Dwayne Blackaller first realized the severity of his father’s illness during a 2011 backpacking trip in the Tetons. The climb had been hard, and Mike Blackaller kept passing his gear off to his son. By the time they reached the top, Dwayne was saddling most of the weight from their bags.
“We got up high in this beautiful place in the Tetons above Jenny Lake, and it was just gorgeous,” Dwayne said. “We were sitting down where we were going to camp, and Dad said, ‘Do you want to go home?’”
Dwayne was shocked.
“I was like, ‘Sure, I guess,’” he said. “He was overwhelmed with this sense of homesickness, which I had never seen hit him like that. Now, the sun goes down and it’s typical for him to feel homesick, even when he’s at home.”
What started in 2006 as a slight tremor in Mike’s hands has left the 64-year-old without the ability to backpack, rock climb, work, walk and often talk; he looks closer to 80 years old and lists heavily to his right. Mike suffers from a rare degenerative neurological disease called multiple system atrophy, which shares a number of symptoms with Parkinson’s.
Mike’s speech has disintegrated and his limbic system has gone haywire, which causes him to cry frequently and be overcome with anxiety—but his mind is still sharp. He said he knows and understands everything happening to him.
“It’s different than having your leg amputated,” Mike said. “Who you are is gone. Your brain doesn’t decay, just your body and your voice.”
Dwayne calls the disease a “bitter irony” for his father, who was always active and physically fit.
“Dad was never a TV-watcher or a book-reader,” he said. “He would make fun of us for playing board games, called them boring. He was a little bit of a monster if he didn’t exercise an hour a day.”
After Mike’s illness forced him to retire from his 34-year career at the Idaho Commission for the Blind, he began researching Jeff Lowe, a rock climbing celebrity from Ogden, Utah, who he had admired throughout his life.
Though they never met, the two of them lived parallel lives back in Mike’s climbing days. They are the same age; they went to rivalry outdoor schools—Lowe at Outward Bound, Mike at the National Outdoor Leadership School. While Lowe was guiding climbs in the Tetons, Mike guided on Mount Rainier.
Mike decided to hang up his climbing shoes in the early 80s and picked the domestic life, moving to Boise and starting a family. Lowe, however, kept climbing and tackled some of the hardest first ascents ever attempted.
Through his research, Mike found another striking parallel between their lives: Lowe also suffers from a neurological disease almost identical to Mike’s. He’s wheelchair bound and barely comprehensible.
“I admire him,” Mike said. “I admired him 20 years ago. I admired him as a climber, all the climbs he did. And still, it’s the same inspiration, but from a different perspective.”
A film was recently made about Lowe, weaving together one of his most famous climbs with his end-of-life journey. The movie, called Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, is narrated by Jon Krakauer and premiered at Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2014, but Mike hasn’t seen it yet. He reached out to the film’s producers to see if it would come to Boise back in January.
Dwayne secured a screening at the Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. He said he can’t wait for his dad to see the film, which features Lowe’s attempt at a first ascent of the Eiger, a 13,020-foot mountain in Switzerland. He tried to do it alone, in the winter.
“Something happened to him on the mountain,” Dwayne said. “He never summited, but he calls the route Metanoia, meaning transformative change. He has this transformative experience and goes on to get a similar disease, and whatever happened to him on the mountain seems to have made him have a kind of joy and peace. My dad would love to have a piece of that.”
Though the movie isn’t widely available yet, it has experienced tremendous success at myriad film festivals around the world. It’s been shown at cancer survivors workshops and at the No Barriers Summit, in front of 700 disabled athletes.
“The theme of our film is, you do the best you can with what you’ve got right now,” said Connie Self, Lowe’s longtime partner and the film’s producer. “There are two ways to live life: with fear or through love.”
Self said she is also excited for Mike to see the film and wishes Lowe could travel to Boise to meet him.
“My hope is that [Mike] will be inspired,” Self said. “Jeff doesn’t spend a lot of time wishing things were different from what they are. When you do that, you tend to block your creativity. When you can embrace where you are right now, then you have options to do something about it.”
The film also shows on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at the Alpine Theatre in McCall at 7 p.m.
Mike has piles of tear-stained had-written bucket lists clipped to a photo of his younger self, straddling a backpack and a bronzy tan. Items like Matterhorn, X-C ski, downhill ski, Europe, piano, and kayak go unchecked. But Dwayne said bringing Lowe’s film to Boise has given Mike purpose.
“Everyone is watching Jeff,” Mike said. “Everyone has always watched him. He’s still climbing.”
“Well, metaphorically at least,” Dwayne added.