated, with five weeks of antibiotics and a few weeks of doing nothing while they took their toll on me more than I would have liked. But about three weeks later, all of that had faded into the background of being immersed in the life of running our ski touring business.
It’s a routine that makes the days fly by, including a 5:30 a.m. wake-up to do the weather, chop wood, prep breakfast and lunch, attend guide’s meetings, help guests with gear issues, and finally get out the door to ski at 8:30. That’s when the day gets simpler, lodge maintenance fades into the background, and the purity of one step forward at a time and snow assessment take hold. Your skis grant you the freedom to escape from the grind, whether you are a guest on holiday or a guide/owner/operator for a day at work. We all lose ourselves in the moment of striding uphill and flying downhill, from valley to mountain top and back again. Smooth and fast, we slide back to the lodge, the tasks take hold for me again, with a mirror image of the morning routine, but its great to watch the guests stay in that zone, melting away in the sauna, replenishing the burned calories and continuing with the simple life.
But then my world decided to change. Just when you are hitting your stride, sometimes the world has a different path for you to follow. I had just finished a big week of guiding with a group of guests, we averaged between eight and nine thousand feet of skiing a day, a few people squeaking in 50 grand for their week. Six weeks after having surgery, I was worried if I would pull it off, but hard and tiring as it was, it was also rewarding, considering as well that we had uncharacteristically bad snow for a bunch of days from an abnormal wind event that seemed to jack every bit of open snow in British Columbia. The next group came in and a few days later so did the snow. We settled in to the ‘normal’ five to six grand of skiing per day, which is plenty by my standards, and with 30 centimeters of fresh snow, it felt like a new world out there. So I was skiing like it was bottomless Kootenay cold smoke, but then I hit bottom. Or at least started my journey to the bottom.
In my typical, ‘I want to ski to inspire’ fast and fun style, I found the wind-jacked snow just below the surface, and my left ski decided to auger in and go a little to the right while my body kept going straight and maybe a little to the left. Then I heard the ‘pop’ you hear about and fear as a skier/athlete/guide. I instantly knew something was wrong. As is human instinct, I tried to get up and walk it off, but boom, I was right back on the ground, my left leg not working right. Deep in the backcountry, I looked at my watch and started to make decisions. I was still with a group of 12 guests and two other guides, so support was there, but that was the rest of everyone’s day, dealing with me. A few super labored zig-zag turns and collapses and I made it off of avalanche terrain and met up with the group, almost blacking out with pain and adrenaline. With cloud-building and a quality rescue sled made by Kootenay Rescue Bubble, Jasmin, my super tough wife and co-guide, made the right call to drag me out. So we immobilized my leg, put me in the sled and spent the next three hours getting me back to the lodge. It took 100 percent from everyone to make it happen, team work at its finest, but for sure Andrew (the other guide) and Jasmin worked the hardest.
Getting back to my cabin at the lodge is when it all broke down. Waves of emotion crested over me as I knew my path had changed. There will be no freedom in the hills for many months now, my endorphin source taken away. A new uphill battle through the ‘non-life threatening’ public health care system was setting up to be my fight. I wasn’t scared or upset at hurting my self, and looking at surgery and the road to recovery, I was more upset about letting down my wife, having doubled her workload at our lodge with me out of commission, scared at losing my freedom and becoming a prisoner of immobility, scared of losing touch with my wife and hound as I knew I wouldn’t be able to be up at the lodge for the rest of the winter as I battled down the road of recovery. The preciousness of the special and unique life we have seemed all too real.
We all adapt and change though, and we settle in to our new roles as best we can. Or maybe we just cope. Again and again, folks like to talk about the ‘reasons’ behind things happening. I don’t think things happen for a reason. I think we are all in control of our destinies. I think the ‘silver lining’ is something we find on our own and decide to focus on. One door closing just makes you realize that there are other doors to open and explore. I found my path and partner in life and I am going to fight like hell to get back on it and with her stronger than before. Eventually I will get in to surgery to repair my ACL and meniscus and my bruised up bones will heal. Maybe I will learn some cool things along the way, or maybe I will realize that in my mid 30s I need to stop breezing through my physical life and start making my body work harder for it and training. Either way, my eyes are open to what needs to get done and now I need to do it!
So you won’t find the deepest faceshot, most majestic views or insane physical feats coming from me for a few months. You will find me filling you in on the slow road to recovery that I know many of you have traveled down, with the small victories and defeats of the daily struggle. I know a ton of you can relate, and my strength comes from standing on the shoulders of so many of you that have hurt yourselves before me. In the end, no one died, and I should be charging in the hills again before I know it, so really it’s just a flat tire, with a busted spare, and a long walk to the nearest service station for help. And when I get the tire fixed I can continue down my wonderful path in life!
Above is a quick vid showing you the life I am now missing…