An Essential Part of Myself.
I found this photo in a long buried folder in my Dropbox while looking for another climbing photo last week. This photo was taken on day three of what was supposed to be a two day climbing trip. If you’ve spent a continuous hour with me, then you’ve probably heard some version of the story, which has become abridged over the years. I tell it, because it is a long way of talking about how I found my way back to cycling after doing some version of the above for five years. What has come in the now years after that time on Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) has become the story’s raison d’etre, which is fine for others, but putting into that mode fails to explain its more personal meanings; a meaning I’ve lost touch with.
I made the photo the home screen on my phone, replacing the long standing photo of my wife and me wearing each other’s sunglasses, and I’ve gone back to look at the original countless times since posting it. For the first couple of days I marveled at it. I like the composition of it, and was surprised by the simple fact that I had taken it, but over the countless looks I’ve began to examine more deeply the meaning of that time.
There are parallels between my life then and as it is now.
Then I felt stuck. I had been functionally unemployed for just over a year. Six months of that without unemployment benefits, because my computer had crashed the day before receiving a letter asking me to submit a count of the all the jobs I’d applied for. I had filled out countless resumes, and been greeted with zero responses. I felt aimless.
There was always some goal: climb such and such route, on such and such mountain, and I did do some of that, but those achievements—in and of themselves—are useless. The literature of mountaineering is stock full same theme: The meaning in achieving the summit is in all it took to get there. Mountain tops—to anyone with a level of self-awareness—are lonely, empty places, and there is nothing there for any one. The summit is always the goal, but it is not the prize.
One could extrapolate this rather dark view all aspects of one’s life, and I have done so, countless times in my misguided existential practice, but even doing that misses the point of the exercise.
I was over my head on that set of days, early in July five years ago. A conflagration of weather events that I have long forgotten made for good conditions on the North Face of Tahoma. Doug and Veronika suggested that make a run at Liberty Ridge, one of America’s greatest routes, and I said yes without hesitation. Until then, the only “big” thing I had climbed was a “solo” of Mt. Hood’s trampled Southern Route. Solo quotes because there are always a lot of people on the route. Doug had to have known, since we’d completed, and failed, together on many other routes.
I think I sold some books, and took the little money I was earning every week by working a temp gig, taking payment for parking at the Wells Fargo Tower in Portland, packed my gear and took the Amtrak to Seattle.
We hiked in on July second, after an alpine start out of Doug’s apartment. The plan was clear the Carbon glacier on Friday, ascend up to Thumb Rock on the third of July, and summit the next day. We packed accordingly: just enough food for the two days, one tent, a bivy sack, and three screws, a picket, three slings and one 6mm rope 30m in length to tie us together. I had suggested that we climb the route in a push; one day car to car with no bivy gear. I was shot down, but our style was still light, and we moved quickly, the way I had always wanted to move in the mountains.
We left thumb rock early on the start of the third day. It was clear enough in the hours before sun rise that one could—just barely—make out the lights of Seattle. We moved fast in the glow of our head lamps with Doug kicking steps. At six, we stopped for some water. We were at 12K and there were jokes about me being the first Grunau to reach such an altitude. I took over the pace making, as the wind picked up and snow began to fall/ swirl around us. A half hour later we were in a white out.
I looked down the slope, and could barely see Doug’s green jacket in the distance, Veronika was just behind him; we were simul-climbing, and hadn’t felt the need to tie in. Visibility decreased and the wind picked up, throwing snow in a clock wise motion around us. I was soaked. Snow from making the boot pack had fallen into the holes in pants—created from crampon missteps on earlier trips—and my feet were without feeling. I tried to dig a snow cave as I waited for Doug and Veronika. Things could have been worse, but I was conscious of the fact that this was my first time not having plans go accordingly. I found rock at each attempted dig site.
We held a quick meeting when Doug and Veronika climbed up to me. There was serac not far above us, and we decided to set up the tent underneath it and wait out the storm.
It was my job to light the stove, so that we could have something warm to drink once the tent was up. I was colder than I’d ever been—and my history includes camping in a snow cave in temps as low as -10—and I began to shake so violently that my lips chattered, my hands shook and I was unable to light the stove.
“I have to get inside my sleeping bag” I remember muttering to Doug.
Everybody has moments in their life when everything changes. Times where you are thrown so off course that you come out the other end changed, and possibly unaware of what comes next. I call these moments Pivot Points. Change takes time to realize, and, most of the time, when these Pivot Points hit us we are unaware that they are changing us. I view that day on Tahoma as one of those Pivot Points, one I was—at least in part—aware of in that moment. It is a lie to say that I love being tested. No one does, what matters is whether you submit yourself to those tests when they arrive. I submitted myself, and I came out changed.
But I know, and accepted all of that. It’s the parallels that are bothering me.
Lately, I have been feeling stuck. I spent most of this past summer hardly riding my bike. I went from riding 200 -250 miles a week, to commuting less than eighty. Over the spring I was so in love with cycling, that I paid little heed to the sense of looming burn out. Now cross is here, and I don’t have the legs to race, and very little desire to go out and hammer myself. The writing career I envisioned for myself is not materializing. I have gone as far in the bike shop game as I can get with my skill set, and there is no ladder to climb to higher pay, more benefits or more security.
I won’t claim to be in great shape when I was on Tahoma. I was fit enough to climb all day, that much was sure. I worked hard to get that fitness. I climbed three days a week, I lifted three days a week and went for two hours trail runs with only a gel and a small bottle of water for food. I was running from demons, trying to hold something at bay. They were dark times, but there was a work ethic there, that I find lacking in my current life, which is filled with goals, desires, and an endless ability to distract myself, from the task in front of me.
A month ago a friend told me that I had “a slash and burn” approach to my past. I accepted the criticism because it is true. People change. People should change, and to not do so feels like something worse than death. There were large portions of the person I was that needed to be broken down, but there was a drive in that person, that I don’t feel in my life now, a victim of my slash and burn approach.
The storm didn’t clear till sometime in the afternoon, and we decided to wait till morning before going over the summit and descending back to the parking lot. I hadn’t felt my feet in close to twenty four hours by the time we struck camp and started climbing, this time roped together. I dropped my water bladder, and watched it roll 13,000 feet down the north side of the mountain. I went the next ten, or twelve hours—however long it took us to get to that Mexican restaurant—on one vanilla GU and six ounces of water from Doug’s Nalgene. My toes swelled, and turned purple. It took a month for the feeling to come back. I rode bikes while I waited. Four months later all the climbing equipment was gone, except the helmet and one mountaineering axe. I also got rid of—what now feels like—an essential part of myself. And now I wonder how to get it back without all the anger I fear I carried back then.