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Patient Profile: Mr. Bionic

A Climb with Mr. Bionic

Tom Scoville’s arthritic body has more metal joints than Wall-E the robot’s. No matter.

Are you as annoyed as I am by those ads urging you to “Just do it?” I admit, the older I get, the more I heed a different calling altogether: “Let’s do it tomorrow.” You, too, might concede, “Yes, Boyd, when asked to pursue small physical adventures, I often say, ‘Not today, my back hurts.'” or “I could use a nap.”

Speaking of blisters, right now I have one on my left foot that feels as big as the Fannie Mae bailout.

Ordinarily, that would be excuse enough to head home. I’ve already hiked three hours up a mountainside, a good day’s workout by any standard. I also have a paper cut on my left hand making it painful to grip my trekking pole.

But I’m keeping quiet about my ailments in deference to Tom Scoville. He’s the guy bent over double beside me, hands on his knees, retching.

“It’s just altitude sickness,” he says between heaves. “Don’t worry. It happens all the time.”

There are five of us hiking up the nearly 13,000 foot high Western State College Peak just outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. We all love the mountains, and this state’s the perfect playground for our ilk. More than 1,500 summits beckon. Many are considered “walk-ups,” requiring no ropes and few, if any, specialized skills.

But we’re a motley crew today. All that’s missing is a fife, drum and flag, and we could double as the bedraggled soldiers in a Revolutionary War painting. Our limping guide, Ian Hatchett, has a sore hip from a recent ski injury. Hiker Tom Seward just had his hips replaced. This is his first post-surgery road test.

Seward’s wife, Nancy, is the only truly healthy one among us, and that’s starting to get annoying. We’re now above 11,000 feet, and she is not sweating. She’s not even breathing hard. Nancy just scampers up the mountain like she’s riding a Vespa.

And then there’s the other Tom – Tom Scoville – our inspiration for being here in the first place. No one dares to gripe about their miseries in his presence. That would be like whining to Joan of Arc about how the coffee burned your tongue.

Nausea is the least of Scoville’s troubles. You say your back hurts? Scoville had to have his backbone fused and metal rods inserted. Your hip hurts? Both of Scoville’s were replaced, and his right hip required two follow-up surgeries. Your knees ache? Scoville had knee surgery followed by knee replacement. Backpack making your shoulders sore? Yup, you guessed it. Scoville is on his second set.

So stop sniveling. You’re not going to one-up this guy. He’s been rebuilt more often than a NASCAR engine. At 66, Scoville has endured 21 surgeries to treat a genetic form of osteoarthritis. Yet he keeps climbing.

Scoville’s first mountain was a 12,000 footer near Aspen at age 11. At 15, he bagged the Matterhorn in Switzerland. He went on to solo other Alpine peaks in his 20s. but it was in his 40s that his flirtation with mountains turned serious. That’s when Scoville committed to climbing all 54 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. Partway through, his pain got so bad that he paused for hip replacements. But instead of ending his quest, the prospect of future surgeries added urgency to his mission.

Scoville would sometimes fly to Colorado from his home in Washington, D.C., on a Friday, drive to a mountain, sleep, wake before dawn on Saturday, climb, drive back to the airport, sleep some more in the car, and catch the 6 am Sunday flight to D.C.

In 1995, Tom Scoville achieved his goal, topping his 54th Colorado 14er. He’d earned a Hollywood ending, to live happily ever after. But it wasn’t meant to be. Climbing doesn’t cure osteoarthritis. The surgeries continued; the pain worsened; depression set in.

No one expected Scoville to resume his climbing. By then, he had more metal joints in his body than Wall-E the robot. But the one place that could always cheer Scoville was the mountains. So he set himself a new goal – to reclimb all 54 peaks. In 2006, he finished the task, again.

Scoville is on the mountain today, pushing us onward. His only concession to his ailments is to slow his pace a bit. Frustrated with the feeling of holding us back, Scoville demands that we proceed to the summit without him.

As we reluctantly move away, Hatchett says: “Just watch. When we get to the top, Tom will be right behind us.” Sure enough, after ten minutes on the summit, I see a head appear over the final ridge as Scoville works his way toward the peak. We high-five our group success, and Scoville’s eyes fill with tears as he says, “Sorry I took so long. I just can’t climb like I used to. Thanks for helping me get back up here.”

But Scoville has it backward. He’s the one who got us back up here. And the climbing he does today takes more skill and perseverance than anything he did in his youth. Scoville’s story reminds us to get out there and take in nature and wild places while we can. He would never express it this way, but his continued climbing conveys a clear message: “There are no excuses – live life to the fullest today,” or, yes, “Just do it.”

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts TV’s Wild Chronicles as well as National Geographic Weekend on radio.