A memoir from Kim Kircher (right) will be available in October. Photos courtesy of Behler Publications
Kim Kircher is a ski patroller who throws explosives and calls “Bombs away!” from a helicopter, and an EMT who has saved lives. But it is her skill with the written word that is on display in her first book, The Next 15 Minutes: Strength From the Top of the Mountain, coming in October. The memoir begins at her husband’s diagnosis with bile duct cancer and traces the ordeal of treatment and waiting for a liver transplant.
Kircher forges her way through the crisis by recounting what’s she learned from experiences on steeps from Mount Kilimanjaro to Crystal Mountain in Washington, her workplace and home where husband John is the general manager. Seeing the dangers and delights of snow-covered mountains through the eyes of a professional makes for riveting armchair adventure, and Kircher guides her readers through the painful but illuminating journey of a life-threatening illness in an honest and intimate voice. It all happens 15 minutes at a time, a strategy of dealing with a crisis in increments that Kircher adapted from ski patrolling to deal with her husband’s illness. Mountain spoke with Kircher this summer to talk about how the book came to be, and what she learned from the experience.
When did you decide to write about the experience of your husband’s illness?
My mom said, you’re writing these great emails [to the family]—you should turn them into a book. And I thought, I just can’t see myself doing that now. I couldn’t relate to it, and then as soon as I started it I realized that this was the story I’d been waiting to tell.
I started writing about a month after John had his transplant. It was actually quite an interesting task because I could finally put all those pieces into a larger puzzle and see the whole timeline from a distance rather than being right in the midst of it. It helped me later to realize what I had gone through. At the time, of course, you can’t think of it that way. And in fact that was my lesson, that you can’t think in the long term. So recreating the timeline was quite an important step for both of us. The healing process that happens after something like this is going from thinking of your husband or yourself as a sick person to finally accepting that he’s well, and that takes a long time.
How did the adventures you and John shared before his diagnosis help you?
Our adventures are like dress rehearsals for real life challenges. So when you do come up against a real life challenge—when you’re in chemo or waiting to find out if it’s cancer or waiting for a liver to come through—you can tell yourself: I’ve pushed myself before, and I know I’ve risen to the occasion before. It’s similar enough that you can tell yourself, I’ve done this before, I can do it again.
John’s treatment required you to live in Rochester, Minnesota for a time. Was it difficult being away from the mountains?
I’m used to being around people who are really athletic and really driven and passionate about the outdoors. It’s such a natural part of my life and of John’s life too. To be around people and be in a setting where that’s not that important, you can loose your footing a little bit because you can lose the things that are really important to you. Your community bolsters you, reminds you who you are and the things you’ve chosen in your life. So when you’re not in that community, you can feel sort of lost a little bit. But on the other hand, Rochester has some really beautiful places.
Was it hard as a ski patroller to deal with a long-term disease and hospitals?
At first, I kept thinking of it as an emergency: We need to fix this right now. And I kept wanting it to be fixed right now, get a diagnosis right now, or move to a different level of care right now, because that’s how I’ve been trained. When I realized this wasn’t a quick emergency—this was a long, drawn-out experience—it was difficult for me.
How has your relationship with your husband changed?
For a while I was thinking that this was just my sacrifice and then later he would sacrifice for me. This was my role for now, but then I’d get it all back. And what I realized early on is, that’s not how it works. It’s not about giving so you’ll get, this is something you just do. You just give, and don’t expect anything in return. That’s what a true marriage is all about, a really good marriage is all about not expecting anything back. So when I made that discovery, that meant I had to fill my own well. If I’m not expecting somebody else to do it, then I have to do it. … Because if you don’t do that, then you just get depleted and you’re no good to anybody.
When you were able to return to Crystal and ski and get back to work, how did that help?
I was able to help other people. I could see how my first aid skills were helping other people. I was able to go out and do avalanche control. That’s my favorite moment during that year because I didn’t have to think about anything else—you can’t think about anything else but the task at hand. It just gave me a relief from the constant worry. And when I could wake up and go out and work hard—physically hard—it allowed me to forget. It also allowed me to find a place to put that pain. If I was working really hard and hiking up a ridge with a heavy pack or hauling a heavy toboggan and it hurt, it actually seemed fitting. I don’t mind my lungs burning, just so long as my heart’s not burning. —Olivia Dwyer