Let me tell you a story about my mentor.
Just weeks after I arrived in New Hampshire – no friends, listless, clueless – I was wandering around the Londonderry firehouse looking for stories (but mostly wasting time) when I heard about this guy who was going to be climbing Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park. Back then, I didn’t know the difference between Mt. McKinley and President McKinley, but feeling desperate, I called and set up an interview.
Jim Gagne was pursuing the seven summits, where climbers of very high skill attempt to summit the highest peak in each of the seven continents. Again, if I had known what any of that meant at the time I would have been impressed. And perhaps it was the fact that I didn’t that led Jim to suggest that, when he came back from Alaska, perhaps he could take me on a little hike.
Looking back, of course, Jim Gagne inviting you to hike with him is like Steven King suggesting the two of you jot down some notes or Usain Bolt wanting to do a little jog around the track with you. But I knew only that I was lonely and this was a chance to make a new friend. So I went.
For my first hike in New Hampshire – never having set foot, or really even seen, a mountain – Jim took me up the caretaker cliffs of Cannon Mtn. to the Old Man. I puked. The hand over foot “trail” shot straight up the I-93 side of the cliffs and it took me forever to pull myself up there. But as I stood atop of what was the Old Man’s forehead and looked down into the notch, Jim just stood back, not saying anything. Something inside me flicked on that day, a hidden flame I never knew existed. That feeling, that moment, is forever seared into my psyche.
Never before or since has my body been so thoroughly exhausted. I was unable to walk the next day, or the day after that. I called Jim from bed and told him he had to bring me lunch because I couldn’t move. He said, “Stop being so dramatic, where do you want to hike next?” We climbed Mt. Tecumseh, which was pleasant, but I wanted more.
So, in late March, with a heavy snowfall still in the upper slopes, Jim took me up Mt. Washington. The third mountain I ever climbed, in winter conditions and below freezing temps, with no experience, was Mt. Washington. It took us 14 hours.
Near the summit cone just past a formation I now know as Split Rock, I was so tired I just sat down in the snow and stared hopelessly down at Lakes of the Clouds Hut and across the vast southern presidentials and thought to myself that at least this was a wonderful place to die. But Jim was having none of that. After making sure I was warm, he said he was going to the top “real quick” to tag the summit and would be right back. Well, he did come back, only without a pack. Instead he took mine off my back, lifted me by my collar and said “come on.”
I summitted Mt. Washington that day, so tired that in my summit shot I’m sitting, not standing, by the sign. Jim took all the weight out of my pack and in some spots on the way down we had to take ten or fifteen minute breaks because my legs just would not work. I’m convinced that the only reason he took me up there was to practice rescue training. But I did it, and nearly everything I now know about teamwork, patience, preparation and determination, I learned in that one hike. Everything since has only been about improving upon that 14 hours of my life.
Since that day, Jim and I have hiked again and again, here and there. He was with me when I touched the summit of Mt. Adams to complete my 48th 4,000-footer. I still vividly remember the late night at my desk at work, waiting for emails to update me about Jim’s progress up Mt. Everest. I yelled out loud to that empty room when the email came through saying he’d made it and was heading down.
Jim’s success as a mountaineer is impressive, but those are feats I can only marvel at from afar. It’s something deeper, though, that I have learned from him; his joy of the natural world, his endless optimism even in the face of the extreme, his deep preparation and understanding of whatever he sets out to do before he does it.
I will never reach the summit of Mt. Everest. But the lessons I’ve learned from Jim have allowed me to get to Mt. Everest Base Camp. Those same lessons I have applied with all my might toward Janelle in the hope that Jim’s legacy will be passed forward and shared, and that perhaps, someday, she’ll do the same.
And now, my relationship with my mentor will come full circle as, this Sunday, Meena and I will go to Denali and walk in the shadow of that great mountain. We can’t reach the summit. But we will (hopefully) look up from below and think about all the family, friends and, yes, mentors like Jim, who played a role in getting us there, in helping us live this amazing life.
During our Book Release Party two weeks ago Jim was on my mind as I was setting up. I hadn’t spoken to him in a few months and I knew he had a big trip to the Tetons coming up. But he came anyway, and congratulated me. And once again, as he always did, deflected any of his own accomplishments to highlight someone else’s. That’s who he is. That’s who I’d like to be.
So, in a couple days, as I awake in Denali and look up in awe at Mt. McKinley, with the woman I still can’t believe is my wife at my side, I will think of all of you who helped get me here, and have been wonderful friends, and be thankful.
In the days ahead, I’ll make every effort to stay in touch. But like most adventures, not knowing what’s around the corner comes with the territory. So, thanks all, see you soon, and onward to Alaska!