Monday, December 15, 2014

The Holidays & My Second Chance at Life

The holiday season always makes me nostalgic and grateful. I like to honestly assess my life, past and present, and soak up the things around me I’m grateful for. And never far from my mind is the knowledge I shouldn’t be here to see any of it. And then I smile in disbelief at my unlikely life.

On July 1st, 1998 I had a bad day. I was a couple months into decathlon training after taking almost two years off to pursue the sport of bobsledding. I was single, 28 years old and I had been training as a post-collegiate athlete in Eugene, Oregon since graduating from Eastern Illinois University. I was having serious doubts about whether or not to continue. There are thousands of Olympic hopefuls who take their own version of the road I was on. I had some accomplishments of note, but at some point I knew I would have to retire. I had experienced years when I was both, well below the poverty line and dangerously close to homelessness, and years I was financially comfortable. The uncertainty of it all was a calculated risk and very little of it deterred me. It wasn't about failure. I hate losing but I've never feared it. It was really just that black cloud of my uncertain future and the pressure I felt to transition into a more predictable life. Olympic hopefuls live their lives in four-year increments. After each Olympics, most take some time to reassess where they are in their life and career, what they want to do and what they believe they can do. As a summer and winter sport athlete, I assessed every two years.  The 2000 Sydney Games were only two years away, but at some point I had to walk away from athletics. Was I at that point? On July 1st, 1998, I was deep in my personal assessment.

My practice that day was nearly done. I was wrapping up in the Hayward Field weight room, doing some hanging leg lifts when I suffered a very minor abdominal strain. It was type of injury that would take less than a week to recover from, but with my current doubts, I didn’t handle it well. I drove home to my apartment and stared at the ceiling, thinking a million thoughts. One thought that went through my head was about a waterfall. Two weeks earlier I had driven to one of my favorite places in the Cascade mountain range.  Highway 242 is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever take. The byway winds you from the edge of the Willamette Valley up into the Cascades, through the lava fields and eventually to Sisters, Oregon. Because of the deep snows in the higher elevations, sections of 242 are only open during the summer months. I drove in as far as I could, eventually coming to a barricade just past the Linton Lake trail-head. I had never seen Linton Lake, so I pulled in and started to hike. After about 30 minutes, I came to the beautiful mountain lake. It was bigger than I expected. I noticed across the lake, up into the mountain there was a beautiful waterfall. It was quite a distance from where I was, so I made a mental note that one day I would return to hike to the waterfall. The only clear thing in my head as I was staring at my ceiling was I was going to return to Linton Lake the next day and hike the falls.

I woke up the next morning and without saying a word to anyone, grabbed my camera and ultralight rod and reel, jumped in my car and started the gorgeous 1.5 hour drive. I parked my old Ford at the trail-head, foolishly walked right past the trail map and free wilderness permits and started my adventure. It took almost two hours to hike to where the stream from the falls fed into the lake. There was a clear trail heading up the mountain I was sure would lead me to the falls.

Lower Linton Falls (the smaller falls)
The hike was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, with trees and thick vegetation hiding most of the stream from the trail. The sound of the falls grew louder and louder as I climbed. Finally I reached a place where the falls were in full view. They were spectacular. I quickly made my way through the wet moss and ferns to reach the bottom of the falls. The mist was thick and I was surprised by the intensity of the sound. My adrenaline was flowing. I snapped off a couple pictures and decided I wanted to see the view from the top. I made my way back through the moss and ferns to the trail but saw it had all but disappeared where I was standing. I headed up anyway. Once again, my view of the falls was obstructed, but I was confident I could find my way to the top. I finally came to a clearing where I could see the water, but I had inadvertently climbed past the top of the falls. I turned to head back, but higher up the mountain I heard the faint sound of what I thought must be another waterfall. There was no way I was going to turn back without seeing it, so I continued my climb. At this point the hike was extremely difficult and at times, treacherous. But the sound above me was growing more and more powerful. It was exhilarating. I kept climbing and then, there it was. Wow… This waterfall was massive. Much bigger than the lower one. Once again I made my way through the wet marsh and vegetation. I was slipping on mossy rocks and mud but my eyes were fixed on the falls. When I finally arrived at the bottom, the spray was so strong it seemed to be raining sideways. The sound was deafening. I was filled with anxiety and adrenaline. I threw up my arms and screamed like a maniac. It’s hard to put into words, but I couldn’t stay there long because of the enormity of it all. It was too intense, too close to fully enjoy. I still hadn’t gotten my picture from the top, so I turned back and started to walk. I was surprised at how far I had actually walked through all the wetness. I looked around for an alternative route. I saw a rock face to my right and walked to it. It was a huge cliff- 80-100’, but looked like really easy climbing. It looked like I only needed to climb 20-25’ to get to a place I could exit the cliff and return down the mountain. I was feeling great and without a second thought, started climbing. I was right about the ease of it all. The hand holds were plentiful and the risk was small. I was climbing like a pro and gaining confidence. I made a couple of big moves, but most of them were easy.

I reached the place on the cliff I had seen from the bottom and reasoned I could exit. Well, whatever I had seen from the ground wasn’t there now and I couldn’t get off. Going back down was the obvious choice, but the descent was difficult because of the big moves I had made. There was nothing but rocks waiting for me at the bottom and a fall from this height would be a serious one. I looked up and saw the face of the cliff seemed pretty constant all the way up. I’m not an experienced rock climber, but I was an athlete and the climb up until this point had been easy and fun. I found the decision to keep climbing an exciting one, so I took a deep breath and continued my climb. I was all in now. I was covering a lot of ground, climbing fast and having the time of my life. I was about ¾ up the rock face now. Then everything changed. The face surface that had been so accommodating changed. Significantly. What had been smooth and hard rock turned to something like sand stone. I checked it and realized I could actually scratch right into the surface. Above me there was a large stone sticking out from the wall. I reached up and pulled at it. It seemed solid. I reached up again and started pulling myself up. I was eye level with it when it gave way and pulled out of the cliff. I started falling. My hands and feet clawed frantically at the wall. I fell 2-3’ when my right toe grabbed and stopped my fall. The stone immediately hit me on the head, breaking in two. One piece fell behind me but the other came to rest between my chest and the cliff. I was teetering on the toe of my boot with neither hand having a hold. I didn’t know which direction I would fall. I didn't want to so much as breathe. Finally, I contorted my chest inward and was able to release the stone. I leaned in to the cliff, acutely aware of how long it took to hear the sound of the stone hit the ground.

I didn’t have time to process what just happened because it was still happening. I looked above me and saw the soft rock face. I looked to my left and saw nowhere to go. I looked to my right and saw a dead tree that had grown out of the cliff about eight feet away. The base of the tree was about eye level and looked to be 1-2” thick. Not an option. I looked back up. Nothing. Back to the left. Nothing. Back to the tree. “It’s dead.” I thought. “It will either break right off or pull out of the rock.” I looked around again. I was trying hard not to panic. I would start to give in to it, then rage against it. But the truth of my situation was impossible to ignore. I did almost die a minute ago. That happened. My only hope was that skinny dead tree and if it didn’t hold, this day would be my last.
Linton Falls above Linton Lake

I stared at the tree, knowing it was my only chance. I tried to build myself up. “You can do this! Lesser men have done more. You’re an elite athlete. You can do this!” I knew what had to be done but I was in no hurry to do it. When my right calf started to cramp, the moment of truth had arrived. I let myself slowly lean to the right and started to fall. I pushed off my right toe and lunged in the direction of the tree. With both hands I grabbed the base and my body swung violently underneath. The tree more than held. It felt like a piece of iron. It took every ounce of strength in my body to pull myself all the way up. I put one foot between the tree and the cliff. For the moment I was alive.

I looked around to assess my situation. The good news was the rock face before me was hard again. The bad news was it was smooth with virtually no hand-holds.  I contemplated waiting for a rescue team. I could maybe fold myself over the base of this tree and bed down for the night. Maybe tomorrow someone would come. That was when I remembered I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I also hadn’t filled out the hiking permit, required for just such a contingency. I had been reckless enough to cost me my life. Even if I was lucky enough for someone to realize I was missing and they found my car- even if I was lucky enough for someone to think maybe I would try to hike across Linton Lake and up to the lower falls; the odds that anyone would assume I would hike above those falls- after the trail ended, to a hidden waterfall most recreational hikers didn’t even know existed, was ridiculously remote. This climb was going to end in one of two ways. I was either climbing out on my own or falling to my death.

About five feet above me there appeared to be a soft ledge. The tree that saved me rose above this ledge, but it wasn’t the kind of tree you could climb. Even though the base was like hickory, the branches were very brittle. I could break them with little effort. I stared at the ledge. The rock face wasn’t an option. I looked at the tree. If it was thicker I could climb it like a rope. But how could it hold me further up where it was even thinner? I decided to just test it. I reached up (breaking branches) and gripped the tree with both hands. I slowly pulled myself up a few inches. It held.  I pulled a little more. When it held the second time something in me snapped and I started climbing up, right through the dead branches as fast as I could. With one final pull I let go of the tree and grabbed the ledge. It was an out of body experience and I still don’t fully understand how it happened.

I sat on the ledge and tried to process what had just happened. I looked around to see I was sitting in a crevice. Above me was a massive rock ceiling protruding well out from the rest of the cliff. My ledge seemed to be forming a 45 degree angle with the ceiling. It was like sitting on the roof of a house. This crevice looked about 20’ long and if I could cross it, I could exit the cliff. I realized quickly this would be no simple task. God knows how many years of erosion had created a ledge surface like deep pea gravel. One move in the direction I needed to go caused an avalanche of rock to cascade off the ledge. There was no other way, though. On my back, I slid as deep into the crevice as I could go, putting the back of my head against the floor and my forehead against the ceiling. I slid my right hand and right foot over about a foot and dug them both as deep as I could into the loose rock. The sound of the cascading pebbles was terrifying. I slid my left hand and left foot over a foot and dug them in. Then I slowly slid my body to the right. I repeated that move, all the while hearing the smooth rock pour over the cliff. Foot by foot I moved like a crab across that rocky crevice. Slowly, deliberately, I made my way. Ten feet to go...  Five feet to go… One foot; and it was over.

I’d love to say I celebrated like a hero and said something cool about cheating death, but I didn’t. I just dropped to my knees and cried. I stayed there on the ground with my heart racing, trying to wrap my brain around it all. I was shaking, terrified. I saw an unremarkable seedling growing next to me and I stared at it for several minutes. How close I had come to never seeing it. Eventually I calmed down, rose to my feet and started the long hike home. Nothing on that walk back to my car escaped my gaze. I kept saying, “I shouldn’t be seeing that flower. I shouldn’t be seeing that bird, that tree, that snow-capped mountain…”  My fear was quickly turning to joy. I hiked and thought about my life, but this time from the perspective of a man granted a second chance at that life. Whenever the trail allowed it, I would smile and break into a run. Things were so much clearer now. Of course I would keep training. Why wouldn’t I? I was healthy and loved competing. I loved pursuing big, impossible dreams. I was going all-in with my decathlon training. I loved my complicated and uncertain life. For better or worse these were my choices, my successes and failures. And all of it was a priceless gift.  

I’m happy to say I’ve never stopped being a man given a second chance at life. The change that came over me on my hike home was permanent. It takes a lot to upset me these days. I look at all the amazing things I've experienced since that day. The best decathlon year of my life came one year later in 1999 when I finished eighth at the World Championships. The 2000 Olympic Trials were supposed to be where I finally made that life-long dream of competing in the Summer Olympics come true. Instead I finished 5th and watched the 2000 Games from home. I would fall in love and have my heart broken. Against all odds I would win an Olympic medal in Bobsledding. I would walk away from a lucrative business career just for the opportunity to be a low paid assistant track and field coach. I would fall in love again, start a family and discover a world I love more than anything I dreamed possible. My assessment as I look around me is this; I'm lucky beyond belief for every second of this difficult, wonderful, heartbreaking, loving and thrilling life of mine. Perspective is a beautiful thing.

This holiday season, I’ll once again think about the cliff and remind myself that every single thing I have in my life- good and bad, is a priceless gift. I'll soak it up. And then I'll smile.  

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