Guiding, Teaching, Climbing, Learning

The Most Challenging Year of My Life

Where to start…


Well, it’s early March and I’m absolutely augured into my first real term of report cards for my first full time grade 2/3 class of my own. 7 day work weeks, 12+ hour days as a default and I finally get them completed, well written and handed in. It’s Saturday March 2nd.

I wake up the morning of Sunday March 3rd dizzy. Strange that? I go for a hike up the Chief and have to concentrate a bit more on the trail, to plant one foot in front of the other. I head to school around noon to print out the reports and hand them into the principal’s office to be judged. By the evening the dizziness is almost gone and I am so happy to be done those report cards, a stressful experience.

Monday morning I wake at 6am to a lurching, spinning feeling. My eyes are still closed but I’m falling. I open my eyes and the world takes off, spinning out of control in a silent rushing blur. I can’t stand, can’t dress myself, can’t walk. My partner helps into the car and we race to SGH, to the emergency. After that we head for Vancouver, to VGH, for an MRI. It could be just an inner ear vertigo thing most likely. But just to be sure…

What followed was a new reality, that I had had my second stroke in 6 months even though I was taking a low dose Aspirin. It had impacted and effected the cerebellum, the area of the brain that, among other things, controls balance and your vestibular system. I felt like I had drank 2-3 beers, all the time without the euphoria of that blessed drug. Since then I have had battery after barrage of tests trying to determine the cause of the strokes. Why was I having them at all when I drink almost nothing and have never smoked in my life? Cholesterol was perfect and I don’t have any unusual predispositions to clotting that can be found in some people’s blood work. You just never know what is going to happen so you need to live however brings you the most fulfillment, the most satisfaction by day’s end. Day after day, month after month and year after year. What I know now is that a hole between my atria was letting clots through and on up to my brain. It had happened twice in half a year, I was now on Coumadin, a serious anti-coagulaent and I was going to have some sort of heart procedure or surgery to correct the hole and maybe a moderately leaky Pulmonary valve. I was also expecting a baby daughter in June, something I didn’t intend to miss. As I waited out the decision for what kind of repair; what kind of surgery,  I climbed and did constant physio to get my vision more clear and less jittery. The climbing actually helped my gaze and balance even though it felt like I was up on lead after downing a six pack sometimes. I began training in the gym even more. Weeks turned into months as I went back to work teaching, learned that I was on track for open heart surgery, refunded my guiding insurance and park permits because I would be doing very little this summer save holding my daughter and going for walks and prepared for the longest break from climbing in 20 years.

Then I injured my wrist. It doesn’t really matter what I did to it, it amounted to no climbing for even longer. My one place to seek refuge, to crawl away to when frustrated, to revel in when I needed energy and to turn to when I needed a look at the endless goals, mental heights and amazing places I wondered if I could reach. That too had to be given a rest. What the fuck is left? Health, happiness, love, rewarding work, new learning, new life…you know, the really important things that climbing sometimes superficially blocks out. Only temporarily but still conceals them when we need to remember them most. Luckily that superficial skin was removed and things stopped festering. To wear away the yearning for climbing I began to run. I have always trail run a bit and always been pretty shabby at it. Now I know why. I thought, “Hey, maybe I should do a half marathon trail run two days before my heart surgery? Just to have one last hurray with the old heart?” I did it, did NOT win, had a good time and finished feeling good. And two days later came the chop.

I’m sitting here on May 30th recovering from a heart procedure. A bruised, sore swollen nether region and a new, modified, patched heart are my prize. Amazingly I dodged the open heart surgery bullet when the many specialists all convened and decided that my pulmonary valve was working well, that I was fit and strong and that had helped me live symptom free for about 36 years until these strokes appeared. The surgeon accessed my heart through a vein in my groin, went up it into the heart and deployed a small flexible device that permanently patched the hole. The surgeon showed me the device when it was outside me, and then on a screen moving in rhythm with my hear after it was installed. Amazing that this all took about an hour and I think I can even feel a difference. It beats clearer, more consistently and sends oxygen to my tissues more efficiently. I don’t miss the birth of my daughter. I can be a fully mobile, healthy strong dad for this little girl. I can teach my class until the end of the school year. I can guide this summer to supplement our income for the coming year with our daughter. I can climb to seek refuge from chaos, from control, from sleepless nights and from work dominated life. I can climb as soon as my groin and wrist heal. Whatever, groin shmoin, wrist schmist.

Amazing what a year can hold. Just shy of one year ago, by a week, I was in Yosemite to climb El Cap. Jesse Huey and I, in that two week trip, climbed the Freerider free and clean from bottom to top. He even went back and did it in 24 hours, the Bowse. In this same year I had two strokes that luckily, have left me with deficits so minor only I can tell out of my eyes, had two major heart issues come to light and then have one fixed almost effortlessly. I have watched my baby grow to a point where she is about to come join us and taught my first class of young kids to a point where I wanted to crawl back into the womb to escape them. Haha only figuratively but…I’ve run a trail half marathon and met some great new psyched climbing partners who I trained with and are now motivating me to get back out there so I can climb with them again. I’m not one to traditionally embrace blogging.  The presenting of every tiny piece of our daily lives to the world wide public in order to validate our choices and actions to ourselves starts a perpetual one-up-man-ship where everyone has got to constantly know what others are doing so that they can be doing something equally or more amazing. It never ends and simply seems like people become driven by what others will think of them instead of personal motivations. Perhaps I’m a big hypocrite by writing this? Probably, but at least, as one wise Squamish climber has said, “Climbing is the truth.” It’s our truth, like a barometer to the self. A very addictive instrument that I hope to use alongside my new modified heart, daughter, partner, teaching job, growing community, guiding clients, future trips and everything else to see if I am up for the task.


One response

  1. Wow, you over came more challenges than most. Thanks for sharing. You have a great attitude and gratitude to life. Heal up quick and climb on.
    Dave Jones

    May 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm

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