No Excuses

You need to climb a 14er sometime this summer.

In fact, you may as well plan on climbing one as soon as you finish reading this story. You have put it off for years and years, and now you no longer have any excuses. It’s been something you’ve been meaning to do, but now you have no excuses. Zero.

I’m out of shape. Doesn’t matter. It will be a great workout.

It’s too dangerous. Baloney. Be smart and you’ll be safe.

I don’t really want to or care. No, what you are saying is that you are too lazy to wake up.

You need to climb a 14er this summer, because Kurt Soper climbed one last summer.

***

Kurt and Carrie met in high school. Kurt went to Evergreen and Carrie went to Lakewood. They had a wonderful falling-in-love process as teenagers. They matured and their bond grew stronger, and they got married in 2005.

Five years after getting hitched, Carrie gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Ava. Kurt’s a smart guy – a CU grad – and wanted to take care of his family. He works in the financial industry, and as bad luck would have it, his best option was to leave Colorado for a job in Kansas City.

For two Colorado kids, leaving the state wasn’t easy, but they grew to love K.C. and life looked fantastic. A year after Ava came into the world, Kurt found out he had a rare form of bone cancer in his left hip; he was 29 years old.

The lump in his left pelvis grew into a softball. The initial optimistic thoughts that the tumor would be benign twisted and turned over the next couple of years. In June of 2013, three new tumors had surfaced in his left leg.

Doctors told Kurt and Carrie that perhaps the only way to save his life would be a hemipelvectomy – the amputation of his left side pelvis and left leg. Surprisingly, this came as a huge relief to Kurt. Long, dark nights can lead to desperate fits of speculation and that had gone on way too long.

At least Kurt knew where this was going. He was diagnosed at age 29 and now life would begin again at 32.

***

Team-building exercises for a corporation can come in all sorts of forms. They range from trust falls to zip lines to an extended happy hour on casual Friday. However, there was this group of K.C. “Masters of the Universe” that was going to go the extra mile… high. The flatlanders from Kansas decided to venture out to Colorado to climb a 14er. There were 11 guys in the office going on this trip. Kurt Soper was one of them.

Kurt was a year removed from the dramatic amputation of his left leg. His young daughter knew there was something different about Daddy, but it wasn’t that big of deal. She had her daddy and that’s all that mattered. One leg, two legs, it made no difference to her.

Kurt had been cancer free for a year. The great irony of having to relocate for work was that two of the top orthopedic oncology doctors in the country also lived in Kansas City. Through six surgeries, in a place he’d never intended to live, Kurt was receiving the best care conceivable.

“That’s not a coincidence,” says Carrie of the move. “That’s Jesus.”

Every three months, Kurt was getting a regular checkup (and still does to this day) and as anybody could tell, Kurt was back to normal. The only difference was that Kurt was a different person. His job was the same, but all of a sudden the bucket list was growing with importance.

In June, Kurt had hopped his way through a 5K. That accomplishment would pale in comparison to what he was going to attempt in August in Colorado.

***

Mount Bierstadt is a relatively easy 14er. It didn’t use to be that way. There use to be a deep willow field that was truly a pain in the ass. The elevation climb through the willows was no big deal, but the bushwhacking would drive you nuts. A few years ago, the path was cleared and wooden planks were set up to make the first approach on Bierstadt a piece of cake.

When you drive through Georgetown up Guanella Pass, you pass through some of the most beautiful areas of Colorado. It is a meandering ride that any household vehicle can accomplish. You don’t need a Sherpa or some sort of Nepalese mountain guide to climb Bierstadt. You park in the parking lot; you walk across the planks and you can see the summit from the moment you begin the hike.

The route simply traverses over relatively mild terrain until you reach the ridge, where there is some simple class-2 climbing until you reach a very small summit. If you want danger, leave the Bierstadt summit via the Sawtooth that connects you to Mount Evans.

This is a death defying: Will I ever see my family again? Thousand foot drop. What the F am I doing on this mountain adventure?

Climbing Bierstadt is more like something fun to do before you grab a beer in Idaho Springs. But, of course, when climbing in Colorado, things can change and quickly.

Kurt was using forearm crutches. The only type of “prosthetic” he could use was a bucket that was used for sitting. An “ass-bucket” certainly wasn’t going to help him climb a mountain.

On the bottom of his crutches were adjustable devices that allowed Kurt to become a human transformer. He could use his crutches as virtual ice picks. He would still need to swing himself through every painful step of the climb, but traction wasn’t an issue.

However, think about the process of climbing a set of stairs with one leg: Reach in front, lift and swing. Reach in front, lift and swing. Reach in front, lift and swing. That process would kill most anyone climbing three flights of stairs at work – never mind repeating it over 10,000 times at the highest of altitudes.

***

It was dark before the dawn on August 27, 2014. It had poured rain all night and the temperatures were well below freezing. Kurt and the gang from K.C. were now wondering if that trust-fall and happy hour back in Kansas City really was all they needed to make their money.

But, “What the hell?” they thought. “We flew out to Colorado. We bought all the gear. And heck, we even hired a guide to make sure we couldn’t get lost on a mountain where it’s impossible to get lost in the summer.”

In the pre-dawn hours, they set off and right away ran into a mother moose protecting her moose babies. Nobody in the group had moose spray. There was a bit of a stare down, and then the moose – who must of realized the group was made up of mostly Chiefs fans – decided there was nothing to fear. She slowly ambled away.

Right off the bat, things were a little shaky. As he was crossing a small stream, Kurt ended up dunking his foot deep into the water, soaking himself to the bone. Now, Kurt only had one foot and it was soaking wet in already frigid conditions.

The climb went slow. The group of 11 paced themselves making sure there was always somebody just in front and just behind Kurt, who was in the back, but not alone.

On a good day at Bierstadt, the average climber can be up and down in four hours or so. For the group from Kansas City, the climb wasn’t going in that direction. Despite leaving as early in the morning as they could, the entire group was destined to be dangerously above tree line right around the time where afternoon lightning storms annihilate the rooftop of all 14ers. Whatever you are doing, get it done before 11:00 a.m. or do it late in the day. Summiting between noon and 2:00 p.m. creates issues that cannot be reversed.

You see, nature doesn’t give a shit about your bad day. Nature doesn’t care if your wife left you for the mailman, if you are climbing to celebrate God or if you lost your left leg to cancer. Nature doesn’t care, and it is quick to prove it every day.

Nature on this late August day was going to tell Kurt and his K.C. posse that they better buckle up because Bierstadt was going to be a bitch.

The torrential overnight rains had created an uneven snowpack near the top of the mountain. Kurt would have to post hole with his crutches. He would need to get rid of them in certain rocky areas and drag himself over slushy rock and snow while his teammates then later passed him his gear. What was usually a routine – a beginners’ – climb turned into an eight-and-a-half-hour adventure.

Halfway up, Kurt realized there was no turning back. He didn’t allow doubt or depression to enter his mind. He slowly plugged away, spurred on by encouragement by his co-workers now life long friends.

***

The funny thing about climbing any mountain is if you do keep on going, you eventually reach the top. It takes all day and then suddenly it’s over. Often, you are taken by surprise that you’ve accomplished your goal. It is deeply satisfying and oddly unsettling.

For Kurt, the top of Mount Bierstadt was the end of a significant journey he had been exploring since being diagnosed. He was in a precarious position at the summit, but for the first time in a long while, he felt oddly safe.

Somebody had the brilliant idea to bring some beers to the top. High-altitude drinking with one leg can be a dangerous proposition, as the getting down part ain’t easy, either. However, this was too good to pass up. Kurt and his boys slugged down the local brews as the sun broke through the mystical Colorado skies shining light on what was a great day.

***

Kurt is back in K.C. now. He is training for a triathlon and is excited to go on an extended ride with his new hand bike. He wants you to know that anybody is capable of doing anything if you put your mind to it – just stay mentally positive.

Ava, his daughter, sees his scars and acts as a caregiver to daddy, but the reality of the situation is that it’s Kurt that inspires everybody around him.

So, now you have a job.

Look at yourself. Are most of the parts in working order? Okay good. Stop your whining and…

Climb your first 14er.

SHARE