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Birth, Sickness, Old Age, Death: Chapter 2

[Photo] Chris Van Leuven

This is Chapter 2 of “Birth, Sickness, Old Age, Death” by Lizzy Scully. To read Chapter 1, click here.

This story was first published in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 46. It is included in the Notable List of Best American Sports Writing, 2015 (ed. Glenn Stout and Wright Thompson). Alpinist 46 is available on our online store here. To download a digital version of this issue from the iTunes App Store, click here–Ed.

Death? That wasn’t something I was ready to contemplate. Pain was forcing me out of bed at 2, 3 or 4 a.m. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like a driver in a car skidding out of control. I kept hitting the brakes, but the car just accelerated.

The main shrine room of the Marpa House became my refuge. Long, with a lightly stained pinewood floor and white walls, the simple space contained a clean altar draped in gold, a handful of Tibetan thangkas and two dozen red cushions. I practiced yoga until the ache abated, and then I sat, focusing on my outbreath, sometimes for hours. I lit oil lamps to cut the predawn darkness. And by the time I finished, sunlight streamed through the eastern corner windows, stretching out across the floor like one of the many golden arms of Avalokiteśvara, the Goddess who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. I sought peace and freedom from the hurt. But while my climbing goals had inspired me to reach tangible summits, sitting-meditation “goals” got me nowhere except the present moment.


MY DOCTOR FINALLY DIAGNOSED me with ankylosing spondylitis in the summer of 2012–a somewhat rare, progressive autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in my digestive system, joints, tendons and ligaments. This was the reason that I’d always had chronic tendonitis somewhere. And it was why I now suffered chronic moderate-to severe joint pain in my neck, the length of my back, my ankles and my left big toe. Climbing had hastened the destruction of my body.

I’d tried natural remedies, yoga, acupuncture, various diet changes, but nothing worked, and I became increasingly depressed. I stopped my gym workouts, my climbing and my swimming. I yelled at the Marpa House kitchen manager and dined by myself more often. At an office meeting, I slandered an unpopular coworker. I can’t believe I said that, I immediately thought. I felt as if I’d just thrown rocks at a bird with a broken wing. Soon afterward, I quit my job: the stress was causing me too much pain.

My doctor finally convinced me to take an immunosuppressant called a biologic (specifically, a TNF-blocker…aka tumornecrosis-factor alpha blocker). Within a week, the pain abated.

Right away, I went on a road trip–my first stop was the San Rafael Swell in southern Utah. There, my friends and I climbed long, moderate sandstone routes in blazing sunshine. Holds crumbled beneath my toes on the friable, unprotected rock as I moved effortlessly for hours, elated. Two thousand feet up a low-angle slab, I watched our shadows lengthen below us like lanky, animated pictographs. We sat on the summit, our tired legs extended, scraped and bruised. The snow-dappled La Sal Mountains rose as a hazy backdrop to a desert landscape that reddened while the sun melted off the edge of the earth. The next day, fifty-mile-per-hour winds raged through camp, filling our tents, eyes and mouths with sand, yet I felt grateful. I thought I was in the clear.

Slowly, I worked my way back to my desired strength and agility. I started my own business, got back together with my partner and reconnected with friends. And I began dreaming of El Capitan again. Just a few days after I arrived in Yosemite in the autumn of 2012, I tore a ligament in my shoulder on the first pitch of the Cookie Monster, a popular sport route. Later, on the dark grey streaked dihedrals and faces of the Rostrum, I easily climbed through the thin finger locks in both bottom cruxes, but by Pitch 7, I couldn’t lift my arm over my head.

The next day, I met my physical therapist, who happened to be in the Valley.

“Lizzy, please stop climbing immediately,” she said, and she used dry needles to try to bring the circulation back to my swollen shoulder. I lay, attempting not to cry, my face buried in the dusty pillow of an old couch in a Curry Village employee lounge.

Two days later, I returned to Colorado to work with her. But even after six months of therapy, the tear in my labrum wouldn’t heal. The cartilage was destroyed. “Your shoulders just can’t handle it. You have to stop climbing cracks,” she told me.


TEN MONTHS AFTER SURGERY, I was back to training hard and feeling strong. I stopped taking the immunosuppressants because I’d convinced myself that I was over the hump. By March 2013, I was in Zion National Park with a novice wall partner. I offered to lead all the pitches on Space Shot, reasoning that he had no trad experience and that we had to get down by dinner. But really, I wanted to prove that I could lead the whole thing myself, that I wasn’t sick.

During the long, hot day, our route seemed like a vertical desert, its immense, arcing hand crack shimmering like a mirage into the distance. When I’d done the route the first time, eighteen years prior, I’d badly wanted to jam its steep, sandy fissures, but I hadn’t been strong enough. Now I was. I craved the feeling of muscles ablaze with lactic acid and of hands mashed and bloody in tight spaces, the sense of being suspended over hundreds of feet of space.

Thinking only of the free pitches above, I rushed through the aid section–and fell more than forty feet into the air, zippering five or six pieces and wondering, When will I stop? When the rope caught me, I laughed and then cursed. We wouldn’t make it back to camp before dark. We got down in time for last call at the Bit and Spur.

All that next day, as we re-racked and cleaned up, my hands stayed cramped like a dead crow’s claws, my head ached with dehydration, and my raw lips peeled from sunburn. But I felt euphoric, healed. I wasn’t ready for sickness and death.


“THIS WILL BE MY LAST TRIP, really,” I said to my bodyworker in May, before I left for Greenland.

He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “We’ll try to put you back together when you get back. You know you can’t keep pushing yourself like this.”

It was Greenland’s coldest, wettest summer in more than a decade, some Inuits told us. The wind blew our tents so hard that the walls flapped on our faces. Days of fog hung in the valley, saturating everything. The rime ice seemed to settle deep into my bones, and after just a week, the sharp stabbing in my back woke me throughout the night. I couldn’t sleep on my sides: my tendonitis-ridden hips felt like taut, aching rubber bands. And on the day we finally left the mountains, I screamed at nothing until I was hoarse, threw my haulbag down the hill and cried as I stumbled over giant boulders with a new, hateful pain in my knee.

But on the two big days that we all climbed, the sun shone and the wind barely whispered, and we made first ascents of spires on our first try. So much planning, so many months of hard work and so much pain. And I knew I should have stopped. I know it still: I need to stop. But, God, I love climbing.

Our last afternoon, on the Breakfast Spire, John and I spied a shadowed corner above. We couldn’t quite gauge the size of its crack; it seemed thin. Routes to the summit were endless. We had our pick– some easy-looking ramp systems ran to the left. It was my lead, however, and I wanted that mystery seam. On the other side of the corner, a dark and damp offwidth slot lay between me and even a glimpse of what was above. Too excited to feel my usual dread of wide cracks, I oozed my way up through the slime to the base of a long dihedral.

“Yeeooo!” I hollered to my partners. “A perfect thin-fingers to hands splitter!” Nearly 200 feet of stemming and jamming later, I pulled myself onto a pedestal and lay blinking at the blue sky until my heart rate slowed. When John arrived at the belay a half hour later, sweaty and gasping for air, he gave me a high five.

Higher up, we eyed our options. The sun was just rounding the corner, orbiting us on its endless summer-lit journey. It revealed bright snow-covered ledges and moss icicles that painted narrow black streaks of melt water on the granite face just to the left of another dark series of corners that would be John’s next lead.

My face flushed red. That crack, a flaw in the rock, was a rift to be bridged by my raw hands, a gap to be filled with my swollen toes. I breathed in the smell of rock and aluminum on my fingers and felt a sense of timelessness–that our twenty-four-hour-day would, in fact, go on forever. And I really want this next pitch, I thought.

John just smiled and said to me, “Go ahead; it’s all yours.”

This is Chapter 2 of “Birth, Sickness, Old Age, Death” by Lizzy Scully. To read Chapter 1, click here.

This story was first published in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 46. It was included in the Notable List of Best American Sports Writing, 2015 (ed. Glenn Stout and Wright Thompson). Alpinist 46 is available on our online store here. To download a digital version of this issue from the iTunes App Store, click here–Ed.