When I was 23 years old, I was pushing every part of myself to do everything before my illness overtook me. In a way, I spent the year taunting death at right its doorstep; I was taking just as many steps towards it as it was towards me. I had been working the midnight shift for about a year and along with my rage-riddled death wish, I has also discovered a reprieve from my mind in hiking. Knowing my days of walking were growing ever more limited, I spent as much time as possible charging up every trail and mountain I could find, music bouncing me into each step.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but this was pretty much my normal. I knew I was hiking in Salt Lake City and my driving whims would determine which mountain. There it was: Grandeur Peak.
This is a fairly short hike but the climb is rocky and steep. Guinness athletes are known to run it, but even as a daily distance hiker, I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. Usually I’d go 200-500 feet with my traction clips and vibrating music and pause, die a little bit, and then push onward for the sake of my oversized ego. This was a hike one HAS to conquer during the evening, early morning or spring; it is a stairway leading away from Salt Lake City, fully exposed with the sun beating down and the wind whipping fine dust into panting eyes the whole way. I parked, sat in my car and prepared my pre-timed SOS messages. If I didn’t make it down by a certain hour, SOS text messages would let everyone know which trail I was on and give them a window of when things went south. At 2:30am, I started climbing. I was racing my demons to the top.
I have always had that feeling when I was hiking that I was just staying above the pollution of my deep depression. I had friends; even good friends, but I was still unattached. No one knew when I didn’t make it home at night. If I lost my job and couldn’t find one, I had no safety net. I had found out I was ill; the kind of sick you can’t cure but can only systematically remove items off the ‘can-do’ list, and I was angry. Livid, really. I couldn’t believe I could go through so much just to find out I was falling apart. Conquering mountains to me was more than finishing out a tough hike. I was beating nature, which meant I was beating all my pains, odds and sicknesses. I strapped on my headlight, punched in my earbuds and started climbing. For the millionth time I was going to try to outrun this on my own.
The first part of Grandeur Peak is, to me, the most intense. It is so steep and hard-baked that without traction clips and hiking sticks, climbing it is a slippery and unpromising endeavor. With my folk/rock/oldies playlist blowing my brains out, I lost myself in the struggle. Once I got to the top of the first tough hill, I turned around and saw the city laid out beneath me. I thought to myself I’d seen higher views and pressed on. My ritual in hiking had been to chug a beer at the top. As always, I started resenting the weight of the heavy glass bottle, but I was already halfway up.
The next time I looked up from my crazed climbing frenzy, my blue Cookie Monster tee shirt was gone, tucked into my bag and I was soaked in sweat. I had traversed the secondary peak and was just 1/4 mile away from the top. I looked over to the neighboring mountain and my eyes widened. It had been a perfect full moon, August night with clear skies when I started; the flash of lightning roughly a half mile away over the peak next to mine threw my shadow down a steep ravine, heading my way. I quickly calculated my odds, and they weren’t good. The lightning had at best 20 minutes to reach me. I had been climbing for a little over an hour.
I ripped open my backpack, totally shirtless in my ultra-gay white cargo pants and did the only smart thing: I pulled out my beer and cracked it open. I took a video of the storm headed my way, narrated the situation and in my vast maturity and intelligence, posted it online. I had been more dehydrated than I thought and the beer hit me hard. I had three options:
1) I could run down as fast as I could and ditch my aluminum hiking pole. The trip down was incredibly uneven and rocky, so to forfeit the pole would be an almost certain injury. My ankles, degenerated into weak rubber, had no balance. I knew I would fall and would likely rip the ligaments.
2) I could ditch the hiking pole, slowly and deliberately hiking back down. I would certainly be able to make the hike if not for the storm. The thunder and lightning would not only overtake me but engulf me for at least 20 minutes, risking electrical shock, risk of sliding off the side of the mountain and more.
3) I could run like a stuck pig with my pole down the mountain. I would make much better time, more likely avoid an ankle injury requiring more surgery, and vastly increase my risk of lightning strike carrying a metal pole.
I decided option 3 was best. I gulped the last of my beer and RAN. The rain started pouring down and I wondered if I should stop to put my shirt back on. One thing about this trail: near the top, running is especially dangerous for the weak-ankled, but in spite of this I was doing great. I was rocking out to “Bad Moon Rising” and giving focused giggles to the irony of it as I whipped around the corner along a drop-off. Around the corner…. was a SKUNK?! WHAT WAS A SKUNK DOING ON A MOUNTAIN IN AN ELECTRICAL STORM?! I was going too fast to stop or even to slow down; the jagged rocks were consuming all my focus, so I leapt to the side to avoid it flying by before it could even turn towards me. My foot slipped off the edge of the drop-off for a split second and I breathed a moment of close-call relief. My mistake; I didn’t pick my next foot up high enough on the next step and it caught on the next rock. I tripped, flipped forward and went hurtling into total blackness.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes; there was no white light. I would later be sorely disappointed that yet again, I didn’t get to be one of those people on talk shows discussing their experiences in heaven before coming back to write a blog or a book with that reassured confidence that there is something on the other side. My memory includes one thing: My headlight pointing straight down into total blackness, illuminating the rain pointing into the complete darkness I was whipping into.
I did a full front flip and fell roughly fifteen feet, landing flat on my back. My backpack had whipped up behind my head during the inertia of the fall; when I hit the ledge, it pillowed my head and most certainly saved my life. With the rain pouring down and “Bad Moon Rising” blaring much less humorously in my skull, I lay there for a couple seconds, wheezed blessed oxygen back into my winded frame and then groaned myself into an upright position. On a later hike I found it was the only possible ledge I could have landed on. I assessed my situation. I was on a roughly 3′ wide outcropping and as far as I could see, there were no others. My headlamp was flickering but still shedding light. I looked down at my body; clad only in shorts and a sports bra, I noticed the skin on my knee had been sliced away. The bone looked clean and white for a split second, then filled with blood. I pulled my Cookie Monster shirt out of my bag and tied it tightly to my knee to hold the massive flap of skin on, then leaned over and threw up neatly into the darkness. There was something about seeing part of myself so cleanly cut away that has made me hopelessly squeamish ever since. I shook my head a couple times, tested my leg and dutifully climbed back up to the trail.
The rest of the run down seemed like a ridiculously short trip. I lost my balance again on the steepest part, sliding on my leg and ripping the skin off, but like my knee, I didn’t really feel it. It had become a game with my demons yet again; I felt myself taunting them. I had a bigger force on my side, I reminded myself. Years before I had joked that God would never let me die, and that moment I not only believed it with every fiber of my being but I was ready to test it. I ran down the rest of the trail and strode across the parking lot. The wind was much milder at the trail head and I popped open the trunk of my car. I pulled off my traction clips, tossed them in, and then ripped off my backpack and hurled it into the trunk. That’s when I felt the tearing; I had a laceration on my back as well. I paused and considered my situation. I was experienced in some field medicine, but was unsure about my back. I felt out two exposed ribs with my fingertips and decided to go to the hospital. I drove to the nearest ER and walked in. I was shirtless, had blood pouring down my back and my favorite shirt looked like a bloody rag around my knee.
The lady arguing with the triage staff was one of their regular drug seekers. She spoke with them for quite some time, and eventually they called her a cab. The whole time I waited politely behind them, standing in a ridiculously casual pose for the sight I knew I was. The nurse’s eyes kept darting back to me and then back to the woman with whom he was speaking. I claim no bragging rights; they knew me too. I had a reputation for dragging myself into this hospital with life-threatening problems and somehow pushing my way out, almond milk carton in hand, long before I was able to be discharged.
The triage nurse was a fellow I knew well. He always hollered at me as I dragged (sometimes literally) myself house of the hospital and hailed a cab. I asked him to look at my knee and back and determine if I needed stitches. As I pulled the shirt off my knee, he giggled.
Male Nurse: Are you really asking me if you need stitches?
Me: How’s my back?
Male Nurse: I see two ribs. With some cleaning I’ll definitely see three.
Me: Any way I can log frequent flyer miles and NOT have to get admitted?
Male Nurse: I can take care of you but you’re going to hate me for it.
Scrubbing with alcohol at the bone level is nothing to sneeze at. My vengeful and probably crushing male nurse friend made a point to scrub extra hard and every time I swore at him, his grin stretched. Once I was sewn back together and bandaged up, I returned resentfully to the front desk. That male nurse, kind as he was to apparently charge me nothing, had really gotten my goat. I could brave any pain and that dude made me SWEAR. I was floored; because they had routed the procedure of admitting me, I owed nothing. I walked back out to my car, drove home and went to bed like every other night.
SIX DAYS LATER
I shouldered my pack and began climbing Grandeur Peak. I moved deliberately so as not to rip open my stitches for a third time. I wasn’t trying to climb to the peak this time; I just wanted to gain some elevation and watch the sunset. I raced it slowly up the hill until I knew I had lost, and I turned around to watch the sun dip over the distant mountains. A descending couple leveled with me. They asked me if I was planning on continuing my hike. I am a mischievous soul, and an idea cropped up in my mind.
Me: I fell off a cliff last time I was here thanks to a damn skunk.
Guy: How did a skunk make you fall off?
Me: It doesn’t matter. I’m not getting off this mountain till I find and kill him.
They both gave me very concerned looks and continued their descent, this time much more quickly. I grinned, waited twenty minutes and followed them down. When I reached the bottom, I sat in my car for a few minutes, choosing my driving playlist. Several ranger vehicles rushed in and rangers began scouring the trail head, slowly moving up. I grinned, backed out, and drove home.
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