Lessons from Injuries

What is it about extreme sports and injuries?  It seems they go hand in hand, and don’t they always seem to happen at just the wrong time?  Or do they happen at just the right time?  Sometimes we learn things from our injuries and sometimes the lessons do not set in and we have to get injured again to really make it stick.  In the end though, life has a funny way of repeating circumstances until the lessons truly take hold. Every time I get injured, I ponder all these questions, and I go through a range of emotions from anger to guilt to finally acceptance.  Acceptance is the hardest one, and it takes a lot of introspection, but it usually comes.  So first, I want to catalog all my major injuries and then I will talk about what I learned in the process.

voice3

Hiking in Congaree National Park, SC.

My first really big injury was in 1990.  It almost killed me.  I was a young mountain sport enthusiast, living in Gunnison, Colorado.  I was skiing every sick line I could find, jumping off big cliffs at Crested Butte, and skiing crazy shoots and trees 100+ days a year.  I was kayaking every river I could find a shuttle to, biking every trail in the area from Gunnison and Crested Butte to Moab and Fruita.  I was rock climbing every rock face I could find, and basically living the mountain lifestyle dream of doing everything related to mountains and doing it with wholehearted abandon. The adventures were always epic, and I do not regret the fast and crazy living of the Gunnison Valley, but did I mention that I was young and inexperienced?  When you are young, you don’t have a healthy respect for fear, and you basically huck yourself into every situation without much thought about the consequences.  When you are 20, you don’t realize that rocks can hurt and they can even kill.  So that Fall season, we had gotten a lot of early season snow for about two weeks and the powder gods were dumping the area with tons of snow.  We decided to hike for some turns on Crested Butte Mountain before it was open and we were treated to the best powder day I have ever experienced.  It was literally chest deep and some of the best light and fluffy snow I have ever skied.  We had been doing laps on some of the front side runs mid-mountain and during the last run, we were slowly making our way down the mountain.  They had cut a new black run on the front side of the mountain and we wanted to check it out.  Apparently, the stumps were not yet completely cleared out on that section.  I noticed a few strands of long grass sticking out of the snow, but I figured we would be all right and I dropped in.  I made three turns, caught a tip and went down on my side, right into one of the hidden tree stumps.  In my inexperience, I did not realize that the early season snow had not set up an adequate base layer yet, and so we were basically skiing right above the rocks.  It was fine up higher, but not down lower in the valley. Stumps do not mix well with ski tips, even if you are not going fast.  I went down and did not hit hard, but the wind was immediately knocked out of my chest and I was in a lot of pain on my side and gut.  I caught my breath, but was still having excruciating pain like a knife cutting into me with each breath I took, so I decided I needed to get out of there and find some help.  Each breath and every bump on the way down felt like hell-fire and  I was about to pass out from the pain.  Something was wrong.  At the bottom of the mountain, I laid down for a minute, while my friend went to get the van.  Luckily, he was not able to hike up to where the van was because he had on old Sorrell boots that were terrible for hiking uphill.  I wanted to lie there for awhile,  but he sensed something was wrong.  He came back to where I was and immediately got me up and we stumbled to the nearest clinic in Crested Butte.   I started to knock on the door and the door opened simultaneously.  The only paramedic in town was literally on his way to the store and we surprised him.  If I had been a minute or two later he would have been gone, and I found out later I would not have made it to hospital in time, which was 30 minutes down the road in Gunnison.  We went inside, took x-rays and determined I had two broken ribs.  I was getting very dizzy and was about to lose consciousness, so the paramedic called an ambulance and we set out to the hospital.  He got an IV in me and it turns out that is what saved my life.  If I had driven on my own, I would not have made it.  We made it to the hospital in Gunnison.  They put a catheter in me and it was all blood.  They did an exploratory surgery to see what was going on inside.  The broken ribs had punctured my kidney and I was bleeding internally.  The doctor thought it was not that bad and it would seal up on its own, so I sat in the hospital for a week with no progress.  Each day I kept bleeding out a small amount of blood in my urine.   A week later they sent me to Montrose, Colorado to have a MRI.  The doctor there said I needed emergency surgery to repair the kidney.  So they sent me to Denver General to a kidney specialist and he repaired the kidney the next day.  Two days later the stitches broke and I had to have a second surgery. After about three more weeks of recovery, I finally was released from the hospital.  Later, I went to retrieve my skis from the clinic in Crested Butte and met the guy who saved my life.  He said I could have died from that injury and I was lucky to be alive.  I thanked him and we talked a lot about the thin line of life and death.  So as you can see, that day gave me a new-found sense of life and purpose, and I gained a new sense of the fragile nature of life.  I decided I needed to slow down a little and think about things more before jumping in head first.  In one quick moment, I was given a glimpse of the transient nature of life and it woke me up.  I was thankful to be alive and it gave me a new sense of being thankful for every breath and every moment.  I vowed to cherish life more and to live life with more purpose and direction.  I would still ski, bike, climb and kayak, but now I would have a better sense of respect for possible injuries and I would listen to my gut instinct more when it said to back off.  I was learning to turn off the ego, and to live for my own joy and not to impress others.  When you are young, you sometimes do things so others will be impressed and my competitive nature always drove me to do better and to go bigger than someone else and to do it faster, etc.  I was now realizing the futility of ego and I was learning to live for my own goals and aspirations.  Who did I need to impress?  Who cares what others think?  In sport, you have to do things for your own joy and passion. When you can do that and learn to live in the moment, you are free to pursue sport for the sake of sport and you learn to push yourself in ways you never realized were possible.

My next injury was many years later and it was a big one too.  I was rock climbing one day on a two pitch route in North Carolina at the Looking Glass called Rat’s Ass.

voice2

Climbing the super classic finger crack Shredded Wheat 5.11

After the first pitch, I had set up a hanging belay in a crack and brought my wife Shannon up to the stance.  I had noticed a shooting pain in my lower back and it was killing me.  We finished the day and I went home and took some Ibuprofen to help with the shooting back pain.  It never went away and for the next month, every time I was standing, sitting, or walking, I was in intense pain.  The pain radiated down my leg and and was debilitating. The only time it did not hurt, was when I was laying in the fetal position in bed.  I had been getting massage and adjustments at a Osteopath for a while and the pain would go away for a day, but it would come back with a vengeance.  The Osteopath finally ordered an MRI and gave me a diagnosis of a slipped or herniated disc.  A lifetime of skiing bumps and hard mountain living had finally caught up to me.  Surgery was the only option, so I traveled to Dallas, Texas and had surgery with a neurologist friend of my dads.  Two hours after the surgery, I was pain-free and I walked out of the hospital.  The laminectomy/dissectomy surgery was a complete success.  The doctor said I could not rock climb for three months, and at the time I was a complete climbing addict.  What was I going to do?  How could I not climb for 90 days?  At first I was super depressed and angry.  I got bored very quickly as well.  The doctor said to walk as much as possible for therapy, so I started hiking more. Slowly, my mental state started to change.  I went to some amazing places in North Carolina and started hiking a few 6000 foot peaks.

voice4

The ridge to Plott Balsam

I discovered a hiking program called SB6K, which stands for South Beyond 6000.  SB6K is a hiking challenge to hike all the states 40 peaks over 6000 feet.  There are actually 60 peaks, but some are just sub-peaks of other peaks.  I completed the program a year later and that was one of the most meaningful and tough projects I have ever completed.  For a full write up of that experience, see my post Bushwhacking in High Places.  In the end of that experience, I discovered that life can show you many beautiful things if you take the time to find them and step out of your comfort zone and try new things.  The back injury forced me to stop climbing, and I learned to climb in new ways, through hiking.  I saw places of beauty during that summer that I cannot describe, and I learned more about perseverance and overcoming great odds in three months than I had in all my entire life.  I learned patience and how to wait for things.  After three months I started climbing again, and the lessons I learned during that time helped my climbing tremendously.  I learned to wait for the right moment, and I learned that injuries get better when the time is right.  I learned that not doing your main passion all the time opens other doors of learning and opportunities that are sometimes hidden.  Once again I learned about moderation and managing risk.  I would still climb, but I would do it smarter and in ways that did not tax my back so much.  I learned to respect my body and to cherish it for what it is, a medium through which I discover beautiful things and places in the world.  I needed to take care of my body and slowing down is always a good thing for your body.  I did not stop, I was just more mindful and not as careless.

My next injury was tearing my glenoid labrum joint in my shoulder while bouldering at the climbing gym.  I had been pushing it really hard and completed a strenuous problem, but in an instant of ego, I dynoed to a higher hold to show I could do a hard problem, plus one more move.  The instant I lunged for the hold I heard and felt the click, which signaled the tear of my shoulder.  I instantly had a shooting pain all through my arm and knew I injured it.  I rested for about a week and it still hurt bad, so I finally went to the doctor.  He ordered a MRI and yes, I tore the joint.  It would never completely heal, but he did say to rest for a while and see what happens.  I did not climb for a month.  He said to go out and test the waters so to speak.  I went out and climbed on it.  It seemed fine, so to this day, I still climb on it and never got surgery.  I just have to be aware of it and not overly exert the shoulder too much.  I can still climb hard, but I have to use my feet more and push through moves instead of yank hard on my shoulder or do a crazy dynamic move on the shoulder.  So once again, the lessons were moderation and control.  I learned to have control of my body to not flail around on climbs haphazardly and jump for holds.   I learned to control my mind to not over do it when I might want to do “one more route before we go”, and most of all I learned to control my mind and let it go and relax in situations that might be stressful.  I have learned to be in the moment more and to take things for what they are now.  If I fail at a route and it is too hard, it is all right and I know I tried my best.  At least I am still out there giving it a go.  I do not have to be the best and I do not have to do every route, but I still get out there and do it.

Last year I was injured hiking.  That injury was pretty funny actually, because I got hurt trying to help a dog get a ball out of the river.  My wife and I used to walk a husky for extra money twice a week.  That day we went on one of our favorite hikes to a local waterfall in Montreat College.  Finn, the dog we walked, loved the water and he loved tennis balls and chasing them.  He just did not really understand the art of fetching.

voice6

Finn the dog

He would do it sometimes, but most of the time he would only bring back the ball half way, or he would drop it in the river, like he did that day.  I threw the ball and he chased it and brought it back half way and it rolled back into the river.  Slowly it tumbled down to a lower pool in the river.  He would not get it and so dumb me went for it.  I started to walk towards the slanting, slick wall of rock near the water and slipped.  I tried to run it out, fell and almost made it, but hit my hand hard on the rocks and severely dislocated my ring finger.  I had to get stitches and luckily I got my wedding ring off before the major swelling started.  They later numbed my hand and finger with Novacaine and set it back in place.  The shots on my finger and hand they gave me really hurt by the way.  Have you ever had a shot right in the sensitive nerves of your fingers and hand?  Yes, it burns like fire and feels like someone is grinding your hand  with a meat cleaver.  It is now a year and a half later, and I still have a swollen knuckle on my finger.  I can get my wedding ring on and off if I put baby oil on it.  At least I still have complete range of motion and I can still ride and race my bike and run my guide service I started called Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures.

voice5

Firetower in The Buffalo National River trails, AR.

So through this injury, I learned that even simple outings can become dangerous and if you let your guard down, even for a moment, things can happen that you do not expect.  I was not thinking and went down the steep, wet slope towards the water just to get a tennis ball.  I let my guard down and fell on a slope I knew not to tread on, but I did anyways in a momentary lapse of judgement.  After this experience, I learned to slow down and evaluate situations, even simple ones, for objective hazards, and think before you act.  One of the best lessons I learned from rock climbing that could be applied here, is to think of a challenge and fear of the unknown as a bubble.  You have a circle around you at all times.  If you stay in the circle, you stagnate and never grow.  To grow, you must step out of the circle and push through your fear.  You see the fear or objective danger for what it is, you evaluate all the hazards, you look at your abilities and know you are capable of doing a move, and then you decide to move forward.  You do not do it recklessly, but in a controlled manner.  You see the fear and danger and you push it aside for a moment and not let it paralyze you, and you move forward.  In that way, you learn to have a healthy respect for the fear or challenge, and for the time you move through it and push it aside.  In that way it does not control you and you learn to use it to grow and challenge yourself in new ways.  You go outside that bubble and you make it safely to the next hold and you realize you can do it.  In that way our fears are there to help guide us though the challenge and in the end it is our mind that breaks though the challenge.  If I would have slowed down and looked at that ball and saw the danger of the steep, wet slope, I could have made a better plan to crab crawl down the slope or find an easier way around.  I let my mind get clouded by the reward of getting the ball fast and I slipped and screwed up my hand.  Once again, lessons through injuries.

Now we come to the present.  Four weeks ago, I was biking and crashed hard in a rock garden and fractured my fifth metacarpal in my hand and got six stitches in my arm.  The doctor this time said no biking for six weeks.  I am four weeks out and I am finally starting to get range of motion back in my hand and fingers and it is healing great.  I have been hiking a good bit again, bagging summits from the SB6K program again, and I am in a pretty good space right now emotionally.  For the past year I have been biking really hard and the month before my injury, I had really been pushing it and exploring new trails I had never been on before.  I was getting a little too comfortable with fast riding and taking things for granted a bit as far as health and injury.  It is funny how your brain shuts out that part of life.  I had been riding solo a lot before the injury and I was really feeling confident and dare I say a tad bit invincible?  Then bam, I hit a tree with my bar, right at a serious rock garden, and go into the rocks way off-balance trying to recoup.  The first rock my front tire hits sends me flying over my handlebars.  I fly off the trail and land 15 feet off the trail straight on my arm on solid, sharp rocks.  Blood is gushing everywhere and I was a little worried at first.  I move my fingers and they seemed all right.  It hurt, but not that bad.  I thought I just jammed my finger, no big deal.  After a few minutes, the blood stops gushing, and so I bike the mile back to the road, holding on with two fingers since my fingers hurt a bit when I put pressure on them. I walked any technical section and rode the rest.  I made it to the road and coast two more miles to where Shannon had waited for me after our earlier ride together on the first loop.  I did a second loop solo of course, and that was the new to me technical loop.  What could possibly happen I thought earlier?  I will be fine I told her.  I guess I was a little off that day, because I crashed three times that day, once on an uphill fire-road even.  Who knows?  I came up to her and said I think I need to go get some stitches, since I had a pretty big gash on my arm.  At the urgent care in Asheville, I learned I did indeed fracture my hand.  Crap, here we go again.

I have been thinking a lot about this hand injury and what it means.  I have tried to stay positive this time and for the most part I have done well with this part.  It could have been much worse and I feel lucky that it was not my head or that I did not break any other major bones like my arm or leg.  This time I learned to be thankful for what I do have.  For two weeks I could not use my hand and that was a challenge.  Actions you take for granted like showering or brushing your teeth, getting dressed, writing, etc., were impossible to do alone.  Shannon had to help me wash my arm pits and help me get dressed.  Luckily, we have a bidet in the bathroom.  Even my wife draws the line at times.  Slowly, I started to adapt and learn to do those things on my own.  I got pretty good at typing left-handed, showering and brushing my teeth.  In the process, it taught me to be truly thankful for health and simple things like grabbing an object, or writing my name on a paper.  Now I am typing with my right hand and I am getting better range of motion each day.  I learned to not take health for granted and I learned to be grateful for the little things.  I know it will heal, it will just take a little time.  In the big scheme of things, six weeks is nothing and it could have been much worse and I feel truly grateful that I will make it and live to ride again.

It is really hard to see events and circumstances just as they are and not have negative reactions to those things or events. When we can do that, we learn to control how we react to situations and we take them for what they are in the moment, namely learning experiences. We learn to regulate our emotions and not be attached to outcomes or controlling things that are out of our control.  We then are free to be happy in the moment and learn from the experience and not brood over things. All these experiences have been hard, but I have tried to stay positive and learn from the experiences. In the big scheme of things, 6 weeks, 3 months or a year and a half is nothing, and all these injuries could have been much worse and I feel grateful for that fact. Injuries are great teachers. You just have to look hard for the silver lining. “Healing is a matter of time, yet it is also sometimes a matter of opportunity.”

Spring on The Buffalo National River

Do you like to get away from it all, and escape into wilderness away from the hustle of civilization?  I recently traveled to such a place, and I will never be the same again.  In the far reaches of Northwest Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, lies the Buffalo National River and surrounding wilderness areas.  Two hours off Hwy 40, after many twisting and turning two lane country roads, one arrives to this sanctuary of wilderness and wild country.  We were staying in the headwaters area of The Buffalo National River, which is roughly 12,000 acres of remote wilderness littered with waterfalls, mountain bike and hiking trails, caves, and the start of the otherworldly Buffalo National River, the creme de la creme of rivers.  The headwaters area is part of the larger 1.1 million acre Ozark National Forest, which includes the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, the 135 mile Buffalo National River, and three other designated wilderness areas.  The Buffalo is one of a hand full of undammed rivers in the country and is truly a wild and scenic river.  Tall cliffs line its banks and the turquoise blue water of the river is spellbinding to the traveler.  IMG_1549My wife, Shannon, and I had a week to explore the region and how I wish I had more.  We just scratched the surface it seems, but made many lasting memories and experienced a level of peace and solitude that will last for many years to come.

We arrived on a Sunday evening just in time for the sunset and to check out our accommodations at Falling Trails, which is owned by How Kuff, a local mountain bike guide, author, and pioneer of biking in the Upper Buffalo.  http://fallingtrails.com/ We rented a rustic cabin on How’s place that he just built on the 150 acre property.  This cabin sits atop the highest point on the property with 360 degree views of the Ozarks and the surrounding wilderness.  The cabin has no running water or electricity (solar panels and spring water sink will soon be added) and is about a 15 minute drive on a forest road off the small country highway.  IMG_1478As soon as we arrive, we are greeted by the overwhelming silence, which will be the solace after each of our day’s adventures.  Silence like this gets deep inside of your soul and cleans you out.  It rustles your wildness inside and helps you to forget the troubles of life and get back to the simple concepts like gratitude and being awestruck at the world.  We take a short hike on trails near the property and find some of the singletrack in the National Forest we will hit in the morning.  We also say hello to the farm animals on the property, numerous goats and two horses.  They roam freely on the property and add to the wonder of the place.  After our short exploration, we light a fire in the cabin’s wood stove and relax on the porch watching the last of the sun’s rays dip behind the horizon.  The sky is a mixture of deep orange and red hues and the picture adds to the sense of wonder and awe we are experiencing.  We sleep soundly that night and set out to explore the singletrack in the morning.  How gave us a small tidbit of information and said there is a 3 mile loop near the property off his driveway, so we set out on the first exploration into the unknown.  We luck into the singletrack and the trails just keep opening up to more trails in an expanse of multiple forks and options.  We take one of the freshly machine built sections of downhill and are treated to a beautiful section of trail with berms, flow and technical sections all in one.  The trail eventually loops around to the section of trail we hiked the previous night and Shannon decides to cut it short and head back to the cabin.  I decide to push on solo, since we crossed multiple sections of singletrack that were begging to be ridden.  I hit a super technical descent down the mountain and was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah National Forest.  The rocks, roots, tight switchbacks, and big drops were just like the local North Carolina trails.  The trail loops back around to where we originally started and I decided to take a few variation side trails, which eventually led to the Buffalo River.  One section was a really long, machine built section that was ripping fast and flowey.  I was all smiles.  On the climb out the rain started, light at first.  I climbed back up to the ridge that headed to the cabin and then the rain came in earnest, along with lots of thunder and lightning.  At one point on the ridge, the lightning and thunder crashing all around, I kind of got in panic mode and pedaled like a man possessed.  The closest the crashing came was a four second count, and I probably should have stopped and gone into lightning drill.  The cold made the decision for me and I high tailed it to the cabin through the storm taking my chances.  The storm started to move off, and I made it back in one piece.  Shannon already had a fire going and I ate a late lunch.  I got 15 miles in and I was so psyched to ride later in the week with How.  He was going to take me on a real tour of all the 40+ miles of trail on Friday.  With all the multiple side trails and forks, I was so excited to have a guide for the next upcoming ride.  Right now the Upper Buffalo River trails are not marked on any maps and are all unofficial trails.  They have been like that for ten years.  How recently met with the Forest Service and in June all these trails are going to be officially designated for mountain bikes and recreational use.  The trail system has already received IMBA Epic status and it will be amazing when all the trails become official.  How is creating a bike ranch that will have campsites, skills trails, local races and a cabin(the one we stayed in).  The ranch will be a central hub for the trail system and How will help manage the trails and be a liaison with the forest service.

Day two, we decided to go rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch, which is a world-famous rock climbing destination.  It is a sport climbing and traditional climbing paradise, with over 411 sport and trad routes and more than 400 boulder problems.  IMG_1527The climbing is on sandstone and has a mixture of incuts, chickenheads, crimps, jugs and plates.  Needless to say it is world-class.  IMG_1497I hadn’t climbed in about a year, so I was a bit nervous.  The moderate grades at Horseshoe Canyon and the safely bolted routes enabled me to jump right back into lead climbing with no hesitation.  I was having a blast at my previous sport obsession of dancing over the stone.  The day turned sunny and warm and as usual on the trip, no one was around.  We only saw 3 groups of climbers the entire day, and only on very brief occasions.  We had the entire canyon to ourselves.  If this place was in Boulder, Colorado and not miles from anywhere, the crowds would be horrendous.  The remoteness of the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness and the lack of big cities or even towns is the key to its isolation.  The 1.1 million acres of surrounding forest is an isolating factor as well.  Shannon and I were having a blast and we were having some good bonding time.  After all, we met as climbers and climbed together for 15+ years.  The day was just like old times and we were all smiles.  IMG_1501Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch is worth a trip to Western Arkansas in its own right, but this day was just one in our adventure filled week.  We took a shower at the ranch too, which was nice.  They added a bath house since our last visit four years ago and have upgraded the camping accommodations as well to include a covered common area with a fridge, BBQ grill and a few more wooded campsites.

Day three would take us to the famous Buffalo National River and an eleven mile canoe trip on this mystical river.  I had not been in a canoe for many years and this adventure was one of my favorites.  The scenery is truly mind-blowing and around every bend there was something to look at and awe over.  We put in near the tiny one gas station town of Ponca and floated to Kyle’s Landing.  The scenery reminded me of desert settings in New Mexico with the cliffs and vistas keeping our eyes skyward the entire float.  Again, we saw only three people.  Two people were way ahead of us and we only saw them once and never caught up to them.  One person we saw hiking down a side trail as we hiked up to view a waterfall along the way.  The solitude was immeasurable and intense.  You felt connected to a deeper feeling in nature and felt like an explorer discovering new regions.  The only sounds were the wind and the gentle flow of the water against stones.  IMG_1560Times like these open up your mind to wandering thoughts of deeper connections beyond yourself and how truly wonderful nature’s gifts really can be.  Simple thoughts of oneness and calm envelop one’s being and smiles are not far behind.  We stopped for a side hike to Hemmed in Hollow Falls.  This magical place was one of the best places I have been to in my life.  A gentle one mile hike leads to a box canyon with a 225 foot waterfall that shoots away from the cliff in a snake-like pattern.  The wind was blowing the water in spiral-like patterns and creating a beautiful spectacle.  We had lunch in the canyon and soaked up the sights and sounds.  The water crashing on the ground put us into a mesmorizing trance and complete state of relaxation.  IMG_1594I would love to come back and camp along this river and really experience what it has to offer.  The day was one for the books and one I will never forget.  This trip was getting better and better each day.

Day four was for hiking and caving.  We hiked into Lost Canyon near Ponca to see a natural bridge, many waterfalls, an old Native American bluff shelter site, and to hike into Eden Cave that has a hidden waterfall deep in its dark chambers.  It was raining hard on the way there, so when we pulled up to the parking lot there was only one car, and they left of course.  Solitude once again.  We hiked in the rain up the canyon and then the storm stopped.  The sun started peeking out and the water was flowing loud and cutting the canyon like an orchestra of sound playing to a grand audience.  We did not mind that we were the only listeners, two wanderlust travelers seeking truth and peace in the remote Arkansas wilderness.  IMG_1626The natural bridge was a site to see.  We walked through it and the water sliced the rock like glacier run off in Alaska, cutting a large channel through the rock.  The sounds of water were creating a grand musical for our ears.  Further up the canyon was the Native American bluff shelter site.  It was beautiful there and I can just imagine people thousands of years before waiting out storms under the rock and storing their grains there.  It was a site to see.  There was a many-layered waterfall further up the canyon and another waterfall was coming out of the rock above the shelter site that free fell to the ground in gentle sheets.   We stayed there awhile and then trekked further up the canyon to Eden Cave.IMG_1636  A local said there was a hidden waterfall deep in the 200 foot cave that you can reach with a short squeeze through the rocks.  We brought headlamps and my bright bike light for this excursion.  Shannon led the way and fearlessly crawled through the thirty foot section on hands and knees to reach the waterfall.  I was definitely out of my comfort zone and moved forward reluctantly.  After crawling through the tight two and a half-foot high, 30 foot long squeeze section, the cave opened up to a large room with a waterfall crashing through the rocks at the back.  IMG_1641The chamber was around forty feet high and the waterfall rushed out in loud and powerful gushes and sprayed water vapor all over the room. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth and at the site of creation.  The sound of water hitting the rock and pool on the chamber floor was a force you could feel to your core.  The room vibrated and echoed, charging your body and mind with energy and power.  Once, we turned out the lights and just listened to the power.  I felt like I was a rechargeable battery and was being infused with energy and life from this natural recharging station before us.  We crawled back through the cave and walked back to the car in a daze for the remainder of the day.  What a treat!

On day 5 of the trip, I hired How Kuff to guide me into the Upper Buffalo River to ride on his favorite singletrack.  As I said before, none of the trails are marked, so having a guide was the way to go.  It turns out my exploration ride from day one was just a meager scratching at the surface.  We went on a full on, back-country ride and he showed me a wide selection of classic trails from machine built flow sections, to long, technical and rocky descents.  The route had a mixture of climbing and downhill and was very similar to riding in North Carolina.  We rode 30 miles of some of the best back-country trails I have been on, and never once did we see another person, except once we saw a car going up a remote fire road.  A real treat How showed me, was a local fire tower I got to climb up.  He volunteers manning a research camera that is housed in the tower.  It takes pictures that scientists in Boulder, Colorado analyze to examine the area’s air quality.  He unlocked the gate and we scaled the 150 foot tower.  The 360 degree views were outstanding.  My climbing skills came into play as we forgoed unlocking the ladder to reach the stairs 20 feet up.  We scaled the metal tower like cats and needless to say, climbing in mountain bike cleats is a little sketchy and slippery.  How had his flats on and climbed with ease.  I worked my way slowly up the slippery metal beams and made it to the stairs safely.  I wish I took some pics of this excursion, but I did not have Shannon’s phone.  Memories will have to suffice.  The downhill descent from the firetower was a really nice way to end the day.  It was at least a four mile descent on fast and flowey machine built trail that led us back to How’s property.

Hanging out each evening was really fun and relaxing, too.  We would make a fire, eat dinner, talk about the day, and just relax on the porch watching the sunset, or would just listen to the quiet sounds of the woods.  These were some of the best times of the trip.  They were times when your mind would move towards thoughts of thankfulness and happiness at the incredible gifts being shown to us each day on this trip.  Sitting quietly among a still world of trees and clean air, one reflects on the joy that can be experienced in life, and one is reminded of the sanctitiy of wilderness and wild places.  I now truly understand Thoreau’s quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  In wilderness we become whole again.  In wilderness, we cleanse our minds and bodies and can take on life with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.  With heavy hearts, the next day we packed the car and started the long two day trek back home to Asheville.  As a pleasant reminder of the gifts we received this week, right as we turned onto the paved road, a young bobcat walked casually out of the woods.  We were able to walk fairly close to it and watch it meander slowly back into the woods.  IMG_1697It was a special moment that sealed in the joy and incredible experiences of the week, making them permanently etched into our memories.  Turning onto the main Highway 40, we went to get some food.  I was definitely in culture shock at all the people and noises.  The week of solitude and silence was in stark contrast to the busy world of life.  We headed for our final treat to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a soak in the healing waters at Quapaw Baths and Spa.  It was a refreshing end to the trip and a way to rejuvenate after all the weeks activities.  We then started the drive home in a blissful, relaxed state.  In the end, I am so thankful that there still are wild places we can go in life.  Places we can go to escape and to reconnect, places we can go to remember gifts of nature and to create experiences that make us once again whole.  Until next time, thank you Arkansas.

Here are a few more pics from the trip.  IMG_1517IMG_1543IMG_1573IMG_1613IMG_1632IMG_1639IMG_1643IMG_1644IMG_1653IMG_1654IMG_1657IMG_1667                                                                                       IMG_1671       .IMG_1688

Motivation in the Face of Fear

Have you ever been afraid to try something new, or been afraid to take action because of the fear of failure?  We all have fears and yet some people learn to live with them and overcome them, while others are paralyzed in their presence.  Personally, I am afraid almost everyday, yet I still get up and face these fears and even overcome them once in a while.  Fear can lead one to action.  Once on a rock climb I was getting tired beyond belief and was moments away from falling.  There was a jagged ledge below and hitting it in a fall could have been deadly.  But somehow, the fear lead me to a do or die action, and I carefully placed my foot on solid holds, breathed in a deep breath, cleared my head and made the move to safety.  In that moment, fear led me forward and I used it to take appropriate action.  I remember being afraid to leave Boulder, Colorado for my first teaching job in California.  I was scared of moving across the country and failing at the job.  But I knew the kids there needed me, and I knew I could help students there find their way.  I was sad to leave the mountains, yet happy for newness.  In life you must always try to grow and seek new pastures or else you will surely fade away with the setting sun.  I remember being afraid to take up mountain bike racing again at age forty.  I wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge, because it had been fifteen years since I raced in Colorado.  I started training relentlessly and went to my first race in Danville, Virginia last October.  I was scared beyond reason and my nerves leading up to the race were overwhelming me.  I could not sleep for two days before the race and I kept catastrophizing bad situations that would happen during the race like getting a flat or crashing and getting hurt.  It turns out that after five minutes of racing it started to rain like a monsoon in Thailand.  It rained hard for an hour and the course was a slop fest.  But halfway through the first lap, I said to myself, “race your own race, it is just for fun.”  I finally calmed down and just started having fun.  I remember there was a woman who had tunes blaring from her I-Phone and she was just singing along with the music and having a blast in the rain.  I rode with her for a while and realized that really this endeavor was just for fun, and to try not to be so serious.  I pushed through the fear and started to have the time of my life.  Funny thing though on the second lap my front brake cable broke so I had only a back brake for nine miles in the mud soaked, slippery course.  But I kept going and finished the race.  I even took ninth place and still beat two people in my age class.  Wow, how was that possible?  Fear in that instance turned to action, and in the end I had fun and learned many lessons about living.  When you can turn fear into a motivator, life begins to reward you.  You realize that all things are possible and failure can happen, but it is all right.  If you fail at something, that is just an opportunity to try it again in a new way.  As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, “Brick walls are there for a reason…’they’ are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”  Do you climb over the wall, do you dig a hole and go under it, or do you take a brick out and go through it?  Challenges are stepping-stones to action and trying new things in new ways.  If we never tried new things and stepped out of our comfort zone, we would never grow.  So think about whether fear is holding you back from realizing your true potential.  It is all right to have fear, but try not to let it overwhelm you to the point of non-action.  When you face life directly and go out there and live and not hide from life, life will truly reward you for your efforts.  I have learned so many life lessons simply by action and failure.  Get out there and try something new.  Climb a mountain, write a story, ride your bike, communicate to a distant family member, ask a girl or guy out to the movies, dream big, travel, live life.  Take your next step.  In the end, only good things will come to you.

Overcoming Fear at The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass, NC

Rarely can you climb one route and feel completely satisfied.  The curse of the addicted climber always rings true–just one more climb.  Yesterday, one more climb was not necessary.  My wife and I walked joyfully down the trail at dusk with not a tinge of regret at having done a mere two pitches on the cloudless and perfect, early spring Sunday afternoon.  Arriving at the parking lot of the Southside of The Looking Glass at the crack of noon, we headed up to the familiar moderate area of classic flaring cracks and eyebrow face climbs.  The Southside is a great place to get your bearings on the incredible granite of The Glass.  The climbs are all fun classic cracks, like the quintessential finger-crack corner Rat’s Ass(5.8), the bomber jams of Bloody Crack(5.8), and the long slabby finger-crack The Zodiac(5.8+).  On the way up the trail, my mind was undecided on what our prize should be today.  My mental nemesis route called Windwalker(5.9), was the only route on the Southside we hadn’t done, so with a hesitant and loud sigh I agreed to have a look and possibly try it.  I have looked at the route on numerous occasions, but the rumors sung in my head and created a surge of doubt and hesitation each time I thought of trying it.  An old-school traditional climber once told me, “Yeah, it is pretty cerebral, but doable.”  Famous last words I thought to myself.  If this friend says its cerebral, what does that really mean?  I climbed with him four times and never once saw an ounce of fear or hesitation from him, so what would I be in for on this journey?  Run-outs between gear, sketchy protection, steep eyebrows, slabby crimping, balencey and technical moves–yes all of the above apply here.  North Carolina standard fare.  Old school 5.9, bold and brilliant.  I should have known by the name Windwalker, that it would be good.  The name conjures up images of a wise shaman who travels the desert with the shifting winds, always seeking answers, always moving and learning.  This climb today calls on these same skills of mental and physical clarity of purpose.

Eyebrows at The Looking Glass

Eyebrows are a curious horizontal crack feature in climbing and look like an eyebrow from a distance(see photos).  It takes a few times to get use to climbing on them, but when you master the mantel, high-step, palm, crimp and balance routine, you have got it made.  Eyebrows love to eat up small Metolius or Alien cams and Lowe Tri-cams are indispensable(these are names of particular climbing protection pieces).  But eyebrow climbing is very heady and run-out between pieces of protection.  A climber routinely has to make three or four moves to a promising eyebrow only to be denied protection.  They are then forced to climb a few more feet to the next horizontal, which must have pro, you hope.  Windwalker is the same game of hit and miss protection, but enough is there to make your heart and mind shout joys of thanks each time you click your rope to the carabiner.  The clicking sound is one of relief and relaxation, where torments of anguish are temporarily eased, and the mind can focus again on the next few feet and the next few moves.  To succeed on Windwalker, one must be like the shaman, seeking, searching, moving.  From the opening moves out of a shallow corner onto the arete and face, the route starts dishing out the business.  Rounded crimps and shallow eyebrows challenge the mind and yet to the faithful, yield the right of way and offer passage.  A blend of fear, balancing acts on semi-stances, and faith brings one to the final bulge that has good horizontal crack jams and underclings.  High step on the slab, and you are free again and then a perfect horizontal eyebrow belay calls out ten feet below the nice 5.5 corner of pitch two.  This cerebral pitch was one of my favorites on the Southside.  It has been a breakthrough pitch for me and helped me develop the tenacity to go with the moment and persevere.   Afterall, climbing is a lot about keeping going and seeking adventure.  As the late Derek Hersey said, “Having a look around the corner.”  When we can go forward in the face of the unknown, seeking answers in our physical craft, answers that ease the wandering, restless spirit within, then we can find great joy and peace in these moments.  We can know that life can sometimes bring one closer to truth and closer to finding ultimate realities.  Not bad for an old-school 5.9 eyebrow climb, eh?  Any questions?

(Written March 6, 2006)

Climbing

Me climbing Shredded Wheat at Rumbling Bald, photo by Paul Rothfeld

Beautiful upward progress

Across faces and seams of rock.

Orange, yellow, red, brown, and gray

All mixed together with the blue clearness in the sky.

Many colors merging with the mind

Yet calm, pure Breathing.

Breathe it in deep.

What a gift

The rock gods have brought

A ledge for four,

300 feet off the deck.

Sun beaming

Beckoning one to movement.

Merging dances with the rock.

Quietness and yet most alive you are now.

Moving forward,

Always searching the wall

For the right path.

Concentration.

Chalk up the fingers

Always thinking upward and above.

What lies next,

Beyond that block?

A face or a perfect finger crack to the summit?

We know not,

So we climb to find out.

Our curiosity

Overwhelms and inspires us

To movement

And art unfolding in the unknown.

We are drawn onward

By secret, silent voices

And visions of beauty in form and action.

(Poem written in May, 1998)