Climbing Mt. Elbert, 8/7/2003

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Mike M.
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Climbing Mt. Elbert, 8/7/2003

Postby Mike M. » Wed Jan 12, 2005 11:20 am

(AUGUST 7, 2003)

Brief Background
On February 7, 2001, I broke my neck and injured my spinal cord as a result of a fall down some stairs at my home in Olathe, Kansas. Following surgery two days later I was quadriplegic, unable to sit up. I spent the next seven weeks in two hospitals, followed by six more weeks as an outpatient. During my early therapy sessions, which consisted of walking about 15 feet while being held from behind, I would tell my physical therapist how someday I was going to run and climb mountains again. Twelve weeks later, at the time of my release as an out-patient, he told me he'd never had a patient ever walk again who was initially unable to sit up. On my last day as an outpatient, the first week of May, I tested at 8% the strength of a normal person my age and could walk 400 feet with the aid of a "walker". My neurosurgeon told me that only about 10% of people with this type of injury ever walk again. A week later I fell at home, breaking the tibula in my lower right leg, and was put in a cast for six weeks. This, in addition to the neck brace that I had to wear for four months, made me quite a site!

I returned to work at Bank of America in June of 2001 using my walker and riding the bus to work. A few weeks later I was approved to drive again. Shortly thereafter, I graduated to use of a cane. I met my first goal when, in the third week of June, I participated in the "March of the Clans" at the Kansas City Scottish Highland Festival. On July 4th I met my second goal when I walked a mile. With more work hard I was able to discard the cane. At the end of September I completed an eight-mile hike, the first of many.

Two months after returning to work I was laid off, on July 31, 2001. I began working out of my home with another appraiser but the relationship was unsatisfactory to both parties. Finally, on May 22, 2002, I made two resolutions: (a) to obtain a permanent professional job, and (b) jog again, and meditated intensely on each several times a day. A week later I was offered a good job with HUD in Kansas City as a multifamily appraiser (without even an interview), after nine months of intensive, fruitless searching. The next week I ran a mile for the first time (later increased to two miles). So, within three weeks, I had met both of my goals. A third event happened when my wife of 30 years left and subsequently filed for divorce. This wasn't entirely unexpected as nine months earlier she had essentially disappeared from the house, coming home only to sleep when she wasn't traveling with her girlfriend on business trips.

The divorce was unnecessarily nasty and caused a great deal of mental anguish to my sons and me. It became final on February 7, 2002 (24 months to the day of the injury). Through a series of remarkable events I was able to keep the house (and home for my two sons), pay off a huge financial settlement awarded by the court and refinance the property.

Today, things have never been better in my life.

In the summer of 2003, I began training in earnest to achieve my second goal of climbing a mountain. I chose Mt. Elbert, near Leadville, Colorado. At 14,433', Elbert is the highest mountain in Colorado and second highest in the Continental United States. I began by working out at home, climbing stairs at work, and taking increasingly longer hikes. My two sons, Sean and Ryan, agreed to accompany me and we planned to make the attempt during the first week of August.

About three weeks before the trip I undertook my final "dress rehearsal", a 15-mile hike, with full daypack. Unfortunately I forgot to take any food along. Things went well for most of the way but with about two miles to go I began experiencing pain in my pelvis and right side. By the time I got back to the car the pain was excruciating. A few days later I went to a doctor and learned I had torn the muscles in my pelvis and right hip, which was caused by favoring the left side of my body while walking. I next visited a physical therapist, who prescribed several new exercises. But the pain remained so I turned to Reiki, which had worked so well for me since being introduced to it a year before by Brad and Diane Masters of Lee's Summit, Mo. I attended a healing circle and had a personal session with Reiki Master Warren Kurtz. I also practiced self-reiki before leaving for Colorado. As before, the treatments seemed to provide some immediate relief and, in my opinion, speeded the healing process.

On Saturday, August 2, 2003, Sean, Ryan and I left for Colorado. Our first stop was in Nelson, Nebraska for a night to leave my dog, Darby with my parents. We set out for Colorado on Sunday, arriving in Leadville that evening. After taking a day to acclimate to the high altitude, we went on a practice climb to timberline on a trail near town. Because of my impairments from the spinal injury, as well as the recent injuries, I was very unsure whether I could manage the steep inclines of the trail. Towards the end of the trail we came to a steep incline of about 75 yards. I knew this would be the real test for me. So, after taking a deep breath, I began. While the going was difficult I was able to make it to the top. Until then I had been very uncertain how my body would react to the steep inclines and declines of the Rockies. But in that instant I knew I could hike the Rockies once again. One of the beauties about not settling for the status quo and testing your limits, I feel, is that it enables you to dispel your fears and teach new things about yourself that you would have never known.

On Wednesday we decided to have a day of fun by rafting down the Arkansas River from Brown's Canyon near Buena Vista. But what we thought would be a leisurely afternoon on the river turned out to be a challenging test with some Class 3 Rapids. From my seat in the extreme back left side of the raft there wasn't a seat close in front into which I could lock my legs. Nevertheless, things went well for the first hour or so. Then we came to one of the roughest rapids of the day. Halfway through the raft suddenly lurched violently to the left while, simultaneous, a wall of water crashed over the boat from the right side. I was immediately swept into the river and found myself under water against a huge boulder. I was surprised at how warm and wonderful the water felt against me. I was under water for perhaps 10 seconds or so and, surprisingly, felt no fear. My plan was to simply paddle to shore, assuming I came to the surface again. But as soon as surfaced someone grabbed me by the back of my life preserver and hauled me back into the raft. The whole thing was over in less than a minute, thanks to the quick actions of my mates. While obviously very embarrassed I felt fine otherwise. Although we went through several more runs of rapids, the rest of the journey (about 10 miles) was uneventful (thanks to me holding on for dear life!). The surprise came when we began to get out of the boat and I discovered severe pain on the left side of my body. Then I realized that all of my the muscles on that side were torn. I couldn't even lift my left arm above my head. Of course there also was still some pain from the previous hip and pelvis injury.

Back at the motel I was very depressed. I called my mother in Nebraska and told her of my condition and my doubts at being able to hike 12 miles, with 4,800 feet of ascent, in less than 12 hours. But I told her I was determined to try.

I went to bed, put ice on my left side and tried to get some sleep even though I felt severe pain whenever I moved. I don't think any of us slept much that night. The huge task before us seemed all the more daunting because of my latest ailment, the uncertainty of how much strength and stamina I'd have because of the spinal injury, and the fact that neither Sean or Ryan had ever attempted anything this difficult in their lives.

On Wednesday, August 7th, we arose at 3 a.m. It was exactly 30 months from the day of my accident and 6 months to the day of my final divorce decree. Amazingly, when I moved for the first time that morning the pain didn't seem nearly as severe as it had just hours earlier. We put our cold weather clothing on, checked our headlamps, loaded our gear and headed for the trailhead 10 miles away. When we arrived at the South Trail parking lot around 3:40 a.m., it was a chilly, starless night. As we prepared to go I shouldered my pack for the first time, which weighed around 15 lbs. I was surprised to find that the pain in my side was tolerable as was the pain in my pelvis and right hip from the previous injury. Of course I still had heaviness on my left side from the spinal injury, which caused me to limp slightly and drag my left foot sometimes. I decided to just start walking, one step at time, and to go as far as I could. For the first two miles we talked very little as we walked along a SUV road, each person lost in his own thoughts. The benefit of traveling as a team became apparent when, during a brief stop, I dropped and broke my headlamp. We reached the Mt. Elbert South Trail Head at dawn's first light. After taking a short break to rest, change our socks from having to ford a small stream, and drink some water we "officially" began the climb. The first mile or so of the trail was very difficult as we encountered some of the steepest terrain of the entire trek. Knowing that we had really only just begun the climb made things all the more discouraging. But after a while the trail began to level out somewhat so we stopped to rest at a flat tabletop rock that seemed meant for us to enjoy our first view of the huge mountains close behind us to the west, the distant ranges to the east, and a beautiful moraine below. As the sun peeked above the dark mountain ranges the air was as crisp and clean as ice-cold water, with just a whiff of pine from the trees all around us. The sky was clear and brilliant blue. Everywhere the view was breathtaking. I thanked God, once again, for this second chance I had received in life. To be able to be in a place like this, with the beauties of our universe all around and both sons at my side left me choked with emotion and humbled before God.

We had now walked about 3.25 miles and everyone was optimistic. I was holding up well with the help of support stockings to support my lower abdomen and leg muscles. For the next hour or so the trail maintained a steady incline and we could see the peak of Elbert looming high above us. After another break to shed some our heavier clothing and for me to switch to a lighter "summit" pack, we began a much steeper section of the trail that would continue all the way to the summit. The South Elbert Trail is considered a Class 1 climb with no need to use your hands or do any rock scrambling. Even though this trail wasn't close to the difficulty I'd encountered on Long's Peak near Estes Park in 1999, (which was a Class 2 & 3 climb), it was long and relentless. After a while Ryan began to lag further and further behind Sean and me as his lack of training began to show.

The view of Twin Lakes and the forest below, and the tall peaks above, was spectacular! It was a pleasant, sunny day as the sun rose higher. Sean and I traded the lead many times. At one point when I was just in front of Sean, the grade became so steep that I began to lose my balance and fall backwards. But Sean reached out to stop my fall and pushed me forward. To me, this incident symbolized all the help that I'd received since I was first hurt in February of 2001. Along the way we leap-frogged with other hikers, and I feel the words of encouragement between us helped both parties. Again it showed me we're all in this together!

Eventually, the distance between Sean and myself began to grow as well. I was tired but holding up pretty well. I knew better than they the challenges we would face and had trained more in the months before the climb. Sean kept in touch with Ryan via a two-way and he later told us said that Sean's words of encouragement helped give him the motivation to continue. No one turned back even though each step became more and more difficult. It tested the deepest fiber of your being. This was what I had meant when I told my sons, months before, that climbing these mountains was a way to learn things about yourself that you had never known.

As I walked along, stopping every 50 feet or so to rest and catch my breath, the summit seemed frozen in place. After a while whenever I looked up it seemed to be mocking me. I got angrier and angrier. The mountain began to symbolize everything I'd been up against the last 30 months: the injury, the job lay off, the nasty divorce and many other things that I've not disclosed. But this made me even more determined. I cursed Elbert out loud and swore I was going to make it to the top or die trying.

Finally, around 12:00 noon, I reached the summit. Sean arrived a minute or two later and Ryan made came in about 30 minutes afterward. I have never been so proud of both of my sons. Class 1 hike or not, climbing Colorado's highest mountain is not easy. Sean and Ryan showed a tremendous amount of courage and determination and refused to give up. We stayed on top for about an hour resting, eating more food, signing the register, taking pictures and visiting with some of the other climbers. We began our descent around 1:15 p.m. I knew that this was later than recommended by experienced mountain climbers, who say a climber should never be on a summit after noon. The high peaks of the Rockies in summer are notorious for thunderstorms in the afternoon. But along the way we continued to meet other climbers who were still on their way to the top in spite of the ominous clouds that building around us. During the descent I slipped and fell on loose rocks perhaps 4 or 5 times, as I became more fatigued. When we were still about a mile above tree line the first crack of thunder echoed across the mountains. A few minutes later it began to rain and we saw lightning strike the side of a mountain to the right of us. This definitely put a hop in our step! After stopping to pick up my daypack and other discarded clothing that we had hidden along the trail, we finally reached tree line in the midst of a light rain, to the sound of thunder echoing around us across the high peaks. We all breathed a sigh of relief. The last mile to the trail head was just as hard as it had been going up and I fell several more times. Finally, we reached the trailhead around 5 p.m. I was completely exhausted by then and my body was beginning to hurt. After resting at the trailhead I was barely able to rise and needed help shouldering my pack. The last two miles to the car were more relaxed even though I was in increasing pain.

We arrived back at the car around 5:45 p.m. When I saw the car the site was beautiful as anything I'd seen all day. Once I was in the car all the pain that I'd expected hit full-force. My entire body, including muscles both injured and uninjured, ached. Plus, my left big toe was swollen to twice its normal size from dragging my foot, and four toenails were black or broken. I would eventually them lose all and it took another four weeks to recover entirely from all my various injuries But the discomfort was incidental. I had reached the top of the mountain.

But reaching the top wasn't most important. After everything else is stripped away in life all that remains is love. Without it we are nothing. By undertaking this challenge together we had strengthened a bond of love that will last a lifetime. Their love makes me whole.

Once I got back home I wrote thank you letters to all my doctors and therapists. I also reminded them that the word "can't" should never be used when assessing a patient's chances of recovery because faith, determination and perseverance plays a tremendous role in a person's ability to heal.

Mike McCord
Climb a 14er and touch the face of God.
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Postby kingof14ers » Wed Jan 12, 2005 1:48 pm

What an amazing story of perseverance! Thanks for sharing it. You should post a few photos here from your trip.
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Postby Florida Steve » Thu Jan 13, 2005 6:10 am

Mike.......Thank you for sharring your story with us!!!
You are awesome..............
Just about any day you can hike is A good day
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Postby doumall » Thu Jan 13, 2005 1:41 pm

Thanks Mike, your a story of true human spirit. Congratulations on your summit!
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you are a true hero

Postby Gurbi » Wed Apr 13, 2005 12:13 pm

Mike you are a true inspiration for any mountaineer- no matter how bad we have seen - you have been lower and you bounced back - hats off to you

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