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Oregon Field Guide

Photographer Finds Healing In Wilderness

Producer - Vince Patton
Videographer - Todd Sonflieth
Editor - Nicholas Fisher
Field Grip - Jared Smith
Photos Courtesy - Peter Marbach

Photographer Peter Marbach finds great solace hiking into wilderness.

Photographer Peter Marbach finds great solace hiking into wilderness.

Vince Patton/OPB

In 2001, Peter Marbach hiked off Mount Hood and felt his heart do something odd. “There was no pain,” he says. “It just felt like it rolled over on its side.”

This billy goat of a man who’d climbed mountains all over the world still felt fine.

Yet, he paid attention to that bobble in his chest. His doctor in Hood River did tests and within days he found himself having an angiogram in Portland. 30 minutes later doctors came in and suggested he have open heart surgery.

Right away.
No delay.

“I remember thinking, I don’t understand. Why are they doing this?” says Marbach. “How could this be?” he wondered. Here he was in his early 40s, had tackled mountains from North America to Nepal, ate well, lived a healthy life and had seemed to be at his fittest.

The doctors replied, “You’re hours away from having a heart attack.”

That day he had a triple bypass.

He makes his recovery sound like a snap. “Physically it was pretty easy,” he says.

Marbach calls Mount Hood his ‘office.’ He’s a nature photographer and wanted to return to that as soon as possible

Peter Marbach celebrates reaching the summit of Mount Hood after his triple bypass heart surgery.

Peter Marbach celebrates reaching the summit of Mount Hood after his triple bypass heart surgery.

Peter Marbach

“Less than 9 months later I was standing on the summit of Mount Hood.”

He made it to the top ahead of other climbers, fell to his knees, sobbing. His heart was strong again. He’d made it to the peak.

Yet even at the summit he didn’t feel right. Marbach says, “I needed my soul to feel like it was back to where it was before that.”

For two years he suffered brutal panic attacks. “it was devastating. I’ll be honest. Here I was in my early 40s. I thought I was invincible,” he confesses. “It was really hard for me to handle.”

Marbach looks back now and realizes he was depressed and angry at the hand his heart had dealt him.

Psychological healing came slowly. It marched hand in hand with his hikes into the mountains.

He calls wilderness his greatest therapy.

“The only place I could feel like I was going to be able to  accelerate my healing was to be able to get back up above tree line,” Marbach says. “This is my world where I feel my best about myself, where I feel the most complete as a human being and where I feel safest.”

He explored the Mount Hood Wilderness more than ever, heading off trail tracing the headwaters of streams to glaciers high on the mountain. On one trip he discovered a secluded alpine meadow where wildflowers change by the week. A photo there is among his favorites and was featured in an art exhibit celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Alpine meadow at Mount Hood, Oregon

Alpine meadow at Mount Hood, Oregon

Peter Marbach

“I’m glad these men and women had the foresight to pass this legislation,” says Marbach, pleased also to note how overwhelming the support was from both political parties. “There needs to be more voices, more emphasis put on just the intrinsic value of wilderness by itself.”

Marbach returns to his favorite meadow every year. “You get to intimately know a place on the mountain. It becomes part of you and who you are.”

He also attempted to reach the summit of Mount Hood this year. He tried twice in the spring. Both times conditions forced him to turn back.

On the third try he made it. It was the 13th anniversary of his heart surgery.

“I needed that. I needed that morning.”

He was the very first person to reach the top that day, a few minutes before sunrise.

“You look over your shoulder and there’s this amazing, surreal pyramid shadow that forms.”

Nepalese prayer flags hang at sunrise at the summit of Mount Hood.

Nepalese prayer flags hang at sunrise at the summit of Mount Hood.

Peter Marbach

He unfurled some prayer flags he’d brought back from an expedition to Nepal. “The beauty is so fleeting. It’s over in a minute. I just got the most amazing images that morning. Just phenomenal. Some of the best I’ve ever gotten from the summit of Mount Hood.”

Today, Marbach feels truly healed.

“Coming back to places like this keeps me going, keeps me young at heart.”

Nature photography by Peter Marbach.

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Oregon Field Guide: Episode #2601
Most Recent Broadcast: October 23, 2014