Sunday, December 16, 2007

Heroes and Friends

I consider Jeff Evans a true friend. He’s also one of my heroes.

I was headed out the door on an overnight airplane trip several years ago when the sudden impression came to me that I should grab one of my rock climbing books as well as a knot-tying book. I hadn’t read or looked at them in years. But when I just happened to sit next to Jeff Evans on the plane (at the time a total stranger to me), I ‘knew’ there was a reason why I brought those books.

Jeff led Erik Weihenmayer to the summit of Mount Everest. I knew the story. Everyone in the climbing world did, including millions more. Erik’s totally blind. I imagine that most blind men would be more worried about running into a couch or a dining table, not worrying about whether or not he’ll die at the top of Mount Everest! That’s phenomenal; it’s motivational. Even one of the top ecclesiastical leaders of our church spoke about Erik and his unnamed guide. (Ex: “I know many feel that the path is hard and the way is dark. But like Erik, the courageous mountain climber, we are not left without a guide.”) See Joseph B. Wirthlin, “One Step after Another,” Liahona, Jan 2002, 27–30.

Well, Erik couldn’t have reached the summit without a skilled and trusted team; he couldn’t have done it without Jeff leading him.

I still remember well nearly every word of our conversation that day. I don’t think I had ever listened so intently before in my life as I did while listening to Jeff Evans. As a motivational speaker, business executives around the world and large crowds seeking entertainment and inspiration beg him for a few minutes of his time. I felt incredibly fortunate to have one-on-one time. We really bonded, and in some respects we had a lot in common.

When I told him recently I was going to ask my wife for a copy of his book for Christmas, he insisted that he give me one. Although telling him that wasn’t my intention, I gave in. Today a copy of Jeff’s book, Mountain Vision: Lessons Beyond the Summit, arrived. I can hardly wait to devour it.

On the back cover Erik mentions a few things about Jeff…and so does Nikki Stone. I know Nikki. She won the 1998 Aerial Skiing Olympic Gold Medal.

Before really finding my niche as a risk-taker on a SWAT team, I trained with members of the U.S. Ski Team in Lake Placid, New York. I wasn’t there too long, but long enough to get to know Nikki, Eric Bergoust (Men’s Gold Medalist), and others. In fact, I’ll never forget Eric stopping one day and asking me frankly, “Why are you smiling all the time?” I thought it was the oddest observation ever. But who wouldn’t be smiling? There we were in the middle of the summer jumping on competition trampolines and skiing down plastic watered-down ramps, doing flips into the swimming pool. Summer training was great!

But then again, like any extreme sport, there was an element of danger.

Lina Cheryazova, a Russian-speaking Gold Medalist, and I were skiing down the wooden ramps side-by-side in the morning. Lina had a great smile and a huge heart; she just didn’t speak English well. However, I remember her kindly explaining to me in sign language and a few Russian words what I needed to improve on. Both of us smiled and then went inverted through the air. What a rush!

In the afternoon I went to the Nordic Ski Jump hill, and at the same time I twisted my knee severely, Lina did something much more damaging. From what I gathered, she caught a ski tip at the crest of the biggest ramp. When she went to flip backwards, the back of her head smashed against the wooden plank, crushing her skull. The skateboard-like helmets didn’t seem to help at all. Her limp body plummeted into the bubbling water where she was rescued. An emergency medical helicopter flew her out promptly. Not only was the accident a career-ender, but I had heard she went into a coma—obviously much more severe. Speaking about it was taboo.

In life there are ups and downs, there are trials and triumphs. It sure is nice to conquer fear, to tread on step by step, even sometimes if, like Erik Weihenmayer, we can’t see what may lie before us. You know what the greatest thing is though? Friends.

I’m not into celebrities. I mean, I don’t ask for their autographs and I don’t bug them. But, I did ask Jeff Evans to sign my rock climbing books and thankfully he wrote me a nice note in the book he authored: Mountain Vision. Yes, there still are real-life heroes in the world.

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