Looking Back.

It has been around three months since my chronic pain issues were miraculously relieved. I truly hadn’t expected to find a medication that would take away my pain. I had been using all sorts of narcotics which, while helpful, only lessened the extreme agony I had been feeling. I felt that the suffering I was enduring was a life-long thing that I just had to deal with, and since it seemed to be getting progressively worse, I could also expect to have more and more limitations to my life, especially physically. For someone who loves to climb, kayak and hike, this was a depressing scenario, to say the least.

So it has been months since the last time I felt anything close to agony. I still feel pain, but only when I forget to take my medication in  a timely fashion, and even what discomfort I feel is nothing too horrible. It is quite amazing to me. Consider the following video, from the last winter, when I was in the midst of a horrible attack:

I looked, and felt awful. Here I am a month ago on Bartram’s Rock:

While the two videos are admittedly different, I think it is still pretty obvious how much better I look and feel in the second one. My mother told me recently that I look like I had shed about ten years, and I think she’s right. My skin looks better, my body language has changed, but I think more than anything, the look in my eyes is radically different. I have had numerous people tell me what a change has come over me. That makes me happy, knowing how obvious the improvement is.

I recently had blood work and x-rays done at OHSU, Oregon’s premier hospital, and they all came back normal except for seriously low vitamin D levels, which I am now taking prescription mega-doses of to restore it to normalcy. So no Ankylosing Spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis. Looks like Fibromyalgia (what I originally thought I had) is the main culprit. Actually, part of what tipped the doctors off is the relief that Tramadol (the med I started taking) gives me, it works for Fibro patients when nothing else will.

I am now in better shape for this time of year than I have been in ages, maybe ever. Usually I cannot really train or condition during the colder, wetter months of the year, but this year I am already in great shape. Got up Mt. Thielsen in around 4 hours, pretty good considering the snow level. When the blister on my ankle heals, I will be returning to the gym again, and push my fitness even further. I will be happy when I can climb Thielsen in 2.5 hours with snow. Nevertheless, this year is looking like it is going to be an awesome year for mountaineering, rock climbing and kayaking, and all thanks to finding the right medication.


My Destiny is to Climb.

Do you believe in destiny, in fate? Some do, some don’t, and mostly the argument seems to be about free will versus determinism, but I have often thought this is too black and white. Does it have to be one way or another? Can’t it be somewhere in between or a little bit of both? What if fate is simply what you decide it is, and if you live with conviction and faith in your desired destiny then perhaps the universe begins to align your experiences with what you believe. Maybe fate is malleable. In any case, that is what I tend to think, and I certainly have seen it at work in my own life, when all the parts and players seem to fall into place before I even arrive. I believe I am arriving at such a place in my life now.

Much of what I am now experiencing has come about by one factor alone: The surprising removal of severe chronic pain from my everyday life. In the fall, my pain had progressed to the point that I was seriously contemplating giving up climbing and outdoor adventures permanently, but after a few weeks of tortured soul-searching, I realized that I was not ready to give it up so easily, and decided that I would still pursue whatever level of climbing was available to me. Maybe I would never climb 5.12, but I could still do moderate routes, and I certainly could still climb easier mountains, and that would be enough for me. At least I would still be climbing.

Then, about two months ago, I discovered Tramadol, or as it is known by its brand name, Ultram. I had been experimenting with different medications, and had had little success in pain relief, but then I tried Tramadol, and to my utter astonishment, found that it removed 98% of my pain, and with little or no narcotic effect on my brain. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not closely experienced the unending agony I had been subjected to for something like 17 years, but anyone who knows me well has also been astonished by the results of taking this medication.

When I realized that this stuff was really working consistently, I knew what I had to do next: Climb. A lot. Make up for lost time. Allow my dreams to flourish. Start training (that is a big one for me since the most severe time of pain for me is the off season when I should be conditioning for climbing, and I was rarely able to get myself in shape.) I began to make plans, and I began to dream big. I might be 41, but I knew that if I could get the resources together, I could still climb the biggest mountains on the planet, and I could still climb 5.12 with some training (okay – a lot of training). That is where I am now.

Climbing partners began making themselves available to me. Even people whom I didn’t suspect being interested in climbing started asking me to take them on climbs. A fund-raising project – The Pain Project – has begun to take shape. I am now planning on making an attempt on my first really ‘big’ mountain – Aconcagua – in the winter of 2012-13. The plan for now is to climb more mountains this year than I ever have before, mostly regional peaks in Oregon, California and Washington with further forays into Idaho, Wyoming and British Columbia. I may be going on as many as three different extended trips, to the Grand Canyon in early June (not really a climbing trip), The Bugaboos at the end of August and the Wind River range somewhere in between or possibly in the fall. Thank God I have a supportive family.

I have always wanted to have a season where I just climb a ton of peaks, and this year is looking really promising. I believe in manifestation, and I feel the universe recognizes my passion for the ascent, and is rewarding me by sending plans and partners in large amounts. Plus, I have signaled to the Universe in turn that I am ready to take this seriously and commit to my calling. Taking action like getting in shape, giving up medications that were really slowing me down (while not really relieving my pain a whole lot) buying the necessary gear required for these ventures, budgeting my limited income to not only have the money and gear I need, but also by being responsible and getting bills paid first. Plus, I am praying more. I am not a religious person, but I am spiritual and really believe in the power of prayer as a means of manifestation. So, if you read this and feel the passion I feel for mountains, say a little prayer for me, would you? Ask the universe to grant me this heartfelt wish. Let me become the alpinist I know I can be. All I lack is the money and a few items of gear. I honestly believe that if I was given the chance, I could climb any mountain in the world. Yes, even Everest, yes, even K2. Time, however, is of the essence. I am not getting any younger.

I have entered a stage of life where many things are coming together in a sort of spiritual convergence. The ineffective pain medication has been left behind, I have been conditioning, I am focused like I haven’t been in…well, ever. The Universe has been speaking to me, giving me ideas, hunches and intuitions, and I have listened and paid attention. I don’t want a lot out of the world, I don’t have outrageous material wants, I don’t crave fame, I don’t need adulation, all I really want is health, a loving &  happy family, a comfortable financial situation and the means to climb the mountains of my dreams. I cannot climb all the mountains I want to, there simply isn’t enough time in ten lifetimes to do so, but if given the chance and the resources, I will climb absolutely as many of them as I can. This is my prayer, this is my plea.

I am ready.

So now what?

It has been close to two weeks with almost no pain. It seems so unbelievable that I can write these words so shortly after going through months and months of really intense pain, bad enough that I recently discovered that I had lost something like 25 pounds during that period. I now fit into a pair of jeans I could barely fit into when I purchased them six or seven years ago. Luckily my appetite has slowly been returning in the last couple of weeks.

I do not want to make the mistake of assuming that this will just continue, but I am very hopeful. I have been hopeful before, and seemed to have some success with other supplements and therapies, only to find after a few months that the original effectiveness has worn off. None of those other treatments could compare with the effectiveness I am experiencing with Tramadol, however, so that alone gives me greater reason for optimism.

I have been getting a lot done around the house in the last week, including cleaning nearly the entire house and doing every single dirty dish and almost all the laundry too. I seem to be so much more focused than I was before, so that seems to be an added benefit, although whether it is simply a side-effect of the drug or just the removal of pain that is allowing this I am not certain. I know my partner Brook is really happy to see such a clean home!

We have been having really bad car problems over the last week, so I have had to miss a bunch of school and also haven’t had the opportunity to take what feels like a brand new body out for a test drive. The weather has been pretty Oregon-esque lately — lots of rain, so there has been no opportunity for climbing at all, but I could be out there hiking and I would, but Brook has been needing me to watch the kids while she is in town. We should be getting our car back today, which will bring everything back to some semblance of normal.

When the car is fixed and we can start going into town on a daily basis, I am really ready to get to the gym and start taking advantage of this pain-free opportunity, getting myself into top shape during a time when normally I have historically been more sedentary due to pain. But, hey, I have no more excuses now, and by getting into great shape my pain will actually reduce further, so it is a win-win situation all the way around. I feel like some huge shackles have been taken off of me and I am free for the first time in many, many years – Free. I almost don’t know what to do with it.

But no, I do. Work hard, get in shape, start climbing and keep climbing, remember the opportunity I now have and don’t forget all that I have gone through and all that I have been held back from doing. Use this. I am forty one years old so I don’t have all the time in the world to get to the mountains I want to get to, I have to climb with an urgency and focus to get to where I want to be.

And where is that? Where do I want to be? What are my overall goals? What is the ultimate goal?

Perhaps surprisingly, I am not as enamored about going to Everest as I am to make am attempt on peaks like Denali (or as it less poetically known – Mt. McKinley, highest mountain in North America), Huascaran, Chimborazo, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, The Dom or any number of mountains equally as big as Everest but without the extremes of altitude and time required. In the time it requires to climb most Himalayan peaks (months), one could climb several of these peaks, if not more. No, I do not dream of Everest as much as I dream of going to places like the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range of Wyoming. Two weeks there with the right partner could result in ten or more high quality summits. No oxygen masks, no struggles just to take a step, just saner altitude issues to deal with, a lot more continuous movement and a heck of a lot more fun.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of me does want to go to Everest, just to test myself more than for the overall mountaineering experience, which has largely been ruined by the hordes and the chaos that goes along with it. If I had the opportunity to go I would but it would never become the goal of my life to climb in the Himalaya more than once or twice. I couldn’t be apart from my family for that long.

There are literally thousands of peaks in the continental U.S. alone, start adding in Canada and South America, and there are more peaks than a person could ever see, much less ever climb. I would rather climb hundreds of smaller peaks in this country than climb a handful of snobby high altitude mountains.  Besides, since most mortals can only reach the summit by the easiest route, and I now tend to favor technical routes over snow-plods, so lower-elevation mountains are really the only option for me.

Logistically too, the more ‘local’ mountains are much easier to access. It takes no more than a couple of days for climbers (in the western U.S. anyway) to reach just about any other mountain or range in the lower 48. I think it takes at least a week to walk to Everest Base Camp. By comparison, Mt. Gannet, the highest mountain in Wyoming, and one of the most remote mountains in the lower states, takes 3-4 days at most to reach its base.

And while it may seem that this is a classic case of quantity being more important than quality, but I believe that the best climbs, the most enjoyable ones, are the ones well below the death zone (26,000 ft approx.). So for me I am getting both quantity and quality with this tactic.

Going back to my original topic of feeling better, now that I am, I can feel the ambition in me, long suppressed, starting to arise with every day I feel good. Winter climbs, Endurance struggle-fests, Mixed climbs, all arenas I have not been able to participate in are now starting to creak open those rusty doors. Hmm. I have always wanted to really pursue this with everything I had, yet because of my body’s limitations it wasn’t even a consideration. The possibility of really pushing myself without worrying about the agony in my shoulders sounds awesome.

Now if only the weather would clear up for a time…

A new dawn?

As the few readers of this blog know, I have some pretty serious pain issues due to my (probable) affliction with Ankylosing Spondylitis – a type of Spinal Arthritis. My pain is generally pretty constant this time of year with descents into severe pain occuring on a weekly basis, sometime for days or weeks without end. For the last three years the pain in my scapula, the shoulder blade region, has ebbed and flowed but has, over time, become more constant, The tendons in that region get so hard they feel like bone, and nothing – not double doses of Vicodin, Percocet or Oxycontin, or even the gnarly Fentanyl patch could get my right shoulder blade to stop hurting. Think about that- those are pretty serious pain killers there, and they weren’t helping. All my other pains they took care of, no problem, but even with that, the pills give you only a couple of pain free hours whereas the patch can last a couple of days or more, but then you can’t really drive and I certainly could never even consider climbing under those conditions, so that is definitely a negative. So when I turned to the final prescription in the series we have been trying, a drug called Tramadol, I really wasn’t very optimistic. How could this drug, which isn’t even an opioid, help me where the strong stuff couldn’t? Nevertheless, I gave it a try.

Within just a short while I realized that my shoulder had stopped hurting, for the first time in months. As I waited out the first eight hours of the dose, there was not much drop off, either. After three days I knew we really had something here. Now it has been well over a week without pain and I am convinced that this stuff is the ticket to help me out of the misery. As the weather gets better I hope to taper to a minimal level, but probably will up my doses when September and the really bad time of year comes. For now, however, I am thrilled to say I have been pain free for longer than I have been in ages. Awesome.

A good weekend.

Trying out a pain patch this weekend. Pretty interesting. I have been very relaxed (physically) this weekend, although I feel loopy enough to get kind of cranky at times. All of my pain – except my damned right shoulder – has been removed. It is amazing though that the only thing that will make my shoulder stop hurting is prescription strength Ibuprofen multiple times a day. Nothing – not one of the powerful pain killers I have been taking seems to be able to lessen the pain in the right shoulder, and I have been taking double doses of each! Holy crap, that will tell you something about the type of pain I have. No massage will loosen it up, no pain killers will touch it, in fact the only things that will help it are anti-inflammatories and acupuncture. Luckily I can afford the Ibuprofen right now, and soon I may be able to get back into acupuncture again.

It has been a good weekend just being able to reduce about 75% of my pain issues. I get about two hours of relief for every Ibuprofen I take, so that ends up being about six hours each day nearly pain-free. That is one thing I really do appreciate about the pain patch is the constant relief – no peaks and valleys between doses. Unfortunately, it is not something I can do very often because it is meant to be on for 72 hours, during which time I cannot drive or do anything that is remotely dangerous, so I will probably only take it in the future when I am in really dire straights.

That is really what a life of chronic pain is all about – compromise. You do the best that you can but often it is the lesser of multiple evils. Pain relief means reduced mobility – no driving, no outdoor adventures, and not much of a brain either – although I am writing this under the influence of the patch and (I think) managing to be fairly coherent. I have learned to adjust to doing things while under the influence of whatever pain relieving drugs I am on. I used to never read or write while high, but now I have figured out how to do it out of sheer necessity.

I don’t like admitting that I have to do all this, but at the same time I am not ashamed. The options are a life of sheer agony, pain and exhaustion. Drugs actually give me a higher quality of life simply by reducing my pain and allowing me to function. There are worse things than addiction, in my opinion. The pain I have suffered made my life a living hell, and there were many, many times (especially in Winter) when I was truly close to suicide. Drugs have given me my life back.

Yet despite having to engage in what I have termed “enforced drug addiction”, I live a pretty productive life. I am a loving father who takes great care of his kids, a devoted and loyal partner to Brook, a successful mountaineer and rock-climber, a published author, a budding film maker, and when my pain was not as severe as it is today, a great employee. Now I am doing pretty well in school, I write excellent papers (I have gotten A’s or B’s on virtually every first draft of every essay I have written in writing 121 or 122). Believe me, if I could make my pain disappear, the pain killers, the anti-inflammatories and patches would all disappear with them. I still have hope that someday I can live like that.

I am thankful to have this relief. At this moment, sitting here at my desk writing, I feel almost no pain. If I didn’t have the patch on, if I hadn’t taken an Ibuprofen an hour ago, I would have pain levels that would probably keep me from getting up and writing, I would probably be on the couch moaning and not doing anything.

A good weekend. A weekend with less pain.

JuJu and Daddy

An example

Just wanted to post a short bit about my shoulder. I have had this really crunchy group of tendons attached to my right scapula, and no matter how much I rubbed it, it wouldn’t get better. So I took one of my juggling balls and put it on the ground and spent – literally – hours rolling it under my shoulder, trying desperately to get it to ease, but I should have known better. I actually slept for hours with the ball under my shoulder, and now, today, my right shoulder is incredibly swollen and tender. I have a huge red bruise from where I rubbed it.

Red and swollen


Riding a rollercoaster

It has been a rough week, pain-wise (a great week in every other sense, though), had my major pain explosion on Monday, it chilled out on Tuesday and Wednesday, but for the last two days my lower back and hips have been in terrible pain – last night I probably woke up groaning or shouting twenty times. Every time I would shift it would wake me up with shooting pains. Now it is from hips to shoulders with major pain in my peripheral joints as well. Not much fun. I am certainly not looking forward to driving the hour and a half to Eugene, but it will be worth it. I am going to pick up my eldest daughter Zoe, return my faulty GoPro and see my Doctor.