Monday, January 02, 2017

How to Climb a Mountain

I had climbed 104 mountains. I learned something new yesterday on #105, Mt. Silverheels. I set off late in the day, leaving the trailhead at 1PM, something I have never done before and certainly not in the winter. I knew that I would be coming off the mountain in the dark so was careful to note landmarks and times between them. I was also careful to make tracks in snow. Given the choice of taking a path that went through grass or rock or snow, I took snow so I'd have something to follow on the way out.

Well. I underestimated a lot of things. First, a headlamp is a poor device for spotting landmarks that are more than 25 feet away from you. Ridgelines and snow pack, cairns, the mountain peaks themselves -- all are rendered invisible once the sun goes down. I could see rough shapes of massifs but couldn't distinguish the one I'd dubbed Skater's Ramp from the one I'd called Cheops. I could see that I was traversing below Hoosier Ridge but couldn't see the ridge well enough to know where to get back on it to avoid avalanche danger - an easy task in daylight. Instead I had to painstakingly retrace my steps. Lesson #2: choosing to make track in the snow was smart, but there wasn't enough of it to make what you'd call a breadcrumb path to follow. I'd lose my print and backtrack to pick it up again. I had to double back to pick up the snowshoes I'd stashed. It also became a time management exercise. I couldn't double back every time I lost my track, so I made judgement calls. At one point I just knew that I needed to follow a particular contour on a more-grassy-than-snowy hillside, so I did -- and struck my trail minutes later.

Another thing I learned is that navigating by time on a mountain yields only approximations. I had read that one should make note of where to exit the summit ridge because it was hard to spot the safe rib from the top, so I hit the lap split on my watch when I topped out on that spot and marched to the summit. Seventeen minutes. I figured that descending I'd go faster so I turned downhill at 10 minutes. After descending for a bit, I realized that I'd overshot the correct rib by about 150 feet. And they were an icky, steep, mix of snow and rock 150 feet. Breath coming in gasps, I chastised myself for not trusting my eyes when I'd spotted what looked like the entrance to the right rib earlier. And gathered myself.

"Careful, careful, slow, slow" became my mantra as I placed my feet, controlling my breathing and quelling panic as I traversed my way back to the path. Daylight held for that portion of the hike. I was able to get off of the nasty stuff and onto the gentler slopes connecting to Hoosier Ridge. I made myself stop and put on warmer layers, my headlamp, and gather all the gentleness and patience I could -- for myself and the journey I knew lay ahead. I had already messed up in my panic to get off the windy, cold, darkness-coming summit. 

I took stock. I had many more layers of warm clothing. The night wasn't dangerously cold if I kept moving. I felt tired but had plenty of strength left to hike out, even if it took several hours. I needed to be careful, to pick the path and breathe. I needed to not twist an ankle. My biggest enemy would be my impatience. I needed to focus on finding the path and careful foot placement.

I began the work. Distances stretched. The darkness and my fear of the cold messed with my memory and tangled with my notion of how quickly I should get off this mountain. I had to strike the right balance between moving quickly and being careful. It took constant vigilance. I also knew that Boyfriend would be worried about me. I prioritized stopping for precious minutes to check cell reception. I got cell signal and called home to say I was safe, but would be descending slowly, picking path by headlamp and sporadic footprints in the snow. I told Boyfriend not to worry unless 2.5 hours passed without word from me. This would be, I figured, plenty of time for me to descend the route that had taken me 1.25 hours to ascend in daylight.

Hiking in the dark is tricky. I continued my slow process. Bathed in exhilaration and pride every time I re-found the path, I breathed "Good girl, good girl!" At one point, I congratulated myself, "You are a good mountaineer!" But then I'd temper the excitement, caution myself to stay calm and focused. The work would not be done until I struck the well-trammeled path that comprised the very last mile of the hike out. That was 1500 feet of elevation and who knows how many miles distant. The drive to get out was so strong that it over-rode all other desire. I made myself stop to drink. I made myself stop to add layers. I made myself turn off my headlamp and lift my gaze to the cloudless sky and the silver quarter moon. I made myself focus, but gave myself rest stops to gauge my body and appreciate the beauty of what I was doing. I could keep myself safe by being smart and deliberate.

I traveled along the top of Hoosier Ridge, dreading that I'd miss the exit west down the hillside that led to my car. I had noted earlier that another trail led north to a different peak. I so didn't want to squander time starting that hike. At 6:40 PM I spotted lights that had to be the parking lot. They were far distant and a descent of about 500 feet. A quick check of my compass helped validate the assumption. It was my hillside! I didn't have track, so I made two sweeping treks across the hillside in an attempt to strike it. Failing to do so, I decided it was safe to fix my path to that light and go straight downhill. Knowing I would lose sight of it as I descended, I noted the position of the moon - 10:00 - and sited on a star. I took plunging steps down the hillside, my snowshoes eating up the snow, but whenever I stopped to re-calibrate, the dark and the cold were still working their dirty, stretching-distance trick. The light was only marginally closer. I shook off the pique and rallied. I could do this. I was getting closer. I would be at the car soon and call Boyfriend and tell him I was safe, safe, safe!

At 7:10, I struck the well-trammeled path and saw the first trees I'd seen in hours. "Well, hello tree! Hello bushes!" I smiled at them. I picked up speed and looked for the landmark that would indicate I was about 10 minutes from the trailhead - the spot where I stepped off the trail to urinate so many hours ago. I listened to the darkness, watched the trees turn from dark looming objects to tree-shaped, looming objects. At 7:41, two hours after my phone call to Boyfriend, I was at the road. I stowed snowshoes, poles, and backpack into the car. A jittery, out-of-myself-me called Boyfriend and told him I was safe and coming home! 

I felt like after my Ironman. It's an odd, out-of-body feeling. I'd been maintaining focus to the exclusion of all else for so long that it was hard to shake, to come back into thoughts of non-mountain and compelling-safety things. It thawed out of me slowly just as my seat heaters thawed the chill in my body. 

Then I thought all the way home. I thought in what-ifs. I thought in what-could-I-have-done-betters. I thought in would-I-ever-do-this-agains. (No!)

Then I thought of how far I've come as a mountaineer. Especially in terms of my sense of direction and ability to pick path up a mountain. I have acquired a certain amount of ability to "read" mountainous terrain, to discern the so-called weakness of the mountain that will give the summit to us humans. I also appreciated the adage, "Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory." That same terrain-reading ability enabled me to find my way down the mountain. It was a mix of intuition and memory from the ascent, and painstaking work to find the path I'd left - and knowing when to trust which so that I could get down expeditiously.

How to climb a mountain? Gently. Truly. A bit at a time. Painstakingly. Lovingly.

In the daylight!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Huffle Puff

Training climbs build strength. Training climbs are painful and fun and wickedly tricky. I went on just such a training climb last weekend. I felt strong. I felt competitive. I felt as though I was auditioning for a role on an expedition. I also felt like I would be the Hufflepuff on that team. Huff and puff my additions to the crew. All the same, I want that spot.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Fierceness & Devotion

I am always going to be a little mad at other teachers when I get a new student. I’m always going to think they are not doing enough to integrate my student. I am going to feel Tiger-Mama and want to tell them to “Cut the kid some slack already! They’re new to our country and school! Help them adjust!”

Then, the kid will do what he/she does for a while, asking for my help along the way. Or not. In those cases, I swoop into the gradebook and see if New Student needs a little forced guidance from Tiger-Mama Triteacher.

It’s the New-Student Dance.

Months pass. The student adjusts to the teaching styles, the teachers come to see the positive in the new kid and bond just as tightly as they have with the students they’ve had all year.

And I have successful, well-adjusted, happy students who still need the guidance and protection of Tiger-Mama, but who have learned how to "do school" here, who get inducted into National Junior Honor Society (HOORAY!!!), who get parts in the school play, who come to school looking for a safe, structured place in which they can build relationships and grow. And that's what Tiger-Mama Triteacher will fiercely and devotedly seek for them. It is the fierceness and devotion that they need. It is the fierceness and devotion that I am always going to feel.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Beginning

My cousin sort of proffered an invitation while climbing tonight. It began with... "Have you ever thought of doing the Grand?"

I wracked my brains, ideas flitting across my face: Grand Canyon, Grand Prix, Isn't there a Gran something in France?... and landed on, "The Grand what?"

"The Grand Traverse in the Tetons," he answered. "It's thirteen miles to traverse the range."

13 miles is nothing!

"It's 12-14,000 feet of gain," he added. Real casual-like.

The catch.

The trek gets you ten summits, and there are a couple of optional towers. The hardest grade is 5.8. People generally do it in a few days. The record is around six hours. The Beast that is my cousin yearns to go "light and fast" and be in and out in a day. His usual climbing partner isn't crazy about alpine or JB's "light and fast" mentality. It translates to hunger and pain.

I can't stop tumbling the idea around in my brain. He is a solid climber, a solid partner, a solid person. It would be a blast.

It would be one of the hardest things I've ever done. I would be entirely reliant on him; I do not lead trad. And he's fast. The last time I hiked with him, I grew nauseous trying to keep his pace.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I trained really hard and focused on alpine fitness, I could shine at this and see some amazingly beautiful scenery. I could play my edge.

He needs a partner. I am not as strong as him, but I am good at mountains. I keep my wits in tricky situations. I endure. I low class 5 and scrambles.

I want to explore this. Okay, who'm I kidding... What I really want is to write up a training plan with lots of Colorado ascents. I want to read books and trip reports. I want to drool over pictures and imagine myself in them. Late July to early September... I want to be here...


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Going Under

I've started swimming again and it is amazing. I love going under, feeling the liquid meet my face and flow over my skin. I love moving through the water, stretching my body, feeling I am a fiddlehead fern. I unfurl my leafy head, stretching along my lats, elongating all the muscles from my tummy to the reach of my fingertip fronds. I grow even beyond my reach as my hips turn, eking out millimeters to scoop more water, to be longer, smoother, more efficient and relaxed. It requires patience to let every last fiddle frond unfurl. To allow the last snippet of length to be had before turning my head for that sweet breath of O2 and resurgence into sunlight.

I have loved going under.

I think of the metaphorical meaning of "going under," and how people aspire to resurface, to breathe again. I am currently "under" and I do not love it. I am worried about a former student who is fighting for his life, another student whose family is fighting poverty, and about my relationship. I feel under it all and I really, really want clear answers and a path out for all of them - and me. It sends me into a tailspin, a place in my mind where I regurgitate old information, gobble it up, and try to digest it anew. It's as disgusting as it sounds.

I have to take a lesson from swimming. Instead of thrashing, I have to allow the fronds to unfurl. I have to remain calm and trust the process of patient, steady eking. I have done what I can do for the families and will continue to do so. I have thought through and talked through my relationship. But there is more... I have to wait and allow for events to unfold, for all the fronds to unfurl. I have to allow that water in my face - the flow of life and events and relationships. I have to allow the discomfort and the worry. And when I can - when all the fonds have unfurled - I can turn my head for my portion of sunlight and O2.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Kingston Peak 12,147 Feet

It was wicked in the high country today. Here's what we could see of our intended summit, 13er, James Peak. ---->

It was one of the best views we got.

To that end, Sweet Sister and I decided to do Kingston Peak, since we could actually see it. Even so, the wind and cold proved challenging. Neither of us drank any water as mine was frozen and Sweet Sis was too cold to dig hers out of her pack. My thumbs and fingers and facial skin begged me to turn back.

And I would have, except Sweet Sis had been robbed of James Peak on two successive days last week and was not going to turn back for anything. Today she needed a peak, any peak. She wasn't going to stop and see her younger, weaker sister flagging her, waving both trekking poles in the air and pointing down, down, down. Younger, weaker sis who was decidedly sick of braving frost bite for a peak that wasn't on any list she'd ever made. Decidedly not in the mood for winds that found the millimeter of bare skin between the Turtle Fur, goggles, and Mountain Hardware Windstopper cap. For winds that weren't stopped by the cap designed just for them. Criminy! These were the definition of vicious.

So I trucked along, seeing - if not the face - the back of determination. Don't think I didn't still try. Every time I could lift my head and spy her - and she was stopped - I tried to reason with her, or at least my trekking poles did.

She has always ignored me. And I couldn't let her continue on alone in those conditions. So I tagged along. Saying lots of expletives in my head and even one or two aloud. Until mercifully, we reached the top and shouted something to each other. We did not commemorate the moment with a photo as our camera batteries had decided it was too cold and were dead. I gestured that we descend the east face of the thing, thinking we could find the lee of the wind somewhere.

We did. It was manna from the heavens compared to the blasting we'd taken on the ascent. I could hear her, and she could hear me. I gave her an edited version of my thoughts on the ascent, and we agreed to stick closer together in the future. Then it was sisters on the mountain again, pointing out peaks in the distance and adding them to mental checklists, reveling in the ruggedness of two that we'd already done, and making a game of picking the spots where our boots wouldn't posthole through. We talked about the sand-like texture of the snow, a product of the -4 degree temperature, no doubt, and enjoyed sending it skittering with a whiff of our boots. We talked of family and friends and feelings and anything else that happened to come to mind.

Three hours and nineteen minutes later, we were back to the car. Seven hours and forty-two minutes later, my thumbs still tingle, but my face bears a big grin. In spite of conditions and against my better judgement, there is something to be said for sticking with your sister. Pretty much always.

Embracing the Other

It is the rub against those who are different that allows you to reflect, reject, and re-find yourself. I am different from my family. After going there for Xmas and seeing the baby-centrism, I am championing childless folks who mountaineer. I see this stance for what it is -  a reaction, a rejection of the belief as real as the one put unquestioningly on the top of the Christmas tree for all to adore.

I can't look at it with adoration. I am not appended to a child. And when one doesn't have a baby hanging from the teat, one is considered not quite whole at my parents' house. The conversations are coos and comparisons and proud parents, rivaling siblings, fingers tucked into suckling mouths.

Please. I like the babies. I love my family. But I do not want what they embrace. And I object to being a shadow floating around the edges of conversation in a home that should live up to the "There's no place like home for the holidays" adage. I am probably not the only embittered, fatter, sugared-up American who is realizing that the thousands of miles of travel and consternation over the right gifts were misplaced.

What is the answer? To continue to rail against them? (Never aloud. Good daughters dasn't.) To scorn their close-mindedness and lack of reflection and perception? To resent them and swear to never do x, y, and z again!? Or, to feel I don't measure up and try to stitch a spot in the family fabric for single aunties - and feel worse when the thread pops out? Probably healthy doses of both have already been done. Maybe even unhealthy doses.

Should I review my life choices and assure myself that lives like mine count and don't float on the periphery of everyone's awareness? I could argue that lives like mine are better, but I don't believe that's the point. I believe the point is that I've brushed up again against the other, people whose fundamental beliefs do not match mine. They are sandpaper against my skin - Mom and Little Sister the coarse grit, Dad and Big Sister the fine. Chafing and grinding.

They remove the detritus and I surface. I am an unmarried, childless-by-choice woman who mountaineers. I will not have children, I will not devote myself to the examination of their every (bowel) movement and mouthing. I am not an appendage to someone else, nor are they to me. I quite like my own arms and legs and my thoughts and ideas. I could add to my family - their lives and conversations in so many ways - if the rapture in burbling and bawling babies would stop for just a moment. Oh, for the moment!

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Clear and Cold

It was clear and cold when I started the snowshoe up to Mount Bierstadt. Nine degrees. The brittle snow squeaked like Wisconsin cheese curds under my snowshoes. It talked back to my poles, the sound of a squeaky hinge - the oldest variety - or the sound the Scream face might make if it made a sound. The cold snuck up on me in weird places, stealing the warmth from my right arm here, siphoning it from my knee caps and quads there.

It was clear and cold when I came across the Moose Guy. I thought he was a moose at first. I watched "the moose" as it worked its slow way up the path. I became puzzled when I noticed it was following the switchbacks. But that hump? As I drew closer, I could see the man, bent over the trail, his pack humping on his back. He worked the snow across the trail, walking hunched over, his hands busy. Something in the busy-ness of those hands made me recall Tobacco Charlie and our seedy college apartment house. My husband and I had named the maintenance lady Leather Face. She liked my handsome husband. "Those old ladies let you leave the nursing home?" she'd call to him in greeting. Kind and charming, Eric would quip something back. The leather would split to emit a hacking cough of a laugh, one that cut through the smell of Meals on Wheels seeping under the door of our neighbor's apartment and over the sound of his TV to reach my ears in our own apartment.

Tobacco Charlie, another apartment dweller, was so-named because he wore a grizzled (the poster man for the term) beard that served as a bib for the drippings of his tobacco chew. We didn't interact with him, just knew him to spend time arranging tools in the back of his rusted pickup truck. He'd stand alongside the open bed, strapping his rake to his ladder and then strapping that to the box. He shifted tools beyond inventory, arriving after a time at some satisfaction with the arrangement. Upon seeing us, he might say hello or grunt or be silent. He was more likely to acknowledge my husband. I was a little afraid of him.

Until the day I was a lot afraid of him. Home from my waitress shift at Chi Chi's, I was turning on the shower when I heard a fist pounding on our door. I heard Leather Face, "What's going on, Charlie?"

"That bitch took my parking place!" It took some moments for me to register that I was the bitch. I swallowed and pulled a towel around me.

"I know she's in there!" he yelled. I heard indiscriminate words from Leather Face, placating in tone.

Pound, pound, pound.  He wasn't going away.

I couldn't move and didn't dare go open that door. I thought about calling to him that I'd move my car in a minute, but I didn't want him to pound through the door. It seemed like he could. I padded over to the phone and took the handset into the bathroom, closing the door. I dialed Eric. He was minutes from the end of his shift at the nursing home and would come home, he said. Until then, keep quiet and put the table in front of the door.

Even as I hung up the phone, I noticed that the hallway was quiet. I dragged the kitchen table over to the door and sat on our futon to watch it. Eric came home minutes later and took my keys. He moved the car. Tobacco Charlie was nowhere to be seen. When we went out the next day, his truck was in "its" parking spot.

My Moose Man moved his hands like Tobacco Charlie, the constant motion, settling the snow here, then scooping to move it there. Un-inventoried amounts of snow. I came upon him and called, "Hello!" He didn't answer, nor did he seem to hear me. No head cock, certainly no eye contact. I moved past him and, in front of him now, looked at him, hunched and moving the snow. "Hi!" I said.

Nothing. I thought to myself, "Okay, he wants to be alone," and continued. As I drew even with him on the switchback above, I'd had time to become concerned. I stopped and looked right at his hunched back, the side of his face, his bald head. "Are you doing okay?" He'd heard me. He emitted a low sound, almost a sniff of contempt. I left him to it.

On my descent, he was farther up the trail, doing his same snow shifting dance about twenty feet off the snowshoe trough. This time he stopped and straightened. "The trail is over here." My insides froze, keeping my neck from swiveling to look at him. "You tear up the tundra going off trail." I insinuated myself to the far edge of the snowshoe trough and descended.

I had him figured. And I agreed with and admired what he was doing. People love the Colorado mountains to death, sometimes making track across tundra that takes decades to recover. But he also loved that trail and tundra more than human beings. He had a single vision of what is right. A rigid adherence to a parking spot. I imagined that David Brower and even John Muir might growl at another human being that way. I hoped not; I hoped they had balanced their environmentalism with diplomacy and maybe even old-fashioned kindness. I left the Moose Man to his shifting.

But his stance went down the hill with me. I wondered if he could enjoy the mountains. Did he appreciate the clear and cold? Could he see the insane green of the pines that ever-deepened as it contrasted with the whiteness of snow in full-on Colorado sun? Did his eyes smart as they took in the brilliance of it all? Did his breath steal as he caught the scope of distance, Square Top Mountain across the valley seeming so close but miles of hard hiking away? Did he resolve to come here again, to send a picture and an invitation to his cousin who, recently-diagnosed with cancer, needed inspiration to fight and see more of the beauty in the world? Did he see the mountains and beauty and inspiration, or did he see snow?