If you think Ollie and I make it up each mountain on our own accord, you’re terribly wrong.
And we were reminded of this even more just after our recent 14er summited, the 38th 14,000ft peak we’ve climbed together. While we bust our butts the day of to make it to the top each time we set out to tackle a mountain, we are always reminded that we succeed each time due to the support and help of our teams both on the mountain and beyond.
Let’s rewind back two days before our summit attempt. We were driving across the state, set to hike up to Island Lake in the Ice Lakes Basin near Ouray, Colorado. This has been a dream spot for years to not only take Ollie but to explore the area from a photographer’s POV. This alpine lake and it’s surroundings just have so much to offer that it’s actually even been a bit intimidating to visit for years out of the sheer anticipation and aided by self-doubt that I, as a photographer, just wasn’t ready for a place like this. But we finally bit the bullet, I shoved my concerns aside, and we made it happen. I packed up my gear, fashioned Ollie’s pack to his back, full to the brim with the essentials (bowls, water, food, treats, etc.), and we set off on the hike, 6.9-mile roundtrip with 2,670ft elevation gain to essentially paradise in Colorado.
Planning to camp alone can always be hard, as it’s tough to be in the outdoors alone. For much of my camping, hiking, trail running experiences it’s just me — and Ollie, of course. This is always a contrast for me from my time in the military, as you are hardly ever alone. You’re always with others working or exploring so ever since my transition to life in Colorado, being alone has just become the new norm.
That said, I’m not always a complete introvert so when others are near us at a destination, I make a point to swing by and say hey and let Ollie meet some new friends. After setting up our home for the night, I noticed a trio setting up tents near the lake, the extrovert in me took over, and we took a short hike across the valley to say hey. That quick conversation would soon set in motion a plan that was soon to be one of the most inspirational experiences of our lives.
Fast forward now through those two days:
3:30 AM: Parked at the top of Yankee Boy Basin, alarm buzzin’, I peer out the back of the Jeep into pure darkness.
3:43 AM: Nothing, fading in and out of sleep.
3:47 AM: My eyes, foggy and blurry with my contacts out, spot three faint headlamps in the distance.
There is an immediate quickening pace of my heartbeat, and it’s on. A flurry of gear goes flying everywhere as I rush to put on all my pre-staged clothes and pack up my last-minute essentials (later to find out I wore my shirt inside out and backward the entire hike).
Ollie has already been restless and antsy with anticipation ever since that first 3:30 a.m. alarm sounded. He knows the long days in the car, bumpy dirt roads, and nights sleeping in the jeep always lead to something amazing the next day. He hops out of the car and trots over to greet our early visitors, as we’ve been alone in the valley all night.
There stands Nathan, Tyler, and Miguel who I’ve now only known less than 24 hours. Up to this point, I have shared barely any conversation with these three adventurers, but that’s the point of this whole ordeal. The bond isn’t made through context; it’s made through the experience we’re about to share together
3:59 AM: With me fighting off some huge yawns, hey’s and good mornings are exchanged. I finally got my stuff together, snapped on Ollie’s Web Master Harness, and approached the trail register box;
9/4 – 0400 – Stephen, Nathan, Tyler, Miguel – 4 people – 1 livestock – 80909
4:01 AM: We’re on the trail.
When it comes to Ollie and his accomplishments, he is constantly amazing me. Back in January of this year, we had a big scare. Ollie started having issues walking. His back legs began to fail accompanied by a severe head tilt. I immediately feared for the worst. The next three months were the hardest of my life. I had lost my job back in July the previous year and had been struggling ever since to find anything to stick and barely staying afloat, both financially and mentally. I’ve always struggled with an anxiety issue that has more recently pushed into a challenging stint of depression over the past few years. This whole ordeal was just not what I needed on top of every other stressor going on in my life.
His condition quickly got worse and all signs pointed to a tumor. We started weighing our options and confirmed that we needed to see a neurologist as soon as possible. But the sooner you do things in the medical world, both for humans and/or pets, the more expensive it becomes. Go see a neurologist tomorrow, and potentially fork out a cool $1,500 up front to even just be seen, or wait out a month for a scheduled appointment starting at $85. For a 32-year-old struggling veteran with very little money, the latter was just the most feasible option, while of course watching Ollie’s condition and changing course if needed.
During this wait, we put Ollie on a round of steroids, hoping to maybe lessen the progression of symptoms. A month flew by while we waited, and his day came to finally visit the neurological specialist. The doctor was happy that I was knowledgeable and able to communicate with him every single detail of his progression over the past two months. Unfortunately, he agreed with my initial concerns and prognosis and strongly suggested an MRI and Spinal Tap be performed Immediately. Needless to say, this was going to be hard…
5:55 AM: We’re crusin’ on the hike, and it’s been pitch dark for hours now. Four dimly lit headlamps lead our way through endless rocks stacked on more endless rocks.
We were ascending one of the more intense gullies we’ve ever hiked together, and a big experience for us and our new trail companions, especially Miguel, who was en route to summiting his first fourteener ever. On the other hand, Ollie and I have had 37 previous successful summits without any mishaps or turnbacks whatsoever. We’ve been good to the mountains, and the mountains have been good to us.
6:18 AM: First light, we can see our route a bit more, we finally had ascended the gully and made it to the saddle.
6:25 AM: We made it to the crux, the v notch… it looks a lot harder than we expected, already contemplating turning back because it is definitely something Ollie and I can’t accomplish alone.
Financially, ordering up an MRI just seemed like the last possible thing I could afford.
Credit Cards? Loans? Sell my camera? Put it off till I could save up? The options were endless but at the constant prodding and reassurance from family and close friends, I did something I thought I would never do, as the humility and feelings of shame were very tough to swallow for a Type A military man that has always had a hard time accepting the help of others. I launched a Go Fund Me. Within a day we had everything we needed to make the appointment and get Ollie checked out. After all, this entire process has been about him, about what he needs and about putting him first. This was very hard but surprisingly the blessing in disguise was that I was jobless and had all the time in the world to give to him.
After tensely waiting all day, Dr. Ko called and said he did great and was ready for pick up. The next 24+ hours of waiting for the results was very difficult. There was a strong internal struggle of not letting my mind get so far ahead of myself. “He’s going to call and give me the worst news possible, I just know it.” And he did call, and the results were baffling as every scan showed nothing. Negative on all accounts. The spinal tap — nothing. How could this be?
Endless explanations and scenarios ran through our heads, but the most consistent and viable reasoning was this: Back in October of 2018, Ollie and I took a three-week road trip to Oregon. Ollie was exposed to new environments and quite possibly got a tick bite that created a bacterial infection that traveled to his brainstem that caused tumor/stroke-like symptoms and physically impaired him to the state he was in. In our waiting game, we did that short stint of steroids, and that probably kicked the infection, as the results from the spinal tap showed nothing. So great news right? But the effects are still there, he’s still tilted, he’s still having trouble with his back legs. He’s just not himself anymore. And if he’s not himself as he is now, who are we now? We had grown so much together through our mission of constantly bagging peaks and learning each other’s personalities to a T. Was this it? Were we never going to be ourselves again? So many questions racing through our heads as I am sure none of this was easy for Ollie either. Knowing he just didn’t feel the same. The image of us on top of a mountain peak again just faded so fast and hopes of getting back to our glory days faded with them.
6:26 AM: A quick minute has passed and I am still debating turning back.
We’ve come so far. Seven months ago I was supporting Ollie’s back legs with a towel so he could go down the steps at our home to use the bathroom three times a day for weeks. Although we didn’t share much of the process, we worked hard on his balance, and we just tried to take it slow. But slow really isn’t Ollie’s style. The more distance and time away from the scare, the more I began to see that twinkle in his eyes. We both wanted more. So here we are, the crux of this route, and while I was ready and comfortable with making the choice to turn back, the team wasn’t. The team that day on the mountain: Nathan, Tyler, Miguel, Ollie, and me. We all weren’t ready to give up. Equipped with his harness, we positioned ourselves four wide across the V Notch and shuttled Ollie from teammate to teammate. All holding that handle with a grip as if our lives depended on it, because at the moment, his life did. And then we were through. All members of our team successfully and safely through the notch. Now just a few hundred feet of easy terrain stood between us and the summit.
6:44 AM: The sun broke the horizon as we all stood atop Mount Sneffels, Ollie’s 38th fourteener.
Reflecting on this whole experience and the past year has been emotional, to say the least. The fact that I was on that summit, staring my pup in his eyes, him looking back at me like I just gave him the world over, the feelings were just immeasurable. And we owe it all to the team. But here is where it gets interesting. The team is far bigger than just those three guys that took a chance on helping us reach our goal. The team is this webbed extension of everyone who has impacted and supported Ollie and me for years. The team is every single one of those who gave to us in a time of need and inspire us to continually give and share our story along the trail. The team is the family and friends who have supported us every step of the way.
So when it comes to our success and our accomplishments, it takes a team. And when an introvert like myself opens up to those teams, we can find support when we least expect it… and rest assured good things will follow.