Not your average
many stories about Tom Montgomery. So many that a guy on the sidelines
of his life might think it’s all made up. It isn’t. These are a few
stories I know:
In 1986 I
was a boatman on the Tuolumne River in California. We had an opening in
our crew that year, and because it was a high-water year, our front
office wanted to bolster the ranks with an experienced guide. So Tom
Montgomery joined our crew.
a story that preceded the new guy. The previous winter, he had been a
rescue kayaker for a commercial outfit running trips on the Bio Bio
River in Chilé. One particular trip, the flow was relatively high:
25,000 to 30,000 cubic feet per second. The group was entering a rapid
called Milky Way. In the middle of the rapid Montgomery spotted a huge
boulder on which he decided to perch his kayak and watch the others go
through. When the current suddenly surged, it flushed Montgomery
backward over the giant rock, about a 20-foot fall. He was then taken by
the current and slammed against a wall on river right where his foot
became trapped. After his leg finally broke, Montgomery wiggled loose,
then swam through the rest of the rapid. The next week, with a cast on
his leg, Montgomery retrofitted his kayak to fit the cast and went back
on the water to work another trip on the Bio Bio.
the guide house in California, we were all impressed by the fact that
Montgomery went back to work with a cast on his leg. But what was lost
on us, or on me at least, was that the real measure of the man took
place in those long moments underwater. The question lurking there was:
What would one do faced with such bad odds?
there was the nickname. Somehow Montgomery had this moniker floating
around him: Mr. Physical Fitness.
happens, when Montgomery was a kid playing football, he and a buddy
decided "it would be fun" to join the Marines. After the first
day of Marine life, they decided it really wasn‘t that much fun, after
all, and so wanted to go back to playing football, catching snakes and
such. Well, the U.S. Marine Corps wasn’t having any part of that. The
boys were committed. So, in typical Montgomery fashion, he summoned a
little pride and determination and became a Marine.
didn’t become the average Marine who could survive the physical rigors
of the Marine Corps training. He became the very best Marine—the most
physically fit Marine in the entire Marine Corps—hence the name. He
broke Marine records for fitness that hadn’t been touched in years.
was subsequently summoned into a general’s office and was offered an
appointment to Annapolis. Weighing the offer, at attention no less,
Montgomery respectfully declined. It was not the answer the general
expected. After hurling his staff within inches of Montgomery’s head,
the general went on to inform him that people didn’t turn down
appointments to Annapolis. As it turned out, Mr. Physical Fitness did.
he might not appreciate the gravity of his decision, Montgomery was sent
off to some miserable scratch of earth with a superior assigned to make
his life unbearable. What the superior didn’t know was, one, how tough
Montgomery is and, two, that among his many talents is an uncanny
ability to catch snakes. When he had just about had it with the abuse,
Montgomery went off and caught a rattlesnake, then put it in his
canteen. Later, when the superior mentioned he was thirsty, Montgomery
gladly offered his canteen. As the superior uncorked it and went to take
a sip, the relationship between the two men suddenly changed. It turned
out Mr. Physical Fitness had wits too.
the river, 1986. Montgomery and I were working a trip together on the
Tuolumne River. I managed to wrap my boat on a rock in the middle of the
Evangelist rapid. Two of my four passengers—all of whom were in their
60s—flushed downstream. Amid all the chaos, what I remember most is
hearing this man in my boat screaming at me, "Where is my
around the raft, water streaming through it, then in the current
downstream, at Montgomery in his boat below—she was nowhere. Then I
looked down into the water and saw her there, pinned by the spare
oar, the full force of the river holding her there, her head 6 inches
under. I tried to pull her up but couldn’t move her. I tried again,
then again, but she didn’t’ budge. That’s when this sickening
sensation came over me: one of wanting to give up. The force of the
river pinning her was too strong, too much time had gone by. I was sure
she was dead; I couldn’t possibly get her out.
saw Montgomery bounding over boulders along the bank coming to help.
When he was even with us he looked over at me. Maybe it was the look in
his eyes, or just the weight of his presence, that I’ll never forget.
It was absolute conviction that not only could he save this woman, but I
could too. The message was clear: Stay focused and do not give up, no
matter how seductive that choice might seem. And so, after Montgomery so
subtly pulled me back from a moment of doubt that I’ll always be
somewhat ashamed of, I leaned into the water, found the lines pinning
the woman, cut them and pulled her up out of the current. Without air
for, perhaps, a minute and a half, this 65-year-old woman was up,
coughing and gagging, but she was alive.
took was a look. In that, Montgomery revealed his spirit: a belief in
things and events not believable. It changed my life; it saved another’s.
last story: Tom Montgomery has cancer. And maybe for first time in his
life, he needs help, from anyone and everyone.
is one thing I learned from this guy who was always the fastest,
strongest, most capable—Mr. Physical Fitness—is that the body is
tethered to the heart. In fact, the latter just takes the body around
for the ride. While the rest of us will never approach the physical
abilities of this man, our hearts can be as strong in time. And if we
can offer him even a whisper of the fortitude he has demonstrated in his
life, maybe we can help him find a way out of the dark space he’s in
time before I even knew Tom Montgomery, he seemed larger than life. Now,
after knowing him for even the short time that I have, he seems more so.