Besides avoiding death, being plucked from the side of a rock face in darkness at 11,700 feet altitude by a Utah Highway Patrol jet helicopter yields several benefits. Among them it is a comfort to know that not only aerospace engineering, company management and university teaching have been infiltrated by bureaucracy. In addition to the modest $1,190 bill for helicopter flight time (at $700/hour) and $240 for crew (pilot plus the guy who grabs your arm helping you leap off your suddenly much more appealing than it was before help was in the offing rock perch and onto the landing skid outside the polycarbonate bubble), you also find an entry for “incident management”, a disembodied bureaucratic construct which nonetheless gets paid as much as the military trained pilot with 40 years rotary aircraft experience and his search and rescue specialist crew.
But as my Dad wisely points out, $1870 I could have easily spent just getting ambulanced and admitted to the Park City Emergency Room and maybe getting a blood test before the bill grew another 0 left of the decimal point with MRI, ER Docs and Nurses, not even counting the luxuries attendant to overnighting on the med-surg floor under those 24/7 florescent grow-lamps. And my bill gaining yet another order of magnitude with surgery and follow up therapy and medical visits. In other words, a rescue as expensive as a week’s cycling vacation in the Alps may have saved the equivalent of a retirement bungalow in the Ozarks. Not counting the months of unproductive time spent in medical care and then in physical therapy, taking drugs and hurting. Or worse.
Outside of existential issues, how was the hike? Rocky. From about the time we reached the bouldered semi-summit for lunch, way ahead of schedule despite climbing a lot of rock with no climbing gear, dressed in T-shirts and running shoes, and started down various nearly vertical walls and chimneys, I cycled through all the modes. First there was Denying that it was going to be as bad as it in fact was, followed by Bargaining: if I ever got off this mountain I’d stick to safer endeavors – like cycling to Tyson’s II on the shoulder of Route 7 with cars zooming past at 55 mph, or maybe cliff diving in Monterey. I toyed with Anger for a while – but getting mad at the only guy who has ever been there before (though it turned out the guide never had been there before – so just as Seinfeld once pondered the definition of “reservation” I began to ponder the definition of “Guide”) seemed counter to my overarching survival goal. Finally I reached Acceptance – that this is a ridiculous situation but unlike some situations this one is completely cure-able if we made the right decisions. Which were to give it the best try we could, and then to bail if all else failed.
While the guide helped talk my left foot and then my right foot down long steps onto toe-width slivers of semi-horizontal rock, me facing the wall and gripping the cracks like they teach at Yosemite, I distracted myself thinking about my recent past. I calculated that in the last 12 years, I’d spent 10% of my time in wheelchairs, casts, hospital beds and crutches – recovering from bone breaks – 3 clavicles, 2 ankles, one shoulder, several ribs and almost all the bones in one foot. Another 10% of those years I had spent caring for Nancy. An AeroAstro friend is just now able to travel – on crutches – months after breaking his leg climbing, and a cycling friend has a chance to go home to a life of 24/7 care in a few weeks following 3 months in the hospital, much of it unconscious, due to a head injury. He may never be able to work or recover his personality. Then I thought about a passage in one of the library full of death and dying books I studied to help cope with Nancy’s care. The author pointed out how hard people work, the lengths they go to, the money they will spend – to save their life or that of a loved one. The same person will put the whole enterprise at risk to save a few seconds at a red light, or to have a little fun on a weekend, or to share a drink with friends out for dinner.
OK, not the sort of thoughts that motivate a person to muster maximum gusto, but few would number among my faults a tendency to spending too much time on the couch for lack of motivation to expend some energy.
The Guide and I spent 4 hours sitting on our perch, wondering if we were going to spend the night wrapped in a couple of rain parkas trying to sleep in 20°F air next to the burnt-out remains of the microfire he built from the scant combustibles one can find on a rock outcropping. He skittered around the rocks collecting what wood and boughs he could, but nothing that would do much more than briefly flare. We saw the sun set across the valley, listened to the absolute quiet when thermal driven wind subsided, and watched the stars emerge in a purple sky. We wondered what phase the moon would be in that night. We watched headlights on the road miles away to see if any looked like they were looking for us. We adapted – enjoying the strange uniqueness of our moment and the beauty of it. I remembered the last time I slept outside – 26 summers ago rafting a California river. Camping, I admitted, was not my passion.
Then we heard the helicopter – but it didn’t come near us. We thought he didn’t see our little fire and our jackets draped over rock piles. In fact, our fire was blindingly bright in the pilot’s night vision goggles, and a few minutes later the big rotating blades were on top of us, blowing embers from the fire onto our skin and seconds later I was just a passenger in the back seat of a small aircraft making a short, comfortable flight to the meadow where the day had begun that morning.
Days later 10 minutes still don’t pass without my marveling that I am not in a hospital, that all my limbs are in one piece, though my hands and legs are scared from rock hugging. This year I watched a person gradually die, and I know what each of us really wants from life – the ability to enjoy it. The rest, our quest for fun, for experiences, for salaries, for a good watermelon, for a better fitting cycling jersey, for the right stock buys, for all the things we tell ourselves matter enough to trade our time, maybe all of our time, for, as it says on my “Swimming Is Life” t-shirt, is just details.