Backstory: The Struggle for Enlightenment

Victor Major sees the light while descending to Maroon Lakes in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness. [Photo] Ben Moscona

As a young medical student at the University of Colorado, I would often visit the bookstore during lunch, perusing shelves of anatomy atlases and medical textbooks. One day, I happened upon Ski the 14ers, a collection of photographs from Chris Davenport’s yearlong quest to climb and ski all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. I opened the cover and sank into a nearby chair, mesmerized by pictures of rugged peaks and the adventurers who climbed and skied them. I had unwittingly found a new world of adventure, one that took me far from the doldrums of the anatomy lab.

During my first months of medical school, I became inundated with information to memorize and master. While many of my classmates seemed to do this with ease, I found myself discouraged, struggling to stay afloat. But that afternoon, surrounded by stacks of medical books, I felt inspired by these ski mountaineers who embraced struggle and met challenges with passion and optimism.

Over the following months, I found myself cramming inordinate amounts of medical knowledge into my brain, regurgitating it for exams and repeating the process week after week. But in quiet moments, I found myself dreaming about climbing and skiing a big mountain of my own.

I decided that my first attempt to ski one of Colorado’s 14ers would be on Grays Peak. Doubting my car would make it up the steep, rutted road to the Stevens Gulch Trailhead, I planned to bike from the lower parking lot carrying my skis on my back. Weighed down by pack and skis, I struggled to keep pedaling forward as the road steepened. Although my back ached and legs burned, I continued on, bolstered by the support of friendly climbers who drove past cheering.

At the top of the road, I stashed my mountain bike in the willows and headed up the trail. As Grays came into view, I beheld fields of white on the distant flanks of the mountain’s east face. Minutes turned to hours, and the hours felt like days—but I kept trudging upward. As I approached the summit, mentally and physically depleted, I wondered why I had ever been so obsessed with such a stupid idea.
Finally, I collapsed on the rounded hump of Grays’ summit, only to be greeted by a free-spirited skier with long, stringy hair and vintage sunglasses. “This is what Colorado is all about!” the enlightened sage shouted as he skied out of sight onto the declivitous slopes below. His whooping and hollering left no doubt that he had attained his own state of nirvana.

Regaining my focus, I strapped on my skis. As I surveyed the terrain below, I forgot the pain of the ascent, reinvigorated with a second wind of energy. I navigated past a few rocks and sailed into the open bowl, zooming down the steep face with wide, arcing turns.
Back at the trailhead, I felt exhausted yet brimmed with exhilaration. Maybe I had found my own bit of illumination up there on the mountain, too, like my wild-haired hippie friend. I felt part of a tribe of adventurers, those who climb and ski towering peaks while discovering the immeasurable potential within. After ruminating awhile on the metaphorical mountains of life, I retrieved my bike from the willows, strapped my skis on my back and headed downhill.

Although not quite as epic as Davenport’s descent of the south face of Capitol Peak or Crestone Needle’s South Couloir, my first 14er led to many other climbs and ski missions. I managed to survive medical school and, over the ensuing years, I eventually found my footing and learned to thrive. I returned often to that same spot in the bookstore, to behold the mountains and the skiers and to remind myself that I could rise above my own challenges, whatever they might be. It wasn’t easy, but ascents rarely are. I guess sometimes you have to struggle before you reach enlightenment.


  1. Josh Jespersen says:

    Nice essay! I love hearing how climbing and skiing these big peaks inspires people to get out there and do it themselves. To see more, and seek challenges… not that medical school isn’t a challenge! Keep crushing Doc!


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