Higher Ground

by Grady Phelan

The symptoms are all too familiar.

Your calves are on fire. Muscles cramp. Lower back aches like dead weight. Fingers and toes feel numb. Head pounds, skin itches, sweat dries. You have a runny nose, watery eyes, stiff joints, ass rash, and bruises peppering your limbs. The pain will linger for days. The discomfort is so consuming, so inescapable that, despite your body odor, you haven’t bothered to shower or even change clothes in nearly a week.

Your doctor, if consulted by phone, might presume you fell off the wagon, that you’re lying in bed, that after going on a heroin binge you’re suffering through withdrawal. But at 4,587 feet, alone atop Wright Peak, you know such a diagnosis would be wrong.

For starters, cell reception is spotty at best this deep in the Adirondacks. And you’re far from flat. You’re standing. On a mountain. In snowshoes. At sunrise. By yourself. You’ve been winter hiking and ice climbing the entire vacation, which is why you’re so beat up, so ragged out. Your body feels like a bag of bones, yet you haven’t used junk in a decade. You’re not jonesing. Much to the contrary—at the moment, you’re pretty damn high.

You climbed more than a hundred mountains last year, soaking up alpine views from the Catskills to Colorado. Not much has changed. The substance may be different, but once again, you’re hooked. The wilderness still calls. You still walk through sketchy areas in the dark. Still disappear for days on end. Still push your luck. Still leave loved ones to worry. Still run around chasing dreams.

A friend wonders why you replaced heroin with mountains, failing to realize the question he’s asking is why anyone uses junk in the first place. “It seems so extreme. You put yourself through hell. And it’s dangerous.” You try to explain: it’s not easy, but once you’ve kicked dope a few times, climbing a mountain is no big deal. He asks what you’re looking for. In the heroin days, it wasn’t God, only heaven. Now, it’s about getting to higher ground.

People warn you about going solo. They say it’s risky, especially in winter. But if you’ve learned anything from smack, it’s how to push the envelope without bursting into flames. You still crave that out-of-body experience, to see yourself standing in snow on a summit—the same way you once, nodding from half a bundle, watched from above as you lay to waste on a bathroom floor. Addiction is peeking over the edge without going too far, scaling mountains without falling off them, if only so you’ll be able to climb another day.

You have faith. You believe in yourself.

And so do I.


Grady Phelan is the pseudonym of a high school dropout who married a Harvard graduate. Much of his time is spent alone in wilderness areas. He has climbed mountains in the Rockies, the Appalachians, Africa, and Nepal.

5 Responses to “Higher Ground”

  1. This is really beautiful.

  2. Oh, Shannon, I agree. I love this piece.

  3. Great stuff Grady. Trails, peaks, caps. So much to draw from.

    Keep climbing-


  4. charleswhalen Says:

    Although he always seemed to have some inner restlessness that drove him, and was ‘jamais content’, ever in search of something elusive, never to be attained, as the quintessential rolling stone that gathers no moss, Grady at least found some measure of refuge, peace, and solace in the mountains, and a triumphal sense of accomplishment in summiting their peaks as well as scaling vertical cliffs and ice walls. Ever the restless itinerant, I hope Grady’s spirit might find, wandering in his beloved mountains somewhere, the peace that eluded him in life, and a final resting place that he can finally call home. May God rest his soul.

  5. That’s heartbreaking news, but I’m glad you shared it, cw. My thoughts and prayers go out to Grady’s wife and family. I read Higher Ground this morning and remember how thrilled I was when it first came in. It feels the same, but it’s resonant in ways I hadn’t thought of before. Higher ground indeed.

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