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BACKSTORY

I lived in Telluride Colorado for over twelve years. I dig the mountains, their beauty and the things I can do in the mountains; the intense way I can live life, and experience exposure and adventure.  I tend to push things sometimes and at times I push them too hard. Like when I would ride my dirt bike over narrow snow covered steep trails of slippery rock on the edge of cliffs. Part of me knew that wasn’t a real good idea but I viewed it as a challenge to myself. And if I went off the cliff at some of the riskiest places, it was a 90 degree straight fall down into the rocks below.

Once I was going over Ophir pass on my way to Silverton to a pie place that I used to like. I normally don’t eat pies. But I always liked getting a homemade Mad Momma’s pie in Silverton on my dirt bike (a motorcycle that is designed for off road) and bringing it back to Telluride. It was more just the idea of doing it than the pie itself. I believe like lots of things, Mad Momma’s pies are no longer in existence because Mad Momma retired, which is a real loss.

On the way up Ophir pass from the Telluride side, near the top, there is a scree field (which in this case, consists of large sharp and jagged boulders) on a steep slope. You cross it on a pretty narrow and rock strewn somewhat flattened trail and then once you are past this part you go over the pass around to the left. I was on that trail and my dirt bike, which had been pretty beaten up and perhaps was not in fine-tuned condition anymore, hit a rock. The sudden impact with the rock turned the wheel to the right and I went flying into the air, off the cliff still on the bike. Under me was large sharp scree and as I flew out over the descending terrain below me, my brain went into high gear and focused on doing a superman, grasping the handle bars, leaning forward and pushing with my legs straight back, and throwing my body backwards off the bike in order to get away from the 260 pound machine so I would not be crushed between it and rock. I had a full knee replacement not too much before this happened. So I was a bit worried about that.  But I landed okay on the scree with barely a scratch and I watched the bike roll down over big sharp boulders until it stopped a ways down. And I knew that if I had hesitated even for a second, I’d be dead or badly injured.

Another time, in the Telluride area, I had decided to summit Ballard, Ballard’s horn, La Junta peak and the Wasatch peak, all in one day. Ballard’s summit rises about 4,000 feet above the town of Telluride with the other peaks a bit higher. I am not a fast enough hiker though and before I could do everything I had planned, it was getting dark. I was not prepared to spend the night in the mountains so I followed the Valley down next to a flowing creek. One thing you should never do is follow water out of the mountains. Downward flowing water can go over a cliff on its way down. And you do not want to get stuck in some situation you can’t get out of. But I was really tired, running out of water, out of food, and even starting to hallucinate. I figured I needed to find a way out of the mountains fast, and hopefully before dark. I knew these mountains pretty well so I was comfortable with my task. I followed the water downhill against my better judgment thinking that I would find a shortcut. I came to a steep field of small damp gravel like scree and I slid down it. I even had the thought that this was not a good idea when I was doing it. One reason I didn’t think it was a good idea was because I didn’t think I would be able to climb back out if I had to. It was too steep and skiddy. So I was committed.

I descended pretty far. After a while I found myself standing on a narrow, slippery wet rock ledge and the water running over it formed a waterfall that fell straight down about another hundred feet or more. I figured if I could not get out of this situation soon, I was dead. It was almost completely dark. The only possible way out was to climb back up the slippery scree which I did not even know was possible. I put a miner’s light on my head and started to do what looked insurmountable; climb up a steep, wet, sliding scree field of mostly marble sized gravel in the dark without sliding backwards and going over the edge. Although I was afraid at this point I was also very calm because I knew it was my only chance and it had to succeed; even in my current not completely rational state, I wanted to live and what I had to do in order to live was clear. I used a slow swimming motion up the scree field and whenever it would start to slide I would move carefully and deliberately to stop my descent. Sometimes there was a small bush or maybe a stationary rock to hold onto but mostly it was tenuous, touch and go, the entire way back. I steadily progressed with great care. It took several hours and finally I came to where there had been a structure a long time ago that was now in ruins. I found a place nearby where I could lay down. By the time I had gotten to this relatively safe area, it was cold and dark and I was hallucinating. I thought I saw all manner of things in the dark woods and the dark sky.

Time moved slowly and I couldn’t sleep. I sat against a rock and shivered and stared into the dark woods or the brightly star lit sky. I should have been prepared. That would have made it much easier. There were times it would rain for a little while and I would take cover under the branches of a nearby tree. I thought I could see glowing predator eyes in the shadowy woods and at times the dark sky seemed filled with the glare of lights from what looked like man-made craft overhead. At one point it looked like there were many people with torches coming down the mountain side. I worried that a friend of mine had sent out a search party. That was the last thing I wanted. It was my responsibility to save myself.

I managed to get thru the night and early the next day I hiked back up and over and came down Bear Creek because I was familiar with it. The hallucinations had gotten worse and once I thought I saw a long necked donkey’s head and neck straining to look out from a tiny toy police van that was hanging in a tree. As I approached it, I said to myself; now this is definitely real; no way this can be a hallucination. Of course as I got closer I realized it was a complete hallucination and I was just looking at some gnarled tree branches. I was so wasted that I didn’t get back to my place until 9PM that night after dark.

I took 360 surround photos all around the Telluride area everywhere I went. Some of these are to be found in the DonPWest Virtual Reality apps.

There are lots of risks in living life the way I have chosen. But it is a life full of adventure and excitement. It is impossible to be bored and the joy of living life is always with me. And that is what I wanted. My education is in mathematics. Most of my career was on Wall Street as a quant. Much of my life had been spent behind a desk in dealing with many well-placed people whose main interest was politics and getting in the way of productivity; people whose main talent was manipulation. I spent years dealing with the corporate world, watching the more incompetent people who would play ball, watching manipulative sycophants moving up the corporate ladder. Any person in that environment who actually wants to progress needs to spend a significant amount of time taking defensive strategic action and needs to succumb to a certain amount of sycophantism (ass kissing) themselves. Eventually I decided life is too short and the money I was making was like a chain around my neck keeping me in that environment and it wasn’t happiness nor was it fulfilling. Impressing people with how much money you can make is in itself not a successful life. There is so much to do and so much to be interested in and so many ways to live an interesting life; that a non-diversified life of any kind might be in society’s interest of efficiency, kind of like a generalization of factory line work, but it is essentially a crime against yourself. It is up to you to live the best life you can live. Don’t look for a pat on the back, look for happiness and fulfillment.

You’ve probably heard the statement that you are okay as long as you have your health. My mother used to say that to me when I was a child. To say that statement you have to have been alive long enough for it to have real life experienced meaning.

Last year, 2016, I was diagnosed with late stage throat cancer. I had been having trouble breathing in February. I’d wake up at night choking, not being able to draw in any air at all. With moments before I would lose consciousness, I’d run to the hot shower and force air into my straining lungs.

I am the kind of person who doesn’t trust doctors and I research everything online before I go to see one only when it is absolutely necessary. All my research pointed to throat cancer. I went to my doctor in Telluride Colorado. She did a cat scan and saw a large mass in my throat and would tell me later she thought I was finished. We found an Otolaryngologist (board certified surgeon ENT) in Grand Junction who could see me in this emergency. He looked down my throat with one of those scopes and told me I had late stage throat cancer. He immediately told me that it was all tangled up with my voice box and so my voice box had to go. The next day I had a tracheotomy just so I would not suffocate. They put a hole in my neck and inserted a plastic tube so I could breathe. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to eat. Things looked grave. The sudden transition from an active mountain man to an invalid was severe and shocking.

The ENT told me the biopsy had come back indeterminate but they did find a certain kind of cell, a spindle cell, and that was even worse news. He said because of these cells, the chemo probably would not work and we needed to get into surgery as fast as possible.  He told me they had to remove my voice box because the cancer had gone too far and the aggressive tumor was all wrapped around and tangled up with the larynx and it all had to be removed. He said I would breathe thru a hole in my throat for as long as I had life and I would have an artificial voice. I’d never taste food again or smell the air. He said if I ever fell into a body of water I would drown immediately; hard to hear for anyone but harder still for someone who spends time hiking in remote areas and relishes exposure. Two weeks after the initial trach he changed it to a different one that wasn’t so tight and I was able to speak again. That was better because before that it was all about strained and desperate communication on my computer and with lots of paper.

I started to think about suicide. I’m a very active person. I always take care of myself. I don’t smoke cigarettes. Health is a big part of my life; so are skiing, backpacking and hiking and mountain biking in my small beautiful Colorado mountain town. My whole identity was twisted. I couldn’t live like this. I thought about throwing myself off the Telluride via ferrata but I decided it would be horrible for the active mountain people who appreciate the freedom and beauty of that environment. I didn’t want anyone to find my body. I couldn’t do that to them. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even kill myself without hurting other people.

A few weeks earlier I had been a tough passionate mountain man living life to its vibrant fullest and now I was a sorrowful invalid. My father had died from cancer, from smoking cigarettes; first in the lungs and then the brain. I had seen what that was like and so I told my son that if it got worse he would have to leave me; he had to get away from me. I did not want to subject him to what I knew was coming and ruin his life.

No one knows what their reaction to imminent sickness and death would be like. To my surprise I wanted to see all the people who had played a significant role in my life one last time. I looked them all up. People I hadn’t seen or talked to for many years. I had to see life one more time and there wasn’t much time left. I was preparing for a tortuous near term death.

My basic mistrust of the medical profession, unyielding hope, and the remote wish that I might be able to save my voice box led me to get a second opinion. The ENT had said I had about two weeks and then surgery but waiting longer than that would be risky because of the advanced stage of the tumor. I wanted to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in Manhattan which is a world renowned cancer hospital. I didn’t have an appointment but I had a close friend in New York City who I could stay with while I figured things out. So I headed for the city.

It wasn’t all bad. I figured I was probably dying so I didn’t have to worry about diet anymore. I had black sesame ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. I ate the best Chinese dumplings all over town. I had the best cheese cake. I got in to see Steven Colbert’s late show. I walked all over Manhattan taking 360s.

After about a week in Manhattan I got an appointment. The doc looked down my throat and said he saw nothing! At that point I figured he didn’t know what he was doing. I went in for biopsy surgery and once again they did a biopsy and the doc was able to look more deeply. He still saw nothing. Maybe dumplings are a cancer cure. The second biopsy came back indeterminate again but they did find those cells they didn’t like. I went in for another surgery so they could remove the worrisome cells. I had gone to New York thinking that the best result would be that I could possibly save my voice box. I figured on going thru chemo and coming out of it sick at best. But things had turned on the proverbial dime. There was no more cancer. It had disappeared. When they did the last surgery, they removed the tissue they expected to find the weird cells in and there were none there. Everything had cleared on its own. At Sloan, they called me the ‘miracle man’. All the doctors used the word ‘miracle’, which kind of surprised me. But everyone agreed that they didn’t know what happened. There was no explanation. There never would be. But the unmistakable take away was to always get a second opinion, maybe a third.

Telluride was the most beautiful place I had ever lived. Easy access to adventure was right out the front door. But all things really do come to an end and for me twelve years in one place is enough; especially after the close call I’d had with cancer and after having looked death squarely in the eye and having successfully called its bluff,  I sold the condo. I had seen the serendipity in my own mortality and decided John Lennon was right when he said something like “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Only I would add that also “Death is also what happens when you are making other plans”. It was time to move on.

My main reason to live in Telluride for twelve years was because it has some of the world’s best skiing. Especially if you like big mogul runs and steep challenging stuff you can climb to and lots of really cool tree skiing. I had lots of close calls and great adventures in the Telluride Mountains. But it was time for change. I bought an RV.

Adventure is the kind of thing that happens spontaneously. You can’t plan it too much because then it just becomes an extended vacation.  Lots of things happen and might be dangerous because they weren’t planned out. These can end up being hair raising experiences. But once you’ve lived thru them, once you have come back from the edge, and you have come out the other side, it is like a reboot on life. Each time one of these adventures happened, once I survived, it felt like I had a whole new and rejuvenated life. I felt like I could survive anything and in comparison to what I had been through, it seemed like all the normal annoyances of life were too small to care about. These kinds of extreme experiences are the ones that stick in your mind and so in a sense the memories your brain chooses to keep are those you are made up of. They are the building blocks for what and who you choose to become.

I spent the ski season traveling all over the west, from ski area to ski area. I am me again. Sometimes I feel that I must be in a beautiful lucid dream while I lay dying in my hospital bed in another reality. I don’t know what happened. No one does. Some of my more religious friends think I was saved for something else; another chance. Maybe I was given a pardon so I could write this. So I could tell people to be kind. Live a decent life. Don’t hurt anyone. Try to be understanding and patient. Be generous. Always do the right thing. Love and enjoy your life. Don’t waste precious time. And if you go to a doctor and you get a death sentence; don’t ever give up, just go somewhere else and keep fighting.

I took surround shots wherever I went. In the Canyonlands National Park, it was of desert scenes about a five mile hike into the canyon. I packed in and stayed there for two nights in late November. I took 360s in the area I camped in and took more hiking in and out. It’s a beautiful area in Elephant canyon.

One night it was moonless dark and freezing cold. There was a rule against fires and it was around 20 degrees so I kept my body moving. Then it snowed hard, a blizzard. It snowed hard for about 15 minutes and cleared up to a dark cloudless sky with billions of stars. I would see a meteor every now and then, but there were other things moving around up there. Manmade satellites like the space station just moving across the dark sky at a constant speed without blinking, without any sound, so they were interesting to follow and there were several of them.

I kept my body moving constantly for warmth while looking around at the sky and I just happened to be looking toward the southern hemisphere, up at just the right angle, and just the right moment to see something that I had never seen before. It started as a bright flash from a central point and then from the bright center four long swords of light spread out at right angles. I say ‘swords’ to try to capture the well-defined shape, sharp, and in bright focus. I couldn’t look directly at it; it was too bright, like a mini sun. The entire southern hemisphere lit up almost like day for a moment and then the sword arms kind of retracted into the center, then the whole thing disappeared in the dark star lit background without disturbance or sound. It left me shaken. It looked most like the warp drive on the star ship enterprise.  I figured maybe someone was doing experiments in this secluded area. Maybe it was a meteor heading right for me so I saw it disintegrating head on. But I wasn’t sure because I had never seen anything like that.  And I was all alone in an isolated place. So if aliens walked out from behind the big rock near my camp site, it would not have been a surprise. Later an astronomer friend said it was probably a fireball from the Leonid meteors that were active when I was there.

It was late November and I didn’t think it would be all that hot. That makes not having much water a little easier. The only water I saw had pooled in infrequent crevices in the rock; little muddy pools but not many of them. So I was able to get some water from one of those and filter and boil it. But it was tough and by the time I hiked out, I was dehydrated more than I knew. There was a bottle of cherry juice in my fridge in the RV. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was when I got to it. I drank it down in thirsty gulps. Apparently too much too fast and all my muscles started to spasm. For a while, I was all twisted up. I had trouble using my hands and walking. My back and hips were convulsing, my feet painfully curled, my hands folded into grotesque shapes. Then it let go enough so I could drive up to Moab, where my gym was. A hard workout cures everything.

I skied Heavenly ski area in California on South Lake Tahoe. It is a large area bordering both Nevada and California. That morning I had used the lifts on the Nevada side although I ended up skiing more on the California side. It was my first day there. It was getting near the end of the day when the lifts close. Just before they did, I went thru a gate into an area called Killebrew Canyon. I didn’t realize at the time but it is a back country area and I don’t believe there is a way to get back on any of the lifts or at least I could not find it if there was. The day had been warm. So now it was getting late and the sun wasn’t as strong so all the soft melting snow from the warm sunny daytime hours froze solid in hard ice like ridges. This stuff is real hard to ski. But I was already too far down. I couldn’t hike back up; although that probably would have been smarter. So I went down figuring I could find my way back to the ski area. But it was getting tough. I kept falling in the hard rutted snow and breathing hard from getting myself back up.

I ended up going under a boundary rope because I was way too far down and I figured eventually if I kept descending I would hit a road or houses. The problem with that was my lesson from having to climb out of a waterfall in my Telluride days. The memory haunted me.  It was getting dark and I didn’t know the area. There was no way I could spend the night.

Now I was leaving the resort boundary. This was getting scary. I kept descending over rutted and frozen or just sandpaper snow. Skiing it without having accidents or breaking something was always a concern. I couldn’t afford an injury in this situation and I couldn’t afford to have any broken gear. Finally I saw ski tracks so I followed them. Sometimes they went uphill and climbing up to follow them was tiring. Sweat was pouring off of me.  But I had to keep going because I was afraid of being stuck there in the dark. I could hear the patrol blasting avalanches in the distance because they had closed the resort and were cleaning it up for the next day. The situation was risky and no one even knew I was there. Calling for help would have made it worse because they would have had to find me and I would be stuck waiting for them in one place. Anyway my phone signal was sporadic. And I’m not the type to call for help in any case. I couldn’t pause to rest even for a moment yet my heart was pounding and I was sucking air.

Finally following those ski tracks paid off. They became more well-defined and eventually there were multiple ski tracks all going the same direction and crisscrossing one another. I came to some houses and worked my way down to the road. Two mountaineering guys, Tom and John, who were coming out of the backcountry and passed me in their truck, backed up and stopped for me. It wasn’t my time to check out just yet thanks to those guys.

I mention only a few of the more dangerous experiences but there were many. As I traveled between ski areas, where ever I was I took 360 surround shots. I had figured out a way to turn them into Virtual Reality apps which now appear in the google apps store under DonPWest. Sometimes taking those shots was a bit precarious. I tried to get shots of areas that were hard to get to for most people. I want to let people know what it feels like to be there. And now you can be there with me; in Virtual Reality.


 

don@donpaulwest.com

DonPWest Virtual Reality apps and  more