Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Day I Learned to Live

October 11, 2009

After an hour and 24 minutes of circling La Plata's summit, looking for my trail down, I decided to return my crampons to REI and learn to knit. The 45 MPH wind gusts and the snow stinging my eyes were convincing factors. The fact that I couldn't find the tracks I had just laid in the snow and that the cairns had disappeared behind snow drifts had to be faced. I wasn't cold but my weary muscles and fatigued - frightened - brain screamed at me to GET OFF THE MOUNTAIN and STAY OFF THE MOUNTAIN!

I bargained and pleaded. If I could just get off of this mountain in one piece, under my own power, I would....

I had no place being at 14,336 feet in the first place. My hiking partner had backed out the night before because she didn't like the sounds of the wind and snow in the forecast. (*Hint*) I never missed a beat. I was almost happy to be doing it by myself. I packed my brand new crampons, my snowshoes, and hitched my (also brand new) ice ax to my pack with jubilation. I skimmed over the forecast winds and snow and fastened onto two words, "Mostly Sunny." I needed no more encouragement. A day in the mountains was calling my name. I would steal a day.

The ascent - though windy - was a piece of cake in comparison to what was to come. I was taking a nonstandard route but was happy to find it well-marked with cairns and recent tracks in the snow. I wasn't overly concerned when my map and route description blew away. The ridgeline to the summit was obvious and once on the top, I'd just turn around and follow my own track down. I was low on energy, but what was this? A measly seven mile round trip. I would just take it slower, eat another Gu, and all would be well. The summit was close, it was only a 7 mile round trip, what could go wrong? I would summit today.

After 4 hours of hiking and 3,380 feet of elevation gain, I summited. I crowed at having "stolen a day" and snapped a few pictures. In that same self-congratulatory mode, I started the descent. About 15 minutes down I realized that the valley I was looking at didn't look familiar. I had followed tracks but then it dawned on me that I was doing the nonstandard route - the standard route would come right off of the summit too. I had no idea where they split and how they crossed each other.

I now willed my good map to be back in my hands. I had a crummy backup map that indicated that the gross direction I needed to head was southwest. But where was that? The clouds had moved in so I couldn't use the sun with any regularity plus it was 2:30. I had no idea if the sun was more in a southerly direction or was it already in the west?

I looked around and circled the summit. I'd go a little ways down one side and then come back up, go down the other way and come back up. I just wasn't sure. "You're going to be OK, you know?" I said out loud to myself. I knew I needed to keep my wits - and the summit, an indisputable landmark - about me at this point. After deliberating and circling the summit, I decided to follow the most defined cairns and trail. I didn't think it was heading southwest but reassured myself that the trail could just be switching back, and I would just get down the bloody mountain before nightfall and then work out what to do at the (potentially wrong) trailhead.

After following that trail for what seemed like forever, but was only about 30 minutes, I recognized landmarks that proved that I was on the right trail. I heaved a sigh of relief. Prematurely. Just below that point (at approximately 13000 feet) came the snowiest part of the trail and the snow had blown up against the cairns, not completely covering them but making them difficult to spot. I had to pick my way across this section to spot the cairns - and to avoid slipping/falling between the rocks. I had many thoughts of what a twisted ankle or broken bone would mean at this point. The weather worsened.

Wind and stinging sleet now made me want to hurry. But I forced myself to stop and search for the next cairn, sinking to my knees in spots, crossing that snow.

At the saddle on the ridge, I turned to descend into a valley of willows. It was slow-going into the valley and I even had my ice ax out to self arrest in case I slipped. I reached the willows and lost the trail AGAIN!

I was sick to my stomach with anxiety and super-fatigued, but talked myself through it, telling myself that the trail had to funnel out of the valley somehow and it wasn't a super wide valley - about 1/4 mile across. I bushwhacked to the left side of the valley and then worked my way back across it to the right. I struck the trail way on the right side and was able to stick to it for the remainder of the way down. I reached my car before night fell.

My first reaction to this event was anger and self-reproach. I made lists of resolutions about hiking more safely. I have kept those resolutions.

I rejoiced. I was glad to be alive, glad to be at school the next morning, glad to not have spent the night on the mountain.

I reflected. I am drawn to this "province of the extreme" (thanks, Jon Krakauer), but I need to indulge it safely. I am drawn to this province and just doing the mountains is What I'm Looking For. People refer to me as "driven" but that doesn't acknowledge the pleasure I have in hiking, summitting, being with friends on the mountain, being alone on the mountain, fighting the elements on the mountain, soaking up the sun's rays on the mountain. They do so much for me.

I learned. I don't want to die. This sentiment and its force astonished me. It is my anchor, my core. I have an iron will to live. In the two years after my divorce, that was not a given. I had voiced sentiments to the contrary. On La Plata that day, there was no contrariness. I was pure will power. I suppressed anything that would impede my getting off the mountain before nightfall. I focused. Today, I believe that I would have kept walking until I was out or dead. I felt an intractability of spirit that I can still conjure.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see that day as my personal turning point. It's the day I learned to live.

By the Way...

I am not a triathlete anymore. Yeah, I know. Should change the blog name, but at least I'm still telling half-truths. Plus, I really don't know what I am in its place. Survivor? Will Keep Walking? Mountaineer?

I finished my 14ers just about a year ago and have had that post-Ironman phenom of... What next? Seriously. It consumed me for two years and they were an awesome two. I was focused and my learning curve was as steep as some of those mountainsides. But now what? Here are some ideas:

1) Climb all of Colorado's 13ers. There are 637 of them so it would keep me busy for a spell.
2) Become moderate with my exercise and life. Work out 40 minutes per day and call it good.
3) Train for and climb Aconcagua in Argentina. It has a couple of things to recommend it; it's 22K and it's located in prime wine country.
4) Stay home and focus on more domestic pursuits: play my guitar, be a good girlfriend, decorate my recently-purchased condo. Maybe I'll take up knitting too. Gak! (No offense, it's just not me. Yet. I keep trying it on every few years. Maybe it'll take one of these days.)
5) Focus on some measurable aspect of my profession, e.g. work towards National Board Certification, take more classes, get a Master's in English lit.
6) Get on my goal of paying back to the mountains a portion of what they've done for me. I have resolved to do one day of trailwork for each 14er climbed. Fifty-eight summits = 58 trailwork days. I have completed three so far.

Meh. It's just like after Ironman in 2006. I really want something, but nothing grabs me. After IM, it was two years before I knew my next endeavor. So I finished my 14ers in September of 2010. Is it reasonable to hope that I'll have my next big challenge figured out by 9/2012? And in the interim, just do a goulash of the above. Do 'em all a little bit and nothing well? Gak! Hand me the knitting needles already.

Mountaineering Tips

1. When off-route, it is best to retrace your steps to the place where you last had trail. Even if you can see the peak and where you need to go, what lies between you and it is invariably more time- and energy-consuming (read: bushwhacking) than retracing your steps.
2. If you cliff out on a route, don't try to climb your way out of it. Retrace your steps and find a better route - or heck! - find the trail.
3. If it's too hard, there's an easier way.
4. There. I believe I've covered that one. You get to read it and learn. I had to do many reps before it sank into my thick skull.
5. Form your own conservation society. Conserve energy, time, calories, and water.
6. You will be hot, you will be hungry, your partner will be imperfect. You will be uncomfortable.
7. You will be sated, euphoric, in the rhythm of hiking, in sync with the world. You will feel great.
8. When hot, scoop snow and dab it behind each ear as if putting on perfume. Tuck the remaining snowball into the cleavage of your sports bra. This will cool you down.
9. Conserve energy. Place each foot. Hike and climb "quietly." Bonus: you look graceful.
10. When doing something painful & necessary, but not necessarily dangerous, e.g. crossing an icy stream, pick a line and do it quickly.
11. When doing something potentially dangerous, e.g. making a sketchy climbing move, pick a line and do it deliberately.
12. Monitor yourself for signs that fatigue is impeding your judgement. Don't do anything stupid.
13. Conserve calories. Keep some food in case you take longer on a route than planned, e.g. a 10-hour day turns into a 17-hour day. Some of these will be the best days of your life as you constantly struggle to avert catastrophe. Then you do and feel euphoric.
14. Conserve water. Also, take water treatment tabs with you. When you've emptied a Nalgene, refill and treat the water. This averts dehydration and makes you feel like you've "made" water, you powerful person.
15. Persevere.
16. Summit Fever is real. Remember: you never have to get a summit.
17. Never touch steep now without an ice ax. NEVER. Fifteen terrifying feet of rapid descent taught me this.
18. Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain. Pack efficiently.
19. Take rock shoes for class 3&4 routes. These "magic shoes" will give you an extra boost of confidence - and stickiness.
20. Be good to yourself. If you need a summit to get high, do it. If an alpine lake will suffice, go for it. Bring the peace, euphoria, and goodness back to real life. Let it leak out of you.

I have climbed all of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks. It has done for me what I wanted it to do plus some. The journey made me persevere through discomfort, made me let it run its course and become something new. I achieved and stood on summits. And I learned that I want to live. On one peak, I uncovered a will to survive that surprised me and that is now my unshakeable, unquakeable core.

I recommend it.