TELL ME WHAT oxygen smells like. Don’t say, “nothing,” either—because nothing isn’t something. Those who make something out of nothing are either immaculate (virgin Mary), or hopeful that a bad idea, with enough hype, might catch on (urban climbers), or are writers of this column (me). Unfortunately, none of this is relevant to the heavy stuff I want to get into today. Oxygen has no smell because we’ve inhaled it our entire lives, and therefore, have become inured to its characteristics. It’s the way I feel about the Lifestyle generation—people in their 20s, like me, who have a fantastic sense of fragmentation that causes us to pursue various haphazard existences.
Oxygen isn’t the only gas lacking any discernible presence, however. There are many others, though none as pure and good. One particularly cruel gas is carbon monoxide (CO), a devious vapor that instantly goes to work on a victim’s brain, turning him into a lizard, licking at the air until he falls over dead.
CO, a byproduct of burning carbon-containing fuels, is colorless, odorless, tasteless and deadly. While both gases share similarities, CO is, in fact, oxygen’s direct antithesis. When CO is breathed in, it attaches to hemoglobin in the bloodstream. Then, by punching oxygen in the face, CO begins slowly displacing that benevolent pairing of molecules that makes us feel high when we’re outside. Symptoms of CO poisoning include: headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, loss of muscle control, shortness of breath, chest tightness, visual changes, sleepiness, confusion, slowed reaction time and stupidity. In other words, CO makes you old.
Ominous thoughts for anyone who likes to burn stuff, like me, but I suppose all positive things must have a negative. Alpinism has death and a notable lack of fun, and bouldering has too much attitude and virtually no substance. Why can’t anything just be good anymore?
CO poisoning claims about 500 victims each year, and even more if you count the extra 2,000 who commit suicide by intentionally inhaling the stuff. In all seriousness, I don’t want to make light of CO poisoning … but I’m going to anyway, just because there was once a time when CO almost got me … and, in the world of TNB, I always get the last laugh.
Why someone would live in Jackson, New Hampshire, in the dead of winter is an issue that is stranger and more depressing than I am currently willing to explore. We’ll just accept that anyone can make a mistake, and that there was once a point when I willingly offered myself to bleakness.
And just like that, I was there, in the third week of an astonishingly terrible weather spell. The air temperature had not risen above negative 10 degrees, and usually hovered around minus 30. It was even worse on top of Mount Washington, the peak I looked at every morning through the glass door of my basement apartment—an old, kitschy ski chalet that I shared with an uncontrollable man-child, the “F-bomb,” Freddie Wilkinson. On the summit, there were 100 mile-per-hour winds and the air temperature was minus 80. Nobody knows how cold that is with the wind-chill factor … but scientists in Dresden are intent on figuring it out, though unwilling to accept that such potent evil could’ve returned to earth.
Father Winter was banging on our window. He’s a drunk, angry deviant on a good day, but on that morning, he’d been even deeper into The Sauce than usual and was looking to take it out on anyone, or no one, and it didn’t seem to matter. Neither Freddie nor I felt that going outside was safe, but Freddie was a guide and he had to. Sucker.
As Freddie prepared to open the door, I gave a smug little wave from the blanket-and-coffee den I had built on the couch. Right as he stepped outside, I belted laughter as I watched Father Winter immediately punch him … right in the face! (Why is everyone getting punched in the face in this story? Stay tuned.)
I spent the day hanging out, watching the smut parade that MTV is famous for, drinking coffee and questioning why I had buried myself in this goddamn miserable ice-hole. I felt like a Siberian terrorist, and any day, team America was going to show up at my door to shave my beard. I suppose I “enjoy” ice climbing—and nowhere is this pursuit better than the place where people run around screaming “Live Free or Die” like it’s the second coming—but my decision to move to Jackson probably had more to do with the people in the area and the “lifestyle.”
I happen to detest that made-up, Martha Stewart word. What does “lifestyle” mean? It seems as though anything alive must be living in a certain style, even if it’s bad style (grabbing draws) or, worse, no style (lowball bouldering).
But lifestyles are what people are into. Those with prestigious backgrounds of myopic scope move to upper Manhattan to play Sex in the City, and “dirtbags” hop on the climbing circuit to find cheap emotional fulfillment from rocks. And while I can’t speak to reasons behind the former, I don’t believe they are very much different from the latter. I only know that we are all into our own things. And while we do our “things,” our collective energy feels like it’s being scattered like a million marbles across a glass football field.
I turned the television off, and tried to sit up, but then, overwhelming fatigue punched me in the face!
“Mother of 12 bastards,” I muttered. “What’s wrong with me?”
I passed it off as laziness, but really, I felt sick to my stomach. My lungs, especially, felt terrible, so I went outside. The air cleared my pipes and the cold caused my adrenal gland to pump its sweet juice through my body.
I went back in and, sure enough, began feeling sick. Again! I passed it off, but decided this time to lie down and rest, falling asleep almost instantly. The rest turned into a strange, evil kind of sleep. The kind where you are half awake, still aware of your surroundings, but your body rejects all commands. A wave of terrible nausea passed, and I had an out-of-body experience, where I peered down on myself as I passed into a greater realm, away from this failed experiment of a world filled with sharks.
Most of me wanted to leave the pain behind, but a small, though not insignificant part jarred violently. It was screaming, “No!” fighting to live. I leapt out of bed.
I recalled that my landlord had once warned us about the gas heater’s exhaust on our roof, how it sometimes froze up and vented CO into the house. Suffocating Jesus! Had I been sucking on carbon monoxide all day?
With the ease of donning a bathrobe, I entered my go-to angry, irrational rage. I threw on boots and crampons, a fully waterproof shell and my belay jacket—and headed outside. It was nearing dusk, and the demonic wind advanced upon me. I found a ladder buried in a snow bank, and placed it against the roof.
Draping my ice tool over my shoulder, I climbed up to the ladder’s apex, 20 feet up. There was a quarter-inch of verglas covering the steep 60-degree plane of our chalet. It looked almost exactly like the Hinterstoisser Traverse on the Eiger Nordwand, only it was a roof of a tiny house, not a mountain in the Alps. But you take your adventures as they come, because you never know when you’re going to need to write a column or two. I planted my tool into the verglas, threw a heel up and desperately tried to mantel onto my adze. The other leg swung carelessly over the abyss, nearly knocking the ladder down.
With the crux behind me, I picked my way up what may as well have been the most important solo of my life and reached the summit of our chalet, where the exhaust pipe stuck out like a tumescent Ron Jeremy laying on his back. I looked down into the pipe.
“I knew it!” I screamed. The pipe was sealed off by a block of solid ice. I used my axe to clear the pipe as best as I could, down-soloed the roof, regained the ladder and went inside.
But I couldn’t stay there … not where the poison was. No way! I could practically see carbon monoxide splattering against the walls and furniture like blood in a slaughterhouse. With a scarf over my face, I raced through the house, frantically opening windows and doors.
I decided to go to the local gym and ride a bike to get the heart going. You know, clean the system out. On my way there, I made two calls. The first was a panicky message to Freddie:
Don’t go home, dude! There’s a carbon monoxide leak! It’s everywhere, and I almost DIED today! Yeah, I’m calling Tom to let him have it.
The second, to Tom, the landlord:
Yeah, I almost DIED today cause you can’t figure out how to keep that damn pipe from freezing. No excuses. You’re a sorry bastard, Tom, but I have no sympathy for you. We’ll talk on the first of the month. Goodbye.
I reached the gym and got on a bike, peddling away like I was Lance Armstrong trying to kill cancer. Over the course of two hours, I had a pretty intense workout, raving with a rare kind of paranoia to every local I knew about how I almost just died. No one could believe it, and neither could I, for that matter. It was too crazy.
I finished up the aerobic workout, felt pretty good and figured my place was probably safe again. Freddie called to say he would stay with his girlfriend for the night, and that I should be careful.
Upon getting home, I closed all the windows, but remained worried that something extremely brutal was being done to me. I made some dinner, and around 8:30 p.m., went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I began feeling sick again, and at 5:30 a.m., I had another out-of-body experience. I was hallucinating, watching myself lie helplessly still from above, a rotting victim of my chosen lifestyle—living cheaply in some under-insulated cooler of a room, with climbing gear strewn across the floor like flowers on a coffin. In my head, I heard what They would say:
He got what he deserved, the bastard.
That’s right. Avoiding the rat race just to climb on rocks and ice? I suppose he thought that made him superior to the rest of us? Ha ha! Look at him now!
Good riddance and God bless America …
It sent me into another panic, and I woke up, crying.
“Monkey balls, I’m freakin’ dying!” I said through the tears.
Dressed in the eclectic mix of clothing I picked up from my floor, I summoned the strength to crawl to my car and drive to the hospital.
I stumbled into the emergency room, yelling through the halls for help until I found a nurse at a desk. She asked what was the matter, and I dove into my dark story, raving about the carbon monoxide and holding my neck as if I were gagging on a chicken bone for effect. I explained the whole thing with the pipe on the roof, how my landlord was a jerk and the grim burden of anyone trying to pursue the very thing they love.
Immune to my theatrics, she asked if I had any health insurance. No. I was told to take a seat and try to deal with the pain until a doctor came around. It was like waiting, on the North Pole in winter, for the sun to rise.
Fifteen long minutes later, a doctor appeared and brought me into a standard-issue hospital room, complete with a bed with paper sheets and all sorts of humorous instruments made to probe human orifices.
“Sure, we can run a test for carbon monoxide,” he said, shining a light into my eyes. “It’s just going to cost you extra.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m a very wealthy person, and money is of no importance to me. Let’s get it on.” Of course, that was a lie, but even in that state, I knew that the only way to get doctors to take you seriously is to let them know you will be able to pay them.
The “fun” of inspecting all my holes with lights and wooden sticks continued for another few minutes, and then, the doctor presented a bag for the CO test. I breathed into this bag for a minute, the doctor took it away and then he returned 10 minutes later with a verdict.
I anxiously awaited my Joe Simpson award, the glowing affrmation that I had rescued myself from certain death.
“We found no traces of carbon monoxide in your system,” he said. I was dumbfounded. The doctor continued: “But you do have a very bad case of stupidity. The stupidity is so great, in fact, that it caused you to think you had carbon monoxide poisoning, when really, all you have is the flu. You need rest and antibiotics. I’ll write a prescription.”
“But the ice … in the … with the thing … really? Are you certain?”
“Yes, I’m certain. Worst case of stupidity I’ve ever seen. That’ll be $650, please.”
I took my prescription from the doctor’s cold hand, and headed home. I felt better, physically at least knowing that I would heal, that things would be OK and that, one day, I’d be able to be take comfort in the fact that carbon monoxide and oxygen can co-exist, and even work together, to make the atmosphere complete. I never did tell my landlord the truth.
Andrew Bisharat has high hopes for the Lifestyle Generation.