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Steve Baskis: Profile of a Survivor at 19,000 Feet

DARK VICTORY: Three years ago, Baskis, then a 22-year-old U.S. Army infantryman, was permanently blinded by a bomb while serving in Iraq. Since then, his life has been a series of challenges, many of them of his own making—including a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.

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We crawl into our sleeping bags at seven o’clock on summit night and wake four hours later. We drink tea and eat porridge and cookies, and just after midnight we gather outside with the others, stamping our feet and working warmth into our arms and legs. The air temperature is 20 degrees, but the night is calm, and within a few minutes the chill in our bodies fades. Baskis rests his left hand on my backpack and holds a trekking pole with his right. We walk into the darkness, following a six-foot circle of light from my headlamp. The rest of the team stretches out behind us, a bobbing line of white lights.

The thick layer of scree—the loose rock debris that covers the mountainside—has frozen and gives good purchase for our boots. We climb steadily for the first two hours, lost in the rhythmic shuffle, both of us feeling warm and strong. But just past 17,000 feet, the temperature drops to 15 degrees, and the wind kicks up, a cold breeze that soon builds to 25 miles per hour and more. The frigid blade slices through us, stings our faces, and starts to freeze our water bottles. Of real concern, though, the cold creeps deeper into Baskis’s left arm, and that ever-present ache ratchets higher. The mangled blood vessels limit circulation to his lower arm and hand, which has little tactile sensation because of damaged nerves. He can burn his fingers without noticing, and out here fingers can freeze quickly, with blood-starved tissue damaged beyond repair. “Sometimes you have to suck it up and push through,” Cherilla had told the group in a preclimb briefing the night before. That’s something of a mantra for Baskis, drilled into him in the army. But the pain, now extreme, crowds his thoughts.

One step. Another step. Another. Pause for several breaths. Another step. By 18,000 feet, I feel a headache creeping in behind my eyes, and the altitude has roughly the effect of several beers. I stumble, which causes Baskis to stumble behind me. I apologize, and we climb, and I stumble. I mostly stare at the ground directly in front of me. Each time I look up, the cone of light shows only more rock, rising far above us. Baskis doesn’t bother asking what I see ahead; he knows we’re not yet close. We stop to put on another layer of clothes and let several of our fellow climbers pass. Baskis’s arm is getting colder, despite two hand warmers slipped into his gloves. The temperature drops below 10 degrees, and the wind gusts at 40 miles per hour, pushing the windchill far below zero.

Just before 5 a.m., we reach Stella Point, on the volcano’s rim, marking the end of the steepest section.  Though we had scaled a higher, steeper mountain in Nepal, we are spent from tonight’s climb. Fortunately, the grade eases as we skirt along the crater’s edge, another 45 minutes and more than 500 vertical feet to the true summit, Uhuru Peak, at 19,341 feet. A wooden sign announces a patch of rock as the highest spot in Africa. Our group takes a few pictures, flashes popping in the darkness, and I turn to see Baskis waving his left arm, trying to push blood into his forearm. “I can’t feel my arm,” he says. “I might lose my fingers.”

We need to leave the summit—now. Baskis’s left hand no longer works well enough to hold on to my backpack, so he stows his trekking pole, wraps my down parka around his left arm, and holds on with his right hand.

The climb up had been much the same for both of us, the night defined by blasts of icy air and the rocks underfoot. But on the way down, I’m reminded of what Baskis has lost. To my left, the sky yawns, and the black gives way to indigo, then azure, and then a fiery pink band on the horizon. I see the deep bowl of the volcano crater and, to my right, the shrinking but still massive glaciers of Kilimanjaro, 50-foot walls of striated ice. I describe the scene to Baskis, but his mind is elsewhere. “I’m ready to get off this mountain,” he says, voicing a rare moment of exasperation.

The sun rises, the wind tapers, and the danger of frostbite passes. Baskis’s arm warms, and enough movement returns that he can hold on to my backpack with both hands. We bound down the mountainside in lunging steps, sliding in the now-thawed scree. Dust clouds rise in our wake. He follows close and anticipates my movements, mirroring the shifts in my shoulders and hips that precede a slide to the left or right. A few times I start to fall, and he keeps me upright, hoisting my pack enough for me to regain my footing.

By 8 a.m., we are back at our 16,000-foot camp, exhausted. We nap for a few hours, and then we start down again, descending to 13,000 feet. The next day, we drop another 3,000 feet. The hike pounds Baskis’s knees. He rolls his ankles and strains his Achilles tendon but says little about it, and then we are done, another test of his limits finished.

We pile into a bus for the long ride back to the hotel, and I hang my head out the window and watch Africa pass by. Women walk along the road with fat baskets balanced atop their heads. Boys of seven or eight herd goats, whacking strays on the rump with slender sticks. Men cluster near roadside market stalls. Behind them, Kilimanjaro rises from the plains, still looming but fading in the distance. Baskis rests his head on the seatback, and I don’t know if he’s asleep or awake until Bob Marley’s voice drifts from the bus stereo: Don’t worry about a thing. ’Cause every little thing gonna be all right. “We were listening to Bob Marley in the truck all that day,” Baskis says. “‘Three Little Birds.’ Every time I hear this song, I think of that day.”

* * *

The engines whine, and the plane spirals higher over the farmland of southern Wisconsin. Lake Michigan stretches to the eastern horizon, and Chicago sprawls to the south. Air swirls through the cargo bay, and Baskis shuffles to the rear of the plane, which is open like a cave’s mouth. Tom Noonan, his tandem partner, steps in behind him and fastens a harness that locks them together. They will jump as one, with Noonan pulling the chute’s ripcord after a 10,000-foot free fall at 120 miles per hour.

“Will we be wearing goggles?” Baskis had asked him earlier in the hangar.

“Yeah,” Noonan said. “Why?”

“I don’t want my eyeballs to fall out.”

Baskis had been skydiving twice before, but never blind. He knows he represents something bigger than himself, showing others their lives don’t end with an injury. But like the climbing and scuba diving and everything else, he does this for himself, because he still can, because of all the sighted people who could but don’t, who are too scared or are content just to watch TV or sit in a bar. And if he didn’t push, collecting new experiences and searching for his limits, what would be the point of living? Friends and family have wondered at his taking such risks, given what he’s already been through. Some have asked his father why he doesn’t dissuade him and urge caution. For this his father has no patience. “Are you crazy?” he says. “Let him live his life and do what he wants. It’s his life, and he’s earned the opportunity. And he’s not just sitting at home sulking that he got injured. I wouldn’t even begin to tell him not to.”

 As he told Baskis and his other two sons when they were growing up: “It’s your life to live. You do whatever you want.”

A week earlier, Baskis had stood on top of Africa, and now, as the plane nears 14,000 feet, he inches toward the edge. The magnificent world he no longer sees stretches beneath him. The quilt of farmland and forest. The city skyline. The lake’s deep and endless blue.

Baskis takes one more step and falls in a slow-motion somersault, into the black abyss.

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