#tbt to this date in 2004. I was lying in a hospital bed post-op in the Denver Spine Center surgery unit, having just undergone a few different orthopaedic spinal surgery procedures for some severely herniated discs and some subsequent nerve damage. That morning, I was wheeled into the operating room in a wheelchair. I couldn’t walk. Hadn’t been able to walk for days. Despite almost a year of trying every type of alternative treatment and therapy to avoid surgery I could find, I’d lost, and the injury acutely worsened to the point that my sciatic nerve was so badly crushed I’d collapsed and lost almost all the function in my right leg. I needed surgery, and I needed it quickly. I’d already lost over 1″ of circumference muscle mass on the affected leg in the days waiting for a time slot in the operating room to open for me here in this esteemed surgical center.
When I awoke from the surgery that evening, I could walk again. It was immediate, the effect…or so I thought. However, the next 9 months would prove to be one of the most trying times of my life, as my rehab slowed to a crawl, and at times both myself and my surgeon were beginning to come to terms with the fact that maybe the surgery actually hadn’t worked after all, seeing as how bad my physical ability and pain had regressed since those first glorious days post surgery.
My surgeons words from that post-op recovery room visit, that was so filled with a fresh hope and perspective for me, cut like a sharp hot knife through butter and they always stayed steadfast in the back of my mind…both equally as a warning and as a motivator….’if you don’t change your career and lifestyle you’ll almost certainly end up back here for a spinal fusion within the next 5 years’.
I was 28 years-old, and well into beginning to really carve out a life for myself as a mountain guide and outdoor educator. And now I had to give that all up, what my heart and soul loved so much, and start over. F@#k ! I was crushed, and I was pissed, and angry. And this proved to be one hell of a motivator for me. Coupled with my stubborn nature, this was an incredibly hard pill to swallow, and it was obvious denial was not going to be an option.
The next 9 months, like previously mentioned, were some of the most mentally and emotionally challenging times I’ve ever had. I was constantly struggling on a daily basis with my belief in myself, with what I wanted my path in life to be, and with the fear and distrust I had in what was just such a short time ago….my young, strong, and infallible physical body. Doubt crept heavy into each day, and I can’t imagine if I had to weather that internal storm in someplace other then the sunny blue skies of the Colorado high country, what it would have done to my spirit.
June 15, 2009. Five years to the day post surgery. I had fought and struggled through the slow and difficult rehab process, that at times seemed bleak and disheartening, and I had come out the other side of the dark tunnel. I was still guiding and teaching, climbing, and skiing, and feeling strong again. But in the back of my mind, my surgeon’s cautious warning still echoed, and brought a whisper of self-doubt into my belief in myself and that I was truly healed. This haunted me, and at times became almost as crippling as the pain that drove me to his operating table in the first place. I had to get over it. Having back my physical ability again, simply wasn’t enough, I needed the mental and emotional belief in myself and my ability as well, to truly feel whole again.
So I set out on a task, a big physical test (by my lowly standards compared to my peers) to prove to myself that I’d come a long way, that I’d truly healed, and that I could finally put to rest the self doubt that was haunting my return to normalcy in my physical activity, and lay it to rest. To be able to truly enjoy every moment without a nagging ‘what if” in the back of my mind, tainting every experience like a pesky piece of sub par cork in an otherwise perfect glass of wine ;).
So, that morning I headed off on an attempt to climb a few iconic mountains outside Aspen, CO….South Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, and Pyramid Peak. All Colorado 14ers, all known as being fairly difficult, and all quite big, steep, and intimidating. And to do it solo, in a single push, with no help or support, car-to-car in under 12 hours. For me, at that time in my guiding and climbing life it seemed like a possible objective, but a step up from anything I had done thus far myself under those terms. But….after all, according to my highly respected and decorated surgeon, I should have been back on his operating table that morning getting a spinal fusion to fix me, instead of waking up in the pre-dawn silence and towering mountainous shadows at the Maroon Lake trailhead just outside Aspen.
Just under 11 hours later, and almost exactly 10,000′ of human powered vertical later, I sat alone on the tailgate of my truck, in the mid-afternoon June sunshine enjoying a beer and letting my sore and damp feet air out in the cool Colorado air. I hadn’t told anyone, save one close friend for emergency purposes, about my agenda that day for fear of public failure. However, I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Surprised myself and done even a bit better then my intention….and my back felt fine (relative to what it had felt like 5 years prior). For the first time since I could remember in the past 5 years, I felt relieved and at peace with my past. I was at that moment, fully conscious of the fact that I had eliminated any self doubt in myself and my physical health and ability at that time for the first time in 5 years. It was an amazing feeling, and greatly overshadowed the actual physical achievement I felt. I had released the demon, destroyed the ghost, shined a light into the darkness of myself that was my own self-doubt, for the first time in a long long while and it felt truly amazing. My surgeon was wrong, I had overcome his pessimism and my own doubts, only by my desire to follow what I saw as my path, and to prove to myself that I wouldn’t have someone else’s perceptions on my limitations burden me, and a whole hell of a lot of support from others that believed in me more then I did.
Of course, since that day, I have come across innumerable moments of self doubt and had to question my belief in myself many many times, as we all do at times, when we try to live as human beings striving to become better tomorrow then we are today. And I know that I will have many more to come in my future as well.
But here I sit and write this on June 15, 2016, now 12 years post surgery, and that time seems so long ago, so far away, as if it had happened to a different person, and I am reading about their story. Yet that moment of clarity and lightness I had on the tailgate that afternoon 7 years prior, from finally releasing my burden of so much self doubt I carried for so long still feels as fresh today as it did then.
Since that day, and across the ensuing 12 years, and despite the warnings, and to the disbelief of my doctors, I have continued to guide, climb, and ski, and also continued to improve and push myself to be better along the way. In that time I have earned my IFMGA license as a mountain guide; I have successfully bought, operated, and sold a small guide service here in Crested Butte, Colorado; I have guided and climbed and skied with hundreds of people from all over, in places all over the planet, and continue to do so today; and I still look ahead to the future with hope and optimism about what is still to come and to be accomplished in my life as well.
However, all this could only have been achieved, through the same power that was the only thing that got me out of bed every morning post surgery, when I truly thought I couldn’t….through the belief in me that my family, friends, and peers showed to me on a daily basis. They believed in me more then I did, and that made all the difference in tipping the scales so that one day I too would believe in myself again enough to overcome what would lie in my path, and for that I am forever grateful and indebted to those people in my life.
— Jayson Simons-Jones (Founder / Director, Lotus Alpine Adventures)