On bended knee

On the whole, 2014 was at best unremarkable and at worst unpleasant (speaking personally – on the global scale, it was rather a shit year all around). But there was one most excellent thing that came out of it.


This was improbable for a number of reasons.

The highest mountains I ever actually climbed before this were in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and therefore essentially qualify as speed bumps from a geological standpoint. I’m asthmatic. My primary form of exercise consists of dog walking and playing Ingress. And of course, there’s this – the primary reason my year sucked:

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Yup – in fall 2013, I broke my kneecap like a china dinner plate. At the time, I thought it would be endless fun to chase my year-old Lab/Pit puppy around the courtyard of our home in order to tire her out. After catching my foot on a crooked cobble and abruptly taking a knee on solid concrete, I recognized the error in my thinking. The pain was pretty brutal, and over the next three months of being strapped into this Victorian interrogation device, I learned that a) opiates do not work for me, except to the extent that they make me extremely nauseous and b) there are few things more tedious and miserable than being forced to sit around for three months straight. At one point, I tried to crutch my way six blocks over to the post office to deal with some tax drama, and by the end I felt like I’d gone six rounds against Rocky (or maybe Ivan Drago). After that, I decided to focus my energy on watching Netflix, reading trashy thrillers, and testing the limits of my girfriend’s patience and compassion.

Of course, my dog – who was in many ways responsible for this whole mess – loved my new, chair-bound lifestyle.

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What I didn’t realize was this was the easy part.

When the brace came off in late January, I found myself with a left leg that was literally useless. When I was 14, I had broken both the bones in my lower leg and spent three months in a cast. After that, my leg was scrawny and floppy, but quickly recovered as the muscle came back. This time, my leg was locked straight as an iron rod – I’d gone from being a fully-poseable GI Joe action figure to an awkwardly stumbling Star Wars action figure. It took another few weeks before I could put weight on it, but even then, all I could do was swing it around like a shillelagh. That’s when physical therapy came in.

Six months. That’s how long it takes a middle-aged knee to learn how to bend, apparently. For the first month or so, I’d sit pathetically on an exercise bike, rocking the pedals back and forth, yearning for the day when I would finally complete a full revolution. And when I did, it felt like completing SEAL training. Then I had to learn to walk, jump and run in a non-marionette fashion. I performed improbably silly-looking exercises with rubber bands and trampolines. I learned about the glorious invention that is the ‘Game Ready‘: an adjustable sleeve that wraps around an afflicted body part and fills with icy water. You might think this sounds like a terrible thing. You, my friend, are wrong. After an hour of PT torment, ten minutes in the Game Ready is like Aphrodite herself descending to offer you a flagon of sweet, sweet nectar.

Late that spring, my friend Bhavan invited me to join with a group of friends to climb Kilimanjaro later that August. By now my left leg was mostly functional, but weak. Oh so weak. I thought long and hard about it, and decided it was worth a shot. I had three months to get ready, and so I did something that I would only consider in the most desperate of circumstances. I joined a gym. After two months of elliptical, treadmill and weight training – assisted by audiobooks of the complete works of Raymond Chandler – I was as ready as I was ever going to get.

It was three and a half days up, a day and a half down. The first two days were relatively easy, hiking at a steady grade through rainforest, and then high-altitude scrub as we passed the first cloud-line.

porters' refuge

After that, it got trickier. The final camp, Kibo, was in a rocky desert nearly three miles above sea level. By far the highest altitude I’d ever experienced. Yet.

At this point, the altitude was hitting our group hard. We were supposed to hit the summit at dawn, which meant leaving Kibo at midnight and hiking in the dark on the steepest and most treacherous trails yet, ascending nearly a kilometer and a half in sub-zero cold with steadily thinning air. One of my friends couldn’t even leave Kibo, and we lost another six to altitude sickness on the way up. I made it in a hypnotic haze, wrapped in layer upon layer of garments and looking for all the world like some delirious wooly ninja. Our porters and guides cheered us on through the dark, but the real secret of my success was drinking lots of water, eating lots of sucking candies and – in the end – constantly repeating in my mind “left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot…

But we beat the sun to the top.

kilimanjaro sunrise

We had 20-30 minutes at the true summit, Uhuru Peak (>3.6 mi above sea level) before it was time to head back. The descent was a death march that left me sore, sick and exhausted for days. I smelled like a Deadhead’s underpants. When I got back and told my girlfriend, she thought that anybody who would want to do this must be crazy. Was it “fun”? It was the greatest test of my physical endurance by far, culminating in an entirely sleepless 36 hours – but it also brought me here:

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nearest neighbor
We had a great group of people, and we bonded surprisingly strongly over the course of that week – supporting each other closely through our suffering, even if we occasionally drove each other slightly nuts. And I think those of us who made it have the rare satisfaction of knowing we truly DID something. I love my work and I think I’m good at it, but there’s also something uniquely satisfying about a physical accomplishment. Especially considering that just eight months before, going upstairs to use the bathroom was a feat worth of Gilgamesh (and never mind the challenge of actually USING said bathroom).

So yeah, I guess 2014 didn’t suck that bad after all.

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