Jock Docs - Dr. Melissa and Dr. Jerry Welch
By Laura Proctor
Step, rest, breathe. Step, rest, breathe. Louisville residents Jerry and Melissa Welch had repeated this mantra for hours in the pre-dawn as they carefully worked their way up Mt. Rainier ''s Disappointment Cleaver. They exhaled forcefully, creating a vacuum in their lungs in order to inhale as much of the thin air as possible. Behind them pink rays of light were slowly transforming the dark sky as dawn broke over the cascades. They dared not revel in the beautiful sight yet, though, for they had a fairly steep pitch to ascend before a safe resting place could be found. Instead, they methodically continued their rhythmic pace and concentrated on their breathing, being careful with their ice axe and crampons not to damage the slender rope joining them to their team members.
Climbing in thin alpine air is long way from the emergency room of Norton''s downtown hospital, where Jerry and Melissa work as full-time E.R. physicians. But both the couple''s chosen profession and their beloved sport require steady nerves, the ability to function calmly under pressure, and to make the best of difficult situations. Surprisingly, it was Melissa who first discovered climbing when a group of Louisville women decided to test their mettle on Rainier during the summer of 2001.
"They showed us a slide show of climbing, and got us all fired up about it," she recalls. "The first trip was a bit overwhelming, even though it was really fun. I didn''t even know how to put on my waterproof pants over my boots, or my crampons!" Melissa didn''t summit Rainier on her first attempt, but she did get bit by the climbing bug.
Not to be left out, her husband Jerry quickly developed a similar affliction. The very next year found them both in training for a joint trip to the snowy slopes of Rainier . "I had a good potential to get out of shape," admits Jerry, who was a star soccer player during his undergraduate days. "At first, I couldn''t go two minutes on a treadmill without losing my breath...it took awhile to get aerobically back in shape." A goal-oriented guy, Jerry gradually regained his fitness while training for the climb. "I always liked the outdoors and climbing let me train in the outdoors with a purpose."
And train with a purpose they did. Filling large expedition-style backpacks with bird seed, water bottles, even an ancient cannon ball that the Welches found in the basement of their Audubon Park home, Jerry and Melissa would spend hours traipsing around local hiking trails. They were not alone in these workouts, for many of the same women on Melissa''s first trip decided to try again for Rainier ''s 14,410-foot summit. The group would meet weekly to speed hike Jefferson Memorial Forest , carrying between 45 and 70 pounds on their backs. Jerry and Melissa supplemented these hikes with hill repeats, running, biking, weights, the Stairmaster - anything to test their legs and lungs. They incorporated two of their children, Sydney, 5, and Jack, 3, into their training as often as possible. The children often served as weight, and would enjoy the view of forests and streams from the vantage point of mom and dad''s backs. Jerry and Melissa also have a 20-year old son, David, a sophomore at U of L.
Not only were the Welches juggling two young children with their training regimen, but also their ever-changing work schedules. The couple works both daytime and nighttime shifts in Norton''s busy emergency room, which often leaves them sleep deprived. It''s not uncommon for them to show up at an 8 a.m. hike after having just pulled an all-nighter at the hospital. "It takes its toll," admits Melissa.
As nearby Mt. Baker and Mt. Hood were revealed in mystical light of dawn, the Welches sat down above the cleaver to take a break and a have bite to eat. It was imperative that they eat steadily while on the mountain, as their veteran mountain guide told them, and to drink copious amounts of water to help fuel their bodies through the 12-hour summit day. Jerry was looking a little green, though, feeling the effects of 12,000 feet and a midnight alpine start time. Melissa was not much better. Both carefully unscrewed their bottles and drank, and stared in horror as a climbing companion dropped her bottle. In the blink of an eye it quickly rolled out of sight and off the edge of their snowy platform - falling for thousands of feet. It was a grim reminder of just how quickly things could change on a mountain and the dangers inherent in their chosen sport. But both were game to go on, and after receiving the green light from the head climbing guide, Jerry and Melissa set out again, always on different rope teams.
Climbing as part of a rope team is like doing a long, slow waltz up a mountain. For the Welches, it''s a welcome respite from their hectic days and nights working as emergency room doctors and raising their children. A trip to a big mountain is their time to spend in beautiful places with friends while taking on a great adventure. But they understand the risks involved in high-altitude mountaineering, which is why they always align themselves with a respected guide service.
"I''ve never felt unsafe on a mountain," explains Melissa. "I''ve felt more unsafe riding my bike down Eastern Parkway trying to get to the park."
Jerry agrees. "I''d say we''re not huge thrill-seekers; we''re into it for the challenge. Safety is always foremost in our minds, which is why we rope up on different rope teams. That way we aren''t hyper-focused on each of our partner''s steps." He jokes, "Besides, I don''t want my kids to get my 401K - I''ve worked too hard for it!"
The Welches arrived at high camp, just a few hundred feet from Rainier ''s summit. They''ve learned to combat their nausea by pressure breathing throughout their rest stops, quickly snuggling into their down parkas, and continuing to drain their water bottles, being careful not to drop them. Jerry''s inherent sense of humor had returned, as had Melissa''s radiant smile. They knew that the months of training with heavy packs were about to pay off. They were going to summit.
After a five-minute break, they rose and shouldered their packs once again. Each carefully set out on his respective rope team, being careful to flip the rope out of their team members'' way as they zigzagged up the final slope. The wind howled, gusting up to 50 mph, making it difficult for their crampons to bite into the crusty snow. The scent of sulfur was in the air - a reminder that Jerry and Melissa were on a volcano. Finally they reached the edge of an enormous ring of rocks, and looked down into the crater of Rainier . They''d made it!
The Welches are currently preparing for their next summit, 18,405-foot El Pico de Orizaba, located outside of Mexico City . They leave February 29 with two other Louisville climbers on a trip guided by Oregon-based Mountain Link. Although the Welches always maintain a base level of fitness by competing in local triathlons, duathlons and road races, they notched up their training in October. This winter they''ve spent many a Sunday with heavy packs roaming the woods of Jefferson Memorial Forest , the Knobstone Trail and Bernheim Forest . They''ve found winter training to their liking - no pesky mosquitoes or humidity to contend with.
Climbing is in their blood now, and there are other mountains they''d like to attempt. " Orizaba will be a test," admits Melissa. "We''d like to see how that challenge goes before planning ahead." But she and Jerry admit to thinking about a winter climb up the Mountaineer''s Route on Mt. Whitney , a stroll up Mt. Shasta , and some trips to climb in Europe . And if that goes well, then maybe, just maybe, they''ll test their crampons on Mt. McKinley - a very tough climb even by the experts'' standards. "That''s a big goal," admits Jerry. "It''s a huge financial and time commitment, but definitely a goal." Their love of the sport just may take them there.
"Climbing trips are a blast," states Melissa. "It''s pretty exciting on summit day when the guide gives the call to go - my heart starts racing!" Jerry agrees. "To be walking in pitch black on a glacier and see a string of headlamps above me and behind me - it''s just incredible!"
For the Welches, though, climbing isn''t just about making it to the top. "The summit wasn''t the highlight of the trip to Rainier ," says Melissa. "For me, it was the whole experience. Digging tent platforms in the snow with friends, watching us all huff and puff at altitude, being lowered into a crevasse and learning how to rescue others in the crevasse ... and the challenge of it all."
Laura Proctor is a local real estate agent who summited Mt. Rainier as part of Jerry Welch''s rope team. She''ll rope up with the Welches on their upcoming attempt to summit El Pico de Orizaba .
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