When climbing a high altitude peak, we don’t just climb it once. We climb it at least twice, perhaps three of four times. In order to acclimatize properly, mountaineers use a strategy of “Climb High, Sleep Low.” To climb a new altitude, we first do a day trip to that elevation–we might carry of load of supplies–or we may just climb up to introduce our bodies to the new height. This introduction sets off complex physiologic processes that eventually change the composition of our blood to enable us to survive in an ever-decreasing oxygen environment. After one or two excursions to a new elevation, we break down camp and move to the new one.
I always seem to dread the second climb–perhaps because I have seen and climbed the route and know what difficulties lie ahead. I know how hard I will have to breathe and how challenging some sections will be to surmount. And then I am always surprised that the second time through is always easier because I know what’s coming, I have markers to use along the climb to measure progress, and I am a wee bit more acclimatized than the first go.
Arriving at the new camp, there is always much work to do: tent platforms and kitchens must be dug, tents erected, and snow melted into drinking water. Doing these tasks at a new elevation is always humbling. Move too fast and you’re instantly breathless and panting. Imagine being a bit drunk or tipsy while already feeling the next day’s hangover, feeling deeply chilled overall with really cold feet and hands, being able to move two shovelfuls of snow and then having to lean over your shovel out of breath, then having to swing your legs to make the blood go back to your toes through centrifugal force, then having to catch your breath again, then shoveling again, then feeling a bit dizzy and unsteady, then swinging your arms to bring blood to your hands, shoveling a bit more. Repeat the above for four hours while really wanting to curl up into a ball in the snow.
Earlier this week, when it became clear that my Dad’s battle with prostate cancer would likely end very soon; I was thrust instantly into a high elevation environment that I wasn’t acclimatized to. Instantaneously, my heart could not beat hard enough or deep enough to move the mountain of emotion through, my lungs couldn’t take in enough to air to stave off the suffocating grief, and my head rushed with both dizziness and confusion. Though I have climbed through grief along with my Dad over the past eleven years the best I could, this is a new and gripping elevation that has stopped me cold.
One of the things that you must quickly learn at high altitude is to move slowly. When sitting down, it’s easy to forget how stressed your body is because it can keep up with the demands when you are not moving. Stand up quickly and take a few quick steps and the feedback is swift. So too this week, I learned that grief is an invitation to move very slowly. Like acclimatization, it is a slow process that cannot be rushed or forced and I must climb through it step by step. The route is new to me and I don’t know the markers along the way. The snow is deep overwhelming and at times, I am pitched forward onto my face when my foot drops into a posthole. The visibility is poor, making it difficult to see both the route and my teammates.
I know enough to follow the rope in front of me, to try to step in the footprints that others have left, to take breaks, and to trust that I will get new views as I climb higher. This is a climb that there is no turning back from. I can’t call it off because of bad weather or risky conditions. I can’t stop it. I can only climb it as best as I can, knowing there will be avalanches of emotion along the entire route. I can’t avoid these pounding white waves that pummel me with loss and deep sadness at frequent, seemingly random intervals, triggered by invisibly, falling from their high perches to bury me.
I can only traverse this terrain with care and cherish the memories and profound inspiration that my Dad has given me from the moment I was born…to speaking on the phone with him just the other night. My Buddhist path has taught me that it is possible to synchronously do two paradoxical things at once if I can and grasp that duality doesn’t exist–I must simultaneously hold onto the rope that ties my Dad and I together while at the same time, prepare to take him off-belay. This will be the toughest climb of my life thus far and Marian and I will be heading to Edmonton soon to join my family.
Thanks to all who sent get wishes to Marian this week. She’s recovering very well and I’m very grateful since that means she will be able to travel with me. We shared a quiet week where she rested at home and I made short forays into the world to train and receive athletic therapy. Todd Row at Allied Health Services has been helping to get my patellar tendonitis to settle down.
Ironically, one of Todd’s recommendations is that I need to stretch more (of the five areas of fitness–flexibility is my least favourite). I guess the universe these days wants to stretch me both physically and emotionally. The other day I described myself as feeling like lately I’d been shredded on the cheese grater of life. It’s always good when my sense of humour rises to the top of the coping strategies list. It’s one of my best and one I learned from my Dad–he loves to laugh, joke, and often knows just how to make someone more comfortable by making fun of himself. I inherited my funny bone from him.
I appreciate all of the support Marian and I have received over the past few weeks and I’ll ask that you continue to reach out as the mountain suddenly seems even steeper now. Please keep my entire family in your thoughts and prayers. Have a good week and take care.
With gratitude to you,