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Shock And Awe

You think climbing Rainier is tough? Try it blind. Or with one leg. Then see who you pity.

Then there is the down-muffled whizz of sleeping bag zippers, and the shift of bodies settling. Bone-tired and concerned about contaminating the socket of his prosthetic, Ed detaches his foot but leaves the rest of the device in place. It’s a calculated gamble. “Just like leaving my contacts in at night,” he says. “You wake up in the morning and deal with what you’ve got.”

And then it is quiet. Up above, the sky is shot with stars, the vaporous spray of the Milky Way spanning all creation. In the open air, Salau and Smiley sleep.

Come morning, the clouds have broken up and slipped downslope. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and Muir is all but in sight. Ed Salau is reinvigorated. He has heard there is a handicapped-accessible restroom at Muir. “That I have got to see,” he says. As with anything in the mountains, the camp is farther than it appears, but Salau is on a mission and pulls away. By the time he reaches the stone hut at Muir an hour later, the word has gone out–a ranger and a cluster of climbers are waiting with congratulations. Salau takes a moment to look back, and his first thought is Holy crap, I just came up that thing! Then he goes hunting for the bathroom. Sure enough, a few rocky steps away he finds a unisex outhouse clearly marked with a blue wheelchair–and a sign that says CLOSED. “Nooo!” moans Salau in mock horror, posing for a picture beside the sign with his titanium leg bent backward.

Rejoining the rest of the group, Salau sits and begins to undo his prosthetic. Smiley is three feet away, relaxing with a snack. Turning his head in Ed’s direction he grins and says, “Hey, this climbing business ain’t that difficult.””Shut up, Scott,” says Ed, removing his leg. For the first time in more than 24 hours, fresh air hits his stump. “Quit starin’ at the nub!” he barks at no one in particular, and about six people avert their gaze. He chuckles. You work up routines, he says. Necessary routines. You’d be surprised, he says, at how many strangers begin with the leg. “‘What happened to your leg?’ they say, so I just look at them and say ‘My name’s Ed, who are you?’” He can change tack depending on the circumstance. “I was in the Dunkin’ Donuts, and this little kid kept staring at my leg. His mom came over and apologized. I told her not to worry about it. At least little kids are honest about their curiosity. Then as they were leaving, she came over again and said the boy wanted to ask how I lost the leg. So I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Too much PlayStation.’”

He’s looking the stump over now, checking for hot spots. The stump is rounded off, the leg muscle folded over the end of the bone and sealed with scars. There is some redness, but the skin is intact. To re-don the leg, Salau will encase the stump in a “pull sock”–essentially a nylon bag. After pushing the stump into the socket, he will extract the pull sock through a porthole, creating suction that holds the leg in place without straps. Drawback is, that socket can get pretty ripe. Fishing around in his pack, he produces an antiperspirant stick and waves it in the air. “Secret Platinum–strong enough for a man, made for an amputee.”

Ed tells the rest of the story about the kid at the Dunkin’ Donuts, and says when he finally gave the kid the straight answer, that he got hurt being a soldier, the kid looked at him and said, “I prayed for you,” and he stops talking right there, and for the first time all climb, he has tears in his eyes.

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