December 10, 2019
The routine has always been the same. I splash cold water on my face and let it drip down the back of my neck. I twist my upper body and stretch out my shoulders. I start to slow my breathing and hone my focus. As my heart rate drops, I start to narrow my vision. All fears, doubts, and auxiliary thoughts start to fade away. I’m getting ready to enter the zone.
A few minutes ago, I was sitting on the bank of the river. As I looked out over Big Brother, the marquee waterfall of the Green Truss section on the Middle White Salmon, I felt a surge of anxiety and doubt. I had run the drop many times before, but never at this water level, never under these circumstances. As I sat on the bank I ran through the multitude of outcomes that could result from deciding to run the drop. I envisioned all the ways it could go wrong, the risks involved, the hazards along the way. I weighed those against the reward that would come from a successful descent, the feeling of euphoria that would wash over me, the accomplishment that would feel so personal in that moment.
I’d been doing a lot of similar thinking throughout the year. A year spent weighing risk versus reward. A year spent in and out of lab clinics, hospitals, and family meetings. A year spent discussing potential outcomes, risks, and hazards of what I was contemplating doing. A year spent seeing all the obvious signs that the overall reward would justify the risk. A year spent in a state of limbo and indecision, paralyzed by fear and anxiety, yet hopeful for what the future would bring.
I slowly start to peel out of the eddy into the main current. All the fear is gone now. The decision has already been made. Once I enter the main current above the falls, there is no backing out. There is no use for fear, overthinking, or contemplation anymore. Only action.
Below the mist and roar of the falls I can barely see my friend Griff, waiting in the safety of the lower pool. He looks up at me with big blue eyes full of life and passion. I zero in on his shit-eating grin, and I know I have made the right call. I’ve been following Griff on adventures like this ever since I was an awkward pre-teen kid on the local kayak club. He has pushed my limits and shown me how to face challenges head-on, to squeeze every ounce of value out of the time we have on this earth. He taught me to see the upside in everything, the value of a good attitude when things aren’t going your way. He has helped to expand my world. I’ve followed those wild eyes all around North America. Chasing rivers, peaks, couloirs, bonfires, rock chimneys, and everything in between.
The next few steps feel automatic. I’ve already run the drop a dozen times in my head. Visualized each precise step that will lead to success. I feather my left paddle blade to pull myself into the current. Spot the V-shaped green tongue that represents my chance for safe passage through the oncoming maelstrom. Pull two hard strokes on my right to correct my angle. Prepare for take-off.
As I approach the lip, I can’t help but feel a sense of bliss. Bliss in knowing this is a choice I made all on my own. The ups and downs of the past year, the letdowns, the delays – they all fade away. This moment is all for me. This is where I feel most alive, the place I always return to when I need to rediscover my true north. I am ready for the challenge ahead. A grin creeps over my face as I pull my final boof stroke over the lip of the falls.
Experiencing Free fall: Crested Butte, CO
Everything goes black. I can feel the power of hundreds of gallons of water cascading down upon me, tossed from their flat river-bed equilibrium. In these moments there is nothing to do but hold on. Hold on and trust. Trust in your decision-making. Trust in your preparation. Trust yourself.
As I re-emerge from the dark chasm of the river, a wave of relief washes over me. The laser focus and adrenaline slowly give way to euphoria and pride. I made it. I could have easily portaged around this rapid and avoided any of this mess. But that’s not who I am. That’s not why I’m here. That’s not what my instincts told me to do on this day. And in this moment, I couldn’t be happier that I listened to them.
As I paddle across the lower pool, taking care to avoid the re-circulating cave on the river right (been there, done that before), I lock eyes with Griff. Those goofy eyes smile right back at me. I notice a twinkle in his eyes. I can’t help but smile back.
December 23, 2019
The routine feels different today. I shut off my beeping alarm and look at the time. 4 AM: the sure sign of an epic adventure. The only times I awake this early are to summit a challenging peak, catch the sunrise at an iconic surf break, start the hike-in for an all day adventure. But something feels different today. I hear no birds chirping, no waves crashing, no alpine winds howling. Instead, I hear only the beeping of a heart rate monitor, the steady drip of the IV connected to my arm, the buzz of overhead fluorescent lights. I know today will be one of the biggest adventures of my life, but the start feels different.
Still, I go through the motions. I focus on the task ahead. I slow my breathing. I visualize my plan. I’ve got this.
A few hours later, I am ready to peel out of the proverbial eddy and commit to the line. However, instead of my trusty Waka Kayak and Kokatat dry suit, I find myself lying in an unfamiliar wheeled bed, wearing nothing but a thin gown. The fear and anxiety of the past year has already passed by now. I know better than to question my judgment at a time like this. Once you’re in the main current (or in this case, being wheeled down the main hallway) there is no turning back. Fear serves no purpose at this point. Time for action.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of my big sister lying in a bed next to me. Lucy – my sister, my mentor, one of my best friends. I look over at her eyes. They look fearful, they look dejected, they look worn down. Most distinctively, they show the unmistakable yellow tint of jaundice. The type of jaundice that represents a body that has failed you. A body that no longer is able to rid itself of toxins and instead pumps them right back into your blood. A body that refuses to obey your commands and lets you down at the least opportune times. She needs help. Now.
Over the past several years while my world was expanding, Lucy’s has been shrinking. While I went off to Panama to start my own adventure guiding business in the jungle, she was forced to leave her job. While I took off for Russia to climb the highest peak in Europe, she was forced to move home with our parents – unable to take care of herself anymore. While I looked forward to what was in store each month in the future, she was fearful of the bad news the next day might bring.
Now here she is, alongside me. We are embarking on this adventure together. While we had always talked about her joining me on one of my big adventures, I don’t think this is what either of us had in mind. But here she is. And she needs hope. I catch her eyes and give her the biggest grin I can spread across my face. I tell her everything is going to go great. I try to infuse my confidence and hope into her as best I can. It’s all there is to do at this point.
As my bed exits the main hall and drifts away from Lucy, I begin to enter the zone. I’ve already performed the next sequence of moves dozens of times in my head. My bed enters the sterile, aggressively lit room. I sit up and crouch over in a “scorpion shape” as the team slowly inserts a catheter into my spinal cord. I lie back down. I re-adjust for one last attempt at comfort. I slow my breathing. A mask is placed over my face and I slowly count down from ten.
I’m approaching the lip of the falls. The rest of the world slowly begins to fade away. All external thoughts, outside pressures, and emotions drift off. I feel a moment of bliss. I’m here. This is happening. All of the preparation and planning have led to this moment. I feel the slightest grin cross my lips under the haze of gas.
And then blackness. Blackness like I have never experienced before. Blackness like I will never remember again. An empty void of space and time.
I blink my eyes open. I can’t remember how long I have been there. Am I awake? Am I dreaming? Where am I? What happened? Is it over? Through the haze of my foggy eyes I notice my girlfriend, brother, and mom, entering the room. I feel a wave of relief. The darkness is gone. Replaced by euphoria and pride. In my drugged stupor the best line of reassurance I can muster for my loved ones, “Jee (my brother Jack), you goddamnsonofabitch, what are you doing here?” tumbles out. The journey is almost complete.
However, no adventure ends until all members of the party have made it back to basecamp safely. I’m still waiting on my partner. I haven’t seen her yet. I need to know she is ok. Over the next few hours, I drift in and out of sleep. Stuck somewhere between consciousness, dreaming, and reality. I shift around in my bed, feeling the pangs of pain, the sense of loss, the joy of being on the other side. I anxiously wait for Lucy to arrive safely in the pool alongside me.
Finally, I get the word that I can see her. Despite my team’s advice, I insist on standing up and walking to her. I need to be strong for her. I need her to see me upright and on the move. Besides, I’ve summited 18,000 ft peaks, how hard can a few steps be?
As I stand up from the bed a wave of lightheadedness washes over me. I turn green in the face. My eyes glaze over. I grip the side of the bed and hold on for dear life. Moments later, I blink my eyes open. I’m still standing. Step one down. With the assistance of my team, I slowly begin the process of walking across the open expanse between myself and Lucy. I feel the pain deep in my abdomen. I reach down and run my fingers along the 5” incision from my belly button to my sternum. Glued and stitched together. Slowly beginning the process of healing. I take another step.
When I reach Lucy, I am overcome with emotions. She looks like she has been through hell and back. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from a life of pursuing type 2 fun, it’s often the times when you look most rugged that you feel the most alive. Pushing aside monitors, wires, and tubing – I lean in to give Lucy a kiss on the cheek. I stare into her eyes. Deep within her body, half of my liver is doing the work her body has been unable to perform for years. Fresh blood is emerging, clean of toxins to nourish her body. For the first time I can remember in decades her eyes look clear. Despite the trauma her body has been through and the long path to recovery ahead, her eyes are clear. Clear and hopeful. Somewhere buried within, I glimpse a twinkle in her eyes. I can’t help but smile back.
4 AM. Different start than most adventures, but still have my game face on.
Final wave to Lucy as we head into surgery
Re-emerging from the “darkness” of an 8-hour abdominal surgery
First time standing up. Green in the face, close to passing out – but I made it.
Staring into Lucy’s clear eyes for the first time
4 days post-surgery
Lucy and me, 1.5 months post surgery.
7 days post surgery. Had to show off the scar.
3 Months Post Surgery
Henry Heyman is a kayaker, skier, and outdoor enthusiast based in Boulder, Colorado. Between his day job managing partnerships for MiiR drinkware and his moonlight gig as an organ-donating superhero, you can find Henry playing in the high peaks of the Rockies and the Cascades, and dropping the rivers that flow between them. Find him on IG @henryheyman.