I have a heart condition. My aortic valve doesn’t close all the way, so blood flows back in the wrong direction between heartbeats. I’ve known about it for a few years, but open-heart surgery to replace the valve was said to be at least a decade off. However, the condition has worsened much faster than predicted, and I find myself completely humbled, with the operation scheduled for Oct. 30, just as I was starting to feel like master of my domain.
I’ve also been keeping a journal about a redpoint project for the first time ever. I used to avoid counting how many times I tried a route, thinking it would only frustrate me. In fact, it’s tempered my patience, even enriched the whole experience, and the process has become more cerebral.
A few weeks ago I had no doubts that I would soon clip the chains of my first 5.13d, and a proud one at that, a route in Rifle called Simply Read, which I wrote about in my last blog. It’s solid for the grade and as aesthetically pleasing as they come, with grey, bullet stone and friendly holds directly out the middle of a huge, blue-streaked cave. I had the route dialed. There was only one insecure kneebar at the high crux that eluded me; it slipped out every time I climbed into it from the ground. I couldn’t understand why. Again and again, I hurled myself at the route, with the same result: the kneebar would blow before I had a chance to snag the next hold. I reached the usual point of the redpoint process where I start to get very frustrated over little things. I was getting impatient, dwelling on the one aspect of the day that wasn’t perfect. Then a literal pain in my heart rearranged my perspective on this arbitrary game.
I ignored the chest pain for almost three weeks. Then I admitted to myself that I could feel it constantly – a sensation like someone was pinching my aorta and giving it a little twist. At that time, I hadn’t seen a doctor in 10 months. For all I knew, if I strained too hard I might rupture something and die. I doubted that was very likely, but I didn’t know for sure what was happening in my chest.
Within a week, I kicked into high gear and made the necessary appointments. I was going to see the doctor in Denver on a Tuesday, and I made plans to go to Rifle the Sunday before.
Of course part of me wanted to believe I might have a glorious redpoint on Simply Read, but I also knew I might not climb more than a single warm-up, depending on how I felt. My priorities had already shifted. The things I love most about climbing in the canyon popped to the forefront like yellow leaves on green grass by the creek, or the sound of laughter echoing in the canyon on a still evening.
For all I knew, the worst might happen if I didn’t pay close attention to my body. I felt a little kooky climbing in my condition, except that I’ve always been adept at knowing my limits when they truly matter.
By the time I met my friend Joe at Rifle that Sunday, I was fully prepared to try one warm-up and take off my harness. The rain had been pouring in sheets all day, from Carbondale all the way up to the canyon an hour away. Just driving through the puddles on the interstate was scary. Joe was reluctant to stick with the plan and I didn’t blame him. I gave him every invitation to bail, but I was going either way. Joe knew my situation, though, and how badly I wanted to see the canyon before I was confined to resting on the couch for the winter.
I parked in the muddy lot at the Ruckman Cave just after noon. The sky was a grey, freezing soup. Joe wasn’t there yet. I took a walk around and fondled the rock, anticipating the moves to come. Conditions were pretty good in the places that were dry.
As uncertain as my future was, the small joys resonated more clearly than ever. I shot the bull with acquaintances as we clung to the shelter of overhanging routes inside the Ruckman Cave. I savored every move on the warm-up, Choss Family (5.11c), a short route I normally care less about. Every time I hung from my left arm, my chest pain felt sharper, as if the tissue was getting pulled. Otherwise, I felt great and my focus was right where it needed to be. Joe came in and it felt like a social hour as I hiked two 12b’s and a 12d. They were all routes I’d done many times before, but I savored the fluid movement and the chilled, grippy stone on my skin.
Not only were we all having fun, the rain subsided. The sun came out! It was time for one last go on my project of desire.
It was just my breath, my beating heart, and my limbs moving over the steep wave of limestone as my fingers stabbed precisely into small pockets and cracks. Every move was impassioned with a goodbye. There was neither frustration nor expectation. I felt more like I was eating an expensive dessert than projecting.
I slipped out of the same kneebar that had been nagging me, but not even a silent curse was uttered in my mind. I boinked back to my high point and contemplated the problem – why was the knee slipping out every time on redpoint? I found a subtle new position, and fired to the top, skipping two clips en route to the anchors. Success! As much as I reasonably could have hoped for, anyway. In exactly 20 tries over a total of 10 days, I now had a full understanding of every move on a route I thought was out of my league back in August. It was a fine day to end the season – five pitches up to 13d with one slip.
Next, I belayed my friend Elliot on the route. He came close as well, and it inspired me to give it one more go. I put a bite of rope into the stick clip, then hesitated. Nope. My day was done. It was unlikely I would climb better than before, especially with mortality nagging at my fibers. It was time to enjoy being a spectator. So I pulled out my camera as pink evening light lit the walls. I watched my friends climb into the sunset, feeling lucky to be there at all.
Imagine my shocked glee when I met the doctor in Denver: he scheduled surgery for Oct. 30, but to my surprise, he said I could climb until then (my greatest risk is passing out if I push it too hard; which I decided is a remote and acceptable risk because I’m clipping bolts on overhanging rock, where I’m unlikely to hit anything if I fall). My season isn’t completely over!
As I head back into the canyon tomorrow, I feel like I have a brand new gift. I value all the simple things more richly, all over again. The sun is warmer. The sky sweeter. I’m with friends and not on the couch. And if I send? Well, that would be over the top.
“It’s hard to describe the condition of your heart valve,” the doctor said. “It’s like a flap of tissue with a big block of calcium.”
“That’s fitting,” I said, “because I love limestone so much.”
He laughed heartily and shook my hand.
My season will be over until next spring very soon, but I’m thrilled to look forward to more of anything at all. May you appreciate the same. You’ll climb better if you do.