Failure and Success on Mt. Hood

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700'

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700′

Sunday the 20th was an amazing day on the mountain. Mild, mid-spring conditions (while the lower valleys were stuck in a frozen inversion pattern), brilliant sunshine, no wind and near-perfect snow for climbing. We left the parking lot at Timberline Lodge at approximately 3:10 a.m., and almost immediately my lungs were burning. Within half an hour I was already questioning whether or not I could climb the mountain. It was very frustrating. I had been training throughout most of the winter, and while I had been sick a few weeks earlier, I really thought I was essentially free from illness and fully expected to climb well that morning. So to struggle so quickly was really discouraging.

My climbing partner, Bill, who has climbed the mountain somewhere around 120 times, kept pushing me to continue, and I kept grinding it out, despite the burning in my lungs and the shaking of my legs. After a few hours, my lungs did actually start to feel better and I began to regain hope that I might make the summit.

When we reached the top of the Palmer Ski lift, around 8500′, we stopped to eat and rest for just a few short moments and Bill, who is also a nurse, got out his oxygen saturation/heart-rate monitor and we discovered that my heart rate, even after I had been resting for a few minutes, was in the mid-130’s, while his was about half of that. He expressed his concern about it, but also said that I was not showing any symptoms of anything else, and he believed we could continue safely.

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

So on we went. Shortly after heading past the top of the Palmer, the snow conditions were getting icier, so we decided to stop again and get on our crampons. Then we continued.

I also continued to struggle. Sometimes my lungs would be burning, and would also wheeze a little, but with Bill’s gentle prodding and my determination, I kept pushing, and inevitably  would feel better again.

When the sun began to rise around 7, we were greeted by a mountain that was otherworldly and fantastic, fluted ice pinnacles up high and snow slopes colored salmon by the rays of the morning sun. These are moments we mountaineers live for, and I was so glad to be there to witness it.

By this point I felt like there was a good chance I would make it to the summit. My wheezing had stopped and I was starting to feel better. Yet every time we stopped and took my pulse, it was still between mid-130’s and 140, and would not go down with rest. Bill was obviously very puzzled by it. I was able to talk while we walked, I wasn’t showing symptoms other than being really tired.

When we reached the base of Crater Rock, I really started to hit a wall. Obviously, elevation had a lot to do with how I was feeling, since we were now around 10,000 feet. But I was also starting to wheeze again and I just had no gas left in the tank. I fell further and further behind Bill at this point, and I was really beginning to doubt whether I would reach the summit or not.

When we reached the Hogsback, the traditional roping-up point for the final, steeper pitches above, I was spent, and wasn’t breathing too well. Bill took my pulse once more and it was around 140, and didn’t go down with rest. I decided that was enough. Since the sun was fully risen and its warmth was releasing a barrage of ice chunks every few minutes, I knew that I would be putting both of us in danger if I continued on. Speed would be required to get across the firing line, and that was something I was lacking. So I told Bill I would wait while he continued on.

I hated having to make that decision, yet at the same time I felt like in this case, it was the right one. I have stood on Hood’s summit before, and I am certain I will again, but I am not so summit-obsessed that I need to push myself too far. As it turned out, I am really glad I made that decision.

Bill headed up, and I retreated to a flat spot closer to Crater Rock where I could rest and relax and warm up in the sun. I took off my crampons, since my feet were getting cold and shot film while Bill zipped up the mountain. He actually had to dodge a mini-avalanche of ice chunks as he ascended — if I had been following him, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the energy to run out of their path like he did.

It probably took Bill forty-five minutes to make the trip to the summit and return, and when he did, we took my pulse again, only to discover that my HR had only dropped a few points despite a long time to rest. Obviously my body was feeling pretty tweaked.

I didn’t make the summit. Again, another winter failure, yet this one felt different. I had not been in pain, I had pushed myself (with some gentle prodding from Bill) and I had reached a point higher than any other mountain in Oregon. It was an ass-kicking training run, and it motivated me to train even harder before attempting it again, something I have been doing since I have returned.

In the end we figured that several factors had been effecting me on the mountain: 1) I was having a slight case of exercise induced asthma (I had asthma as a teenager but I rarely have been effected by it as an adult — in fact, I don’t even have inhalers of any kind) 2) Having been ill for almost a month and only getting better a few weeks before the climb and 3) Coming from near-sea level and driving up to 6000′ in only a few hours, then going even higher after that was also a mitigating factor in my performance. Looking at the climb knowing this has made it easier to digest my failure. In fact, it has made me pretty proud of my accomplishment in reaching the elevation that I did.

I have been working much harder at my conditioning in the week since I returned from Hood. I am now doing my five-mile power walks with close to thirty pounds in my backpack, I started doing a core-workout routine and yesterday I did a 9.5 mile, 2000+’ elevation gain hike with the same weight in the pack. A few more weeks of this type of conditioning and I will be ready to return to Hood.


Thinking about Hood

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin using a Creative Commons license

I have been wanting to make a successful winter ascent of a major Cascade peak for as long as I have been climbing, but always in the past my pain issues (always worse in the winter months) limited both my fitness and motivation to get the job done. I have made half-hearted attempts on Mt. Thielsen, Mt. Bailey, and Hood. The closest I have come to making a successful ‘winter’ climb was when we got to the summit pinnacle on Three-Fingered Jack before a lack of daylight made us turn back. Still, this was in mid-November, so it wasn’t really a winter climb at all.

On Bailey and on Hood, my hip was hurting so badly that I very quickly had to turn back. On Thielsen I was out of shape — again, because such chronic, consistent pain makes it so difficult to maintain a fitness program. Until last spring, I believed that I would probably never be able to climb in winter. My pain levels were at extreme levels and I wasn’t sure for a while if I would be able to climb much more at all.

But then I started to take Tramadol, a non-narcotic pain reliever that did something that heavy doses of opiates could not: It made my pain disappear. Within an hour of taking it, the pain in my right shoulder eased for the first time in months. Several hours went by. The pain did not come back. After about six hours I felt an ache again, but I took another dose and it went away. Days passed and I kept taking Tramadol, and it continued to keep the pain away. After several pain-free weeks turned into several months pain-free, I knew that I had found a medication that really worked, and did so without making me feel intoxicated in any way.

It has been nine months since I started taking Tramadol, and I have gone through my first pain-free autumn in seventeen years. Now we are firmly into winter and I am still experiencing very little pain or discomfort. I am in better condition at this time of year for the first time in a long time. I have been going on near-daily 5-mile walks and feel pretty happy with where I am at physically. Not in top shape, but not out of shape either. In fact, I would be in much better shape except I got sick over the holidays and lost several weeks of possible conditioning.

I had called my friend Bill about a week ago and asked him if he would want to climb Hood sometime soon, and he had expressed interest. Two days ago he called me and asked if I wanted to go on the weekend of the 19th-20th. I wasn’t going to have my eldest daughter down from Eugene that weekend, so I said I would go. The weather is supposed to get a little warmer during the week, and should get a nice freeze-thaw cycle set up, perfect for winter climbing conditions. Now I just need to figure out a way to get up to Eugene and a ride back on Sunday. Somehow, the conditions will arise to make it so.

I think this could be the first successful winter ascent for me. Bill is an uber-experienced climber who has even been on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and between the two of us we should be able to get up and down the mountain safely. I have a good feeling about this one.

If I can do this, it will be a great way to start off the year.


The ever-changing dynamics of life

A month ago I was standing on top of South Sister, the third highest mountain in Oregon. I had been ill for the previous few days and really had to push through the 5.5 miles and roughly 5000 feet of elevation gain in order to reach the summit. Unfortunately, I also made myself sick pretty bad and ended up missing a good chunk of school over the next week. I have some regrets over this. I should have just made myself go, but I wimped out and got myself way behind in my classes, and if I hadn’t done that, then I would not have had to withdraw from my classes like I did just a few days ago.

I am, at the present time, no longer in school.

A week and a half ago, I started having seizures, just little ones mind you, but nevertheless disconcerting and disturbing. I would be talking to someone and suddenly just not be able to see them anymore, they would just vanish before my eyes, I would no longer be able to see or hear them from anywhere from a second to five seconds, but when I come out of it, I am disoriented, faint and dizzy. I started having them anywhere from five to twenty of them a day. I ended up going to the hospital, spending the night and getting a whole battery of tests to make sure my heart and my circulatory system was operating properly. They could find nothing wrong with me (of course, they did not test for epilepsy or anything, just the really serious stuff like heart attacks and strokes.)

I have been finding it difficult to focus — something I have always struggled with — and reading especially seems difficult right now, and I ended up missing another week of school because I am struggling so badly to keep focused. Once that happened, I knew I was going to have to withdraw from school, which I did this last Friday. I am now on academic suspension, and I should be able to work my way back into school if I can get these damned seizures under control.

So what does this all mean for my outdoor life? Not really sure yet. There is a possibility that all of this is occurring because of the medication I have been taking for pain, and if that is the case, then I should stop having them as I slowly withdraw from the drug (this is not a medication you can just up and quit, so powerful is its physical dependence.) Yet if it is the drug, then that means that my chronic pain will also be coming back, not really something I am looking forward to.

But what if it isn’t the meds? Then what? Well, if I have somehow developed a form of epilepsy (I have a niece who was recently diagnosed with it, so there is some precedence for it) then that will definitely alter my climbing and my more extreme adventures in the future. Definitely will change my ability to do technical rock climbs and mountaineering. So I am really hoping it is the meds.

However, this also means that I will have more time to blog, at least for a little while.

There are so many unanswered questions in my life right now.

Time to Re-Evaluate

Wheeler Peak, the only significant peak I have climbed this year. Photo courtesy Charles Young 2012.

This year has not gone as I would have liked. Except for the big trip to the Grand Canyon, Zion and Great Basin, I haven’t climbed — either rock or mountain — nearly as much as I would have liked. Neither have I kayaked, other than paddling in my backyard. I was supposed to climb Middle Sister a few weeks ago, but an averse withdrawal from some medication I was taking forced me (by doctor’s orders) to withdraw from that trip. Now, a few days before I was set to leave for Mt. Rainier with Charles, the guy I went with on my big trip, informed me that he was dropping out of this trip because — it still makes me angry — his twenty-something daughter got spooked since we were going as a two-man rope team instead of the ‘traditional’ three-man team. She had done ‘some research’ and decided that she knew more about climbing than I do, apparently.

This is two years in a row that I have had a major slowdown in my outdoor activities, and I do not like it. I live for outdoor recreation, and here I live in a region famous for it and I find myself going through another semi-wasted summer. It started out very promising in the spring, and then the early summer, but now it has fallen apart. I don’t know if I will be climbing any more mountains this year. I hate having to say that.

But at the same time, I have some issues to work out, and perhaps the reason why I am not getting where I want is because of these unresolved issues. I am terribly disorganized, I get serious lapses in motivation and self-discipline and I don’t exercise like I should. Being a big believer in manifestation, I know I am sending mixed signals to the universe by not doing those things.

I stopped working several years ago due to the serious and unrelenting nature of my chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia. I actually did try to get a job a year and a half ago, but I am in an odd position since I was a manager of an incredibly busy and successful business in Eugene, so I am over-qualified for most barista jobs I tried to get, and that is my main marketable skill. I have a ton experience in that area, but despite putting out a bunch of resumes, I didn’t get a single phone call. Never in my life have I ever struggled trying to gain employment.

So, no job, no money, no outdoor trips. It’s as simple as that. I probably could have rock climbed locally on a more regular basis, but my friend Kevin was hurt and then moved to Minnesota, my friend Dave, when we were giving him a space to stay when he was trying to get himself in drug recovery, started being sketchy and looking for drugs in our house, so I am not on speaking terms with him. My friend Scott now lives in Texas. I am almost out of reliable climbing partners.

For now, school, writing and family are my focus. I am forty-one years old, and time is a-wasting for me to start a career. So I just have to focus on getting my degree, continuing to write my various blogs and fiction, and know that I will be able to climb and kayak and hike like I want to when I do get hired as a journalist or in some other capacity. In addition, I also must work on being more organized, more disciplined and I really need to get myself in much better shape.

Life is full of do-overs. This is just another one.

In a year we will be moving to St. George, Utah. It is a year-round playground for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and being in a bigger city will no doubt put me into contact with a lot more climbers, so hopefully the move will spur much more outdoor adventures.

For now, the focus needs to be inward, to make the changes I know are necessary.

Pride & Agony on Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Shuksan from Lake Ann in North Cascades National Park

I have such mixed feelings about this climb. To quote from Dickens, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” This was the first peak I had climbed that had such a variety of climbing involved along the way — rock climbing, glacier plodding and ice climbing. The Fisher Chimneys route is a really fantastic route for exactly that reason, and except for one screw-up on my part, it would have been the best climb I had ever done. Instead, well, it still is in many ways the best climb I have ever done, but my mistake still really bugs me. Probably most climbers who read this will not think that what I did was really that big of a deal overall, but I guess I am a perfectionist when it comes to climbing, and I do not like making mistakes. We left Eugene (where I was living at the time) early in the morning, my former girlfriend Bethany, myself, and a young climber named Justin, and headed north on the ubiquitous Interstate-Five. We would be driving all the way to Bellingham, Washington, then we would head east to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. It was a pretty wet day almost the entire drive north, which took something close to nine hours to complete, and the weather had me worried. It was still socked in when we arrived at the trailhead, but I just crossed my fingers as we set out. The hike to Lake Ann is interesting in the sense that you actually start out descending, and for quite a ways, before reaching the valley bottom, a reversal of most approaches to the mountains. At the end, there is a gentle rise before reaching Lake Ann, and we arrived at the crowded backcountry camp in the afternoon. All the good tent sites were taken, so we had to make do with a mediocre space beside the lake, nestled between boulders. We met up with the leader of this hike, a guy named Kevin whom I liked almost immediately. This was an Obsidian’s climb, and there were quite a few of us going, around nine as I recall. In any case, we had a brief discussion of the plan for the morning, then went back to our respective tents after agreeing to meet at 5 a.m. I was worried from the beginning, as Bethany would be alone while we were climbing, and she was not an experienced backcountry traveler. My worry, which was not really justified, considering where we were and the number of people around, would later be my undoing.

Unnamed spire near Lake Ann

The weather began to clear by that evening, and I went to sleep feeling hopeful. When I woke in the morning, it was to a beautiful, starlit sky, with not a single cloud anywhere in the sky. The weather was perfect. We ate, got geared up and met with Kevin and the rest of the crew, and soon we were threading our way through rock gardens and then onto the switchbacks that begin to take you up the side of what is known as the Shuksan Arm. As the sun rose, beautiful Mt. Baker, just across the valley, began to take on a heavenly red color:

Beautiful Mt. Baker

Soon we were heading through a huge talus field that later would cause us some grief, but in the morning it was easy walking. After an hour or so we came to the chimneys, the first section of easy scrambling, and I ended up leading part of our group up the wrong gully, not a big mistake, but we had an awkward traverse getting back on track. Then we scrambled up the last steep section and topped out on the Shuksan Arm and stepped onto the White Salmon Glacier. A short distance away was a small rock outcrop where we would put on our harnesses and break out the ice-axes and crampons.

Climb leader Kevin getting ready for the serious climbing. Above him is the ice pitch known as Winnie’s Slide.

After getting geared up, I yanked on my water-bladder to get a drink, and in my impatience, I pulled the mouthpiece off, which promptly fell into the depths of the rock outcropping and disappeared. Oops. This would prove to be a pivotal moment. I was no longer able to get adequate water since sucking on the tube was almost impossible, and I was losing water from that point on. By the end of the climb, when everyone else probably had consumed 4 or 5 liters of water, I had drank 1 at best. Well, there was nothing for it. We tied in as rope teams, and started cramponing up the slope to the base of Winnie’s Slide, a 50 degree ice pitch that is the first serious obstacle of the route. A group was in front of us, so we waited patiently while they methodically made their way up and over the bulge. When it was our turn, Kevin led, and each of us got up the somewhat steep ice with the well known technique called struggling. It was fun, though. We kept to the moat between rock and ice, using our right legs to brace on the rock, while our left leg, and our arms dealt with the ice. I had never climbed something that steep before, but I really enjoyed it. Once we topped out, it was a short walk to a small barrier of rock that separated the White Salmon from the Upper Curtis Glaciers, and we took off our crampons to make the scramble up the rock. A few moments later we had to put our crampons back on.

Looking up at the Upper Curtis Glacier from the top of Winnie’s Slide

At this point, Kevin told me he wanted me to lead, and I was a little surprised by this move. I asked him what to do about the crevasses we were sure to encounter, and he said something like “you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, figure it out.” It was a tremendous confidence boost for me, and so I led out onto the glacier, which, while crevassed, was still in early-season shape, so none of the gaps in the ice were too big, usually about five or six feet across with solid snowbridges. It was great fun to walk across the bridges, with eighty foot chasms on either side.

Looking at Hell’s Highway, where the Upper Curtis meets the Sulphide Glacier. Taken from above Winnie’s Slide

Soon we were at the base of Hell’s Highway, a steep, curving ramp that is the dividing point between the Upper Curtis Glacier and the Sulphide Glacier above it. We were lucky to find it in such smooth, unbroken conditions, since virtually every picture I have ever seen before shows it as massively crevassed:

This seems more typical of Hell’s Highway

Once we were on the Sulphide Glacier, the outstanding summit pyramid came into view. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t snap off some pictures of it, but I supposed I was pretty fixated on climbing. Here is what it looks like though:

The summit pyramid from the Sulphide Glacier

We were soon at its base (it was significantly less snowy than the picture above), and began the steep scramble up to the summit.

Scrambling up to the summit

After a very short time — fifteen or twenty minutes at most — the summit came into view, and even though I was the first person to get up there, I did what I normally do, and allowed everyone else to reach the true apex before me. I don’t know why I do that, although I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I had a very old father when I was born and he raised me to be a gentleman. In any case, all nine of us made it, and it had taken around six hours to get there, not bad for such a large party without a ton of experienced climbers.

Enjoying the summit.

Myself on the summit with Mt. Baker behind me.

We stayed for half an hour, but considering how much varied terrain we still had to cover to get back to Lake Ann, we packed up and began establishing a rappel point to get off the summit pyramid. Back then, I had a real phobia about rappelling, but I also knew that downclimbing is generally much faster, so I told Kevin I would wait for them at the base of the summit, and he was glad to have one less person to have to get set up on rappel. I ended up waiting about fifteen minutes for the first person to catch up, and while I waited, I snapped a few pictures of the Sulphide glacier, which is more of an icefield, it is so large.

The Sulphide Glacier and Mt. Baker

We roped back up before stepping onto the glacier, and then began the initial, gentle plod towards Hell’s Highway.

Descending towards Hell’s Highway

As we descended towards the Upper Curtis Glacier again, a guy in my climbing team, who was also from Eugene and I had met on a couple of occasions, kept being dramatic and insisting that if any of us slipped, it would surely mean the death of us all. As it was, nobody fell and we reached the glacier unharmed.

Crevasses on the Upper Curtis Glacier

One of our rope teams skirting crevasses on the glacier

When we got to the top of Winnie’s Slide, Kevin, the climb leader, took me aside and whispered: “If this had just been you and I, we would have been down hours ago.” It had taken us quite a while to return to this spot, and now we had to set up another rappel. I was pleased by his compliment, but I would unfortunately be letting the whole team down soon.

I was the first to rappel the slide, and after several of us were gathered together, we decided (with Kevin’s blessing, as I recall) to descend to the rock outcrop on the White Salmon Glacier, take off our crampons and harnesses and then wait for the rest of the crew to catch up before beginning  the treacherous scramble back down to the trail. This is where I screwed up.

At this point we had been on the mountain for well over thirteen hours, and I had told Bethany that I would be down much sooner. Worried about her being alone, I told the other climbers I was going to start down ahead of them. I should have stayed.

I descended too far. I had forgotten that at a certain point, you have to traverse across some narrow ledges to stay on course, and I soon realized that I had dropped down about 100 feet further than I should have. Unfortunately, climbing back up meant I now had to do some 5th class rock climbing moves, and I was so worn out and dehydrated that I was incapable of doing it. Complicating matters even further was the brush beside this steep rock, which was so dense that I couldn’t scramble up that way either.

I was exhausted, and I began to wail and curse and make an ass out of myself. After about half an hour, my climbing team caught up to me, heard my caterwauling, and began asking what they could do to assist me. Eventually they threw a rope down and hauled my pack up, but I found to my horror that I still couldn’t climb back up. Finally, Kevin yelled down “Either climb the fucking thing or we’re leaving you out here!”

I climbed it, needless to say. When I reached my team, I hung my head in shame and apologized to every person there, and they were all kind and forgiving. Unfortunately, I had cost us about forty-five minutes, and the sun was sinking fast. We hustled off the chimneys, and got to the talus field as the sun set. Now, however, the trail through the half-mile section of rocks became nearly impossible to follow, and we kept going the wrong way. In my search for the right path, one of my fellow climbers lost sight of me and started cursing at me, even though I wasn’t far away. When he realized how hard I was searching for the right path, he apologized.

Eventually we found the trail and returned to camp, nineteen hours after we had set out. I got in my sleeping bag and bawled. Not manly, I know, but I have always been an emotional guy, and knowing how badly I had screwed up really tore at me. Plus, I was dehydrated, exhausted and hungry.

When I talked to Kevin about it the next day, he reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world and also told me he wouldn’t be putting  my mistake into the Obsidian’s trip report. We all make mistakes, he told me.

We stayed one more day at Lake Ann, then hiked back out and drove back to Eugene. I would never forget that climb, nor my mistake. It has always bothered me, but it has also motivated me not to screw up again like that. I am just glad it didn’t cost us too much.

The mighty Mt. Shuksan from Lake Ann

Some reflections on a life of (mostly) failure

ImageI think I should be a success. I’m an intelligent, well-read person who seemingly has all the tools to lead a successful, healthy, happy life, but the truth is, I have failed in my life, repeatedly, over and over again, no matter how talented I may seem in that particular area of failure.

First and foremost in my mind is school. I went through basically twelve years of hell in school, averaging something less than a 1.0 average, despite all my test scores placing me in the upper five to ten percent in the nation. I was told I was lazy, I was told I didn’t apply myself (that term still provokes a feeling of nausea in me when I hear someone utter it.), I was made out to be something that I wasn’t, and as far as I know, not once in that time did anyone ever seriously consider that maybe, just maybe something deeper was wrong. Despite the fact that I had a serious head injury when I was five that required me to stay in ICU two nights.

Socially it was just as bad for me, I only had a few friends, a lot of my class- and school-mates regarded me as a strange, isolated kid who was obviously intelligent but indecipherable, so in addition to feeling like a stupid, lazy piece-of-shit, I was also left feeling like an incredibly isolated, stupid, lazy piece of shit. I used to stare at myself in the mirror and call myself all sorts of horrible names, I told myself how much I loathed me, I hated the ugly image in the mirror. It is no surprise then, if I admit that by the time I was ten, I has already seriously begun contemplating killing myself.

I recall clearly the first time I almost did it. We lived on this incredibly steep hillside in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and we had this old Dodge pickup truck that was parked pointing straight down the steepest part of our hill, and I sat in that truck, all of ten years old, ready to pull the parking brake, put it in neutral and go to my fate.

It didn’t get easier for me as I got older. My isolation only increased when we moved to Oregon when I was fourteen and suddenly thrust into the country world of Glide, Oregon. The first two years at Glide High School were pretty bad, I was this tiny little dude and definitely got picked on a lot, but by the time I was a junior and senior, I wasn’t getting picked on too much, but I was just as isolated as ever.

Throughout this whole time, I was still essentially getting D’s and F’s, I was still just as baffling and confusing to the teachers and staff at the high school, and my depression was getting worse year by year. The funny thing is, I didn’t even realize I was depressed. I just thought I basically sucked, no one genuinely liked me, and that I would never amount to anything. Actually, that is still my ‘default’ mode that I go into when the black dog visits. In any case, I wouldn’t realize that I was clinically depressed until after I was hospitalized at nineteen.

I ended up dropping out of school when I was six months from graduation, in part because I wasn’t going to graduate anyway. and I in part because I hated it so much I just wanted to get the hell out. I wouldn’t make a serious attempt at formal education again until this year.

Which brings us to my latest failure. I enrolled in UCC for the fall term, got approved for financial aid, and took a step I honestly didn’t think I would ever seriously try. At first, it went pretty well, I felt enthusiastic and energized, I was on top of things, but as the fall progressed, my pain issues increased, dramatically so at the end of the term, and I was in so much pain I began to struggle getting to class. It didn’t help any that I was also feeling anxiety about being around a bunch of strangers when I was hurting so badly that I wasn’t sure if I could suppress a groan when it struck. Plus, I had to take a lot of pain medication, which sure as hell isn’t conducive to things like focus and concentration. Anyway, I really struggled in the lat month, I managed to get caught up in my writing 121 class, and ended up, to my surprise, with an A. But my journalism classes I only got a C and a D, which officially makes me suspended from school.

How can this be? Well, when I was in my early to mid-twenties, I made a feeble attempt at school, but being the dumb-ass that I am, I ended up not going to them at all, mostly due to my then-overwhelming fear of being in any kind of group situation. The terrible part is this: I don’t always understand how systems work, I just don’t get it, and in this case I ended up going to maybe one or two nights, but never again after that. I didn’t, however, take the vital step of withdrawing officially from my classes, not understanding that it would mean three F’s instead of just a withdrawal. So now, with my D in writing for the media (getting this grade also came down to me not turning in one final assignment, which I stupidly did not realize was our final), I am officially booted from school. I doubt I will ever try again.

All I had to do was get a C.

When I was in wrestling, I was pretty talented physically, I was quick and could get take-downs on a lot of opponents, but as talented physically as I was, I was mentally incompetent. I would give up, beating someone but good, then getting tired and giving up, almost always getting pinned in the process. My friend Brandon told me it was the most aggravating thing to watch me wrestle.

When I joined Tae Kwon Do when I was sixteen, things began to shift, but not right away. I took to the martial arts, utilizing my quickness to rapidly establish myself as one of the best in our little dojo within just a few months, but when I went to tournaments, I initially was only able to finish second or third, I was usually too wound up, I was too blindly aggressive and could never get the win. This went from yellow belt through my blue belt. Then, when I was a brown belt, I finally went to a tournament with a relaxed attitude, and I not only won, I dominated. I became a more passive fighter, relying on my defensive skills and preying on my opponents mistakes. After that, something clicked in me and I went on to win five of the next six tournaments. But a tragedy was to soon alter my psychology for many years to come.

I had a friend in high school named Lynn Powell, we were never close, but for a time she babysat across the street, and we would hang out sometimes. She was always really kind to me, and I always felt cared about by her, not a common feeling for me in those days, and I always cherished her friendship for that. She had this vibrant spark to her, and one always felt a little better being around her, at least I always did. So when the news of her death in a horrific car accident reached me that terrible morning so many years ago, I literally went into shock, I couldn’t believe it, not her, not Lynn. I was shaken to the core by her passing.

After that, I really passed into a deep sorrow that I wouldn’t come fully out of for a long time, and I lost the joy I had for the martial arts, and most everything else too. So soon I wasn’t practicing, but I vowed that I would go back, and that I would win a tournament in her honor. After several months of sorrow, I did return, and trained for about one month before entering a tournament that just happened to be occurring locally, at Douglas High School.

What I most remember about this tournament was the fact that I was in a nearly unconscious state when I sparred, I was so fully in ‘the zone’, I remembered almost nothing of the actual matches. I know two of my three matches were stopped because I was beating my opponents by five points, a sort of ‘mercy’ rule some tournaments use. The next thing I know, I am being handed a trophy, I start crying, and I don’t stop crying for half an hour. I had done it. I had won it for Lynn. Later I would take the small trophy and leave it at her grave.

I never seriously trained in TKD again. I was less than six months from testing for my black belt, and I gave up, I quit, never to return.

My daughter Zoe’s middle name is Lynn, and it is partly in my old friend’s memory that she was given that name.

End of part I