Monday, February 7, 2011

Jim's Climb 4 SMA

I returned home on January 24th after successfully summiting Aconcagua. Good food, a warm bed, clean clothes and showering had been put on hold for the past 21 days and it was a delight to back among the things we so take for granted.

The trip ended up being a psychological challenge every bit as much as physical. Hiking almost 40 miles in the first three days, and that was just to reach base camp. Then as we began climbing we used a “carry and move” process for ascending the mountain. The first day was the “carry”. We would “carry” approximately half our gear up to the next camp and “cache” it, then descend back down to the camp below. This “climb high and sleep low” was a key component of our acclimatization. The following day we would pack up the remainder of our gear and “move” to the next camp. This process was absolutely necessary because in the beginning our packs would have weighed more than 90 pounds. As it was, 45 lb. packs were plenty heavy at those altitudes. The mental part was having to fight the battle twice to achieve the next camp. The “carry and move” process was repeated three times as we ascended to Camps 1,2 & High Camp. We began the climb at roughly 8,000’ climbing to 22,830’. Since we climbed from Base Camp to High Camp twice, in total we climbed about 21,000 vertical feet.

An average day, we would climb 2,000’ of elevation and do so in 5 or 6 hour long “pitches”. On “carry” days, we then would descend back down in about 1/3 – 1Ž2 the time. It made for 6 – 9 hours per day of extremely vigorous exercise. For me, I didn’t have too much problem climbing. It was descending that really wore me out. It was harder on my joints and muscles. That’s why I grew to like “move” days better. Even though we had to set up our tents and make camp, I preferred it to descending back to the lower camp.

Aconcagua is a very dry, rocky, and completely void of plant or animal life once you get above base camp. You might as well be on Mars. While there are many beautiful views of distant peaks, ridges, glaciers, and the like, most of your day is spent looking at the ground directly below your feet. You spend hours focusing on the climber’s feet ahead of you, mimicking their steps and trying to stay in precise rhythm with them. Physically, you’re pretty much at your “redline”. Your focusing on your breathing and foot placement to not miss a step and fall behind. When the air is that thin, slipping just one step, takes a lot of effort to catch back up. Literally, I would spend an entire “pitch” and only look up two or three times. No way do you have time to stop and take a picture.

We battled four of the nights in very tough windstorms. After working that hard to climb, crawl into you sleeping bag exhausted, and then be greeted by a howling windstorm all night was not fun. At times, we had to sit up and brace the tent to keep it from collapsing. In fact, several tents from other groups did collapse with those folks having to pile in with others in their group. The flapping and whipping of the tent fabric kept us all awake for most of the night during these storms.

After we made our “move” to high camp at just below 20,000’, it was very cold and windy. The weather reports indicated that we were in for another windy night and our prospects for a summit attempt the next morning were looking dim. That meant that we would have to spend another day and night at that altitude. The entire time we were on the mountain, our guide Larry, told us to not put much stock in the weather reports. The jet stream often made it path directly over the mountain and weather was just too unpredictable to count on. I told my tent mates to stay positive and be prepared to climb because I had a good feeling. We were all so exhausted that we would have been happy to just stay in our bags and sleep it out.

Sure enough, about 6 am, we heard our guides telling us to get up and get ready. Already, other groups had started up the mountain. It was so damn cold, that I could not tie the laces on my boots. Aike, the assistant guide had to put on my crampons. But we were on our way. I can tell you from climbing four other mountains, that the first 30 minutes of summit day are filled with anxiety and fear. Your mind is finally waking up to the fact that your physical body has somehow willed itself toward the summit in spite of all of the logical and rational arguments your mind has been making. “Holly shit Batman! We’re really going to do this!” Your heart starts pounding, you can’t catch your breath, you don’t look up. You don’t want to see how far you have to go. “It’s still dark!” “For crying out loud, why am I doing this?” Then after about 30 minutes you calm down, focus on your breathing, focus on your steps, find your rhythm and settle into your groove. You try not to think that you’ve been exhausted climbing six hours a day and now today your going to climb ten hours and atmuch higher altitudes.

Summit day for me was like a two-way conversation with the two of me. One of me was determined focused and in the groove. Fearless, calm, & positive. The other me was cooking up creative and clever ways I could call it quits and still save face. Yeah, I probably considered quitting about 50 times that day. My lungs were working at capacity, my legs at times were not placing my feet securely, and I was convincing myself that I would not have enough energy or strength to get “down”. I am not an overly religious person, but I said at least 51 prayers that day. I prayed for God to give me the “strength, courage, lungs, and legs” to make the summit and return. I was on a mission to Climb4SMA. I needed to summit. I reminded myself many times that Jadon spends every day of his life fighting for his breath. And he does it with a smile on his face. I told myself if he can find the strength, I can take one more step. The last 100 meters from the summit, one of our team turned around. As crazy as that seems, I understood and did not judge him. I was taking four breaths per step. It took that many lungful’s of air to get sufficient oxygen to my legs for another step.

Jadon’s spirit was my constant companion in that last hour. Reaching the summit a wave of emotion came over me. I had just summited; a huge personal achievement but more importantly, I was now able to show the banner of all the generous companies and individuals who joined Tony, Kristin, Jadon, and me in raising more than $45,000 to help find a cure forSpinal Muscular Atrophy. I felt good that I was able to keep my promise and deliver a summit and help generate more awareness towards ending SMA. I am deeply appreciative to all the support I received and thank everyone who helped us raise the money.

Climb4SMA is not over. Next June, my partner Tucker, Justin our VP of Sales, Garrett, my son-in-law, and Bill Spillar with JE Dunn will climb Mt. Rainier. Of course, Climb4SMA will be a part of that event and we will extend opportunities for others to contribute.


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