Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Going Up

Part 1

I'm four days removed from it. A lot of effort and encouragement was necessary for it. I was buoyed by positive people and kind advice. In the end, I and four other people went up.

To be specific, we went up Mount Adams. This particular mount is located an hour and a half-ish northeast-ish of Portland in the -ish lands. It is called Pa-Toe by the natives and was named Adams by mistake when a mapmaker mixed up his coordinates for Mount St Helens, which was originally intended to be Adams. Not to worry--we did not mix up our coordinates and arrived just fine with credit to Mother Google Maps and Chuck's intrepid driving.

Found it! View from Trout Lake, WA

The first night, we camped below our giant where a teeming rush of melt ran river wild. There we rested on its low bed in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. We swam mostly clothed in the river, gawked through the Ponderosas at the hint of a Milky Way sky, and shuttered our eyes as glacier plum fairies danced in our heads. I woke late to a shudder, because the dream I had was not of glacier fairies but of failure. It's a recurring dream of signing up for something I don't have the will nor the stamina to finish, and it passed through me to quite harsh effect. I woke up weary. I heard myself doubt me. And then I shook that damn dream off!

Rush of wild wet

When you are about to go up there are some things you should consider taking along. One of those things is a strong team of benevolent people--this we did not lack. I also recommend a few beers. This falls in the "no duh" category, but you'd be surprised at my failures in Backpacking 101 on this trip. Truth be told, this was my first multi-day backpacking adventure and first mountain ascent, so I was at the mercy of many dear friends' recommendations and my aforementioned benevolent co-champions on the climb. So before going up, I also recommend having terrific people in your life who are willing to loan you gear and even call you the night before to wish you luck.

Up up up!

Adams has a road leading to the trailhead. And it is total garbage! It is the road created for the horsemen of the apocalypse to chase people down because it will be so easy to ruin them since just using the very road will do most of the work. Once at the trailhead, you find a dirt path quickly giving way to sprawling whiteness dotted by trees and rocky shelves. This whiteness took us 5-ish hours to ascend, gradually gaining 4000' of elevation to the standard overnight spot called Lunch Counter at 9350'. We prepped food and, though we intended to sleep early, struggled to beat back the overpowering beauty of an angled sunset. The colliding lines of horizon, mountainside, and sun arc conspired together as I was forced to reconcile this new geometry with what my previous 10,000 days on earth taught me. Night fell and sleep ensued (or not, in my case) for five hours.

Dusk fox
Sunset geometry with Mt St Helens

2AM came with a whimper. I was wide awake waiting for the alarm and had no trouble rolling out of the tent. There was prepping of coffee and the Oat Elixir of Life (more on this later). I was tired having hardly slept, but there was also a full on Milky Way. So tired was less interesting. We secured our tents and bid them farewell for the day, "See you in a few hours, dear tents! We will be new people by then!" We donned our crampons and ice axes, headlamps and game faces. It was on.

On like crampons

It took very little time for the sun to begin flinging some lightness in our direction. The thing about being at 10,000' elevation is the sunrise happens even earlier than usual for this latitude. By 4:30AM I had turned off my headlamp and let our brightest friend do its work.

Zanna and Laura ravin' all morning

Gabe wields a steady axe

Food break contemplating the mountain's sunrise shadow on the land

At about 6AM we began ascending a very steep section that would eventually lead to the false summit on Piker's Peak. It doesn't sound like too much, but the 1300' gain in that kilometer was of destructive force. It wrenched my crampons from their seemingly secure laces on my boots, it pushed my huffing and puffing to new, altitude-affected levels, and it made me have to stick my ass out and poop on the side of a cruel, white wilderness. It was my personal bĂȘte noire on the ascent as I watched my companions reach the resting point at the top one by one while I was sitting to fix my crampons and then to poo 50 meters away behind some rocks. When I reached them, my vision was blurring and my head grew lighter at altitude. I kept on the water and opened the Oat Elixir of Life to recover my strength. The OEL is a concoction of my colleague-in-climb, Laura, who dumps steel-cut oats, chia seeds, flax seeds, coconut shavings, and for all I know the glowing heart of our very universe into a pot and fires it up. With luck she had made too much for us in the morning, and against some reservations I decided to huff it along to the top. There is no doubt in my mind that OEL saved my day as I fought altitude woes and hunger the entire morning, snarfing down every last seed.

Huffing through the sunrise behind Gabe

My colleagues patiently waited while I tended to my food needs. They then informed me that what we were looking at ahead of us was not the false summit (as I believed it to be) but was, in fact, the top. Realizing that we were actually on the false summit was the biggest boost of energy and glee I would have all day. I leapt for the sheer delight of being wrong! I screamed in pleasure. We had 600' to the summit and, while my legs and boots were as anchors, I surged in the categories uncharted by calorie counts: hope, determination, and joy.

The final ascent and trip photo contest winner by Zanna

Here's the thing about my summit experience: we had been looking at breathtaking mountains all day. Mount St Helens was at the west, Mount Hood was at the south, Mount Jefferson to the farther south, but there was no sign of our friend Mount Rainier. You knew it was on the other side, but somehow the reality of what it would mean to see it (that you were at the top!) had not yet occurred to me until I was ascending the final ledge of the final push. To set the scene a bit, I was the second to reach the top. Laura had gone ahead while Gabe and I waited for the others, but the farther she climbed the more we considered sending a second person to avoid separation. So I went up. As I crested that final ledge, I saw the air stretch out where before there had only been snow, and I saw each step reveal more of the north horizon. Then, there: Mount Rainier and the few steps needed to reveal our 360 degree view. A hug was waiting there for me, after which I promptly fell to my knees and wept.

Rainier got my back

To me, there is no more significant event than unexpected tears; they are to be dwelt on and understood. I wept out of exhaustion. I wept at my dream vanquished from two mornings ago. I wept for lack of sleep, emotional unrest, and the stirring victory the team shared. I wept for it all. Then, as I stood to my feet I saw that mountain over there, the next one, and it presented a profound reality to me: on the other side of one mountain is just another damn mountain. Consider your victories, (and congrats for climbing!), but remember that there are only more challenges for the challengers in life. It was a moment of true enlightenment and inspiration, yes, but it was also a moment of deep realities, tears, valleys, and the resolve to climb them all.


Part 2

The descent was quick work. We snapped pictures on top; we hugged and celebrated. We refueled and considered that it was only 8:30AM. There wasn't much need to linger too long at the summit. It is a glorious place, of course, but with the goal reached there was a sense that what we had accomplished continued long beyond the summit. So we went down. We glissaded down huge chunks of the steep climb on what would become our very sore butts. Glissading is quite the experience: find whatever waterproof item you have (in our case, trash bags), make foot holes in it, pull it up like a diaper, and glide down these snow chutes carved by the many smiley butt people that came before you.

Sore butts 101

Once at camp, we melted snow for water, stuffed some food in our faces, and began packing up for the last leg down. It was past noon at this juncture, so the snow had softened to the point that it was pleasantly cushy and quite slippy. It turns out downhill + soft snow = endlessly "skiable" descents in boots. Learning to control these elements was a challenge we all mastered by the base with only a few crazed tumbles that flung snow and laughter everywhere.

Once back at the vehicle, we relieved our feet to the open air, hit a few whiffle balls (yep), and climbed into the quad cab for another treacherous turn on apocalypse road. The mountain sat unchanged behind us now, a massive and wild playground on which these five kids romped for a couple days. We stopped in Hood River to wade out on a sandbar in the Columbia River, bringing cool relief to our feet and bodies. The obligatory burger and beer dinner followed at Full Sail Brewing and soon enough we were cruising north on I-5 back to home.

In the days since this climb I've felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment. I've talked about myself more than usual. I've also missed our team! Every time I've ever reached a goal or had a life-binding experience in a team environment (thinking of directing study abroad programs or producing large-scale theater shows), there is this sense of loss that the people who were with you and helped you rally through will continue to be your friends but never in that context again. The team, as it were, has disbanded though the accomplishment lives on. I've felt that this week, seeing the faces of these literal colleagues of mine back in our work environment, knowing we shared an ineffable bond in that accomplishment, but knowing that would never happen again. This is where I pivot to saying that the joys of outdoor experience are what call us again and again to reenter the unknown and wild lands. They are fleeting moments that draw us closer to each other and ourselves. We have new words for ourselves, we have new perspectives. We've seen from new angles and watched our world through new sweat and new tears.

We are reborn. We went up.