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Tuesday, August 14, 2001
The climb of my life

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

It always comes back to one question: "Why?"

Maybe you're gazing up at a 7,000-foot mountain and thinking, "Do I really want to climb this thing?" Maybe you're holding onto a giant boulder, one stumble away from a 10-foot fall, feeling your stomach churn. Maybe you're wobbling on your last legs, living in denial, pretending to be 20 minutes from the parking lot when you're only halfway down the mountain. Maybe you're hobbling down a flight of stairs, wondering why it feels like somebody belted your quads with a baseball bat. Maybe you're sprawled in your bathtub, popping a blood blister on your big toe, watching it explode like the guy's head from "Scanners."

Why, why, why, why and why?

I can't answer that question for you ... but I can answer it for me. Last weekend I hiked the infamous Mount Washington for the second time in my life; in other words, I visited the toughest mountain in the Northeast (6,200 feet), ascended it, then hiked back down in the same day. As an added wrinkle, my group tackled the toughest ascent -- the Huntington Ravine trail, which features a prolonged stretch of pseudo-rock climbing -- and it took nine grueling hours to complete our eight-mile hike.

  My right shoulder felt like I had borrowed it from Bret Saberhagen. My feet were so swollen from the hike that I could barely pull off my socks and shoes; the skin looked water-logged and ashen-white, like the dead guy's face that scares Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws." My toes were decorated with blisters, highlighted by bloody puss bubbles on each big toe.  
  

By the time we reached the base Saturday night, my legs felt like somebody had placed them in a trash compactor. My lower back had stiffened to Bernie Lomax-level proportions. My body was covered with barely visible cuts and scrapes (from various battles with boulders and bushes), as well as an unhealthy blend of sweat and grime. My right shoulder felt like I had borrowed it from Bret Saberhagen. My feet were so swollen from the hike that I could barely pull off my socks and shoes; the skin looked water-logged and ashen-white, like the dead guy's face that scares Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws." My toes were decorated with blisters, highlighted by bloody puss bubbles on each big toe.

Basically, I looked like the lead photo of an autopsy report. And yet I was grinning from ear to ear.

Does that make sense? Of course not. None of this makes sense until you push yourself past your own physical limits and somehow survive. I remember when my girlfriend ran the Boston Marathon three years ago, she ravaged her feet so badly that her toenails slowly fell off over the next few days. I'll repeat that: Her toenails fell off. And yet she expected this to happen, because this was her third completed marathon; her toenails didn't survive the first two races, either.

At the time, I was incredulous. Now I understand. Everyone has their limits; few choose to test them. And you can't comprehend the weight of that last sentence until you've been there, until you've been in that exact position: at the absolute end of your rope, ready to quit on yourself ... and yet helpless because a mysterious force keeps pushing you forward. If you're lucky, it swallows you whole and carries you the rest of the way.

If you're lucky.

***** ***** *****

When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time, they battered each other beyond the point where it could have been considered "boxing." Six years of bad blood festered beyond repair; it consumed them both. Immune to the 100-degree heat in Manila, they traded punches for 14 rounds -- hateful, vicious exchanges -- until Frazier's corner finally tossed in the towel before the final round. It wasn't that Smokin' Joe couldn't fight anymore ... the man couldn't see. Ali's rights were landing flush, one after the other, as many as Ali could heave without falling over, and Frazier didn't know those punches were coming until they had already bounced off his hideously swollen face.

When it became clear that Frazier wasn't leaving his stool for the final round, Ali sagged to the canvas, his face frozen in shock, unable to stand. It wasn't an act; he literally had nothing left. Quite simply, there hasn't been another fight like it before or since. As Ali told one writer after the fight, "It was like death. Closest thing to dying that I know of."

I found myself recalling that quote during my first hiking experience, back in the summer of '99, when my buddy Blueboy and his wife, Jen -- two experienced hikers -- convinced my girlfriend and me to accompany them to Mount Washington. At the time, my athletic model was probably John Belushi in the old "Little Chocolate Donuts" cereal ads on "Saturday Night Live" -- I was rarely exercising, eating poorly, drinking on the weekends and even smoking cigarettes from time to time, all affectations from my early-20 that slowly evolved into habits over the years.

Hey, it happens. But I didn't realize these things until I was standing halfway up Mount Washington that summer, heaving for every breath, caked in sweat, feeling closer and closer to dying with every belated step. If that wasn't enough, I was battling a stomach flu and hiking in Nike tennis shoes.

(Needless to say, I had the Troy Aikman Concussion Face going. Remember how Troy would sit on the bench as doctors shoved smelling salts under his nose, totally oblivious, his face frozen, unable to comprehend anything? That was me. One of the worst days of my life, bar none.)

I wanted to quit about 100 different times; there were six or seven points when I honestly wondered if I could keep going. During the final mile-long stretch, as we hopped from rock to rock on our way down the mountain, my legs felt like jelly. I had nothing left. I needed to stop. I needed help. I needed a helicopter or something.

And then it happened: a surge of pride that swelled from my gut. Keep going. I stopped whining. I stopped complaining. I shed the Aikman Face. I ignored the pain and focused on the trail ahead, hopping from rock to rock on my wobbly legs, trusting my momentum, trusting my balance and trusting this bizarre force that wouldn't allow me to quit. I honestly didn't care whether I lived or died. I was giving myself up to this force. I trusted it inexplicably and completely.

And I made it. I couldn't walk for three days afterward ... but I made it. A humbling afternoon? Absolutely. I was humbled beyond belief. Here was my girlfriend, cruising up and down the mountain, and I couldn't even keep up with her. But I kept recalling that moment when I was staggering down the mountain -- in all honesty, I was completely, utterly, totally out of gas -- and yet something kept pushing me forward. I learned something about myself that day. I was stronger than I thought.

One other positive outcome from that hike: I started taking care of myself. I eliminated the cigarettes, started eating healthier food, stopped drinking as much. I wasn't exactly becoming a Mormon or anything, but I wasn't Chris Farley, either.

The exercise side of the equation was a little trickier: a faulty back, the bane of my existence, prevents me from playing as much basketball and tennis as I would like (yes, I'm a has-been). And since I despise health clubs and can't stomach running outside, I had no choice: I splurged on a treadmill.

Suddenly I was fast-walking uphill 3-4 miles a day, a process made more tolerable after my Sony PlayStation joined me in the exercise room. You didn't think it was possible to play "Madden 2001" and march on a treadmill at the same time? I'm telling you, it's possible. That's been my routine for the past two years. Swear to God. I spearheaded six different Super Bowl championship seasons for the Patriots at the "All-Pro" level, even with the immortal Michael Bishop taking snaps for one miracle season. Best of all, I finally rounded myself into shape.

And every time I felt like eschewing another hour on the treadmill, I remembered that moment on Mount Washington, when I was heaving for air, when I was caked in sweat, when I honestly believed that I might die on that mountain at 28 years old. I imagined how satisfying it would feel when I zoomed up Mount Washington on my triumphant return, how I would savor every step of the way, how the frigid summit would feel like the warmest place on earth, how sweet redemption would taste.

I wanted another chance.

***** ***** *****

It finally came last weekend.

We kicked off the hike at 9:30 on Saturday morning -- me, the Sports Gal, Blueboy, Jen and our friend Horgs. As Mike McD said in Rounders, "I felt like Buckner walking back into Shea."

Of course, I was more prepared this time around: top-notch hiking shoes; a dry-fit shirt (the greatest invention of the past 10 years, bar none); a baseball hat; a knapsack full of energy bars, water bottles, Gatorade and fruit. Best of all, I was finally in shape. I wouldn't be holding up the group this time around.

As we ascended the mountain, I concentrated on the aesthetic virtues of the hike -- fertile scenery, soothing sounds of a waterfall, friendly faces of every other hiker -- and never gave much thought to my own physical status. I was just excited to spend time outside and away from the city of Boston. When you trade 100-degree weather, concrete, beeping and swearing for a lush mountain and a magnificent day, you feel happy just to be alive.

We passed through a trail of ferns and had those dopey hiking conversations, the ones where you make dumb jokes and think up various ways to entertain yourselves. One topic was "Things that make me want to move out of Boston" (freeway traffic from the "Big Dig" led the list). Another topic was "The greatest marijuana scenes in movie history" ("Dazed and Confused," "Animal House" and "Outside Providence" were the consensus favorites). At one point, my buddy Blueboy revealed that he was enjoying his energy bar, which he described as "nuts over chocolate."

"Sounds like my prom night," I said.

There were a million moments like that. We were telling old college stories, discussing favorite movies and occasionally getting interrupted by nature things -- maybe a frog hopping across the trail, or a spring with drinkable water. Sounds corny? It wasn't. When you're trapped in a sticky, miserable, unfriendly city for an entire summer, these are the moments you savor. Eventually we reached the technical part of the ascent, a 90-minute climb up the steepest side of the mountain (and the main reason why Huntington Ravine is the least-traveled trail on Mount Washington). This wasn't hiking as much as it was climbing -- hoisting yourself up to the next boulder, finding a foothold, then hoisting yourself up to the next one -- with the added twist that you could lose your balance and potentially fall 10-15 feet at any time. A little nerve-racking, plenty exhilarating ... and definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done.

Nothing else really topped that feeling all day. We reached the summit at 2 p.m. -- right on schedule -- and grabbed an extended break to eat lunch, drink liquids and refuel. When it comes right down to it, there's always something anticlimactic about climbing a mountain -- after all that hard work, it just seems like every summit should feature big-screen televisions, comfy chairs, topless masseuses, a 600-stall bathroom, bartenders mixing daiquiris and waiters serving those scallop/bacon appetizers, not to mention a cheering crowd and a PA announcer who screams your name as you reach the top.

Instead, you deal with grouchy hikers, long bathroom lines, dirty tables and barely edible sandwiches. Then you leave.

And we did. We started our descent down the Tuckerman's Ravine trail at 2:45, navigating through an endless array of tricky boulders (the perfect time to lose your concentration and twist an ankle or sprain a wrist). Finally we reached a gorgeous ravine, which boosted everyone's spirits for a few minutes; the wave of goodwill extended to the midway point of the descent.

Now endurance was becoming a factor. On the final stretch of any prolonged hike, even the most experienced hikers feel their body unhinge. I was starting to feel like Emmitt Smith at the tail end of one of his patented 35-carry playoff games -- bruised, battered and ready for Sherman Williams to come in. My nemesis (my back) was stiffening. My quadricep and groin muscles were still throbbing from the ascent, giving me the "wobblies," so my knees and ankles were absorbing far too much punishment as we trekked down the mountain.

  On the final stretch of any prolonged hike, even the most experienced hikers feel their body unhinge. I was starting to feel like Emmitt Smith at the tail end of one of his patented 35-carry playoff games -- bruised, battered and ready for Sherman Williams to come in.  
  

With a mile (and about an hour) remaining, I suddenly started to approach The Wall. My body was breaking down. I could feel it. My legs felt like James Caan's legs in the final 30 minutes of "Misery." For the first time, I started to fight off that "Uh-oh" feeling ...

And then the mysterious force emerged. Just like that.

Suddenly I was tuning out the pain in my feet. I skipped down the mountain for the next 20 minutes, turning the process into a little game -- how long could I hop from rock to rock while maintaining my stride? I felt more nimble than a ballet dancer.

Where was the strength coming from? I didn't know. All I knew was that nobody on the planet was better at this stupid game than me. Hop. Hop. Hop. Hop. I was in the zone. I wasn't staggering to the finish line, I was practically dancing and skipping my way to the parking lot. I felt invincible. And you know what? For one day, I was.

Maybe that's why I was smiling at the base of Mount Washington. It wasn't just that I redeemed myself from the summer of '99 or accomplished something that I would remember forever. It was about me. I learned something about myself. I climbed the harshest mountain in the Northeast and never battled a single "You can't do this" moment of doubt. I survived and prospered.

Best of all, I finally learned that the answer to the question "Why?" is "Why not?"

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.