Because of Noah
When newborn Noah Hunter was diagnosed with a sick heart, many wonderful things happened.
How did Peg know?
And by which Chris means: From the moment Ayan introduced herself in the hospital lobby, she clearly recognized that while Chris possessed a low-maintenance temperament and didn't require any dramatic demonstrations of sympathy, he did have a maximal need for constant, highly detailed, and efficiently delivered information. How did she know?
She not only knew what was needed. She provided it. She sustained it. How could one person have within her all...that? Because it wasn't just the Hunters. Sometimes, for reasons that were unclear to him, or perhaps for no reason at all, Chris found himself drawn from Noah's bedside out into the halls of the pediatric intensive-care unit. Something in him needed to see the others, the circles of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings gathered around the white slabs of the hospital beds in murmurous worship, it seemed, of something or someone that wasn't there. Or didn't appear to be. Or appeared to be a slightly disturbed sheet, because these heartsick babies, tiny and pale to the point of near translucence, were often invisible to the naked eye unless you walked into their rooms and stood by the sides of their beds to behold them. It was a humble, humbling sight, all those others gathered in circles to ask the same question Chris and Steph were asking, the simplest and deepest question in the world—a please followed by an ellipsis and a question mark.
On the ninth of January, 2007, Noah is put to sleep, his core cooled, his chest incised, his sternum cracked, his pericardial sheath split and peeled back, his blood cycled through a machine that keeps it clean and rich with oxygen. The heart is life; when the heart stops, life ends. Now, with Noah's core lowered to 28 degrees Celsius, the fluttering walnut in his chest slows, then stills, and he is gone. While he's away, the hole in his heart is stitched shut with a Gore-Tex membrane. It takes five hours in all, and then it is over. Noah comes home from the hospital and begins to take on color and fatten and smile and coo, and it is an astonishment.
Chris Hunter understands the gift he has been given, and he is grateful for and humbled by it.
Except that the gratitude doesn't feel the way Chris had thought it would feel. He'd thought it would feel final and pleasingly heavy. Instead it feels...unstill. It itches. He thinks about all those gifted medicine men and women, the surgeons, nurses, and technicians. But it's Peg Ayan's face that he pictures, and when he does, he starts to recover memories that for some reason have been temporarily unavailable to him: the two-hour phone call, three days before Noah's surgery, during which Peg answered every detailed question Chris mustered—and then another two-hour phone call the next day, two days before the surgery, during which Chris seemed wholly unaware of the call he'd placed the day before, and during which Peg patiently answered the same questions she'd answered 24 hours earlier without burdening Chris with any indication that she had done so.
Months pass, winter turns to spring, then summer, and still the gratitude itches and wants...what?
The answer is given atop Mt. Harvard, on the 7th of July, 2007. Chris and his climbing partner, a friend from work named Navan Powers, have just summited. This is Chris' passion, climbing fourteeners, and he brings the same ethic to his leisure that he brings to his work. He has devices, of course—a Spot satellite tracker and a real-time lightning predictor and detector—and he logs on weekly to his 14ers.com account to check trip reports and conditions. He's also the kind of climber who rises at three in the morning to train on a step mill, with hiking boots on his feet and an Osprey pack weighted with 25 pounds of filled water bladders strapped to his back; the kind of climber who stops every 10 seconds to suss out (verbally) the optimal line of ascent in his 4WD while navigating a rutted dirt road on the way to a trailhead.
The man is methodical, which is why he knows that on any given climb, the idiosyncrasy in his ear veins will present itself almost exactly at 13,500 feet. It's got something to do with the exertion and the thinned air, and it happens every time: He begins to hear the tom-tomming of his own pulse. Up on Mt. Harvard, it's insistent, it's loud—a percussion he can as much feel as hear. Then he's at the top, and the mountain has done what fourteeners always do, punished and pumiced and distilled him. And suddenly this much becomes clear to him: Joy is demanding, as demanding as suffering. Looking toward Mt. Lincoln, Chris thinks about his own body and his own heart, and he thinks about Noah's body and his heart, hardly larger than a quarter even now; he wonders if this feeling is the feeling of his heart being full or of his heart being empty, the feeling of something that is present or of something that is absent—too much or too little?—and then decides that it doesn't matter, because it's wondrous either way; he thinks about how grateful he is to Peg Ayan, whom he feels has protected and preserved him and his wife as surely as the surgeons have protected and preserved Noah, and he realizes that it is incumbent upon him to express this gratitude in a way that charges the heart—his and others. He creates the blueprint right there on the summit of Mt. Harvard. He's going to found a nonprofit organization to raise money for the Welcome Program at Children's Hospital. The next summer, he and Navan will climb...let's see, eight? nine? 10? fourteeners in five days. Something like that. He'll solicit pledges on 14ers.com. This will be his contribution.
Elsewhere in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness that morning, about 12 miles south as the crow flies, some guy Chris Hunter has never heard of and in all likelihood will never cross paths with is attempting a solo ascent up the back of Mt. Princeton. Like Chris Hunter, this guy is a 14ers.com fanatic. Unlike Chris Hunter, this guy doesn't know what the hell he's doing. It's odd. He knows why he's doing what he's doing, but not what. And because he doesn't know what he's doing, he's suffering terribly. He becomes enraged, then humiliated, and then, when there is nothing left, forsaken.