Coming Down the Mountain

Duff McKagan is the founding bassist of Guns N' Roses and the leader of Seattle's Loaded. His column runs every Thursday on Reverb.
When I wrote recently about the Heroes Project-sponsored climb of Mt. Rainier for Cpl. Kionte Storey, there was really no way I could have forecasted just how awesome this undertaking would be.

The 23-year-old Storey lost his right leg to an IED in Afghanistan one year ago, and this climb would be a test of whether he was choosing to go in this life, as opposed to wallowing or feeling sorry for himself. The Heroes Project provides a healthy outlet for some of these kids. What could be a better physical and mental symbol for overcoming than some huge mountain?

Mt. Rainier ain't no joke. I was given the opportunity to tag along for the climb.

Prosthetic limbs take some time for a user to get accustomed to. Carrying a pack full of real weight up slippery snow, rock, and ice can put stress on these prosthetics that they were probably not designed for.

The climb up to Camp Muir (10,000 feet) is test enough for anyone. To Muir, the eventual Rainier summiter must carry everything needed for a few days' stay: tents, pads, stoves, food, pots and pans, shovels, rope, crampons, ice axes, helmets, food, layers of different types of clothes . . .

The initial push to Muir is arduous as hell. Kionte Storey listened to Linkin Park on his iPod, and did not utter one word of complaint about his leg or the climb. He just smiled and marveled at the impossible scenery. Snow and mountains and glaciers are not the norm to a kid from Stockton, Calif.

Our leaders were three gregarious men with Everest on their resumes. On the mountain, these dudes were the rock stars. At Muir, you would hear constant whispers about the three dudes Kionte and I were with. We were safe as one could be with these three, so they strongly suggested that we take an extra day to rest at Muir and acclimatize to the altitude. A sound plan.

Now listen: For my part, I had trained my ass off for this climb. Being invited on this climb meant that I should also be ready and able to help wherever and whenever I could. I climbed stairs all over Seattle. I ran and lifted weights. I did lunges and strange-looking "burpies" that exhaust the body. I ate right, and tried to rest my body before this climb. I was ready, damn it . . . READY AS HELL.

On summit night (you "wake up" at about 10:30 p.m., get ready, eat, and begin the actual summit push at about midnight in the dark), Kionte was looking strong and I felt ready and able. The weather was good and somewhat stable, and before we knew it we were cramponing up some icy ledges and hopping over crevices and running across dicey rock and ice fall areas.

Some people adjust better than others to altitude. I have read countless books on different climbs and climbers, and the fact remains that modern science still hasn't really figured out why altitude affects different people -- regardless of their fitness levels -- in different ways.

My right eye suddenly blurred at about 11,000 feet. I kept it quiet. I didn't want to be the guy who held up the group. Pride plays a factor up there, and pride is dangerous in those slippery, steep, and treacherous places.

In the dark, I suddenly saw the outline of "little" Tahoma, the sister mountain of Rainier; its summit was actually below me. My body felt strong, lifted by the sight of young Cpl. Storey and his headlamp arduously making its way higher, just above me. Blurry or not, you just carry on.

At 12,000 feet, both my eyes went blurry, and nausea was overcoming me. It was a sort of step, step, heave . . . step, step, heave type of gait. But I still felt strong, and I hoped that this phase would pass. Just keep going, Duff . . . it ain't about you. Don't be "that guy." Think of punk rock. Think martial arts. Think of your family, and think of Kionte.

At about 12,800 feet, a guide from another climb came up to me and announced that he thought I had a cerebral edema "and could die soon if he doesn't get down very quickly." Hey climber-dude-alarmist-guy . . . chill the fuck out. Without me really realizing it, I guess my eyes were rolling around a bit and I was stumbling like a drunken sailor. What the?! I felt strong as a bull! Kionte went into "Marine mode," and it was time to turn this climb around. The mission was now to get your erstwhile columnist down the damn mountain. Heaving, stumbling, and talking nonsense (I guess).

Life is funny sometimes, and a situation that's supposed to go one way can often go quite another direction. I had to pull everything I had from deep inside of me just to get down. Cpl. Storey, I am sure, gained confidence. He took another one for the team, and made sure his fellow brother was OK.

Cpl. Storey will now attempt Mt. Vinson at the South Pole.

Me? Well, that mountain is still there, and I have, after one week away, trained my eyes back to the summit.

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