Chimborazo, 20,549

Equador, 1994

My rancid breath violently wakes me. Encapsulated in my greasy sleeping bag for the last month, I squeeze my oily head out of the womb-like tent opening. The biting wind blinds me through closed eyes. What time is it, or even what day? Heavy snow buries the tent, bending the pencil-thick fiberglass poles to their legal limits.

Rolling over, I stare at the ice crystals forming on the cramped tent’s buckling ceiling. Wearing every article of clothing I could scavenge from my alpine pack, my body shakes with cold, luckily jump-starting my freezing heart.

My climbing partner Dave lies on his back with gurgling snores rumbling out his contorted mouth. I wonder if I should start CPR. I focus my headlamp on his face. I’m sure I can see last evening’s minuscule rations still lodged in his furry teeth. Quietly, I attempt to sneak a morsel of trail mix, now parried down to peanuts and some strange dried fruit. It tastes like heaven.

Instantly, I need to pee, and badly. I weigh the decision for hours till mother nature takes the upper hand: Urinate or die. Pulling on Dave’s massive down jacket, I slither into the gear-packed vestibule. Wrestling to put on my heavy mountain boots, I try not to slice my hands on the razor-sharp crampons.

I squirm out of the small tent’s zippered door, and a frozen hurricane greets me. I battle the winds to keep from being blown from the mountain. My fluorescent yellow urine freezes instantly to my Gore-Tex pants. It is gross yet gleaming and cool. After shoveling off the tent for the zillionth time, I work my way back inside.

Diving into my sleeping bag, shivering manically, I prioritize my life of bad decisions, starting with this one. Dave sleeps on. After raiding the well-stocked medical kit for painkillers, I drift off to sleep. Thinking of being home in bed with my wife, I am warm, and it smells pretty.

Screams and a rumbling earthquake rip me from nirvana. I wake up to the smell of an old New York deli off-Broadway. Looking over, Dave is gone. The sun blasts through the nylon shelter, and the temperature grows to over one hundred degrees. Did we crash into the sun?

Outside, my climbing partner laughs, praising God for the break in the storm. Running around the tent in thigh-high snow, Dave violently shakes the snow off the tent on each lap. Sticking my head out the door, I look at a world that has become Santa’s wet dream. Energized, I throw on my boots and crawl out. The crisp, clean world of snow-capped mountains stretches for eternity. I can see forever. The sun warms my icy heart.

Suddenly, the summit looms closer. Prepping for our upcoming midnight assault between melting snow and drinking cups of creamy hot chocolate, we hatch another irresponsible scheme to live here and climb mountains for a living.

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