Our department at work consists of multiple people spread across the United States. The majority of us work remotely from home offices. So when I started receiving emails from HR about a wellness initiative (i.e., # of steps/day; # minutes/day spent exercising), I thought, “this could be a fun opportunity to build some esprit de corps.”
When I raised the concept at a departmental meeting shortly thereafter – minus the French terminology – everyone enthusiastically agreed to participate. (I have found that one of the benefits of a remote workplace is that it gives me a great deal of leeway to interpret my colleagues’ responses in a light most favorable to the story I want to tell. Since all of these communications occurred by phone and email, it’s entirely possible that the affirmative responses I heard and read masked the voodoo dolls and burning of me in effigy for foisting this initiative upon them.)
One member of our team did get truly energized by this concept. “Dave, you’re coming out to Scottsdale in a few weeks,” said Linda. “You’re going to love it out here. We have to go climb a mountain! There are some great ones just a few minutes from where you’re staying.”
Now, agreeing to use a pedometer and to list the amount of time per day spent exercising is not the same thing as agreeing to ascend mountain peaks. But having proposed that we all participate in this wellness initiative, I didn’t see any way to legitimately avoid Linda’s invitation. That isn’t to say that during our departmental meeting, I didn’t try.
“A mountain? Well. Geez. That sounds distinctly unpleasant. [Long pause. No one jumps in to suggest that Linda’s suggestion is dumb. Precious seconds pass. Must. Respond.] But sure, Linda, you want to climb a mountain? I’m in. When I get out there, we’ll climb a mountain.”
This is how, at 2:30 pm MT last Thursday, I found myself on the L.V. Yates Trail, looking at it snake its way upwards towards the top of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.
The first sign that I was in trouble came when Linda’s husband walked into the parking lot to meet us. I saw Patrick when he was still 50 yards away, but hadn’t yet clambering out of the SUV when he arrived to shake my hand. As we exchanged pleasantries, I looked up at his 6’4″-ish frame and came to the unsettling realization that he appeared to be genetically predispositioned to cover large amounts of ground quickly. (He would prove this twice on the ascent, letting me and Linda get 50-100 yards ahead of him on challenging terrain and catching us in a minute or two.)
Patrick, accidentally snapping a picture of himself on the ascent.
The second was that Patrick quickly launched into a preview of the trail we’d be following with numerous references to the term technical” while describing it. As in: “It has everything, from a nice, gradual start to switchbacks to some nice technical sections.” As I soon learned, the word “technical” is a euphemism for “terrain that can can leave you bleeding in a canyon and waiting for a medivac.”
After a few minutes of small talk, the three of us moved from the blacktop of the parking lot onto the trail. This would be the last time I would take a step without thinking for the next 3 hours.
The trail began with a gradual climb that unfolded over the course of roughly a mile. If you blew up a cobblestone street and then walked over the rocky shards left behind, you have some idea of the ground we covered. With Linda leading the way and Patrick walking at one-third of his normal speed due to my torpid pace, I managed to traverse this first section of the climb without incident, carefully looking at my foot placement with every step. As we came to a hard left in the trail, Patrick again used the word “technical” to describe the next section, excitement building in his voice.
We all have those moments where we realize that we’re in over our heads. And if, “Oh, sh#*!” constitutes an actual emotion, I was awash in it. What Patrick called “technical” consisted of a steep grade, replete with a trail floor of sheer rock faces and loose stones. As I pulled my fruit-flavored vitaminwater from my backpack (thereby further cementing my status as a hopeless ninny), I came to the unsettling realization that this hike was about to transform into a full-body climb, at least for me. With Linda steadily marching forward in front of me and Patrick following me from behind, I tentatively moved forward, almost immediately needing to use my upper body as much as my legs to pull myself up, step by step.
My field of vision shrank to the three feet in front of me and the ground directly underneath my feet. My ascent consisted of finding a good foothold for my prosthesis, moving my sound leg upwards, and (more often than not), grabbing onto a boulder to pull myself forward so that I could repeat the process again. After about 10 minutes of this, we emerged on a round plateau. I was dripping in sweat and out of breath. I put my fingers on my wrist to take my pulse but gave up because I couldn’t count that fast.
The rest of the climb consisted of steep non-technical sections alternating with technical ones. Several times Linda encouraged me upwards, telling me that “We’re almost there.” I believe, in retrospect, that Linda was one of those parents who told her kids that they were “almost there” while still 3-4 hours away from their destination. But as I looked at how high up we were, I realized that she was right if (a) you could take a straight path to the top (we couldn’t), and (b) so long as you chose to ignore the fact that you had to use all 4 limbs to get there.
We climbed over a final section of rock and suddenly found ourselves atop the mountain. All of the sweat on my body dried immediately and I felt a chill as a steady breeze swept across the summit. Patrick, hardly out of breath, gave me a 360-degree tour of the surrounding landscape: the new highway built only a few years ago; the “inversion layer” that traps pollution between the ground and higher atmosphere; the major interstate that runs directly to Long Beach, California; the Diamondbacks baseball stadium; the Phoenix airport. He snapped a few photos of me and Linda together to document this successful mission.
While I felt a mild euphoria upon reaching the top, a nagging discomfort tugged at me while Patrick acted as tour guide. I couldn’t accurately identify it until Linda asked me how I felt. And then it hit me. I had expended a lot – a lot – of energy getting up here. Now I had to find my way back down all the same brutal sections I had struggled to climb over the previous 90 minutes. And I realized with increasing trepidation that going downhill with a prosthetic leg probably raised the degree of difficulty versus going up.
When ascending, the worst thing that could have happened was that I’d slip, a relatively minor risk since I’d been on all fours for the steepest sections. Put simply, when going up, I didn’t have far to fall.
Going down, on the other hand, could quickly transform from walking into plunging headfirst into cacti, or worse, any of the several million rocks that stood between me and the parking lot 2.4 miles below. If I had known the following fact before trying to descend, I might still be up there: the 2.4-mile trail from the base lodge to Mount Washington’s famous Tuckerman Ravine ascends 1850 vertical feet. We had climbed 80% of that vertical distance (1500 feet) on a trail just as long, virtually none of it with stable footing.
As we started down, I quickly learned that the stones underneath my feet seemed much more willing to move when descending than they had going up. After feeling myself veer more closely to the edge of the trail than I would have liked and catching myself by hopping multiple times on my sound leg to blunt my downhill momentum, I came to the conclusion that I would either (a) break my ankle, or (b) find myself at the bottom of the mountain more quickly than my skeletal structure could reasonably withstand. And so, at each of the many “technical sections” between me and the bottom, I turned around, lowering myself down a step at a time like I was going down a ladder.
As this continued, step after step, section after section, I realized that my sound thigh increasingly felt like a flaccid piece of rubber. forcing me to slow down even more. Finally, we found ourselves once again on the undulating, rock-covered road back to the parking lot. Exhausted, I stumbled towards the endpoint, thankful to stop to pet a woman’s dog as an excuse to take a breather.
As we got within a few hundred yards of the lot, Linda congratulated me and noted that this should be a “bucket list” item for me. I reflected on that silently. As we pulled out of the lot and back towards my hotel, I responded.
“You’re right,” I said. “This wasn’t a bucket list item when I started. But now that I’m done, I’m including it.”
If I had known exactly what I was getting into when I committed to climbing a mountain at the beginning of January, I never would have done it. But having finished it, I’m glad that I fell victim to the law of unintended consequences.