A Matter of Mind Over Mountains

It was one of those mornings you cherish in a small mountain town: a foot of fresh snow outside the bedroom window; the sounds of a plough making its way up the road; and the echo of dynamite as ski patrol hurls charges to trigger avalanche terrain. Exactly the kind of morning to cherish before potentially life-altering brain surgery – time to grab a quick bite to eat, gather the ski gear, and head to the mountain.

We were lucky to find ourselves at the front of the line for the ski lift. As I rode up the mountain with my brother and friend, Kyle, snow fell and accumulated in our laps. Anticipation of the powder day grew. At the top, we each chose a line down an untouched blanket of white. As we began our descent and let gravity take over, the fun really began. The snow flew, but this time in the opposite direction – up into our torsos, our goggles, and over our shoulders. No feeling rivals this.

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Skiing with Epilepsy fresh snow

"There was a foot of fresh snow outside the bedroom window; it was exactly the kind of morning to cherish before potentially life-altering brain surgery

I was thankful for the timing of that snowstorm. It provided me with a period of calm before a very different kind of storm that lay ahead. I was scheduled at the University of Colorado Neuroscience Center for brain surgery two days later. I was fortunate to have the epic experience of that morning to help me face the scariest moment of my life.  Yet, as I continued to ride the chairlift that day, two thoughts kept bouncing around in my mind. Am I going to survive this? And if I do, will I recover enough to continue pursuing my outdoor passions? At that moment, I promised myself I would.

As planned, I arrived to the hospital where I met my wife, Jeanie – who had travelled nearly two thousand miles from Dartmouth Medical School – and my father who flew in from Florida. I was put at ease by the calm demeanour of my dad, the retired surgeon, and my wife, the future doctor. Plus, I’d just had an amazing day of skiing. I couldn’t have been in a better state of mind. I made sure to bring my ski goggles to get a fun pic and lighten the mood before being wheeled into the anaesthesia room.

This would be the first of two surgical procedures. I have had medically refractory epilepsy since I was a kid. Increasing cognitive complications and several failed medication therapies made surgical intervention my last option. The craniotomy would open my skull for electrode strips to be laid directly on the brain to identify where my seizures originated. I would then be transferred to an epilepsy-monitoring unit, where doctors would try to actually induce a seizure. If data collected identified a ‘focal point’ in the brain safe to resect, then a second procedure would allow surgeons to carefully remove that portion.

"I couldn’t have been in a better state of mind. I made sure to bring my ski goggles to get a fun pic before being wheeled into the anesthesia room"

Before brain surgery

The first surgery went well. I found myself in a hospital room tethered to a mobile computer connected to wires exiting fresh incisions on both sides of my head. The pain was significant, but the drugs were pretty adequate in keeping it tolerable. With friends and family by my side, we all anxiously awaited for my brain to blow a gasket. In the next room neurologists were watching my brain’s every move. On several occasions, doctors and nurses stormed the room when an irregularity showed up on my EEG. All were false alarms. This continued for nearly ten days…

Eventually, it came. A massive seizure that generalised to a grand mal provided the doctors with the data they needed. I was an ideal candidate. That day, I consented to the procedure that would remove a significant portion of my right brain. I will never forget the feeling in my gut – let’s just say I was a touch apprehensive and frightened – and I remember the thought that ran through my head:

This is the main event. And life after that, who knows!

After a several-hour procedure, where surgeons removed my right temporal lobe, I awoke. I recognised my wife, dad, brothers and sisters. Most importantly, I remembered myself! The surgery was a success. Two days later, I was discharged, and retreated to a rental home in the foothills of Boulder, for short-term recovery. I was still in a lot of pain: but relaxing, sleeping, and having close friends and family visit me helped.

Jeanie and I returned to New Hampshire, where she continued with medical school and I continued recovering. It was a lengthy process. I eventually went back to work part time, but generally laid low, read, and wrote a lot about my experience. I felt very fortunate, although hypersensitive to the potential of having a breakthrough seizure. It weighed heavily on my mind as each day passed.

As weeks and months went by I gained strength and began getting back into outdoor activities. The upcoming summer would be Jeanie’s last free window for the rest of her three years of medical school. We wanted to do something special to celebrate both my recovery from surgery and our anniversary. The Himalayas had always been on our radar  – could I be physically ready in three short months for such an adventure?

Himalayas

"I felt very fortunate, although hypersensitive to the potential of having a breakthrough seizure. It weighed heavily on my mind as each day passed"

My skull and large horseshoe-shaped scars on my head were still healing. Yet, the opportunity of spending a month independently trekking in some of the largest mountains on earth became more and more appealing. It would be one way to honour the promise I made to myself on that chairlift the day before my surgery. I contacted my neurologists back in Colorado to discuss the idea, to which they gave their blessing.

Our good friends were mountaineers who had travelled to the Pakistani and Indian Himalayas. We had dinner with them to discuss the region, look at maps, and consider trekking routes. The idea of exploring on such a grand level again was exciting! It made me feel like my normal self. Later that night we made our decision: we would spend the upcoming month of July trekking in the Ladahk region of the Indian Himalayas.

For training, we began hiking, trail running and mountain biking around the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. Exploring outside, pushing my physical abilities, and feeling adrenaline in my veins again felt great. I had finally graduated to the physical phase of my healing process. We spent several weeks prepping our gear, applying for travel visas, studying our routes, and meal planning.  Before we knew it, our day of departure arrived.

The plane descended into the steep valley of Ladakh. Outside the window, we watched the Himalayas. They were mountains like we had never seen before. We touched down and came to a screeching halt as if landing on an aircraft carrier. The runway in the high mountain valley couldn’t have been much longer than a few football fields. We taxied to the town of Leh, where we spent a few days at a family hostel to acclimatise at eleven thousand feet, do a few short hikes, and prepare our gear for the trek.

"Outside the window, we watched the Himalayas. They were mountains like we had never seen before"

The journey began by travelling to a small village outside of Leh where we would embark on foot. After the first few days of trekking over passes at elevations of five thousand vertical metres with forty pound packs, we quickly felt the pain. Or was it pleasure? I wasn’t exactly sure. I never would have imagined scaling these mountains a few months prior. It was that realisation that made the experience so fulfilling and meaningful.

For the next two weeks we travelled by foot, spanning terrain from high desert valleys to glacial alpine passes. We encountered small Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques, and came across beautifully terraced self-sustained villages and their welcoming families. They would see us descending the trail from high above and have tea and curries prepared for us by the time we reached them. They insisted we spend the night before continuing on. Each day brought a new experience with incredible scenery, significant challenge, yet always a sense of accomplishment. Jeanie and I dubbed it ‘the art of unfolding’. The adventure would prove to be the second most physically and mentally challenging experience I have ever had.

Man on rock Staring at the Himalayas

"Each day brought a new experience with incredible scenery, significant challenge, yet always a sense of accomplishment"

Our highlight was reaching and camping at the advanced basecamp of the Nun massif, the highest peak in the Indian Himalaya range. There, at nearly twenty thousand feet, I stood looking out into the expanse of glacial seracs and towering peaks around me. At that moment I knew I was whole again.   

About the writer:

Jake Quigley is the executive director of the non profit Outdoor Mindset. The organisation’s mission is to unite and inspire people affected by neurological challenges through a common passion of the outdoors. It is a free membership-based community. When he is not working, Jake can be found adventuring outdoors with his wife, Jeanie, by foot, bike, or ski.

You can follow Outdoor Mindset on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Do you have an outdoor mindset? Head to their website to join their community.

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