What Courage Looks Like

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freezing my ass off at the summit

The girls and I are home after 17 days on the road working in sunny California. I love my clients and I love my patients, but it’s sure good to get back home and recharge. As a devout introvert and Highly Sensitive Person, I need to immerse myself in solitude and nature in order to charge up empty batteries. As remote as the chances were yesterday, my first day home,  I was scheduled to massage 5 dogs here in Flagstaff, almost unheard of since I have few clients in town (by choice) and chances of doing all my patients on the day after a California trip are remote. So the girls and I decided to climb Humphries today, our first full day off.

I chose today to hike Humphries, the big mountain just north of The Bowl, because I was shooting for a weekday when crowds would be minimal and I’d hoped tourists tacking an extra day onto their Memorial Day weekends would be gone as well. As fate would have it, a boy scout troop, some 30 boys and 4 adult counselors strong, and a high school band of ROTC-ers complete with matching outfits and  thunderous morale-boosting chants (which scared the bejeezus out of Rooney) were on trail today  attempting to make the summit. These folks, in addition to the normal weekday smattering of locals and early summer vacationers, made a solitary hike a bit challenging. Since my epic 43 mile Rim to Rim to Rim hike in the Grand Canyon, I’ve done very little in the way of training, that endeavor falling just before a work stint which meant 3 weeks of sitting on my ass at sea level in California. So I wasn’t sure how strong this hike would be. Not to worry, I was still in good physical condition and I easily passed everyone ahead of me on the trail, making the summit in an all time personal record time of 2.5 hours.  When I mentioned this to my Dad later in the day as I gave him a full weather report, he remarked teasingly:  “couldn’t go for a hike without setting a record, eh?”.

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shoe-grabbing roots on trail

Humphries is an 8 or 9 on my 1-10 difficulty scale. The Canyon R2R2R I gave a 9 for the elevation change and distance, but that trail is like a paved highway compared to the Humphries Trail . Starting at just under 10,000 feet of elevation and climbing steadily to over 12,600 feet, at 11 miles, the distance of the Humphries trail isn’t one of the factors bumping this hike  up towards the 10 mark. It is the trail itself. Humphries is not easy to negotiate. The San Francisco Peaks are volcanic mountains and relatively young ones at that. The trail ascends through thick aspen and fir forests and over countless boulder fields. It’s not “if” you fall or sprain an ankle on the Humphries trail, it’s “when”. I’ve been lucky thus far–having negotiated it several times a year for the past 12 years and I’ve yet to injure myself while hiking it, but I’m sure the day will come when my number is up for disaster. Humphries gets an additional point for difficulty due to its terrain- there are no smooth, level portions to the trail, just varying degrees of difficulty as you negotiate rocks, roots, and steep step ups/downs. Adding another point for difficulty  is the weather above the tree line. This last mile of trail is not only treacherously rocky, it’s completely exposed and usually windier than hell. It can be  very cold in spring and dangerous in the summer, as seasonal monsoons can whip up out of no where, producing dangerous lightning strikes. You don’t have to look far in order to see the huge white and grey splotches on the rocks where lightning has struck them. While not a risk-taker, I’m not completely risk averse either, and often find dodging summer thunderstorms challenging. This early in the season however, the big-ticket obstacles are lingering snow and ice up high, and ferocious winds that can drop ambient temperatures 25 degrees or more with the wind chill. Today I had it all– lots of snow and ice on the upper portions of the trail and a steady wind of probably 50-60 mph with gusts near 75, often

the trail passes through myriad boulder fields

the trail passes through myriad boulder fields

blowing me off-balance, a tricky situation when boulder hopping on the edge of a mountain. So  considering the altitude, weather and trail, my Humphries hike today registered a 9 out of 10 on the DiFranco difficulty scale.  Though I thought I was prepared when I left the house with 2 jackets, my wool cap and gloves, I was colder than I ever remember being on that last exposed mile to the summit. Even hours later and here at home in front of my space heater, I am still not warm. 

One of the many hikers I passed on the way up to the summit was a middle-aged gentleman, resting trail side near the halfway point. He looked really tired to me and I wondered what made him seem that way. Was he out of shape? A smoker or asthmatic? A flatlander on vacation in the mountains? I wished him a good hike and went on my way, not another thought about him. I passed him again as I hustled down to the treeline from the summit, in a hurry as my hands and face  were becoming frozen blocks of ice. The direction from which the wind came was such that it felt like someone was spraying liquid nitrogen up my nose and I had a hell of a brain freeze going . Luckily, I had other cold related problems that kept my brain from obsessing on any particular one of them.  Instead, it was busy switching between wondering if my ass would ever thaw out  and if my fingers and toes were frostbitten so severely they would require amputation once I returned home. This time the gentleman was moving, and I could see that it was in an odd way–too careful and slow–and I suddenly realized why– he must have had MS or some other degenerative neurological condition. He was negotiating some very large boulders and step-ups by lifting his legs with his arms. His legs moved slowly and his feet seemed to twitch and turn with a mind of their own and I could tell they weren’t doing what his brain was telling them to. I also noticed he had very specialized shoes, with thick soles, one of them excessively. They were custom with a capital “K”. He paused to make eye contact with me and asked in a tired tone “Did you make it to the top?” to which I replied in the affirmative. I asked him if he was attempting the same and he said he was giving it his best. I felt instantly guilty for complaining just minutes before about the cold and the footing. I was getting really tired as a fit and healthy person and I wondered what sort of toll his Humphries HIke was taking on him. No wonder he looked so tired when I passed him earlier. I was extremely impressed by his progress–he wasn’t that far behind me and it had been quite a while since I passed him  earlier on the trail. I couldn’t imagine the effort he was required to summon as he asked weakened and unresponsive legs to summit this mountain. Humphries is a trail most healthy people would have difficulty with. I was in awe of his spirit and I told him so. I would have loved to stop and talk more with him, but I needed to keep moving and I could see that his concentration needed to continue without distraction.

It is only human nature to whine and complain at times over things that really aren’t that dire. As I finished my hike, exhausted and spent, I stopped to put myself in the disabled hiker’s place, and tried to imagine the level of exhaustion he would feel after his 11 grueling miles.  His unwavering courage in the face of adversity was undoubtedly what kept him going not just today but every other day as well.  What surprised me most of all was that most people in his condition sit at home, waiting for their disease to tell them what they can and can’t do. I had a feeling this gentleman wasn’t buying into that paradigm, and I thought about what I might feel in his situation. Do you simply give in to your disease and sit at home and wait to die, or do you not let it stop you, living each day as fully as you are able ? I hoped that if our places were switched, I’d be out there pushing on, inch by agonizing inch, just as he was doing. The little inconveniences of life that irritate me from time to time were instantly dismissed as I realized that to compare the depths of my suffering to his was not an option. There was no comparison.

When we think of heroes–the courageous–it is easy to bring to mind people who the media loves to sensationalize and romanticize. My hiker didn’t rush unthinking into a burning building to save a family; he didn’t pull a baby from a drain pipe or take a bullet for the president. My hiker is a hero just the same though,  because he woke up this morning and climbed a mountain because he still could. It wasn’t easy and  it probably wasn’t fun, but it was better than sitting at home  wasting away and waiting to die from his disease. These daily victories undoubtedly do more to treat his condition than any medication.  And that’s what courage looks like.

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