Karel Skopec’s head started to spin in the middle of his ascent. On an escarpment rock-climbing excursion with his son Joe in May, his world came to a mind-numbing halt.
Skopec, 71, his bricklayer’s grip weakening, was having a stroke.
“It’s too hard,” Skopec told his son, before a hurried two-hour drive back home to Kitchener where wife Angie insisted he go to emergency.
The next morning, he woke up in St. Mary’s General Hospital.
His left side — which once yanked the Czech native up ice walls in his youth — was paralyzed.
That was seven months ago.
“I’m 80 per cent now,” said Skopec after an early-afternoon indoor climb to the wooden ceiling of Grand River Rocks, in part of an old rope factory with padded floors and simulated rock faces.
“Another five months and maybe the other 20 per cent will come.”
Skopec’s companions marvel at his returning stamina. They know he’s seen his share of summits — glaciers in Alberta, Mont Blanc in the Alps and El Capitan at Yosemite National Park.
They are craggy-faced men of lean muscle and long memories. They are amazed at Skopec’s recovery. They’re his summit support group. They climb together outdoors down Milton way.
Two or three times a week, they meet for some noon-hour risings. They hold ropes and belay for each other for some top-rope workouts between no-harness boulderings.
Elora’s Allan Cheyne, 78, is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo. Kitchener’s John Delaney, 63, powers up like a 43-year hydro worker who did a little bit of pole-shimmying when his career began.
“They are survivors,” Skopec said of his posse.
The Survivors have all had their health issues in recent years but kept on rising to life’s challenges, week after week. Cheyne had a heart procedure. Delaney shrugs off his own past medical issues.
The Three Mountaineers are a support group in snug shoes. In climbing together for four years, they’ve found the, uh, mountain of youth.
“Sometimes I feel like a big kid, at my age,” said Delaney, glancing around at the 120 climbing routes at the club that staff change constantly.
“I can’t wait to get in here to see what they’ve created for me.”
Delaney discovered the Borden Avenue climbing gym while bicycling past to get to the Y at the tenderfoot, recently-retired age of 59.
“There was a big garage door,” Delaney recalled.
“It was open. I looked in. I saw this auto-pully (for beginners). I thought I could try this for a month. I did. I liked it. I ran into Allan and a few other guys here. It’s good exercise. It’s enjoyable.”
And it’s a chess match. Man or woman against wall. You’ve got to think a few moves ahead. Otherwise, you’ll end up barn-dooring, swinging open wildly with only a hand and foot on the wall.
“It is kind of a vertical maze,” said Cheyne, a gymnast in his youth. “You have to negotiate. It’s really exercise for the mind as well. It’s spatial thinking.”
Others orbit around The Three Mountaineers. Charlie is in his fifties. Dave is a firefighter. The group has gravitas. It especially emanates from the trained-as-an-architect Skopec, who came to Canada at age 32 and literally broke his back as a construction worker.
When Skopec was 56, he climbed three days up The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. That was 33 rope pitches. Every one was excruciatingly difficult.
And when Skopec got to the top of what was once considered an impossible ascent?
“I hugged a pine tree and cried,” he said.
The climbing life can pay in happy tears, if you are careful. Skopec has lost many fellow climbers over the years.
With his stroke fading behind him, he wants to keep seeking out the best footholds until his final breath.
His wife sometimes asks him if he wants to be buried when his time arrives. He says he’d rather just disappear in an ice crevice along some glacier. They’ll find him in 100 years or so.
“I like outdoors. I like wind, birds, everything,” Skopec said.
“This makes me happy.”
Original by Jeff Hicks
Toronto Star – January 2019