On the evening of Aug. 31, 2008, I was with nine other friends at a trendy pizza joint in Salida, Colo., called Amica’s. We were there to celebrate and reminisce about the weekend’s adventures in the Collegiate Peaks. Of the 10 of us who went, five summitted Mount Yale, a 14,196-foot peak in central Colorado. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling the celebratory mood.
I’d called my wife while we waited on a table, admitting to her that even though I reached Yale’s summit, I probably shouldn’t have tried it. I was doubting my future in this game, too. If Mount Yale would put up this much of a fight against me, what possibility was there that I could try something tougher? Not much, I reasoned.
I was still wiped out from the day’s events. Getting up to the summit was hard work, and the downclimb was quite miserable. After gnawing on some pizza for about an hour, we headed back to the lodge where we were staying. I was looking forward to a long, deep sleep.
It never came.
As I tried to lie down for bed, the side cramp returned. It turned into pain. My body was exhausted but restless. Something was wrong. All night I battled a hacking cough and the pain in my side made it impossible for me to lie on my back or my right side.
Morning came, and climbing partner Johnny Hunter looked at me.
“Are you all right?”
“No,” was all I could mutter. Pain and exhaustion were growing.
We loaded up and left. A quick breakfast I could barely stomach. And the long ride back home. For a moment, I considered checking in to the Salida hospital to see what was wrong, but I didn’t want to delay the group. As it was, we’d be arriving home sometime after 10 p.m., and most of us had to go to work in the morning.
By now, a couple of the other guys were getting concerned. They both had some pretty potent pain killers, which I gladly accepted. They helped me sleep much of the way home, dulled the pain and, once I woke up, actually allowed me to enjoy some of the conversation going on in the van.
Arriving home, I went straight to bed, careful not to rest on my back or right side. The next morning, I dragged myself to work. Co-workers could tell I was quite ill. The pain intensified. One wrong move, and shooting barbs wracked my ribcage.
Enough was enough. I went to the hospital. A few X-rays and blood tests later, the doctor who first saw me looked worried. When they order tests “stat,” that usually conveys a sense of urgency.
Finally, I got the diagnosis. Pneumonia. I was relieved it wasn’t some weird tropical disease I picked up in Thailand weeks earlier. But then again, didn’t Bernie Mac die from complications of that very same disease just days earlier?
From that point, I began to waste away. My appetite was gone. I felt anemic. In just two weeks, I lost 18 pounds. My bearded, gaunt appearance made me look like the denizen of a POW camp. Just getting up to shower was an exhausting task.
I was lucky to have been seen and treated by Dr. Tony Haddad, a pulmonary specialist in Shawnee. X-rays and CT scans showed the damage. My right lung, at its worst, was 75 percent filled with fluid. Fluids had also built up around my right lung and heart. He told me that my age and physical condition helped me stave off more serious complications, but there was no question that for a certain time, my life was in danger. On the mountain, on the ride home, in the days that followed.
It wasn’t until December that my lung became clear. But Dr. Haddad said any future X-rays would likely show the scars from the illness. I eventually gained my weight and strength back and resumed my normally active lifestyle.
But I also came away with the knowledge that I was lucky.
I fully admit my mistakes. Ignorance was to blame in some cases, but common sense should have told me to cancel my Colorado trip. To not attempt the climb. To turn around when the pain surfaced. To have sought out medical attention sooner.
But more than anything else, I’ve learned that when you’re in a wild place, you need to be at your best. To keep your wits. To be humble. To do or be anything less invites disaster, because wild places, while beautiful, are unforgiving. Particularly for the ignorant, the weak and the prideful. I scored on all three counts.
And that’s the real reason I’m telling this story. God forbid anyone else put themselves in a similar situation, or otherwise bite off more they can chew in the outdoors. That’s how people get hurt. How they die.
There’s no summit that’s worth your life.
Three months after my initial diagnosis, I spoke to my doctor about a concern I had.
My fear, I told Dr. Haddad, was that I would be prone to similar infections in the future. Which would mean that any future forays into mountaineering were over. But he reassured me that this was highly unlikely.
Still, I worried about it. I had just gotten into mountaineering and knew there was so much more to explore. To cut it out of my life now would be so wounding to me.
So I forged ahead. I decided my next climb would be something even more challenging. A snow climb. And in June of this year, me and Johnny Hunter did just that, scaling Mount Shavano’s spring snowfields. Neither of us were in the best of shape, but the added challenge and newness of snow climbing made for an unforgettable climb.
I can’t speak for Johnny, but for me it was about exercising demons. Those bad memories of Mount Yale, the awful downclimb, the illness that followed. And the fear that I’d never climb a tall peak again.
As I neared Shavano’s summit, I looked up to the skies, shook my ice axe in the air and yelled.
A celebratory yell.