Thick slices of humble pie

Cold slaps my nerve endings. The river's surge and pulse are overpowering. Thin streams of light barely break the dark liquid and my boat, paddle and self all seem to be spinning downward. With plenty to drink but nothing to breathe, things are really beginning to shape up badly.

Like many times before, I find myself and my kayak upside down in a hydraulic. But, this is no mellow thrashing followed by a flush. This time, I'm stuck in a big-water, river muncher and being flogged. There's little promise for resurrection, but I'm out of air and push for it.

I set up and execute a roll, only to window shade, my boat flipping upstream. Managing just a quick gulp of air before smacking my helmet on a ledge, I again find myself upside down in the watery storm. Two more feeble efforts yield the same results. Failing there, I probe the hole's bottom with my paddle for a back-door but come up empty. Visions of throw-ropes begin to dance in my head. It's well past time to pull the plug. I pop my skirt, abandon ship and decide to swim for it. Only then am I able to get deep enough to flush out of the recirculating water. I make it to shore and watch, battered and breathless, as my kayak remains in place, thrashing in the powerful hole, for several more minutes.

When I put myself back in that place, I am paralyzed with fear. A chance encounter with an invisible river feature had turned epic, and a swift stroke of reality again bursts my bubble of comfort. The experience feels more like a near miss than a heroic bout with nature.

But some lessons are hard earned. A trip through the high-water, Salt River spin cycle is by no means the only place I've been worked over. Once, I watched a sunny July day become a howling storm at 14,000 feet. Heavy winds and sheets of snow moved up the craggy side of that peak. I had no choice but to lay in wait beneath the pound of rockfall and buzz of electricity. The ordeal lasted well over an hour. Eight months earlier, I popped several pieces of protection while climbing beyond vertical sandstone a thousand feet off the deck. As I swung from the end of that rope and wiggled over the void, a wasp added extra humiliation with a sting strategically placed on my Adam's apple. Most recently, I've subjected myself to hard miles on the mountain bike at high altitudes. One particularly cruel ride had me in the saddle for just shy of 10 hours. The pay-off for covering more than 60 miles, many of them on the Colorado Trail and above 11,000 feet, came in the form of seared lungs, shaking legs and a bout of unpleasant hallucinations.

Each of these times, I bemoaned my existence and eyed the actions that led me into the traps with deep regret. To overcome the agony, I tried absurd mind tricks, dreaming of Corn Flakes and Saturday morning cartoons. And, more than once, I considered breaking down.

But looking back, I can only say that there's much to recommend a good trashing. Painful and frightening as they were (and will continue to be), these were defining moments. Highlights, no, but definite climaxes. Only a fool craves suffering, and there's little honor in being a marginal kayaker or a half-assed climber. But over time, all that humble pie adds up to a little something.

And though it stings, adversity has always been a great ally. Personally, I've found it to be the only recipes that can mend my ego and get me back on the level. Most of all, these little, preventative doses of death somehow renew an appreciation for life.

With this in mind, my thanks go out to Black Rock Rapid on the Salt and the Yellow Spur in Eldorado Canyon. The Snake Coulior on Sneffels will always have a special place in my heart. And Blackhawk Pass, Indian Trail Ridge and Sliderock were all welcome but bitter companions this summer. With the cruelest season just around the bend, who knows what the future holds? One thing is certain. One trashing has never been enough.

Will Sands




News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index