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Mountain climbing gives Spokane couple unique form of marriage therapy

Spokesman-Review - 10/14/2018

Oct. 14--As with any relationship, Carol and Greg Onofrio have their share of sadness and struggle.

A son who for years struggled with alcoholism. Another son with autism. Plus all the normal wear and tear of a 33-year marriage.

But the Onofrios, who moved to Spokane from Colorado in 2016, have discovered an unusual, and adventurous, form of therapy: mountain climbing.

"It's like a retreat. But it's such an intense retreat," Greg Onofrio said. "One loose rock could kill you, so you don't have time to think about the troubles at home. It's just us two together and we rely on each other."

Thirty-four years ago the Onofrio's climbed their first 14,000-foot Colorado peak -- Mount Sherman. The two were dating, on the fast track to marriage. But Carol didn't take to climbing, at least not then.

Fast forward about 20 years. The Onofrio's two sons are nearly grown.

Greg climbed with the two boys throughout their childhood and teen years, but Carol didn't join, at least not until later. Slowly, though, she started to feel increasingly left out.

So they started climbing together again, and never looked back. Over the past 14 years, the couple climbed all 53 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks. They climbed the final four in August, finishing on Creston Peak.

"We were never in a hurry to bag them all," Greg said.

Instead, it was a meditative and therapeutic experience for the two. Onofrio doesn't have anything against those who rush to climb as many mountains as possible in goal-oriented outbursts. But he's discovered the slow, contemplative beauty of a more staid pace.

"What they're missing is enjoying the details," he said. "The wildlife. Just the beauty. The sunrises the sunsets. The teeny little animals. For things like that, you have to be really patient."

It helps that Onofrio is an avid photographer and Carol is his favorite model.

Which isn't to say the Onofrios' climbing exploits have been tame meditations on the natural world. They've climbed the more dangerous peaks in Colorado and had their fair share of harrowing and uncomfortable experiences.

On Carol's 50th birthday, the couple did a winter ascent of Mount Elbert. In the summer, it's an easy day hike. But in the winter it becomes an "ice mountain," Greg said.

They made it and celebrated at the top with a selfie while 40 mph winds howled around them.

"That's what she wanted to do," Onofrio said.

While climbing certainly didn't save the Onofrios' marriage, it did help.

Research has consistently shown that exposure to nature reduces stress and improves physical and emotional health. All things that are useful in a relationship.

The bond created while climbing is a strong one. One that is often a matter of life and death.

"We spend quality time training, preparing and planning; activities unique to our mountain adventures which we otherwise may not enjoy together," Carol said in an email. "We also have lasting memories -- stories, experiences and images that will remain with us for the rest of our lives."

The couple moved to Spokane in 2016 when Onofrio became the director of music and liturgy for Gonzaga University'sMission and Ministry. For Greg and Carol, climbing is a religious experience, one that reminds them of the power and mystery of creation.

"Whether you're religious or not, if you believe there is a God and a creator, all that we have around us is his gift to us," Greg said. "It's for us to preserve, cherish enjoy and respect."

Climbing puts any problems they have in perspective.

In particular, Onofrio remembers climbing Little Bear Peak, considered one of Colorado's more dangerous climbs.

"We were completely alone on that mountain. That entire trip we were the only ones there," he said. "It's creepy. It's kind of scary to be in a place that is so dangerous. That was one of those places you felt vulnerable and (you know) nature is definitely in charge."

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(c)2018 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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