Adventures are like dress rehearsals for the real thing. I have spent my life careening from one adventure to the next – always looking for the next big trip to tick off my list. Whether climbing Kilimanjaro, trekking through Bhutan or scuba diving with sharks, I told myself that by taking great risk, I was learning to handle crisis. Of course, I never imagined the kind of crisis I might have to face.
Climbing Kilimanjaro, I told myself that by taking great risk, I was learning to handle crisis.
I told myself that perhaps if I kept moving, kept adventuring, those bad things would never find me. If I filled my life with chosen risks, then there’d be no room for the unwanted ones, as if each life had a danger quota. For years I convinced myself that by taking calculated risks I was actually forestalling calamity.
But that’s not how it worked.
When my husband was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, I searched inward. Sitting vigil at his bedside, administering ice chips between his dry lips, was nothing like kayaking the Grand Canyon or skiing steep slopes. “What could I take from my experiences that might help me now?” I wondered. For the first time in my life, I doubted that my adventures had truly taught me anything.
Sitting vigil at his bedside, administering ice chips between his dry lips, was nothing like skiing steep slopes. (Crystal Mountain)
For months, I wrung my hands, hoping he would live until the doctors found a liver donor. First he had to survive a lethal staph infection, and then they had to stop the cancer from spreading, with the usual cocktail of chemo and radiation. Then, and only if the cancer had not spread after a year of waiting, would they save his life with a liver transplant. I dug deep for strength and courage, and in doing so mined my experiences for lessons I could apply to my current dilemma.
Years earlier, I kayaked the Grand Canyon. Professional canyon guides say they are “always above Lava Falls.” The Colorado River rapids, just like a patient’s pain, are rated on a ten scale, one being just a riffle, while a ten is Lava Falls.
Kayaking Lava is perfect practice for learning to manage fear.
That morning, nearly a mile down in this famous canyon, my nerves showed like exposed wires with the plastic coating rubbed off. I pushed off from the shore where we had camped above the biggest rapid in the canyon and forced myself to look up. Dark red walls, rubbed shiny by years of abrasion, rose straight up, and then terraced back a mile to the perimeter. The upper reaches of the canyon were not visible from down here, and that knowledge gave me a moment of solace. Even though this fabled rapid cutting through an ancient lava flow seemed so big in my mind, it was but a tiny place in this great big world. I was but a tiny place.
Even though this fabled rapid cutting through an ancient lava flow seemed so big in my mind, it was but a tiny place in this great big world.
I slowed down and forced myself to breathe.
The water sped up, pulling me towards the brink of the rapid. Beyond the horizon line, foam and a light mist rose from the abyss. The roar was deafening.
I could still quit, I told myself. I could turn upstream, paddle hard and ferry to the edge. Maybe I could portage around the rapid. Not have to go through it at all.
But I’m here, I reminded myself. This is why I came – to kayak the Grand Canyon. And you can’t really say you kayaked the Grand if you portaged Lava.
It was the same at my husband’s bedside. I’m here, I told myself. I can’t turn and run away, find some easy way around this obstacle. Instead, I must slow down and breathe, take each hurdle as it comes. I convinced myself I could get through it. There was simply no other option.
Lava Falls was trickier than I expected. I skirted the famous “bubble line,” avoided the big ledge at the top, and thought I was through the worst of it. I was halfway down, and all I could do was paddle hard. Once you’re engulfed in the world’s fastest navigable rapid, there’s not much you can do to change course.
JUST KEEP BREATHING
That’s how it felt in the hospital, too. I just had to keep going. Don’t look down, don’t stop breathing, don’t start crying in the elevator because you might not ever stop.
Isak Dinesen wrote, “God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.” And if that’s true, it was a pretty good strategy.
Lava Falls wasn’t through with me. The tail of my kayak slipped into a hole and flipped me over. I tried three times to roll back up, but each time the hole held me. There was only one way out, and that was to swim. I kicked out of my kayak, inhaled what felt like the entire Colorado River into my burning lungs and grabbed the stern of my friend’s boat. She pulled me to shore.
RELY ON OTHERS
Sometimes, it’s okay to rely on others. Sometimes, that’s the only way through.
And I would come to learn this with my husband. I couldn’t always be the strong one, holding up the structure of what was once our life, trying to fit this new one into that mold.
I couldn’t always be the strong one, holding up the structure of what was once our life. (Mt. Baker Summit)
Instead, I would keep breathing, and when I needed to, I would ask for help.
Kim’s husband made a full recovery. Kim Kircher has spent 21 years as a ski patroller at Crystal Mountain. She has logged over 600 hours of explosives control, earning her an avalanche blaster’s card and the right to drop bombs from helicopters. Her articles have appeared in Vertical Woman, Couloir and Women’s Adventure. Her memoir, The Next Fifteen Minutes, is coming soon from Behler Publications. You’ll also find her writing at blogcrystal.com & kimkircher.com.