The Mountain

My pre-adventure ritual—at this point, I have been through this or actions just like it dozens if not hundreds of times in my life. Mentally walking through any possible negative situations that I may encounter, I try to prepare myself for any undertaking. I know if something were to happen, it would likely be something unexpected anyway. Turning the carabiner between my fingers, I inspect it, looking for any imperfection that may one day manifest itself as an aid in my injury or demise. Running my hand over the webbing which is attached, feeling for loose threads or abrasions, I’m satisfied. I move on to the next, and the next, and the next. On solo climbs, you only have yourself and your equipment to rely on. You can prepare for the worst but you can’t prepare for everything.

Picking up my crampons, I inspect their points. I think about how many miles have been wagered across glaciers and my mind slips into icy blue thoughts of places not fit for man to reside in long. The ice is time trapped by circumstance. It flows slowly toward its reincarnation. Cyclical in nature like my need to get out and experience, again and again, the water reinvents itself as its never-ending Trimurti—liquid, vapor, ice. I file a point that was blunted; the shavings of iron dapple the workbench like stones tossed by children onto frozen ponds. As I shape the point, I become the point; the extension of my body that I will soon depend on reveals itself to me as through a fog that parts into clarity.

I grip the handle of the ice ax and let it slide down through my grasp until the meaty part of my hand rests under its head. I skillfully maneuver to hold the center of the head from above, pick forward, adz to the rear. A memory from muscles that haven’t been through that particular motion for a nearly a year is reactivated. Comfort washes over me as if, once again, I was in the arms of a long lost lover whom I was unable to distance myself from, hoping she would return.

I take inventory of everything obsessively placed on the floor in front of me. Down sleeping bag and coat, ice screws, first aid kit, bivy sack, tent, stove—the list continues and evolves. Thinking about weight, I remove items of less importance, cut the handle off my toothbrush leaving a two-inch stub, add a small section of paracord and start to load the pack, confident that the equipment stowed will be sufficient but not overly burdensome.

Unfurling the map across my desk, never one to fall into the fallacy that the map is the place, I inspect its contours. Glaciers move. This map was made a decade ago and I think about how the ice would flow around those representative lines, where crevasses may have formed, how the bergschrund will have changed. I was here three years ago and made some notations then.  I reflect on the last time I was there.

There are nine types of snow crystals. Each crystal is a singular universe with bonds and relationships to be explored. How each flake interacts with others determines the manner in which they fall and the surface conditions they create. When they form together and nestle in with each other, settling for their long glacial ride, their crystalline structures lock in microscopic constellations—making something as soft and gentle as the downy undercoat of a duck as hard as the igneous flows and intrusions they fall on.

I was caught in a storm. May storms in the Cascades are not the same as the squabbles experienced at lower elevations. At 9,608’, according to the altimeter on my watch, it was beyond bearable and I was forced to make camp. Winds blew at hurricane force and those snow crystals transformed into deadly projectiles hurled by vengeful mountain gods. They cut through the fabric of my balaclava and froze themselves to my beard. Falling from the sky, they whipped up from the surface of the mountain, invading anything they had access to. My world was theirs. I hastily leveled out a platform, making a windbreak with the snow, pitched my tent, and waited it out. In my tent, I looked at the thermometer on my watch and it said fourteen degrees Fahrenheit. In the wind outside that would make it about negative ten. That wasn’t why I pitched the tent. I wasn’t cold; in fact, the exertion of the climb had left me comfortably warm. But losing my way in the white-out or unwittingly walking directly into a hazard was an increasing possibility the longer the storm raged. It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

All that stood between me and the assault was a thin piece of nylon and I was glad it was there. It flexed and cracked, a bullwhip in the tempest. All day I sat, waiting, wanting to be somewhere else. I contemplated the tempest, the masochistic tendencies of mountaineers, and my resolve. I took the opportunity to drift in and out of broken sleep and rounds of solitaire played with tiny cards, resting for opportunity to once again present itself.

Toward evening, the sky ceased its assault and I was able to exit. The alpenglow burned in the calm after the storm. I stood in two feet of freshly fallen snow which had whipped up against my makeshift wall and settled. Being there in that moment made me grateful. The beauty of that scene was enhanced by the monstrousness of what I had been through all day. It seared itself into memory. My rebirth into the subtle light elevated my state. I was blessed by the last rays of the sun, and my perception was augmented. Fuchsia, mauve, and lavender with reds and oranges danced through the clouds below and rimmed the glistening edges of the crests above.  

As the glow faded and I could no longer distinguish the timberline, my eyes turned toward the sky to see stars birthing the night. Reds and blues, platinum in the heavens, sprinkled across eternity. I looked into the past of the universe, beyond time of man, beyond time of glaciers, and felt insignificant. Sandwiched between the remnants of the last ice age and the totality of time above, the relevance of my goals eroded and the threads of my stubbornness were unraveled.

I made tea from the snow that once threatened me and sat outside, alone, contemplative on a throne I carved into the snow and ice of the mountain. Looking at this kingdom, with steam ribboning off my cup, the contour of the peak stood solemnly against the universe of the past. I wouldn’t get to stand on its lofty heights this trip. The avalanche danger would be too high now. However, my experience was made much sweeter by the challenge and struggle, by the failure to attain my goal, and by the epiphany that sometimes goals are meant to be out of reach.

The next day I came down in sunshine. I was kissed with a blistering sunburn on the bridge of my nose that haunted me for the next few weeks and fueled by a lust for more insight that can only be provided through trial, perseverance, and reward.

Folding the map up, I smile and tuck it into the depths of my pack, alongside my carabiners and crampons. Deep down I know I will not be reaching for it on this trip. Listening to the mountain tell me where to go is far more reliable. I close the top of the pack, latch the buckles, and embrace a new adventure along with the memories and insights it will bring.

First appeared in Deep Wild: Writing From the Backcountry, 2019.