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The Man in the Mountains

The car door slams, echoing through the night. The internal lights shut off and for a moment I’m shrouded in darkness. I stop for a second and breathe, taking in the night. It’s just me, the stars, and the wind rustling through the trees. It’s ungodly early in the morning. Nobody should be up at this hour. The night is clear and it’s a bit chilly. I turn on my headlamp and quickly tighten my boots, eager to get moving. My heart seems to be beating too fast. I hope it’s anticipation and not the altitude. I’ve come so far just to get here, and I still have so far to go. Satisfied with my boots, I shoulder my pack and set off toward the trail. 

The night is peaceful. The stars shine brightly as I make my way through the trees, steadily gaining elevation. Autumn has already taken its toll up here and occasionally I get glimpses of the peak, a dark silhouette looming thousands of feet above me. I move with a steady rhythm, trying to keep my pace slow. My mind wanders, and it’s hard to keep from going too fast. This summit has been on my mind since I first saw it. The memory surfaces:

I was in town for a business meeting. The conference room had floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, and it was all I could do to keep from getting distracted. The peak presided over the neighboring town, its sunlit granite facets shining like a beacon.

I was pulled in before the meeting ended. 

*          * *           *  

I stop to take off a layer. I’ve been moving steadily and I’ve begun to work up a sweat. The route finding hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be. I’ve already taken several wrong turns. Good thing my headlamp has a setting with a bright beam. The beam is both a blessing and a curse, though. It’s bright and helps me find the trail, but I also find myself anxiously glancing at shadows as my mind plays tricks on me in the dark. 

Several hours later, I’m finally above treeline. I round the end of a small ridge and enter the upper cirque. I can finally get a good look at the peak. It towers, unmoving, in the quiet stillness of the morning. I can see most of the rest of my route from here. I can see the boulder field cascading down the left wall of the cirque, terminating in a small alpine lake in the center. The imposing wall of the East Face rises two thousand feet above the lake, its upper reaches glowing with a gorgeous pink hue in the early dawn light. I can see the steep tongue of snow leading up to a broken system of ledges which grant the only passage through this impassable wall of rock. And finally, I can see the summit ridge, soaring into the sky. I swallow nervously. I hope I’m not in over my head. 

*          * *           *  

It’s late morning, and I’m standing below the couloir filled with snow. It took me longer to circle the lake than I expected. The boulders were large and unstable, and the going was slow. Then I reached the base of the couloir and found the snow was still frozen. I worried that, even with my ice ax and crampons, the snow was too slick and I wouldn’t be able to arrest a fall. I decided to hunker down and wait for the sun to work its magic and warm the snow. Unfortunately, my light puffy wasn’t up to the task of waiting around at an alpine lake in the early morning shade. I got too cold. 

I can’t afford to wait around any longer, so I start up with crampons on and ice ax in hand. My crampons make decent purchase in the frozen snow, but kicking solid steps is a lot of work. I can barely manage to get the toe of my boot to penetrate. Instead, I focus on good snow climbing technique: step, step, plant the ice ax, step, step, plant. I can feel the altitude now. Curse you, Iowa, for being so flat. While training at home, I can simulate nearly every aspect of alpinism but the altitude.

After an hour of tenuous step-kicking, I reach the top of the couloir. I make a delicate step across the gap created by the late season snow melting away from the rock. There’s a ledge here for me to sit and take off my crampons. I’m high enough now that I can look out past the mountain, to see the city and the plains far below. I wonder how many people down there are looking up here at this moment. I turn around and start climbing. 

*          * *           *  

Another dead-end. The guidebook said “follow the path of least resistance, if you find yourself climbing harder than 3rd class, turn around and look for an easier way”. Well, I’ve definitely found myself on terrain that’s harder than 3rd class, that’s for sure. Right now I’m staring down the barrel of a loaded 5.8 finger crack, splitting otherwise featureless granite. I might be able to climb that if I was on top-rope with rock shoes, and it was in sunny California. With a sigh, I turn around and downclimb. The exposure is playing with my mind. I do my best to focus on careful movement, and not the fact that I’m unroped on a granite cliff, a thousand feet above a boulder field. I’m also careful not to dislodge any rocks. This route isn’t as popular as the standard route on this peak, but it’s still climbed regularly. 

Eventually the steepness eases, and I find myself in a broad saddle. The breeze is chilly, but welcome. To my right, the summit ridge winds its way relentlessly into the sky, studded with towers like the spines of a serpentine dragon. It looks hard. I decide to sit and eat a bit before proceeding. I’ve been on the move for many hours, having already climbed thousands of feet. The altitude is noticeable now. I think about my son, tottering around while wearing my too-large mountaineering boots. I think about my wife; about how she’s supportive of my climbing dreams, but doesn’t understand them. I need this. Climbing is in my blood. It’s ingrained into my soul in a way that non-climbers just can’t seem to understand.

 I think about the relationships between risk, fear, and consequence. I’m afraid, that much is clear. But fear doesn’t always reflect an accurate assessment of the risk or consequences. The consequences of falling from that ridge would be catastrophic. I wouldn’t survive. However, the risk of falling...the risk is pretty low. Acceptably low? It should be well within my ability. 

I can’t turn around now. I’ve waited too long and come too far to give up because I’m afraid.

*          * *           *  

The first few hundred feet pass quickly, and I find myself lost in the pure joy of moving freely over rock. Everything seems to be in tune. I’m no longer feeling tired or scared, only exhilarated. I feel invincible. Sometimes I drop below the ridge crest to bypass difficult sections, and sometimes I’m straddling its apex, dancing along the edge of the knife. Eventually, the terrain steepens. The guidebook names this as the most technically difficult stretch. An exposed traverse on less-than-stellar holds to gain a steep chimney. Some climbers prefer to rope up here, and I can see why. 

I commit. The moves of the traverse are surprisingly easy. The holds aren’t as bad as I feared. My feet find good purchase on small ledges, even in my mountaineering boots. Soon I’m in the chimney. The exposure instantly eases. The chimney isn’t quite as steep as it looked, and the rock quality is good. There are holds everywhere. I can see why the guidebook rates this class 4 or low class 5. It looked much harder from a distance.

 Suddenly, the chimney opens up and I run out of mountain. A short scramble and I’m standing on the broad summit plateau, elated. I walk a short distance and find the benchmark, marking the true summit. There’s also a summit register. I stop for a moment to take it all in. It’s late in the day, and the sky is already glowing red and orange. I didn’t realize how long this whole thing took me. There are also some clouds blowing in from the West. I couldn’t see them before, obscured by the mountain. Time to bounce. I take a quick summit selfie and begin to downclimb. 

*          * *           *  

Downclimbing is more tedious than I expected. The exposure makes even simple moves feel difficult, and I find it hard to commit. After an hour or so, I stop to pause in a flat section between the towers. The light is rapidly fading. I dig out my headlamp and drink a bit of water. Not much left, only a few swallows. Hmm. I could have planned that better. I put my headlamp on under my helmet and continue downward. Soon, the light becomes soft enough that I need to turn on my headlamp. Strange, I remember it being brighter before. I soon reach the easier scrambling that leads down to the saddle. One difficult section down, two to go.

*          * *           *  

As soon as I reach the saddle, my headlamp dies. Dammit. I should have checked the batteries before I started. I pull out my phone to check for service. None. Not surprising, I didn’t expect there to be service up here. I take off my pack and use my cell phone light to search for extra headlamp batteries. None. Rookie mistake. The clouds are now filling the sky, obscuring the moon and stars. I don’t have much in the way of natural light tonight, certainly not enough to navigate the ledge system. Maybe enough to descend the snowfield, if I can make it that far. I check the battery on my cell phone: 27% remaining. Probably not enough to use the phone light to navigate all the way back to the trail. Still, it’s worth a shot. My only other option is to wait until daylight, and I’m not prepared to spend a night up here. 

I use my phone light to cross the saddle and aim for where I remember the ledge system to be. The route finding on the ascent was tricky, there were plenty of dead ends and impassable terrain. The breeze at the saddle, welcome before, is chilling now. I spend a few minutes walking back and forth and testing different ledges. None of them are quite what I remember from the ascent. My phone light isn’t bright enough to see very far ahead of me. I’m afraid the risk of getting cliffed is very high. It would be much better to spend the night up here on the saddle than risk getting stuck halfway down the cliff and having to spend the night on a narrow ledge. I check the battery on my phone again: 19%. Maybe one more hour of light out of this thing, at most. I sigh, and make my way back toward the summit ridge. I remember some small, sheltered nooks near the base. I guess one of those will be home for the night. 

I find a decent nook that’s protected from the wind on three sides, and reasonably flat. Not the worst bivy spot, I decide. I immediately put on all my layers. I didn’t bring much. I have some shell pants, a shell jacket, and my light puffy. The light puffy wasn’t enough to keep me warm during my wait at the base of the snowfield, so it probably won’t be enough to keep me warm all night. Hopefully it’s enough to keep me alive. As soon as I get my layers on, some snowflakes begin to fall lazily from the sky. Perfect! An early season snowstorm. This situation keeps getting better. I empty the contents of my backpack onto the ground and pull out the foam sheet that acts as part of the frame. Unfolded, it makes a decent sit pad. It should insulate me from the ground somewhat. I sit on the pad and pull the empty backpack up over my legs. It is better than nothing, but not by much. I riffle through the rest of my belongings to find my remaining food. One energy bar. Not exactly a gourmet meal. I tear it in two and eat the first half, washing it down with the few swallows of water I have left, and hunker down. It’s going to be a long night.

*          * *           *  

I wake up shivering. I was dozing, but couldn’t have been out for more than an hour. I glance at the clock on my phone. Forty minutes. I take a bite of my remaining energy bar and curl into a ball, trying to conserve some heat while staying on my meager pad.

*          * *           *  

Shivering again. Forty-five minutes this time. This seems to be the cycle: eat a little bit of food and gain enough calories to stay warm for a little bit, then sleep. Wake up cold when the calories burn off. I would kill for a cheeseburger right now. Thinking about the warm fat and protein makes my mouth water. The snow is coming down a bit heavier now, and it’s starting to accumulate. I shake off my puffy to try to keep it from getting wet. Mostly futile. I eat another bite of energy bar.


*          * *           *  

Shivering constantly now. I can force myself to stop if I concentrate. I must be entering the very early stages of hypothermia. My energy bar is disappearing much faster than I’d hoped. I could get up and do some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing again, but that feels like too much effort. How did I miscalculate so badly? There are so many little things I could have done differently and I wouldn’t be in this situation right now. I could have changed the batteries in my headlamp, for one. I could have brought the extra batteries. I could have brought an extra layer for my legs. I wanted to keep my weight down, because I knew I’d be going into this poorly acclimated to the altitude and I wanted to keep my load as light as possible. I guess the problem with the Fast & Light philosophy is that you have to be fast. Ha. My equipment was plenty to keep me warm while I was moving. The problem is I had to stop moving. 

I pull out my phone and check the battery: 12%. Must be I’m having a hard time keeping that warm as well. The battery is draining pretty fast. I think about writing a message for my wife and son, to tell them I love them very much and that I’m sorry. No. I can’t be thinking like that. Tomorrow morning when I can see, I’ll climb down from here and I’ll be able to tell them myself. I eat a small chunk of energy bar and drift off again.

*          * *           *  

I’m awoken by a bright light. I squint and raise my hand to shield my eyes, and the light slices away. It’s a headlamp. I see a climber coming toward me through the blowing snow. He crouches in front of me and chuckles. 

“Rough night?” he asks. I grunt in response. He takes off his pack and sits down next to me. 

“Cozy spot you have here.” he says. He opens his pack and pulls out a small thermos, which he hands to me. “Here, I’ve got some left.”

I unscrew the cap and take a big gulp of the stuff inside. It’s warm and sweet. I sit up and hand the bottle back to him. 

“What are you doing up here?” I ask him. He looks down and chuckles. “Oh, I’m up here all the time,” he says. Must be a local. I wonder why we didn’t pass each other on the way up. Must be he took a different ascent route and is descending this way. 

“Finish it,” he says, looking at the bottle. “You need it more than I do.” I nod in thanks and take another gulp. I can’t quite tell what it is from the taste, but it’s warm and I’m cold. He turns away and starts digging through his pack again. I can’t make out much about him. He’s tall, probably taller than me. His face is shrouded in shadow, obscured by the light coming from his headlamp. He’s wearing a jacket, red or possibly orange. I recognize his red boots, though. They’re an older model, but very popular. These look like they’ve seen many summits. He turns back to me, holding out his hand.

“Here, take these.” I look down at his hand. Batteries. “How did you know I needed headlamp batteries?” I ask him. He chuckles again. “Most people, when greeted by a stranger out of the darkness, would immediately turn on their light to get a good look. You didn’t, and judging by the fact your headlamp is laying on the ground told me that it was probably out of commission. Hence, batteries.” 

Hmph. Smartass. I down the rest of the contents of the thermos. I’m already feeling a bit better. I pop the batteries into my headlamp and turn it on. I notice he’s got a helmet on under his hood. It has a big gash in the front. Eesh, better replace that soon. 

He stands and shoulders his pack. “We should get out of here,” he says. “It’s going to snow all night”. I grunt again, and stand. It takes me a few tries to get my cold, stiff legs to obey. After a minute or two, I heft my pack onto my back. He nods, satisfied and we set off.

This time, the entrance to the ledge system is easy to find with two headlamps. I begin to slowly work my way down. I’m feeling much weaker than I normally would. Perhaps not surprising. Several times, I turn to face the rock and downclimb with care, the way I would a much steeper pitch. He is right behind me the entire way, using his headlamp to light the holds I’m about to reach for. He’s not having any trouble. After about an hour, we reach the top of the snowfield. We sit down on the same ledge as before and put on our crampons. The step across move isn’t as bad going this direction as it was going up. I start descending the snowfield. The storm is in full swing. Large snowflakes blow past my headlamp, drawing white lines reminiscent of the Millenium Falcon jumping to lightspeed. We crunch our way down the snow. The bootpack is bigger and deeper than I remember. He must have come up this way and kicked deeper steps when the snow was softer. I focus on making good steps. I’m not sure I have the energy to arrest a fall with my ice ax if I slip. Eventually, we make it back to the boulder field. I sigh in relief. No more dangerous terrain from here on out. 

We cross the boulder field in companionable silence. He stays right behind me the entire way, the only hint of his presence is the occasional scuff of a boot on the rock or the swipe of his headlamp across my field of view. Finally back on the main trail, I pick up the pace a little bit. This is something my body knows how to do; tired plodding at the end of a long day.

At some point we hike out of the storm. The wind dies down, the snow peters off, and the stars begin twinkling overhead. It’s peaceful out here. I’m also very, very ready to be done. As I trudge along, I alternate between fantasizing about the Gatorade bottle I left in the car and the enormous breakfast I’m going to eat as soon as I can reach an all-day diner. How fortunate is it that he came along. This is much better than spending the night huddled in that small nook in the summit ridge. Finally, after what seems like hours, I see the trail register illuminated in my headlamp. I turn to the left, and I can see the white of my car shining through the trees. 

Made it! I turn around to thank him for helping me get down. My headlamp slices through the darkness, and there’s nothing but me, the stars, and the wind rustling through the trees.