What’s up, Doc? | TahoeDailyTribune.com

What’s up, Doc?

Heather Coen
Photos provided to the Tahoe Daily Tribune Dr. Lars Ensign climbs Athabasca, above, and stands at the summit, top.
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GARDNERVILLE – As a young child, Lars Ensign took his mother’s blender and toaster apart to discover how they worked. As he grew older his discoveries grew more in-depth and broader in perspective.

When Ensign got out of high school, he worked as a paramedic alongside Mike Coulter.

Coulter had dreamed of a day when he would become the doctor in charge, not the paramedic handing over the patient, but parenthood blocked him from fulfilling that dream.

Coulter’s dream inspired Ensign and his encouragement kept Ensign going when college got tough.

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The day came when Ensign became the doctor in charge. He now works at Carson Valley Medical Center as an emergency room physician. It was a long, hard, debt-inducing road to attain his goals, but Ensign never takes the easy route.

During his childhood in Bremerton, Wash., family friends took Ensign on many excursions to the Olympic Mountains. Living on a finger in the Puget Sound with his parents and two younger siblings, Ensign started climbing mountains when he was young. He loved the outdoors and the excitement of attaining his goals.

“Emergency medicine just kept coming back around because it was a great way to combine all of the elements … different disciplines in the medical field and yet have time to have a great lifestyle,” Ensign said.

Ensign works 16 shifts a month, one-third day, one-third swing and one-third graveyard. Even after working three to five days at night in a row with very little rest, his medical training kicks in.

“Lights are too bright, you just can’t get warm, your appetite is ruined from not eating regularly in the last few days, but it is amazing how you can function when a case comes in.”

During medical school someone is always there to supervise you. However, when you become a resident, the mantle of responsibility descends on your shoulders and you become the leader.

“I realized that if I don’t catch something, nobody is going to.”

Ensign had to overcome a lifetime of being the person in the background and become the person in charge.

Keeping the emergency staff on track, working with the consulting physicians, and the political dance that comes with the position was the hardest part for Ensign to overcome. Leadership was not a natural thing for this soft spoken man.

After a long stretch of work, it’s the 13 to 15 days off, some of them in a row, that gives him the freedom to pursue his interest in ice, mountain and rock climbing.

Even as medicine has challenged him to grow and improve, so has mountain climbing. The hardest mental climb Ensign has had was in the Canadian Rockies near Jasper. It is called the East Ridge of Mount Edith Cavell. He climbed the mountain solo.

“I would look at the difficult section above me, and have to sit and think about it and then I would decide to climb the first 10 feet of a difficult stretch. Then I would go past the mantle,” he said, referring to the point when it’s harder to reverse and descend than to go on.

Then fog and clouds enveloped the mountain and Ensign missed the descent route. He ended up on a cliff face extremely tired but had to climb back up almost to the peak to find the route, and do a traverse across part of the face on unstable ground to get back on track. Sixteen hours after he started, Ensign reached the bottom, rain-drenched in the darkness but triumphant.

During another difficult climb with a friend named Fish, they sheltered in steam tunnels at night to keep warm. They woke up in the morning coated in ice from the steam condensing on them and their gear.

Fish developed altitude sickness and kept falling down in the snow and going to sleep. Ensign would shake him to get him going again.

As Ensign continues to climb, he picks routes that are more and more technically challenging. He now centers his interest in ice climbing. Ensign climbed the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, also known as Ro Shampo.

In March, Ensign took the Grindrite Route near Bishop, Calif. It was the last of his ice climbing expeditions in this area as summer approaches.

However, plans are in the works to climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite in May. Ensign spoke with enthusiasm as he told about the portion of the climb where he would let go of the face and swing out over the valley floor thousands of feet below.

The plan is for his companions to suspend the rope down from an inverse ledge perpendicular to the vertical face. Ensign will be swinging in mid air as he climbs up to those waiting directly above him. He was ecstatic that they will be able to advance his technical climbing skills.

In the emergency room, he faces other challenges.

Ensign, who is single and lives alone, focuses his life on helping others, yet chooses a sport that is intensely dangerous. What his vocation and hobby have in common is seeking to understand things that are technically challenging.

Starting with his mother’s blender, he now advances to the expert level of rock and ice climbing. Living on the edge comes naturally to Ensign.


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