This story is about one of my proudest sober accomplishments. Honestly, sometimes I think I’m more proud of this than graduating from college.
It all began when three friends of mine decided to plan a trip to the Tetons.
Knowing that I was a certified mountain guide, they figured that if they convinced me to go with them, surely I would take them up to the summit of Grand Teton — the highest peak in the range at 13,775 feet.
There was only one problem. None of them had ever climbed before.
Grand Teton is not a peak you can hike up. It is a technical summit requiring ropes and at least 5 pitches of extremely exposed vertical climbing. There are times when a fall could mean a 1,000 foot drop straight to your death. You’d be falling for so long that you’d have plenty of time to think about what’s happening.
Still, when I hear a challenge that scares the absolute shit out of me, something inside of me grins… and starts preparing.
So for 3 weeks I studied the route, pouring over photos and memorizing descriptions written by climbers who had made it to the summit. We flew to Salt Lake city where I gave my friends a single day of training on local cliffs. The next day we made our way to the Tetons. After a day of backpacking up to about 10,000 feet, we made camp. We got up at 2am to push for the summit.
19 hours later, after the most stunning and harrowing experience of my life, we barely stumbled back to camp. Here is what happened during those hours that changed my life forever and greatly fortified my sobriety:
We set off in the pitch black after drinking cold coffee-concentrate and pooping in plastic bags (as one does when visiting high altitudes).
Linked together on a single rope, the 4 of us entrusted each other with our lives. I was astonished and proud as I watched the 3 of them perform advanced climbing skills they had just learned the previous day.
I had to make “anchors” by wedging pieces of expanding metal (cams) into cracks in the rock walls. The anchors I made had to hold the weight of all 4 members of the team. A failed anchor could mean death for all of us. Tied together on one rope, this was the ultimate act of trust. The anchors kept us on the wall, but for me they also achieved something deeper.
With a background of addiction, I have been through many struggles with trusting myself. Many people in addiction experience a feeling of breaking their promises to themselves over and over again, which damages self trust. Part of my process in recovery has been to re establish this trust in myself.
For this reason, holding the lives of 3 others in my hands and trusting myself to guide them safely to the summit was just about the most profound healing experience I could have possibly had. I can’t think of anything that could have more deeply reestablished my trust in myself.
But alas, the experience wasn’t solely composed of pleasant spiritual growth. Things intensified as the altitude sickness devastated our appetites, resulting in too little food intake. As the climb continued and the sun began to show itself, so, too, rose a splitting migraine that threatened my ability to focus.
Nevertheless, we climbed, scrambling up miles of steep terrain and then taking to the vertical walls. Using upper and lower body strength equally, we worked our way up through several vertical tunnels of rock in the mountain known as “chimneys”.
We made it to the summit and it was one of the most ecstatic and exhausted moments of my life. Let me point out that we had been climbing for 10 hours and it was about noon…
Yes, Noon! In my previous life,I’d have been sleeping off last night’s party. In my sobriety, I like to think about that every time I reach the top of a mountain at an early time of day. I look back on my days of sleeping half the day away, and it always causes me to stop for a minute and appreciate how far I’ve come.
And there at the top of Grand Teton, that appreciation reached new heights. With sweeping views of endless mountain wilderness, a mind altering level of beauty overtook us. It was completely clear, and we could see so far that it was mind bending. We soaked it in deeply and completely.
But not for too long. On mountains of this altitude, the summit isn’t exactly a picnic spot. Already exhausted and with a devastating migraine, I knew I had to lead the team down a 9 hour descent with multiple rappels in 35 mile an hour winds.
When you rappel, you back yourself off a cliff and put all your weight on the rope, which is not easy to do when you are a beginner. Talk about self trust!
If you’re thinking that sounds adventurous, you’re right! Still, you probably aren’t expecting what comes next. I know I wasn’t.
“Getting to the summit is the hardest part! The worst is over! We’re cruising now!” I spewed out idiotic things of this nature, making assuring noises to the team. These statements also created a brief illusion of relief in my own mind, which the mountain generously graced me with for about twelve whole minutes.
Then out of nowhere, a rock climbers nightmare happened. Right before our first rappel, a group of climbers ahead of us removed the necessary rappel equipment because they concluded that the rock it was attached to was unstable and unsafe. To make matters worse, this was a group of local guides who were chauffeuring a few clients of their own up the mountain. These were experts who knew the mountain very well. If they thought something was unsafe, there was good reason to believe it was.
They opted to take a different and more complicated route down the mountain, and their supreme skill and knowledge allowed them to do so safely. However, this was not the case for us. I could not deviate from the planned descent without severe risk to the safety of my group. Pushing through my migraine, I scoured the rocks for a solution.
There was nothing else to rappel off of. Nothing.
They talk about a higher power a lot in recovery. Well, I was bumbling out loud profusely to mine as I prepared to sacrifice personal gear to rappel off that same rock that had been deemed unsafe. There was literally no option other than to do so and hope that it would not come loose. So I rigged it.
Like any good guide (or friend) I went first to test the system. To my relief, it held.
The relief was short lived, as the very next moment, my friend had a panic attack during his rappel. When he finally got to solid ground again, his body shut down. We had to give him all of our food and water in order to restore his ability to move.
We split up the weight he was carrying for the rest of the descent, which made things extremely slow. He collapsed again in the dark, still several hours from camp. In keeping with the mountain’s apparent dark sense of humor, a wolf began circling us as we tried to convince our friend to keep moving. Delirious, we were finally able to get him on his feet again.
The adventure was not over. After the final rappel, we lost our way. Fumbling in the pitch black, we had to follow the sound of water underneath the rocks in order to find our way back to camp.
I cannot possibly describe to you the joy, gratitude, and love for the universe I felt when we turned the corner and our campsite finally came back into the glow of the headlamps.
There is no party I’ve ever been to, no rave or festival or social gathering, that can even begin to compare with the epic magnitude of that adventure. There is no drug I’ve ever taken that has provided as stunning or memorable an experience. Not even close.
Simply put, there is no better way I’ve ever found of getting the most out of life.
And although this adventure was a bit more dangerous than what may be advisable, it showed me what I’m truly capable of, and I internalized that at the deepest level of my being. Now, when my self doubt arises, the memory of that accomplishment demolishes it before it can gain traction.
When I’m having a rough day, I think back on that experience and realize that the day I’m having is a piece of cake.
And ever since that trip I have fully understood the value of my sobriety. That experience would not have been possible without it. I could never have become a competent enough guide to pull that off if I had not gotten sober several years before. I had the opportunity to use my skillset to provide us with one of the most epic experiences we will ever have, and being able to say that is an honor.
Adventure like that removes all doubt from my mind about whether my sobriety is worthwhile. I would so much rather spend my spare time having profound once-in-a-lifetime adventures with people I love, than spend it in a haze of drinking and drugging.