Super Ill with COVID-19, A Climber’s Life Is Changed

Justin Willis sought the rawest experiences in the mountains—but being sick widened his perspective.

A fever breaching 106 degrees does a lot to a human body. A fever breaching 106 does a lot to a human brain. As I write this, I am three months out from my Covid-19 diagnosis, and I still forget simple words, actions and names. Such as my mother’s. As one can imagine, this is quite frustrating for an otherwise healthy 25-year-old. Often in conversations I will be speaking and suddenly forget the words in my mind. They vanish and I’m left stumbling over my own thoughts, trying to lead myself in a circle back to my original idea. Fatigue plagues both my body and mind and most days are interrupted by a mandatory nap.

I’m a climber. In the past, a typical day in the mountains involved scratching my way up ice-covered rock, trying my best to stay warm and keep a level head. I’m hungry for the most raw of experiences—and until I became very sick, I did not understand that sometimes the most expeditious route to that visceral experience is to merely sit, breathe and listen.

I first noticed this shortly after I became sick. My most vicious symptom was boredom.

It was October in Montana, perhaps the most beautiful time and place on Earth. I spent those few evenings dreaming of glowing blue ice choking the chimneys between the massive granite buttresses of the Beartooth Range. In the daytime I would explore, though for the first time, from the seat in my car. I would drive until I found the end of the road, usually by getting my car stuck in the snow and expelling expletives about the quality of my brand new tires. After digging myself out and turning my full-sized Suburban around in a 30-point turn, I would sit on my hood, spending hours simply looking through my binoculars. My eyes immediately went to chimneys beneath snowfields, the most logical place to find the ice I’d need for my next adventure.

But as time went by, I’d find myself watching snow catch air and form ghoulish figures as it rose from the ridges. The snow danced as its form dissolved into nothing. I’d hear a Clark’s Nutcracker and watch it hop from tree to tree for over an hour. Those valleys below the peaks  were places I previously hiked through as quickly as possible. But I felt myself beginning to harmonize with the pace of the valleys and relax into it.

I prefer to say I’m happiest when moving, though my doctor likes to call it ADHD. This has been both a blessing and a curse—I’ve used my bottomless energy to fuel countless ridiculous and occasionally dangerous forays onto steep mountain faces. But now things are different. Even though I spent nearly every day of the previous 15 years in the mountains, I’ve begun to notice nuances that were never on my radar before.

I notice the way some bark changes color in the winter. I notice the way streams and rivers occasionally freeze from the creek bed up towards the surface. I notice birds flying together and others flying alone. I notice the different ways their wings flap, some in small circles, some in small figure-eights, some up and down. I notice the shape of small insects living on the snow. I watch as the seemingly dormant onset of winter brings to life a new-to-me ecosystem and I feel a quiet buzzing of life in every small corner.

Many times I’ve felt the mountains scream in my ears. They have beaten my mind into submission and crushed my bones with no regard for my pain. I have been knocked to the ground by a striking wind and I have buckled at my knees from exhaustion. I have struggled to open my eyes in the morning after they froze shut throughout the night. I have graciously left copious amounts of my own precious blood in cracks on beautiful mountains that have no respect for my well being.

For years I’ve told myself this was the only pure way to embrace the wows of the world. I think of John Muir, who climbed a tree in a windstorm to feel it sway. I climb walls in the winter to feel their resistance to my presence, to expose myself to reality. This has been my die-hard truth, my dharma. Each time the frequency of the many factors of my life seem to lose harmony, I have resorted to inflicting discomfort upon myself in the mountains. It has been my reset button, my panic button, my Ctrl+Alt+Delete. That is, until I sat down, breathed and listened to the gentle whispers in the valleys—they speak the same truth as the guttural screams of the peaks. And for the first time in my life, my mind has been still.

That first day, on the hood of my car back in October, I sat in the quiet and let the heavy metal diminish. Five days later I was in the hospital. Doctors were running EKG’s and X-Rays on my heart every few hours. I was very sick. Some days I couldn’t form a full sentence without slipping into delirium. I was frustrated and anxious to move my body. But fortunately, I also had the whispers of the valleys in my ears, showing me the interconnectivity, revealing a truth, telling me to just let go.