I sat at the edge of my tent; feet dangling over the edge, surrounded by snow, mountains and good people who i now loved with all my heart; and i cried softly to my myself. No one noticed. I was happy. I was in the wilderness. I was brave. I was now a backcountry skier adventuring into the wild. I was being me. A bottle of Jack Daniels made its way around the circle to me. My gloved hand squeezed it and lifted it to my lips, the warm liquid calming my nerves. I soaked in the scenery...nothing like i had ever seen before. Dramatic rock formations silhouetted by the sun setting in a bath of warm color. Mountains and lakes spanning forever. The peaceful silence filled with laughter and joke telling from the inspired crew. I was surrounded with love, but in the midst, I was nervous. The most difficult task of my life started promptly at 6am. Could i do it? Everything was coming to fruition and reality sat heavily on my shoulders, so i took a deep breath, closed my eyes and felt the love surrounding me.
"Time to go, Jer," the expedition leader's voice from outside the tent in the waning morning light letting me know it was go time, but i wasn't asleep. I spent the restless night in all my gear, boots and everything, so that when this moment came, i would be ready. I couldn't eat, too nervous and nauseous and early, so i pounded a Rockstar for my caffeine fix and let my destiny begin to unwind. Time to put our stamp on the world.
The day began with a hellacious fireman carry over a boulder field to the edge of the snow where my little sled waited. I mounted her, after the guys sat me down gently in the snow, harnessed in and the climbing began immediately...one pull-up at a time with 2000 vertical to conquer. Not sure what 2000 vertical feet translates to in actual distance, but it meant a lot of pull-ups for me and my muscles were not awake yet. Everything hurt. Still in the early morning shade, the rock hard snow provided little resistance and we moved along quickly. I couldn't believe how much i hurt though and pessimism set in. I didn't think i could do it. The top of the couloir loomed overhead ominously, watching, from what seemed like miles away, so i just put my head down and breathed...in and out...timing my pull-ups with my breath, pulling the ascender to me with every exhalation, resting when i could no longer pull it to me and thus creating the rhythm that i would suffer through for almost six hours.
Climbing was all business. I was focused. The climbers were focused. The camera guys were focused. And i'm sure the members of the sherpa team hiking up the ridge with my sitski were focused too. For me, getting from point A to B, one pull-up at a time, one rope length at a time, was all i could concentrate on in that moment. Focusing on the next anchor point, slowly but surely inching up that massive couloir. All the while, the slope getting steeper and steeper and the view growing, becoming more expansive and breath taking. At the end of each rope length, when we reached each anchor point, i would stop to rest, turning around to soak in the view, and i was blown away at how dramatically it changed and grew. Each time we stopped, we could see more and more. I had flown over the mountains in a plane before, but this was different. Indescribable. Unreal. It took a lot of energy to twist around to see everything, so i spent a lot of time with my head down, face in the snow, letting blood refill my arms. I found myself, in my pain, focusing on individual snow crystals sparkling in the sun. They were just as beautiful, seemingly smiling at me as i lived my destiny, proud i was there to acknowledge them in a place where no paraplegic had ever been before.
At the steepest point, when things were the most difficult, i heard voices from above. It was the sherpa team! They had made it to the top from the ridge line and we were now close enough to hear them! They waited anxiously for their rendezvous with us. I had been so focused i didn't even realize we were almost there! The thought of connecting with them gave me strength. Although i was depleted, a strange energy came over me. Suddenly, I felt fresh and pulled myself along with a renewed fervor as if i had all the energy in the world. Then, as i neared the summit, they came into view and a very different reality from what i had felt the night before began to overcome me: i was going to make it. I reached the final anchor point and collapsed in exhaustion. Charlie, the lead climber, jumped on top of me, our tears flowing together, everyone's cheers echoing over the Sierras.
Sitting on top, seeing what's on the other side, taking photos, embracing everyone, shaking hands, signing the register and enjoying a very symbolic PB&J sandwich, seemed surreal. The moment of so much focus for so many people for so many months had arrived and i felt God's delight as the sun warmed my tired face. We enjoyed our time up there, but soon another reality took over. It was time to ski this treacherous thing and i was scared.
Descending Bloody Couloir in my next blog...