Wide Eyes, High Times and Hard Times; a Story of Climbing with Mark Grundon Part 3
by Luke Mehall
This story was written in 2005, and a much shorter version was published in the Mountain Gazette. It was heavily revised for Mehallís upcoming book, Climbing Out of Bed.
Markís surgery in Vermont was successful, and soon after he returned to Colorado for radiation treatment and his final semester at Western State. Mark faced this challenge with the same determination and courage I had witnessed in his climbing. Never did he submit to negativity.
His routine now didnít leave him a minute of free time. He had six weeks of radiation treatment to do in Grand Junction, which meant getting up at 6:00 a.m., driving to Junction to do his treatment, and then driving back to Gunnison for school. This was what he had to do. Certain days he would challenge himself a little more. Many days heís get zapped (his slang for radiation), and then head over to Escalante Canyon for a quick climb. Typically, he would climb more than whomever was along for the adventure. More than one person reported to me that Mark out climbed them, this from a guy getting treated for cancer.
At first he was nauseous and couldnít eat. He lost ten pounds. The medicine for he received, along with numerous other pills of God knows what, didnít help. The doctor gave him weed, or as they call it marinol, synthetic marijuana pills. It worked immediately, his appetite returned. Once his friends found out the marinol was helping they began to offer all forms of THC. One group of friends concocted some ganja peanut butter (peanut butter with weed in it). Mark, unlike many college students in Gunnison, didnít care to smoke pot, so the effect was just like someone getting stoned for the first time.
One night after he had sampled some of the peanut butter, I stopped by the house to find him lying in the middle of his kitchen floor, laughing hysterically. Indeed, the unimaginable stress of being a full time college senior, while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer hadnít gotten to his sense of humor.
Mark, already a respected member of the Gunnison community was now a hero. At the college, a professor organized a ride system so that Mark would never have to ride alone. I got to go a few times. Waking up at six in the morning was rough, how did he do this day after day? Arriving at 8:30 a.m. in Grand Junction at the cancer center; that day they invited us to go back in the radiation room, with that big machine above Markís body to administer the radiation. It was freaky, and even more disturbing they had to put his privates in a weird metal cup. The doctor assistants explained the whole process and we watched via a television outside the radiation room. This, day after day, and Mark never lost his cool. The only thing that upset him was the one cookie limit in the lobby, ďThese people are going through cancer, canít they have more than one damn cookie,Ē heíd say.
On the drive back that day we were talking about our usual topics: girls, parties, climbing, politics, the environment and girls. One friend had been spending some time with a lady, and Mark started asking him about it, ďSo how did it go last night?Ē
Our friend wasnít interested in talking about it. ďNot so good,Ē he said after a little prodding.
ďWell, what happened?Ē Mark asked.
ďUmmmm, I donít really want to talk about it,Ē the friend said.
ďDude, you just saw my balls in a metal cup,Ē Mark added.
And our friend told the story.
Over the course of his radiation treatment Mark had earned my admiration and respect, and the same for many others. There was a big party in his little house. His parents flew in from Vermont, and Mark did the MC Hammer dance like a wild man. It was an essential celebration, cancer, radiation, five hours of driving every weekday, none of it defeated his spirit.
And continue on he did. He went back to ski patrolling at Monarch, back to climbing (he never stopped) and started planning for another adventurous summer. Sure enough, he scored an opportunity to be a summer guide on Mt. Shasta in California, which would be an internship to complete his Recreation degree.
Mark had to try out for his position to be a mountain guide, so in his usual cramming as much life into every moment style, he did this just before his graduation ceremony at Western State. I just happened to be a few hours north in Bend, Oregon, on a road trip climbing so it was perfect, we could drive back together.
I rolled into Mt. Shasta City in the afternoon. It was foggy and the mountain wasnít to be seen. I found Markís new house for the summer. He had gotten the job, and had spent the weekend on the mountain and partying like climbers do. ďIím so tired of talking about climbing,Ē he told me. ďItís been a non-stop spray fest.Ē
Indeed climbing is something thatís better to do and just keep quiet about it, which is easier to write than to do. So we packed up my truck with Markís climbing gear and headed east, back home. Mark told me about his future fellow employees and the crystal people that come to Mt. Shasta to charge their crystals, as it is one of the sacred seven summits. He told me about the breast cancer fundraiser that they did on Mt. Shasta. Iíd been doing some solo traveling on the trip and it didnít bother me at all that Mark was talking nonstop. The constant presence of a true friend is no doubt appreciated more after solitude. We drove through the forests of Northern California which took us to Nevada. Poor lonely Nevada, full of lifeless desert and casinos; Mark went on talking and we made stops for fuel, coffee for us, gas for the car.
The nighttime in Nevada, forever of nothing but the white and yellow lines and the truck powering down the highway; then bright, bright, blinking lights on the horizon, an insanity supported by the gamblers. In Reno, there was no urge to stop. Gambling could be fun, but the prospect that we might have time to climb in the Utah desert called us. Nighttime driving, one of us would sleep, while the other would put as much coffee in our system as possible. He actually stopped talking for a little bit. What he was talking about is gone to the wind and the road, but was for sure set at a rhythm by the road, and the caffeine and the hip-hop, rock and reggae that played on the radio.
|The rhythm and the road in Salt Lake City.|
We were both up for the sunrise as Nevada ended; one last big casino of course, on the edge. Then Utah began and Salt Lake City came into the horizon, past the lake, big buildings. America. Nevada, home of prostitution and gambling, fades into Utah, home of the Mormons, of young adventurers like us, and Iím sure a lot of other kinds of folk too. Ah, to be young, low on sleep, high on caffeine, rolling into a city with no attachments, no real plan, the sun coming up, the city people are getting going, the semi trucks on their endless journey heading out of town and into town. We arrived at the destination, and we had a friend in Salt Lake, an old college buddy, and we found his house so we could pass out.
As we show up on Adam Lawtonís door, he was just getting ready to rise for grad school, ďYou guys can sleep as long as you want. Iíve got to go to class. Iíll be back in the afternoon.Ē
We slept for a couple of hours and woke to the most horrible smell of paint drying with none of the windows open for ventilation. Someone was painting the damn bathroom, why did it have to be the morning we arrived? Though there was nothing we wanted more than sleep, there was no hope for it with the toxic state of Adamís studio. We stumbled out on the streets of Salt Lake City.
Wandering across the city over to a market, and what do we hear but ďLetís get wild,Ē an old college phrase that we used to say when we got excited. I looked back and walking down the street was Adam. Goofy and intelligent, one of our people, with his wild blond hair flowing in many directions he proclaims, ďWe should go to this Tibetan buffet over by my house.Ē
Fed, and then caffeinated Mark and I make a quick trip to the library to get information about a climb and then head south to Moab, our destination for the evening. Driving on so little sleep Iím irritable, but more caffeine takes care of that. Mark and I barely talk, our brains are foggy and weíre leaving a city, and arenít all cities a bit confusing after living in small towns for so long?
Though we donít talk, I wonder what he thinks, and he seems to communicate with those wild blue eyes. Is he scared of death after so many close encounters with it? But those eyes say to me, Iíve lived and died a hundred times before.
Driving across the United States, weíd seen the forests of Northern California, to the desert of Nevada, and now we crossed from Salt Lake City headed south, desolate and lonely, to the red rock desert of Moab, the real thing man. The real thing if youíre a dreamer, an outdoorsman, a climber, like us. If youíve read Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey and he planted dreams in your head of adventure in the forms of rock towers, red dirt, lone ravens, cactus, juniper trees and blue, so blue, skies.
Our destination is Castle Valley, home of the prettiest rock towers Iíve seen, some four hundred feet tall, and very climbable. We set up camp, which only means throwing our sleeping pads and bags in the dirt and get some food in our guts. Mark wants to wake up before sunrise to get an early start, who am I to argue?
Motivation for that desert high gets us up way early. The landscape we canít yet see, itís still dark, but we know itís there. We donít hear much noise from the ten some climbers camping nearby. There is competition for these climbs, the gems of Castle Valley. It may have been what Abbey feared, the inevitable popularity and population of the red rock desert, but itís really no big deal, we just have to get up before they do.
|Castle Valley, Utah. Castleton Tower is on the right, and The Rectory is on the left|
We hike up to the Rectory, the first tower we plan to climb for the day. The sunlight replaces the headlamp and the towers, and the nearby La Sal Mountains to the southwest are unveiled. Our legs are well conditioned. Iíve been on a three week climbing trip, and Mark heís always in good shape. Hiking is a pleasure when youíre prepared, and the suffering is little to none. The work out feels divine, and puts our minds exactly in the moment. We find the base of the Rectory. Castleton is just behind us, a perfectly squared four hundred foot tower.
Our objective in front of us is a four hundred foot series of cracks up red rock sandstone. The tower itself is slender. It is long, like three hundred feet wide or so, and juts into the blue sky. On the boulders above the red dirt we organize our climbing gear.
|The Rectory, Fine Jade climbs the southern face of this formation|
We start up, me leading first I jam (slam) hands in the crack, breathe, jam feet (bam), breathe, jam, breathe a few times over for a hundred and fifty feet. What a way to wake up. Did we eat breakfast? Iím sure we did, but I donít remember what. I hope that Iíll forever remember hanging on above the void, above my belayer Mark, striving to get higher and higher. Mark comes up to my perch, a nice little ledge if I remember correctly, and sets off for harder climbing above; perfect style the reward for our lonely days in Escalante. Not so lonely here, look back and thereís people approaching up the hills we climbed a couple hours before. It feels so divine to climb in good style, hell good style or reckless struggle, look around and youíll have a view to remember. Red rock is everywhere. Of course the a few lone ravens are up and about. In the distance is a winery, which adds welcome greenery to the surroundings.
I clean Markís pitch, yanking the gear out while still hanging on. And then there we are a hundred feet below the summit, still early as hell. I try to soak in the time with my friend, but not much time to just be there, keep moving, just how I like it. Mark is still rather excited and talkative. Heís here in his element, late spring in the wild desert always a sense of reward for those who endured a cold winter. How good does it feel for a guy that spent his winter treating cancer in a hospital? Well I can tell you he was psyched and the excitement was building in his chatter. The guy likes to talk, loves to get excited.
We donít hang out long, and soon Iím leading off for the summit pitch. But just because youíre near the top donít mean itís over. Some sandy, exciting climbing begins the pitch. The sand makes me question my foundation; each foothold seems a little insecure. In the moment, at least Iím trying to be, Mark is still talking a mile and minute. I try to focus on the climbing. Mark is still jabbering about God knows what. The morning has packed in so much adrenaline, workout and joy. Quickly, I am entering a fearful state and I need to concentrate as much as I can, ďWill you shut up,Ē I yell to Mark.
He doesnít take offense because he knows the process my brain is going through. We are brothers of climbing. Iím inching up, the sandiness disappears, the quality of rock perfect again, the climbing harder and harder still, but protected by bolts, which all ya have to do is clip em with a carabineer. And there I am, later there we are on the summit, and itís still before noon. ďLetís get in another tower,Ē he says.
I was waiting for him to say it and itís decided. We rappel back to the ground. Our next objective is just around the bend, a route called the Honeymoon Chimney on the Priest formation. We hike over and have a granola bar lunch. Weíre a little tired. Mark decides to do something about it and finds a good place to stand on his head, a yogic way of revitalizing energy.
Itís Markís lead. He starts to wiggle himself in the chimney. Chimney climbing, you just put your whole body in the crack. Physically demanding, and mentally too, when the protection for falls is limited. Heís got a rock in the back of the crack slung with some webbing, clips a mediocre bolt, but doesnít have it. Grunting Grundon, struggling and wiggling, not much progress, after a half an hour, ďI donít have it, do you want to try it?Ē
ďWell hell no, if you canít get it,Ē I felt good enough, the desert was alive within me, or at least I have that high. I know that feeling and itís much better than exhaustion. Hell our day has been good enough. Thereís no one keeping score in rock climbing.
So itís a little past noon, we hike back down as the hills wind through red rocks and red dirt. The clouds are rolling in a little. We feel good, I feel perfectly content with the Rectory, being the final climb of the road trip. Should we go back to Moab for lunch? Itís out of the way, but how good is a prepared meal when youíve been eating camping meals? So good, but not good enough to use that much gas, that much time to go out of the way. Our way is east, back to Colorado, back to Gunnison. River Road, east, soon its I-70, soon enough Grand Junction; food, food what else would we think of?
Once heís energized with a modest meal, Mark starts talking of more climbing for the day. I go along with the plan for a bit, but the comforts of home have already entered my mind. I can try, but I usually canít keep up with Mark. Heís disappointed I donít want to get a couple of afternoon climbs in Escalante. I feel guilty and start to come up with excuses. There we are in Grand Junction, the center of our desert experiences; Mark always ready for more living, more climbing.
We drive in Highway 50, which takes us home. Mark is about to graduate in a week. Immediately heís got a lot on his plate, but heís done it before. He graduates, with honors, cum laude I think they call it. His parents, Cheryl and Steve, come back to town, and he takes them up a desert tower in Colorado National Monument, near Junction. Heís back in Gunnison for a day or two, then destined for California, to Yosemite for some big-wall climbing, up to Mt. Shasta for some guide training, back to Yosemite then to Colorado for a stop in Gunnison, then up to Estes Park for an eight day American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) training course. After California and another drive across the west, he stops at our house for some rest. He tells some stories, of a flood in Yosemite and climbing El Capitan with a random English guy heís met in Camp 4, the historic campsite in the Yosemite, ďYeah we were four pitches from the top and my partner had to catch a flight back to Europe the next day. So we rappelled two thousand feet back to the ground.Ē
|El Capitan, Yosemite|
No sense of failure in his eyes or words though. A few hours at the house, a nap, and heís gone to Estes Park. Eight days for his AMGA course and the stories donít end. Most of his climbing gear has been stolen, and that is just the start. When he arrives back in Gunnison he calls me, ďMy cancer has come back.Ē
He found out while in Estes Park, from tests done a few weeks prior. My heart sinks, I must be with my friend. Iím homeless again, so we meet at a three bedroom apartment where five, maybe six friends are living. He tells me of his experiences with the AMGA course, and getting his gear stolen. His spirit not yet broken, if it isnít by now, I know it never will be.
The next day before leaving heís decided to cut his hair off, ďIt would fall off in chemotherapy anyways,Ē he told us. He leaves it half cut is some wild fashion, which makes all of us laugh at dinner that night at the new hip restaurant in Gunnison, called Bowlz. ďMan just when Gunnison gets cool I have to leave,Ē he joked.
We all can forget, Mark too hopefully, if even for just a moment, that he has cancer and just enjoy each othersí company. The restaurant had just opened, it took hours to get our food, but that was just fine. So we all laughed, had a couple beers and didnít talk of climbing once, which Mark and I agreed we had been doing too much of over the years. That night he even found a friend, Aaron, to drive back to Vermont with him, where heíd be doing the chemo. Opposite of where heíd planned to be, California.
A summer of chemotherapy, I talked to him several times, not often enough, but each time we talked Iíd get nothing but positive energy, positive thoughts. He missed it so bad up here in the high country; Godís country. He seemed to never want to end the phone conversations. Sometimes weíd talk for a couple hours. He was doing the treatment in Burlington, which he called Girlington. Girls indeed essential for a young man to have around, but I knew he just wanted to be in the mountains.
In the summer, at work watching TV during my shift meal, weíd watch the Tour de France, with the great cyclist Lance Armstrong, who also had testicular cancer, now a cancer survivor. Lance seemed to have the same hope and energy flowing through his veins that Mark did, and everyday my belief that Mark too would be a cancer survivor grew. Summers go so fast when they are preceded and followed by months and months of snow and cold. I doubt the summer went too fast for Mark though.
Times are so great now in my life, but they canít last forever. When they get harder, and things might seem overwhelming Iíll think of Mark Grundon, a climber, Mark Grundon, a young man wise beyond his years. When times get hard Iíll think of Mark Grundon, who knows hard times.
Mark finished successful chemotherapy treatment in 2005. He is now a climbing guide in Yosemite, California and El Potrero Chico, Mexico.