I lied on my life insurance policy. The reason, is that mountain sports are dangerous, and I participate in almost all of them. So when I filled out the insurance application and got to the page of questions about my hobbies, I feared the truth would lead to expensive premiums at best. At worst, my wife would insist that I quit all dangerous pursuits entirely. So the question/answer went something like this: Do you backcountry ski? No. Do you rock climb? No. Do you mountain bike? No. On and on it went for pages and pages, and the “no” column became a string of dishonest black ink.
Thanks to my deceitful responses, I ended up getting the policy. But the process made me ponder that insurance companies must ask these questions in the first place because what we do in the mountains, truthfully, can threaten life and limb. And unfortunately, if you live and play in the high country long enough, someone close to you will probably get hurt or even killed.
Lately, friends and acquaintances have been doing just that. There are countless ways for us to walk amongst peaks and return broken… or not return at all. This thought scares me, because when someone I know bites it hard, inevitably, I look at my own actions in the outdoors and realize how easily it could have been me.
Even more scary, is if something tragic should happen, I might not get to drink the beer I just stocked in the garage refrigerator.
I figure these dark thoughts explain why, on my last mountain bike outing, I felt my fingers tighten around the brake handles. A small drop in the trail approached, a drop I’ve cleaned dozens of times. I knew that to clear it, I should go faster and let momentum push me through, but my hands had become vices. All confidence fled. At the last second I forced myself to let go and my fingers relaxed. I hit the drop like a newbie and my front tire slammed into the rocky ground, followed by the rear, which shoved the bike seat like a piston into my unspeakable regions. I almost flew over the handlebars. I stopped to collect myself and understood what just happened. A friend recently crashed his bike and the outcome was very bad – bad enough that it put the fear in me.
The first time I saw Brian McKenna, he was chugging discount beer from the bottom of a dirty Frisbee. Someone said it’s impossible to drink a Frisbee full of beer all at once, and he took that as a challenge. Thinking it would only be around two cans, he was dismayed to discover that a Frisbee actually holds six. But like a feral beast, he chugged, and chugged, and put away the disc o’ brew in an obscenely short amount of time… then promptly threw up.
He did this at a baby shower.
After that, I had much respect for McKenna. We soon became cohorts of the Niños Jugando, or “Children at Play,” so named after our group of friends ripped peak on a backcountry ski trip in South America. That’s where he earned even more of my admiration. After enduring an all-day slog to a stone hut called Refugio Frey, McKenna declared he was thirsty and removed a water bottle from his pack. But instead of taking a deep, thirst-quenching drink, he pulled a wig from the bottle. Not just any wig, but a full-on, rock-star mullet. He slid the synthetic hair over his brow, proudly stood upon a boulder framed by toothy spires under thunderous clouds, and chugged a yellow can of Isenbeck cerveza with one hand while simultaneously crushing an empty in the other. Yup, the dude sacrificed water on a day-long approach to make room for a mullet wig. That’s when I knew this guy crushes life as easily as an empty beer can.
So my gut dropped when I learned he was airlifted to a Salt Lake City hospital following a mountain bike crash at Deer Valley. My relief after finding out McKenna survived was tempered by the knowledge that he suffered a cervical spinal fracture. As far as injuries go, his can’t be much worse.
Before visiting McKenna at the hospital, I had visions of him plastered in a full-body cast suspended in traction, encased inside an iron lung, with a halo of steel screwed into his skull. But when I got there, I found the same old McKenna. Though he is paralyzed from the neck down and can hardly speak, the mischief in his eyes and the big, bearded grin are still there. As I write this, his prognosis is unknown, but doctors are impressed with his progress thus far. He’s begun physical therapy, and from what I hear, the dude is tackling it with the same feral determination that I witnessed when he dove right into an upside down Frisbee-cauldron filled to the brim with cheap swill.
Still, seeing the guy laid out on a hospital bed faced with an uncertain future, is an image that humbled me. Actually, the image is borderline terrifying, and I hauled that image like heavy baggage on my first mountain bike ride after hearing about the crash. That image also caused me to call my insurance agent for a revised policy, and to drink all the beer in the garage before it’s too late.
But that negativity disappeared soon after the hospital visit. There, I witnessed McKenna continue to crush life like an empty beer can, and it became clear that his injury isn’t going to beat him down, but is simply a different mountain to climb. Knowing Brian McKenna, I’m absolutely confident that, with the support of his family, friends, and the outdoor community, he will prevail. So to help him on the climb to the summit of regaining his old self, I gave him a wig in a water bottle. You know, in case he gets thirsty along the way.