Mike and I arrived at Lincoln Falls to see a dozen people spread across the base of the routes, and decided to go a couple valleys over to see if another ice climb was in. We grabbed our packs and hiked a couple miles up the road to Blue Lake, postholing a little bit, to see that nothing was in. There would be no ice climbing today, but we did sit down on our backpacks and eat lunch in between two enormous mountains flocked with snow, and that was OK.
Mike is going to Iceland in February, so he’s a little more motivated to swing tools into some ice. I, on the other hand, found myself for the first time not really caring either way. It was still a nice walk in a beautiful place.
We talked about the ever-increasing expectations of mountain folks as we walked. Mike is from Florida and I grew up in Iowa, so both of us were pretty grateful to be surrounded by mountains in Colorado when we first moved here. Mike described peering out the car windows on the drive up I-70 on his first visit to Colorado back in high school, and I said It’s funny, I-70 just seems like a commute to the mountains now, even though it is probably objectively one of the more incredible sections of interstate highway in America, cutting between 13- and 14,000-foot peaks for dozens of miles.
It seemed like both of us were saying, Remember How Stoked We Were Back Then? And look at how spoiled we are now. I told him what I consider to be the champion of all Beginner Enthusiasm stories—the time my pal Nick went snowboarding for the first time 15 years ago. It was his first time in Colorado after growing up in Iowa, like me. The story, in Nick’s words, goes:
Our first morning in Keystone, we woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow on the ground.
We rushed to get ourselves ready, me in my Goodwill snow pants and Eddie Bauer winter jacket. As the five of us left the lodge to catch the free bus to the base area, dragging our rented snowboards and skis across the parking lot in that manner that only rookies to the sport can—some bear hugging their gear, others dragging it on the ground—there was a lot of excitement. None of us had ever skied before, but taking lessons never even crossed our minds. What did, though, was that this day was going to be AWESOME. It was at that moment, walking across the parking lot to catch a bus, that I suddenly puked. In the middle of a sentence.
I wasn’t sick or hungover. I was just excited. Anticipatory projectile vomiting—if it is a condition—is what I had. My friends asked if I was OK.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was weird.”
Then everyone burst out laughing. That vomit, quite simply, was an exclamation mark that couldn’t wait until the end of the sentence.
I did an 11-day backpacking trip across the Sangre De Cristo mountains with my friend Jim Harris in September 2013. The trip was my idea, but through the long days up high, Jim’s attitude fueled us. I remember sitting on top of peaks, looking one or two more summits away, thinking, “Maybe one more peak and we’ll quit for the day,” and Jim would point three or four peaks over and say, “We should try to get there and then head down off the ridge to camp for the night.” So we would. I still wonder if I would have finished that trip, or survived, without him along. After that trip, I settled into winter, eating way too many calories on a raft trip and then sitting on my ass way too much trying to promote a book and catch up on work.
In January, Jim put up a huge “2013 In Review” post on his website. I spent 10 minutes scrolling through it, then scrolling back up to the top and scrolling again. That trip we did in the Sangre de Cristo Range? Biggest thing I did all year, maybe in five years, maybe ever. For Jim? Another trip in a year of big things. That’s just what he does.
We all have a tendency to compare ourselves to each other, for better or worse. Nowadays we can do this all day as we scroll through social media posts. In the worst cases, we’re jealous of someone else’s vacation photos, abs, life, or just their latte. In the best cases, we’re inspired by someone else to buy some plane tickets, learn to cook perfect pad Thai, or just get off our asses to go for a run or bike ride.
Just before Thanksgiving, Jim sent me an e-mail to let me know he was at a bed & breakfast in Punta Arenas, and some English-speaking folks around the fireplace had started talking about a blog entry I’d written about campfires a few months back. He’d just gotten off a Grand Canyon river trip, gone back to Park City, packed his stuff, and headed down to Patagonia for another trip.
The next morning, Jim went out to practice with a traction kite to use during his group’s monthlong ski and packraft expedition. A gust of wind picked him up, an emergency release failed, and Jim slammed into the ground. He was knocked unconscious, 10 of his vertebrae were broken, and he had no use of his legs. His friend Ben Peters stabilized him and helped evacuate him to a hospital in Punta Arenas and Peters and Forrest McCarthy began to coordinate getting Jim back to the U.S. for surgery.
Five days later, Jim’s medical flight landed in Cincinnati, and the next day, a team of surgeons opened up his back and went to work on his spine. More than a thousand donors pitched in almost $100,000 to help with the costs of the surgery and his rehabilitation.
Jim’s family has posted daily updates via Facebook, to the joy of hundreds of us who want to know how he is doing. Last week, the superhero who dragged me across 100 miles of mountains 15 months ago had some feeling in his legs and faintly wiggled his toes.
I’m sure Jim is glad to be alive, and glad to have had a successful surgery, glad to have an optimistic prognosis on his recovery, and very excited to have feeling and some movement in his lower body already. He’s no doubt going to miss that big adventure in Patagonia and a season of backcountry skiing in the Wasatch.
I’ve thought about Jim a lot the past two weeks, and all the normal things people say when something like his accident happens: It can all change in an instant. We all take risks out there, and sometimes things happen. We’re just happy it wasn’t worse. Recovery takes hard work. One step at a time.
Mostly, though, I think about Jim finally, eventually getting back to Salt Lake, whenever that is, and even if he’s hobbling on crutches and can’t get on his mountain bike or his skis for a few weeks or months, that he’ll be overjoyed to just see the Wasatch Mountains again. And I think it shouldn’t take a horrible accident like Jim’s for the rest of us to be grateful for the places we get to go, and although we all like to spend our days outside going big and fast and hard and high, it’s a privilege just to be able to go to a beautiful place at all.
I saw Ben Knight and Travis Rummel’s film DamNation this spring at the 5Point Film Festival, and about halfway through the film, the filmmakers interview Lee Spencer, a fish watch volunteer with the North Umpqua Foundation, about his experiences observing steelhead trout. Spencer paraphrased a quote from poet Gary Snyder:
“The things that have influenced me in life, besides blind accident, are things of great amusement. One of the more amusing stories that I read about steelhead fly fishing was by Gary Snyder, and he said something like, ‘Well, we started fly fishing on the Russian River for steelhead. Then we started taking the points off our hooks. Then we started taking the flies off our hooks, and finally, we just decided to go swimming.’ There’s something very amusing about that, but very meaningful and true, too.”