Friday, June 8, 2007

About My Hero

For the purpose of this post, I shall refer to the tallest mountain in North America as Denali, its original name, not Mount McKinley. It was so named by native Alaskans and means "The Great One".

In 1989, my climbing partner was making plans to go to Alaska and climb Denali. Although he had much more experience than I did in the mountains, I begged him to let me go with him and he finally agreed. He took me under his wing. He had me read several books about how to safely climb the massive peak and come home alive and well. Although I was much younger and I thought much stronger than him at the time, he was genuinely concerned for my safety and well being on the mountain.

On the route we took, the climb goes from base camp at about 7000 feet, to the 20,320 ft. summit. It took us a few days to get to our camp at 11,000 ft. We had to wait out some bad weather. There were other climbers on the mountain with us. I specifically recall a group of six Italian climbers at the 11,000 foot camp. They were obviously sponsored, as they all had matching climbing suits and gear with the sponsor's various logos sewn all over their suits. They too were considerably younger than my climbing partner. The weather broke and we began our big haul up to the 14,000 ft. camp. The group of Italians had left before us, headed to the same place. They were pretty far ahead of us up the mountain. My climbing partner must have been feeling pretty strong that day. We caught and passed the Italian group before we were even half way to the next camp. My partner was leading on the rope all that day. It was everything I could do to keep up with him. My ego never allowed me to ask him to slow his pace a bit and by the time we reached 14,000 feet, I was completely exhausted; totally spent.

A few days later we were at 17,000 feet on the mountain when a huge storm came in. It was so bad we didn't even bother with our tent and dug a large snow cave instead. We waited three days and nights in the cave for the weather to break. We had conversations like we'd never had before while in that cave and the experience brought us closer than we'd ever been. When the weather finally broke, we went to the summit in the most calm, beautiful weather that was experienced on Denali all that climbing season. My partner had to work incredibly hard that day and I know there were times when he suffered physically. But his mental toughness was something like I'd never seen before in another human being and we both made it back to our cave at 17,000 feet, safe and sound.

A few days later we were off the mountain enjoying a steak dinner at our motel in Talkeetna, Alaska. Because of my partner's meticulous preparation, attention to all the details, and incredible toughness, we had climbed the tallest mountain in North America and had done it smartly and safely. My climbing partner for that Denali climb was none other than my father, Hank Waugh. He was 63 years old at the time. The Denali park rangers told us that at that time, he was the oldest to climb the mountain without the assistance of professional guides. Before that climb, I'd been through Infantry school, Airborne school and Ranger school while I was in the Army. I'd been through the toughest imaginable basketball practices at the University of New Mexico. But it wasn't until I observed my father, my hero on Denali that I truly understood the concept of mental toughness.

My father learned of adventure and love of the outdoors from his father and wanted to pass it down to his children. In the outdoors, my mother and dad gave my sister, two brothers and I the best childhood imaginable. In the summer we were backpacking and climbing mountains in New Mexico and Colorado, and in the winter we were skiing in those same mountains. My mom and dad will both be 81 years of age on their next birthdays. They are healthy and well, living south of Albuquerque on a pretty little piece of land, with three horses. My dad still gets to the outdoors, only with his artificial knee and bum hip, its usually by horseback these days. He is a member of a group called Back Ccountry Horsemen. They sometimes go on rides just for fun, but are more often out doing maintenance work on trials in the National Forest. Its hard work, and the younger members are still amazed when they ask my hero's age and he tells them. They are completely amazed by what a tough sun-of-a gun he is. But I've known it all my life.