My friend Quinn Simons and I met in college in Colorado, became fast friends, and did quite a bit of climbing together over the years. We climbed in the Peruvian Andes in 1996, and went on countless excursions into the Colorado Rockies during our college years.
After graduating from college, I went on to guide nearly full time. In the autumn of 1997, I was hired by International Mountain Guides to co-lead their Cho Oyu climb that year. Quinn, along with his friend Soren Peters and father Tom Simons, had planned a trip with a Colorado guide to a rarely climbed, highly technical route on Gurla Mandhata, a high peak in remote west Tibet. Quinn and I planned to meet up after our expeditions in Kathmandu and take motorcycles across Nepal.
Neither of us knew that would never happen.
After returning from Cho Oyu, I was living in Kathmandu and waiting for Quinn, Tom, and Soren to return so we could begin our adventure. Time passed, and no word came. (This was 1997, in the stone age of mountain communications, and the modern conveniences of on-mountain email and phone calls was in its infancy.) Eventually, I got word from the USA that Quinn and team had been involved in an accident and were headed back to Kathmandu. I eventually tracked them down at the Annapurna Hotel, right across the street from the CIWEC Clinic, the best care in Kathmandu at the time.
To put it simply, I wasn't at all prepared for what I was about to see.
Quinn was gaunt, a ghost of himself. His hands and feet were "Q-tipped" - wrapped up in bandages to protect horribly frostbitten limbs. When we re-wrapped one hand, the extent of the frostbite blew my mind: his once strong fingers had turned to shriveled, hard black appendages barely resembling human flesh. They were, in a word, dead.
And Quinn knew it.
But, the amazing thing was, he was alive. The team had endured catastrophes which would have killed most climbers. Raging Himalayan blizzards. Feet of snow. Faulty equipment leading to dehydration. A 1500 foot fall down the mountain, cartwheeling over seracs and crevasses along the way.
But, for Quinn (and Soren, who also suffered severe frostbite), the difficult journey was just beginning.
Frostbite is literally a burn, just one caused by extreme cold rather than extreme heat. And Quinn had deep-tissue frostbite on both hands and both feet, all the way down and into the bones. His was, so far as I know, the single worst case of frostbite ever recorded for someone who survived their ordeal.
In the next two years, Quinn would undergo many surgeries. He battled severe staph infections in his recovered tissue. He lost both feet at the ankle, having what is known as a Symes amputation. His doctors had managed to save more of his hands than would have been possible just a few years before, but he nonetheless lost most his fingers on both hands.
For most people, this would have been the end. It would, in fact, have been an easy excuse for Quinn to wallow in self-pity, to say "woe is me" and refuse to fully engage life once more. All of that would have been easy, understandable, and most likely no one would have faulted him for it.
But Quinn is not like most people. He never has shied away from challenge, nor from life. And he didn't this time, either.
Instead of shrinking away and deciding that he could no longer do the things he wanted to do, Quinn decided to simply figure out how to live his life with his new challenges. He raised and rode horses again at his home in New Mexico. He built spec homes and office space. He rode bikes, went on hikes, learned to make pottery again. He goes fly fishing, and can shoot a .22 better than most - using only his thumb as he has no fingers anymore.
But, most importantly, he greets everyday not wondering what life would be like had his accident never occurred, but rather how he can make the absolute most out of his life from today onward.
On Sunday, Quinn Simons - with prosthetic feet and mitten-hands - will swim, bike, and run as he competes in his first triathlon in Shelbyville, Kentucky. (Read an article on Quinn and the upcoming race in the Lexington Herald-Leader.)
I've often wondered how Quinn keeps such a positive outlook on life, staying optimistic and directed through events that would crush most of us.
The answer is simple: He accepts what life throws at him. He revels in challenge rather than shrinking away from it. He views life as an opportunity to continually improve, grow, and accomplish the seemingly unattainable.
And by doing that, Quinn Simons is an inspiration to me, and should be to us all.
Life throws curve balls our way from time to time. We can take the easy road, shrink from those challenges, those crevasses along our paths. We can complain about the difficult terrain ahead, the unfairness of it all.
Or we can remember Quinn. We can rise each day with fire in our hearts and optimism in our heads. We can view the difficulties in life as opportunities to overcome hurdles - physical and mental, fated and self-imposed. We can, in short, decide to live our lives fully, accepting that it won't always be easy or comfortable, but it will be a life lived fully.
I challenge you to set a goal for yourself, a race to run, a crevasse to cross, an Everest to climb. Choose one that will push you to your limits, not one you know you can accomplish.
Aim for the lofty summits, and before you know it, you'll be climbing them.
What is your Everest?
- Jake Norton is a climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.