It was almost midnight, and looking out the back of the ambulance I saw streaks of street light reflecting in the rain-soaked asphalt. Beside me lay a middle-aged man heading to a psychiatric facility. He had told his wife he didn’t want to live, and she persuaded him to go to the hospital for help. He was my patient, friendly enough, but not talkative, alternating between brief responses to my questions, quiet stretches of introspection, and Ativan-induced dozing. I watched him sleep, typed up my report, and during the long silences, contemplated the winding path that had led me there.
I’d moved to Colorado in January, quitting a well-paying but unsatisfying job to become an EMT. My plan was more back of the envelope sketch than comprehensive blueprint, but I’d imagined running exciting 911 calls three or four days a week, and then spending my long weekends breathing alpine air and climbing rock, ice and snow. Instead, I’d found myself stuck at the entry level, driving a wheelchair van with patients going to dialysis, or doctor’s appointments, and so broke I had to work overtime every week.
8 am to 8 pm, I’d sit in a beat up Ford E-350 with vinyl seats designed to push my shoulders against my ears. The van’s shocks felt as rigid as steel girders, and every bump and ripple in the road caused the whole structure to shudder violently and clatter like an empty garbage can being beaten with hammers.
My job was generally dull and frustrating, but over time I began to appreciate the patients as random flashes of brilliance, like lightening illuminating an overcast sky. I met people from all social strata, and had the privilege of spending time with a jazz singer, a race car driver, CEOs, the unemployed and unemployable, homeless, crazy, and terminally ill patients.
I drove a middle aged woman to an oncology appointment. She told me she’d had bone cancer for 15 years, and had only endured the endless rounds of debilitating chemotherapy because of her children. I dropped her off, and waited in the parking lot reading Barry Blanchard’s biography. When I returned, the woman was crying and hugging her doctor. I entered the room and she reached out to me. I stood there holding this stranger’s hand as the doctor explained I’d be taking her to hospice instead of back to the nursing home. There would be no more chemo. During the drive we discussed life and death, children, loss, and the vast, beautiful confusion that is this life. I helped her get in bed, and we hugged goodbye.
In late March, my friend Van told me he would be visiting Colorado and suggested we tackle a big wall in the Black Canyon. I needed a project, a challenge, and his suggestion was a gift. We chose the Scenic Cruise, a 13 pitch 10d with a rugged reputation. For the month of April, I did almost nothing but work and train. Channeling my inner-Mark Twight, I let myself get a little weird. On a whim, I gave myself a mohawk as a means to eschew vanity and lash myself to the mast of climbing. As I ran the buzzing razor over my scalp I heard Tyler Durden saying, “Like a monkey, ready to be shot into space. Space monkey!”
I slept on my bedroom’s hardwood floor in my sleeping bag and ate a spartan, but nutritious diet. After work, I swung a kettlebell or hangboarded, and on days off I went to Eldo or Boulder Canyon, or ran laps on the Second Flatiron. I started taking cold showers as a way of developing mental toughness, plunging into the frigid water with the mantra, “This is what it takes to survive in the Black.” My roommate was a 5.13 sport climber who ate microwave burritos and clipped bolts at Earth Treks some nights. He must have thought he’d invited a trad climbing Travis Bickle to live with him.
One day, I picked up a man from dialysis. Long and lean, with a grey goatee and fierce, but sad eyes, he had the look of an ancient mariner far from the sea. Part of his head was shaved and a row of black sutures arced across his skull. He told me he’d been a mountaineer, and as I pestered him with questions about past adventures he apologized for his slow speech. He’d had a stroke recently, and the drugs they gave him before surgery made his mind cloudy. Week after week I drove him to appointments and watched him fade away. I could tell he was aware that he’d lost something, but couldn’t quite recall what it’d felt like to have it. These slow days were clearly more difficult than anything he’d faced in the alpine.
Before moving to Colorado, I’d envisioned my life there as one of dirtbag glory. Sure, I’d be broke and single, but countless hours of training would carve me into a granite monolith, and constant climbing would be my path to enlightenment. Watching this old mountaineer crumble before me, however, made me doubt the wisdom of my choices. He’d had a life of adventure and beauty in the Rockies, but at what cost? I saw a man alone and afraid with a mind too addled and porous to even recall his halcyon days. Was this my future?
At work I progressed from the wheelchair van to an ambulance, but I was still doing general transport rather than racing to emergencies. My patients were slightly sicker, but there was still no challenge and no excitement. Climbing was my highest priority, but unless I placed work above adventure, I’d never get into the 911 system. I was really only happy when I was out climbing, though, and I feared how I’d feel with less of it.
April turned to May, and Van came to Colorado, but unusually heavy rains preceded him. We abandoned our big wall plans and went to Devils’ Tower where it was dry. The weekend was sunshine, casual cragging, and long talks about things that mattered. We had fun, but I still hungered to test myself. Without an imminent goal, though, my discipline waned. I bought a bed, ate ice cream, and watched Netflix. In June, my friend Ben unexpectedly said he had a free weekend and wanted to try the Scenic Cruise. I felt out of shape and unprepared, but immediately rearranged my work schedule so we could go.
We drove into the Black Canyon beneath dark clouds. Rain, came and went, wet fog and a chill persisted. The North Canyon Rim campsite was nearly empty, and the ranger absent. The next morning, our alarms went off at 4, and we started hiking by headlamp. Large flat boulders and roiling angry blooms of almost fluorescent green poison ivy marked the climb’s start. Overnight winds had dried the rock, and we set to work. For the next twelve hours we fought our way through every pitch and reveled in the challenge. It was the greatest thing I’d ever climbed—difficult, sustained, and varied. Though the Scenic Cruise was perfect, it was not the crucible I’d hoped for. I didn’t arrive on the canyon rim a changed man with new insights or peace with the rightness of my path. My month of training felt hilariously extreme.
For a day or two, I basked in the pleasant stupidity that comes after a long, hard climb shotguns your sympathetic nervous system. Too quickly, though, my inner turmoil returned. Was I climbing hard enough to justify my life of poverty? Was I climbing frequently enough to balance out the days of loneliness between trips to the mountains? What was the goal here? I had no illusions I’d become a sponsored climber at 33. I had dreams of scaling high peaks in Alaska, but questioned whether I had the courage for it. If I was just going to be a weekend warrior, why not do it with a job that paid a living wage? Months passed, filled with long days working and long days climbing. I scaled routes I’d dreamed of for years, and they brought happiness, but not clarity.
I’d had a particularly demoralizing day when I picked up Ruth from the ER. 85 years old, she had a chronic back problem and went into the hospital when the pain had exceeded Ibuprofen’s powers. Tests showed nothing new was wrong, however, and she was relieved to hear this, explaining, “Pain, I can handle. I just want to make sure I’m not making my situation worse by being active.” She’d been married, widowed, remarried, and now her husband, once a brilliant engineer, was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Still, she knew she was lucky overall, and appreciated what she had. When it came time to transfer from the stretcher to her wheelchair, she wanted only the minimum amount of help. Brow furrowed, she took deep, slow breaths, focusing on every movement. Watching her strained, but precise progress and deep concentration through the challenge was like seeing Dave Macleod traverse a dangerous mixed roof. I was in awe.
When my shift ended, I headed west along I-70 into a brilliant Colorado sunset. The sky glowed purple and gold above a horizon of snow covered peaks. I remembered the things Ruth had said to me, pictured what I’d seen her do, and reflected of my own life. The sun backlit an armada of billowing clouds, turning their edges molten. The air went orange, became a foundry, and burned away my petty frustrations.
After that, I tried to approach my job with a new attitude. My mantra became, “It’s all climbing.” Instead of being annoyed when I have to carry an awkward oxygen bottle in its cheap, ripped shoulder bag, I imagine it as a cumbersome aid rack on a sling. I think of the long hours in the ambulance as a hanging belay. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the mountains one day a week or three. What matters is that I bring to my everyday life the mindset that comes so effortlessly when I’m climbing. I want to accept what is while also striving for more, just as on big walls I can commit upwards through cold and fear. My life has not become perfect, but I have a practice for dealing with its imperfection.
One day I was feeling particularly miserable, ignoring my new practice and castigating myself for having torpedoed my future. Stuck in this mood, I picked up an old woman from the hospital. She was returning to her nursing home after surgery, and the painkillers were making her so nauseous she couldn’t keep her eyes open. When we reached her room, I lifted her thin, bird-like body into bed. In that moment, clarity returned and my self-pity fell away. Pulling the covers up to her chin and adjusting her pillow, my eyes filled with tears as I felt gratitude for the choices that had brought me to that moment.