Climbing the Mt. Everest of stairs

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

We stood near the edge of the creek and looked up at the cliff. Gary and I were in high school, and like many teenaged boys, we probably considered ourselves indestructible.

The cliff was carved out of the riverbank at the spillway of the Germantown Dam. It wasn’t a solid cliff — it was composed of dirt, gravel, shale, and loose stone. At about the halfway point, there were some weeds and scraggly roots growing out of the cliff.

One of us had the bright idea of climbing it. For every four feet we climbed up the cliff, we would slip and slide down two.

The surface of the cliff was indeed loose. We had every opportunity to change our minds and scoot back down to the riverbank, but the higher we climbed, the more resolved we became.

There was nothing at the top of the cliff that held any interest for us. Our only reason was the adventure.

George Mallory, an expert mountain climber nearly a century ago, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, responded, “Because it’s there.”

As teenaged boys, that’s all the reason we needed. The cliff was there.

When we finally reached the halfway point of the cliff, we looked down and saw a group of people had gathered across the creek. They were watching us. They waved and yelled, “Keep going.”

That cinched it for us. There was no turning back.

At one point, merely moving our feet caused the loose surface of the cliff to crumble. Our next handhold was just a few feet higher than we could reach. I found one stable rock near our perch. I planted one foot on that rock, wrapped my arms around Gary’s knees and lifted him as high as I could. He was able to get a good grip on a firmly planted root.

As Gary hung on to the tree root, I climbed up his body until I was able to grab the root for myself. Then, Gary climbed up and over me. He then pulled me up.

We finally got beyond the area of loose rock and shale. From there to the top, we had strongly planted rocks, weeds, and roots to help us climb to the top.

We were tired, sore, and filthy when we finally reached the top. We pulled ourselves up, stood, and waved to the folks across the creek.

Seeing them wave and hearing their cheers made it seem worth it.

Despite our aching arms and legs, we made our way back down to our bikes and rode home. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun. When you’re a teenager, that is what a great summer day is all about.

Last week, I was preparing to climb the stairs to go to bed for the night. I realized that I stood there a short while before I started climbing.

There are only two stairs, then a landing. Turn right and walk up 11 more steps. That took me to the upstairs hallway.

It’s that simple. Do that and you have climbed the stairs in my house, and you’ll be standing in our upstairs hallway. It used to be simple, but with three arthroscopic surgeries to my knees plus a total knee replacement five years ago, it’s not that easy anymore.

Thirty-five years ago, I would literally bound up and down stairs. If I was on the third floor of the hospital and a Code Blue was called on the ground floor, I would fly into the stairwell and take the stairs six at a time. One giant leap took me halfway to the landing, then the landing, then again halfway, then the next landing. A few leaps and I was on the ground floor.

That was when I had healthy knees.

In February of 1977, I took a nasty spill on the slopes of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The bindings on my skis were designed to break away without excessive stress on my knee. That didn’t happen. Shortly after returning home, I found myself having arthroscopic surgery on my left knee.

Later that same year, while vacationing in the Bahamas, I found myself in a cut-throat limbo contest. There were two of us left in the contest.

Me, a slightly overweight man pushing 40 years old, and a youngster who could not have been more than 14 years old. I doubt that she weighed 100 pounds. Debbie heard the tearing within my knee from across the room. It was bad. I was in surgery as soon as we got back to Wilmington. Eventually, that knee was totally replaced.

Now, I climb stairs very slowly. I need a strong banister or, at times, a good cane to get up and down our stairs.

If this column has a moral, it is this… take good care of your knees. You’ll never regret it.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist