Then and Now

Sometimes tidying up the house yields some lost little treasures. During my first year of medical school, I wrote an article for “Plexus,” our medical school newsletter, about some themes that were important to me. Re-reading it was a stroll down Memory Lane. And, it reminded me of what an incredible journey it has been. I feel that I’ve traveled so far…changed so much; yet, in some ways, I’m the same.

Lessons From the Rock

(Plexus, Vol. 17, No. 17, February 20, 1996)

I said good-bye to some really good friends a few months ago. These were friends I trusted with my life…literally. Rock climbing is something you don’t do alone. Well some people do, but for me, the best part would be missing.

It was only eight months ago that I was sitting in a creek that runs through Owens River Gorge. Six hundred feet below the high desert of the Eastern Sierras, “the Gorge” seemed a million miles from alarm clocks, traffic jams, and florescent lights. We were living out of King’s truck, and surviving largely on the case of fifty Powerbars Chris won at a local climbing competition. We climbed every day, taking turns holding the rope for the other, in case one fell.

Climbing out of “The Gorge.”

You meet all types in the rock gym and at the crags, which would explain how I ended up on a climbing road trip with King, a forty-year-old high school math teacher, and Chris, a fourteen-year-old, well…kid. It was easy to understand the perplexed looks on the faces of people we met along the way. They would naturally, but erroneously, assume Chris was King’s son, but weren’t all too sure how I fit into the picture. But, to our good friends, there was no question. We shared a passion for climbing.

Getting to the rocks usually meant living conditions were going to fall somewhat short of luxurious. Climbing, itself, doesn’t seem to naturally fall into the same sentence as “fun.” It’s definitely not relaxing. Then again, we never seemed to mind as long as we were suffering together. Maybe it was because misery loves company, but I think there was more to it than that.

Living out of King’s truck.

When I met Soledad, she was just learning to walk with cuff-crutches, recently having undergone a series of operations that would hopefully allow her to leave her wheelchair behind. I was working as a volunteer instructor with Project Climb, an organization that taught climbing to “at-risk” youth. Soledad, who was ten years old, would come into the climbing gym in Santa Cruz once every few weeks with her sisters, Maria and Andrea. Their mom always followed, greeting us with a big smile. Maria was eight years old and had the energy to prove it. Andrea, being four, made the forty-foot walls of the gym look like a hundred. Not to be left behind by her sisters though, Andrea would scurry up the walls too. She was such a joy that I didn’t even mind climbing up to carry her down when she realized that climbing up was much more fun than coming down.

Soledad has Cerebral Palsy. That made no difference to her…she wanted to climb. And she did. The lower-angled wall was her favorite. After putting on a harness and tying into the rope, Soledad would grab two handholds. She would move her legs, gradually, until they touched some footholds. Pushing up a few inches, she would then grab some higher handholds. Some twenty minutes later, after reaching the top, Soledad would smile, wave, and signal us to lower her back to the ground. Exhausted, but always smiling, she would thank us and tell us how much fun the route was that she had just climbed.

Project Climb was established to build trust, self-esteem and courage; but Soledad has taught me much more than I could ever hope to have given to her. Success is not measured absolutely. We all have our own challenges in our lives, and it is how we each fact them that will determine what we take away from the experience. John Long, a famous climber, once said, “The summit meant nothing; the climb, everything.” Soledad may never summit Everest but I believe that she derives just as much, or even more, from climbing than any world-class alpinist.

This may somewhat explain what King, Chris, and I were doing in “the Gorge.” By climbing, we put ourselves in a situation that challenges us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We all climb at different levels with different natural abilities; but the challenges are real for each of us. Overcoming the challenges on the rock carries much further than just the cliffs. And the fact that we help each other in each of our pursuits doesn’t detract from the accomplishments. Rather, it allows us to push past our perceived limitations, thereby accentuating the rewards.

Chris climbing something hard in “The Gorge.”

Well, let’s see. Chris is now Junior World Champion for his age group and ranks amongst the top five competition climbers in the country. He continues to fire up the hardest climbs in the States. King, still pulling down hard in the gym, on the rock, and in his classroom, is getting stronger by the day. Soledad, no doubt, is walking and climbing better than ever, and is brightening up the day for everyone she meets. As for me, I’m in medical school now. Traded my ropes, carabiners, canned chilli, and calluses on my fingers for books, scalpels, cafeteria burgers, and a rear end permanently molded to the histo-lab seats (ok, at least the quality of my diet hasn’t changed much). It was really tough for a while, but I do realize one thing. The faces of companions are new and today’s adventures may be different, but you never ever truly lose your old friends or the adventures you shared together. They are who you are, as new friends will take part in forming who you will become tomorrow. There are new challenges every day, but I know that this trip will continue to yield rewards. Over these first few months of medical school, I have met some wonderful people. And, things aren’t that scary anymore now that I know friends are once again holding the other end of the rope. 

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