Steve Heideman shouldn’t be alive.
His story is quite shocking at first, even unbelievable. He began hiking and mountaineering as a way to lose weight. He had never been a gym guy, but climbing through the beautiful Arizona desert quickly grew into a passion. This was the ideal alternative to the monotonous, boring, unfulfilling exercise culture that he had known before.
It worked. Over the course of several years, Steve transformed himself from fat to pretty fit. He built some climbing skill, which was leading him to more difficult challenges out in the wild. I think in the end his confidence outran that skill.
He had never tried multiple descents with rope exchanges, so one day he went out with his wife to practice that technique live on the mountain. There was fear. There was doubt. There was even an illness before the climb. In Steve’s own words, the universe seemed to be screaming out, “Don’t do this!” He didn’t listen.
Steve released his anchor, grabbed his rope high instead of low, then stepped out into a void where he thought there would be solid rock. “Bam!” The four-story feet first fall only took about three seconds. Not enough time for much thinking, only a vision of the orange climbing rope, total blackness, then a stunned vision of the sky. An immense force had traveled up his spine, shattering the T12 vertebrae and cracking T11 in half!
But this was only half of Steve’s accident. Incredibly enough, he landed in an active fire pit (WHAT?!!) and was soon in flames! Doug’s response to this was perfect, “If you’re going to be on fire, you might as well be paralyzed and not be able to feel it.” That line broke our shock, but the lesson rings true. No one ever sees this type of thing coming. One minute you are enjoying your passion, confident, able, fully mobile. Then the next thing you know, you are lying in the ashes.
It was chilling to hear about the excruciating pain, his wife’s shock, and the immediate after-effects of the crash. It was also deja vu, as we heard a very similar story from Kevin Ogar on episode 134. If you missed that show make sure to go back and watch. Both stories will make you understand that, even in total blackness and pain, there is always a path out. Steve and Kevin will never be the same ever again, that’s true. But in many ways their fight to reclaim function has led them to be more than what they were before. These are not unhappy or desperate men. In many ways they are more alive than ever before.
A quote by Walter Anderson captures the lesson far better than I ever could. “Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.”
The courage and faith that people like Steve and Kevin display on a daily basis is staggering. We all experience pain and loss. Life is rarely a cake walk, but this is the rarest of events. Listen, you are in complete control of your body for now. Do not ever take that for granted, for you are just one step away from the fire. Squeeze the life from every day, friends. Even in the worst of times.
Reality is reality. There are no answers right now. There is no fix, but that hasn’t stopped Steve at all. In an odd twist of fate, you could say that he is now a gym guy! Where typical gyms fell short in the past, functional fitness training now provides real benefit and hope.
His arms are now strong and capable. His core musculature and stability was all but annihilated, but not quite. The functioning, fully innervated muscle that remains has adapted to this immense challenge. Steve is getting more stable everyday. He remains optimistic.
While paralyzed, Steve retains some limited function in affected areas. Nothing can be promised, but these are kind of like planted seeds. With time, work and just a little more new tech, the fix might come. We’ll have to see.
Steve, I want to see you back on the hiking trail one day. Keep up your fight.