The Toughest Thing

One of the things about telling stories is you think you should always know where the story begins and ends, and I hope I have a million stories, but I have this one that keeps going and I’m not sure where it started or where it ends.

Sometimes I tell it and the beginning is me waking up in a jail cell thinking about how disappointed with me my dad is going to be, and sometimes it begins with my brother giving me my first climbing rope for Christmas, and sometimes it begins with a lost young guy standing at the center of 360 degrees of mountains in Glacier National Park and feeling something, not quite knowing what it was, but knowing it was something really important.

Today is the 3,650th consecutive day that I have not drunk a beer. Or several. Or half a bottle of whiskey, or left the bar early to stop by a liquor store to grab a bottle of $10 Cabernet to polish off straight out of the bottle before bed. Saturday will be 10 years of sobriety for me, and sometimes I don’t know if it means that much anymore. Every year, my parents usually mail me a card with a note inside, and I smile when I open it, and that’s about all I do.

There’s this film called “Last Minutes With Oden,” and it’s about Jason Wood’s dog Oden, but it’s also about Jason’s life. He’s a recovering addict, ex-convict, cyclist, and “The Mayor of Long Beach.” At the beginning of the film, Jason says, “It’s been 10 years, man. I don’t even know who he was. To tell you the truth, I don’t even think like him … I look back, and I think of the guy that I was, and it was just some poor pathetic guy. He wasn’t even really tough or crazy — just some pathetic guy who made a lot of decisions based on fear.”

In the past couple years, a couple friends have asked me things like, Don’t you think you’re far away enough from it now that you might be able to approach it with some moderation? Or they’ll say, You describe the years when you drank, and it sounds wild, but not that abnormal — pretty much your typical wild youth, et cetera. When I think about the couple times I had to stand naked in an intake room at the county jail and have a police officer tell me to bend over so he could look in my ass for drugs, that kind of hits home. Stuff like that makes you realize that you fucked up pretty bad.

There are a couple memories like that, like the feeling of handcuffs on your wrists, the look on a woman’s face when she starts crying in a group therapy room at a treatment center talking about the things her husband would do for meth, and the look on his face as he sits right next to her and holds her hand in a room full of strangers, or the feeling you get when you realize that every inmate gets an orange jumpsuit because you’re all the same in one respect, that you all made a really bad mistake that you can’t take back, and nobody cares if you have a college degree and high ACT scores or whatever. And that keeps you going for the first few years, and you get by all right.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone having a couple beers — I wish I could do that, but I don’t think I can do it and stop at a couple beers. But the rest of the world can, and that’s the world I live in. And to me, the words “Let’s go get a beer” don’t mean let’s go drink beer; they mean let’s go have a conversation somewhere. And I like conversations. So when someone says Let’s go get a beer, I say Yeah, let’s go get a beer sometime. And I’m fine.

The more I think about it, the more I think we get one or two big doses of adversity to deal with in life, and as Craig DeMartino says, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent your reaction to it.” And Craig reacted to getting his leg amputated by coming back and climbing harder than most everyone I know.

Through that lens, maybe life is about reinvention, or turning points, or a handful of big lessons that you learn — maybe the hard way — that inform the rest of your life. Maybe it’s losing a loved one, immigrating to a new country, beating cancer, a car accident, going through a divorce. Maybe your turning point is something different. Whatever it is, you can still see the scars, whether they’re on your body, or you just see them when you find yourself staring out a window and everything else is quiet. The one event that informs everything I do in the outdoors, whether it’s a long-distance bike tour, a big day on a mountaineering route, or the crux move on the crux pitch of a climb, is the fact that I woke up in a holding cell at a county jail on a Saturday 10 years ago and realized I couldn’t drink ever again. And that there was no halfway, no grey area, no maybes. Just make it through Saturday without drinking a beer, then focus on making it through Sunday. And then Monday, and another day, and another day, and maybe someday I could sit on a barstool and look at all the bottles of whiskey behind the bar and not start sweating.

Someday came, but before it did, I found something else that made the world a less scary place for me: Climbing. Things stop when you sit down at a bar at 5 p.m. and dedicate yourself to six or eight hours of drinking — you get a mental break, a vacation. One of the few places I get that break now is on a climb, where the volume of everything else in my life is turned down while I concentrate on not falling, not getting too freaked out to keep moving upward.

I have long days now in the mountains, with a heavy pack, or trying to finish a climb before dark after all day out and not enough food and water, or walking the last mile of 20-something miles in the dark and wanting so badly to just sit down and pass out. And those things are tough, but they’re not nearly as tough as this one thing I started doing one day in 2002, and am still doing today. And maybe that’s what has gotten me through some of those long days.

Sometimes I get through a pitch of climbing, and as I clip myself into a belay anchor a couple hundred feet off the ground and start pulling up rope, I take a second to look around at the view of snow-flecked peaks or waves of desert rock rolling for miles, and I smile a little to myself and I think


Isn’t this something.

Because I know I could still be sitting back on a barstool somewhere, drinking whiskey Cokes and stubbing cigarettes out in an ashtray, wondering why.


30 replies on “The Toughest Thing

  • Tom Mrotek

    Congratulations on making 10 years, Brendan, and thank you for sharing. While I haven’t quite made it as far as a jail cell yet, I struggle with the same problem and use the same outlet to keep from drinking. The longest spell I was able to maintain was 2 years of sobriety, but now I’m up to 2 months. Your words encourage me to keep it up!

  • Matt

    Great stuff Brendan, so inspirational. I can’t decide if I’m inspired by or disappointed by the drinking tailspin I have seen friends fall into but either way it provides that big pic perspective to achieve great things. Congrats on your success.

  • Laidlaw

    We all have our demons (some people, like myself, used to collect them like baseball cards). At our lowest point, we just want someone to draw us a map of how to escape, not knowing that the road we travel isn’t as important as the direction we take.
    You might not have had a map at the time, but your compass seems to be working pretty well.
    And if you ever want to get together to talk about adventures over a glass of milk, I’m ok with that too Brendan.


  • Jonny

    Hey Brendan, I have been following your blog for awhile now. “Fist pump out the window” hooked me and I have been loving it ever since. So much truth in this post, even for those of us that don’t struggle with drugs or alcohol. I’m 31 years old and facing real adversity for the first time in my life and stories like this make us all feel less alone. Thank you for sharing.

  • Eileen

    Hi Brendan, that’s a powerful story. Congratulations on 10 years and here’s to many more “Isn’t this something” moments.

  • Melinda

    My husband just celebrated 21 years. He is 44 years old and looks younger an is healthier than most of our friends. He still never touches the stuff because he doesn’t need it any more… and knows that one drink will lead to another. Good job, and congratulations!

  • Morgan

    You are awesome!! And I love the way you write. I often find that I have a really hard time putting my thoughts on paper in a coherent manner for people to read which is frustrating. But you seem not to and that’s a big reason why I enjoy reading your stuff. Congratulations and keep on keeping on!

  • Michael

    Powerful. Besides climbing and being outdoors, anything you’d recommend to someone struggling with addiction?

  • Dave McAllister

    Brilliant perspective, bro. You better watch out with your writing and stories. An Iowan becoming an outdoor celebrity…what a mess. Congrats on the ten years and many more bad ass years to come!

  • Tali

    Thank you Brendan and Congratulations.

    I have three years and I really don’t remember what it’s like to be “that girl” anymore. However, I often worry that the not knowing her may cloud my judgement and that I would think “Sure, I can have just one glass of wine, right?”. It’s nice to know that someone I admire has walked/walks a similar path.

    Thank you for sharing your story and for being such an awesome example of why sobriety is a powerful and amazing choice.


  • Thad

    Just found your blog through a friend, Loved your take on how a day of climbing allows you to un- plug from life. How the days at the bar always end with why?
    Keep wrighting your good…

  • Jason

    Very powerful, thanks for sharing. Those moments of clarity are gems if you choose to take heed. My moment came upon waking up one morning in a purple school bus parked on the coast in Kenai, Alaska. (admittedly a hell of a lot better than a cell) Took a while to unravel the path that led me there.
    If you ever find yourself out Philly way drop a line, I’ll take you out for a ‘beer’.

  • Morgan Rittenbach


    I’ve heard some of your stories on Dirt Bag Diaries. So Today when listening to 100th Dirt Bag Diary I heard your name and decided to google you. Then I was drawn to this post. I was really moved and inspired by your authenticity and commitment. Congratulation! Powerful Thank you, Morgan

  • Ordinary Bob

    Awesome. I’m just past 2 years alcohol free. I quit on a whim, and found boundless energy and creativity as a result. Booze is a big time waster. Like television and shopping malls.

    Keep living the dream.

  • Gringo

    Wow! I heavily empathize with you on this topic. I’m on my 345th day of no alcohol. It’s no turning back this time. My previous longest stay on the wagon was 55 days. I look at it as walking away from the wreckage. With almost a year under my belt, I can still look back and see the smoke. Every day without a drink represents more distance walked. Over the span of my drinking days, I racked up a good many drunken experiences. Memories of the bad times outweigh memories of the good times. I have more scars from drinking than anything else. I had to stop after spending a night in detox and realizing that alcohol was not conducive to staying alive. I’ve been to a few AA meetings but I’m not a regular. Seems I’ve stayed sober through will power alone. I recently went on a climbing road trip and really ached for a beer around the campfire. I resisted. I knew it wouldn’t be just one beer. Not drinking is the toughest thing to do when it seems all society is geared toward getting lit. Thanks for relating.

Comments are closed.