The bright morning light illuminates the tent. Evidently we pitched over a dormant anthill. With the sun, I feel a throng of them tracking over my legs. As I reach to brush them off, my head instinctively recoils back into my parka’s hood. A searing pain stabs my right eye…it’s like a paper-cut on my cornea.
“Chris, something’s wrong.” Unable to see, my arm thrashes for the first-aid kit.
I calm down enough for Chris to take a look. My eye is red, weepy and in immense pain, but nothing appears to be in it. I take two hydrocodone and Chris helps me stumble into town.
If you haven’t given much thought to it, your eyes work in concert—providing us with stereoscopic acuity. So even with my injured eye closed, it moves when my good eye moves—dragging it across my closed eyelid. Pain. The bright alpine light forces me to wince. Pain. I blink. Pain. I try to relax, pull my buff over my bad eye and sunglasses over the buff.
At the Salmon River Clinic, the PA applies a fluorescein solution and wands a black light over my eye.
“Do you mind if I call in a few other people?” she asks. Down the hall I hear her ask enthusiastically, “Hey, you wanna see something interesting?”
A line of interns funnel into the room and crowd around me. “You know how we’ve been looking for a corneal ulcer all summer long? Well, this is a great example!” She waves the wand with the precision of a tarmac ground crew.
She applies an antibiotic eye ointment, patches it, and sends me on my way. “Give it four days to heal, stay out of the light.”
I pass the next two days touring the dark corners of Stanley’s coffee shops. But the eye wasn’t getting any better. We weigh the options of waiting it out. I need rest, a clean bed. If the eye heals, we could press on—but what if the issue resurfaces? Our next stage is 250 miles through the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Calling it from The Frank Church or Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness could potentially leave us a hundred miles from a trailhead. Right now, I can’t walk 100 feet with out Chris’s help.
We paddled the most technical water, rode through the hottest temperatures, pushed bikes over the highest point on the route…but we were finally faced with the insurmountable. The pain was too much, the risks were too high, the next move was mine. I turn to Chris to share my decision and place the call home. We wait for our ride over pizza; me hunkered in my seat searching for solace in my basil on red, Chris engaging questions from patrons and passers by.
Back in Boise, I met with a corneal specialist. It wasn’t a scratch; I was diagnosed with recurrent corneal erosion syndrome. In short, when in a dry, dusty, windy environment, or I get dehydrated or too little sleep—in general, how I spent my week on the route—can precipitate a sloughing off of the eye’s epithelium, exposing the corneal nerves. The expedition was the perfect storm. The decision to bail was the right choice.
I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to figure out how to get over it when I can’t get up it. The slow, tedious transition from alpine to the steppe and eventually to the lush forests and turgid rivers below provides ample time to work it out. Here, our extraction was almost immediate, leaving us both with the bitter taste of soured business.
Would we do it again…maybe, hell-no, absolutely…perhaps I’d skip the ride through the desert, though. I get this question all the time, and my response shifts almost as frequently. In short, it’s too soon to tell, but it won’t be anytime soon. But given the right conditions and some testicular fortitude, we found that it’s possible.