I believe in the summit and in the perseverance that a good climb demands. I have recognized that the summit generally is not going to be visible from the slopes of the mountain, and I have put my faith in the fact that it will be there, maybe not behind this ridge or the next, but that eventually I will find it. Mountains seem straightforward, but they can always find a way to surprise the would-be climber, whether it is loose rock, steep faces, snow, or ice. When something unexpected comes up, my policy has always been to keep walking uphill. I can beat the mountain because, ultimately, it is always straightforward. There has to be a summit. The only thing that can stop me on a climb is myself, a loss of focus or resolve. Every battle between me and the mountain has taken place inside of me. Humans are not on the same scale as mountains. Mountains refuse to recognize the race that has changed so much of the planet, and in their utter invulnerability, they can get away with it.
When I was younger, I also believed I was invincible. My family frequently vacationed in Colorado, and I spent the summers climbing up rock walls and down rivers. Winters were for skiing as fast as I could before we returned to Ohio. At home, I played every sport I could find, soccer, basketball, track, tennis, or even football. Eventually, I realized that soccer was going to have to be the center of my athletic endeavors. I refocused, and ever-so-slowly began to climb through the ranks of the sport. I worked my way on to the starting squad and was steadily improving until suddenly, I found myself a member of injured athletes’ club. Determined not to fall into the ranks of people who “used to play,” I worked through every obstacle, whether it was pain, swelling or someone telling me I couldn’t do it. Five months out of surgery I was cleared to play. But mountains have false summits, and within a month of my return I was scheduling a surgery to restore the ligament I had again misplaced. The immediate after-effects of the surgery were much more apparent the second time. The nerve block that had served me so well the first time around was all but non-existent, and from the moment I awoke I knew it was going to be an uphill climb.
Friends asked me if I was sure about wanting to go back to the same doctor, pointing out that after all, his surgery had not lasted. I agreed with them initially, silently wondering if that man, with his revolutionary surgery, had ended my career. However, as I thought about my last “recovery” I remembered my rhinoceros-like attitude toward setbacks and I considered the mountains. No rhinoceros has ever summitted Everest. In their stubbornness, they only can gaze at the distant peaks. Surviving at altitude requires adaptability more than anything else. When I run into an obstacle on a climb, it invariably alters my course, like on the La Plata climb, where I followed an old mining road up to ancient cabin and then tip-toed a gorgeous ridge to the summit face. A lot of the time it makes the climb longer and harder, but I always get where I’m going. Sometimes I even find somewhere beautiful and off the beaten path.
Working my way out of my second surgery, I have resolved to take something from the mountain. All the Tonka trucks in the world could not move Denali, and I have learned not to bulldoze through setbacks and pave over them. On every mountainside, I have come to terms with my mortality, as I have now with the vulnerability of my soccer career. I have never truly conquered a mountain, since mountains will outlast me by years, oblivious to the relative success or failure of my climb. In the same way, the sport of soccer could easily move on without me, but I retain my determination not to let it. I am still probably below treeline, but I believe that with patience and hard work, I will reach the summit.
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