Yesterday, retired Army National Guard First Lieutenant Ed Salau slipped the scarred stump of his left leg into a $30,000 hydraulic-fitted carbon-fiber and titanium prosthetic and headed for the top of Mt. Rainier.
He didn’t make it.
But the end of the climb is not the end of the story. The story is how Salau–a trim man who still carries himself with the bearing of his 12 years as a Marine–stomped his way up to Camp Muir, well short of the summit but well above the clouds. How he went barefoot in the snow. Why–even knowing he would go no higher–he spent an afternoon flinging himself face-first into the slush, rehearsing self-arrest and getting kicked in the noggin for his efforts. And then there are all those terrific campfire tales only a one-legged man can tell–the one about the kid in Dunkin’ Donuts, the one about the woman in the bar, and the one where he tells his teenage boy, “Son, I will plant my foot in your ass and leave it there!” The one about spotting the guy with the grenade launcher right about the time it fired.
There will be time for the stories. But right now it is late afternoon. The light is beginning to flatten across the Cowlitz Glacier. Several climbing groups are preparing for summit attempts, and there is a bustle of to and fro throughout the smattering of tents pitched in the Muir notch. Salau’s group will strike out at 11 p.m., hoping to stand atop Rainier by morning. Earlier, the guides huddled, and then one of them–Art Rausch, who’s summited Rainier 150 times–separated from the group to speak quietly with Salau. We’ve talked it over, said Rausch, and it’s just not going to work.
Ed Salau understands why he is being left behind. Despite everything he has done since his last two-legged day on earth–skydiving, waterskiing, downhill skiing, running–he has learned, he says, that you are not going anywhere that one leg won’t let you go. It is not about admitting defeat; rather it is about acknowledging reality. And there is strength in that.