Paradise Lost

or the saga of what happens when climbers get old and broken and have to find new ways to play.

As people who play in the mountains, we come to take for granted our intimate knowledge of the alpine terrain—the peaks and valleys, the deep, dim Ponderosa forests and burbling, unnamed brooks that trickle each spring off melting snowfields where krummholz fades into the tundra. In my twenties, I was up in Rocky Mountain National Park or chasing Fourteeners every summer weekend. It never occurred to me that someday these mountains might, at least for me, recede. That they might become inaccessible and, in a way, as distant and untouchable as a two-dimensional movie backdrop. Of course, we are not conditioned to believe that life or even our health could be anything other than what it is at present—at least, not until tragedy or circumstances intervene. At which point we become, like the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree: We are enlightened about the true impermanence of things.

Looking back, from the vantage of chronically poor health—ongoing fatigue and neurological issues caused by iatrogenic damage—I can see that in my younger years, I was free and blessed, filled with bliss and energy and purpose as I romped through Colorado’s above-timberline playground alone or with friends. There was such incredible joy in dancing along teetering, stegosaurus-spine ridgelines in the Indian Peaks, tagging spires and bouncing down talus with little more than a water bladder, some energy bars and a rain jacket in my pack; in slowly and deliberately fishing a hand jam into an ice-lined fissure high on the vertical plane of Longs Peak’s Diamond as intimations of thunder reverberated through a gauzy late-July sky and my partner tugged ever more urgently on the rope; in toting a cumbersome crashpad miles up a glacial cirque to hunt for boulders we never named and could probably never find again.

Once, a girlfriend, Haven, and I humped loads over Pawnee Pass to camp beside the quiet black waters of Crater Lake with the mosquitoes on the western side of the Divide. The next morning, we awoke early and, as the blue gloom of pre-dawn gave way to a warm yellow glow, snaked up a 5.7 the Stettner brothers first climbed in 1933. Dew clung to the granite, and short, technical rock steps interrupted long swaths of precariously steep tundra. We wiped the damp soles of our rock shoes on our pants legs and trod carefully, the gear between us minimal as we simul-climbed a broad amphitheater. At the top, twin cracks studded with black xenoliths sliced a sunless silver headwall. The brothers had breezed up this route 70 years earlier, tagging the summit in just two hours. As I led their overhanging crack, I clipped an old piton or two, likely left from their same first ascent, up the nose of a beetling spire reminiscent of a Chamonix aiguille.

But these things are no longer, and I’m not sure I’ll get them back again. Because I have no choice, I strive to accept this reality, but it’s not always easy. At 43, I am young enough that, were my body still able, I would of course be up there as much as possible. But it’s not.

All this has served to make me rethink and reforge my relationship to Colorado’s high country. It has also, in fact, helped me to see the mountains with fresh eyes, the eyes, you might say, of the much-maligned “high-country tourist,” the first-timer tooling along the Peak to Peak Highway or heading into Estes Park with Midwest plates who might never get farther into the tundra than an overlook along Trail Ridge Road. Who gapes and gawks and hoots and hollers and stops in the middle of the highway to point a camera at anything furry or antlered because these things are so new, so far outside his day-to-day experience.   Yes, I’m almost there, simply because any trip to the mountains now, even if I can’t stray that far from the car, reminds me of what once lured me there, and how their power to inspire and to heal remains undiminished even if I’m seeing the peaks solely from the valleys or from the window of a vehicle. No, I cannot stand on the summits, but I can still feel a cool alpine breeze on my face and taste its hints of pine and loam and possibility.

This June, a month into one of the rainiest early summers I’ve seen in the Front Range, we took a family trip to Estes Park on a gloomy, drizzly Saturday. In the past, I’d simply seen Estes as a nuisance, a tourist trap to be navigated en route to the real action in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d always despised its traffic snarls and candy shops and rubber-tomahawk marts and hokey Old West photo shops. I looked down upon and usually unleashed a self-righteous (in-the-car) verbal tirade upon the throngs of tourists who idly strolled the main drag, cramming fudge into their gobs and buying up shitty plastic trinkets. “Look at these idiots!” I’d snarl. “Don’t they have anything better to do?” Well, my view hasn’t particularly changed about the tourist drag itself, but now I’ve actually had to stop and look at the place, to see it for the beauty of its station, and yes, even for the appeal of the tourist attractions.

If you’ve driven US-36 into the park, then you’ve seen them: the giant, wavy rainbow-hued slides next to the highway at the big bend before the final climb out of town. “Who goes there?” I’m sure the old me asked more than once as we blazed past en route to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. “White trash? Losers? Poltroons? You wouldn’t catch me dead at a place like that.”

Yet on this Saturday, with rainsqualls moving through and with nothing resembling a plan, that was exactly where you’d have caught me. Our three-year-old was getting antsy, and kept, in increasingly tantrum-y tones, insisting “Want to do something, mama; want to do something, dada.”

The baby was squawking and he needed his midday feeding, the hound dog was flipping out with travel anxiety in the back, and my wife and her sister had been clamoring for me either to pull over at a Starbucks or at one of Estes’s many tourist attractions, so we could unload and decompress. And so it happened that I pulled into the lot at Fun City before my goddamned head exploded, and there they were, facing us, those rainbow-hued slides.

“Let’s slide, daadaa,” said our older boy. “Let’s do it! Let’s do it now!!!”

Now on this particular day, I was sicker than usual (the intensity of my symptoms, as often happens with neurological illness, can oscillate) and I could see that the many metal steps ascending the slides were going to be brutal. On bad days, I’m often doubled over with pain and debility, and have so much trouble breathing I have to crawl up the stairs of our home. So imagine what a climb of sixty-plus feet, at 7,800 feet in altitude, looked like. Still, with a young child, I’ve had to learn to fake it, to feign energy and enthusiasm even when I’m dying inside so as to preserve the sacred bubble of his boyhood. He doesn’t need to know that life can be miserable, even if that is the unfortunate truth.

And so we paid our $1 per rider, took our burlap sliding sacks, and began the ascent.

Ivan was well ahead of me, bopping up the stairs with his boundless kinetic energy, turning around every few seconds to see if I was coming, saying, “I’m excited, I’m very excited!” The ride attendant, a high-school girl, awaited up top. I’m sure she had to wonder at the site of a perfectly healthy-looking young-ish man hobbling and sidling up the stairs at a sloth’s pace, railing clasped firmly in hand like an octogenarian emphysemic. Step by heavy step, I plodded up the risers; at the landings I would rest, leaning over the handrail, draping the sack there to protect my belly, pretending to take in the view.

It was the hardest climb I’d done in years, the fatigue burning in my quads and buttocks and shoulders and forearms as if I were taking the final step to the summit of Longs on the Home Stretch. But in time, I made it. And from up there, I have to say, the view was pretty good—yes, I might never stand on the summit of Notchtop or Arrowhead or Shark’s Tooth, but at least here, on top of these slides, I was 60 feet closer to these snowy, daggered giants.

And you know what, the ride down was pretty damn fun, too. So fun, in fact, that I made the climb three more times to slide next to my son, to take in all that life, and Colorado, has to offer. To take joy in what I was able to do, and not grieve over that which was gone from me.

Matt Samet is the author of Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness.

Photo by Matt Samet

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