I know it looks like I’m relaxed and smiling, but I’m ready to throw up. Just don’t tell The Dudes.
Spooning is one of the great benefits, gifts really, of being coupled. I’ve spent so many nights alone, while married and then as a single woman, that I forgot how moving it is. To be wrapped in the arms of someone you care about. Skin on skin. To know that while you are asleep, and physically vulnerable, someone has your back. Until you rotate. Spooning should be equal opportunity; it’s not fair to always take the inside track.
At the end of the 400 F-word climbing day, as named by Terry and Philip, Dallas led us to our bunkhouse at the far right of the little village that makes up Camp Muir. The door was more square than rectangle and had a large metal bar that lifted up its twin on the other side and opened out. Concrete stairs, two of them, stepped down. Once inside and with eyes adjusted, the dark interior gained shape. A metal shelf, waist high, was to my right. Underneath it cubbies for backpacks. Further down on the right were more cubbies stacked. On the left were two levels of sleeping space. Plywood, basically. With wooden beams as support. At least 10 people could fit on each shelf.
It was cold. So very cold.
Dallas suggested we set up our sleeping bags together to take advantage of body heat. I imagined the equivalent of a BIC lighter trying to warm that space. I was not optimistic we’d affect the comfort of each other. He pointed to the top level in the middle. Heat rises, he said. As if, I thought. Our best shot at heat was a night of mutual flatulence with a capture device. Again, not optimistic.
My body was spent but off came the boots and up went the sleeping pad. I pulled off my gloves and climbed the ladder to the second level so I could blow it up. Minute by minute my body was getting colder but the set up needed to happen so I could slide into the sleeping bag and get warm. At least we were off the ground and in a building. It couldn’t possibly take as long to warm up as it did in the tent.
Oh, Cleo. How naive.
With the pad inflated I began to empty the backpack to retrieve my sleeping bag which was shoved to the very bottom. So many items were crammed down the sides – socks, long underwear, my spork. A long sleeved synthetic shirt Mr. Perfect Timing had offered to me before I left. I hadn’t worn it, wanting to have at least one item in my possession that smelled good. I kept my gloves off so I could hasten the unpacking. Headlamp, goggles, my harness. Gee, I wonder when we’ll learn how to use that? I remembered to turn off my avalanche transceiver. Unzipping my soft shell I noticed how wet it felt. Dallas suggested I keep on all my clothes from the ascent to help them dry. My fingers were starting to tingle.
I clapped them together. Blew on them. Found my heavy gloves and slipped them on. But they just couldn’t get the fire going. Terry took one for the team and let me put them in his underarms. Chances are, after a 7 hour and 20 minute sweat bath of an ascent, his underarms reeked. I know I did overall, and I don’t generally generate body odor. I didn’t care if his armpits smelled like the collective stench of a high school football team after two a days during a drought. My hands were in because the tingling was causing me concern. I stood in front of him and breathed deeply, hoping that the tingling which then became painful would subside. Otherwise, the ascent, the sweat, and the single digit temperatures of Camp Muir might leave a lasting and unfortunate impression on my hands.
Five minutes later I was in my sleeping bag and dreaming of a vat of water. Hot water. I was parched. And shivering uncontrollably. It had been over a half hour since Dallas left to go boil snow. I grabbed a bag of trail mix from my backpack. At home I pooled together almonds, chocolate chips, banana chips, pistachios, peanuts, cranberries, cashews and M&Ms and packed a day’s ration – basically about a 1/3 pound – in individual bags. I devoured the remainder of that day’s stash and would have gotten another if it didn’t mean getting out of my sleeping bag.
I’d live on a mountain if I could eat trail mix all day and not gain weight. I’m absolutely mad about it. My number one favorite food group.
Ninety minutes later Sarah came to the door. Water was melted. Hot drinks. Dinner. Oh, God. I was so ready. On shaky legs I made my way to the Gombu, the kitchen/guide hut that was at the other end of Camp Muir, a 5 minute snow slide. I didn’t trust my boots after having spent the day worshipping snowshoes for magically getting me up the mountain. Seriously, snowshoes and electricity – greatest inventions ever. I needed to learn how to relax when walking in snow. THAT says something.
It felt good to eat without hunching over. The Gombu was like your grandma’s kitchen compared to the cook tent we squished into the first few days on the mountain. I don’t remember what we ate, but I remember inhaling it. Not before the climb did I get the concept that food is actually fuel. I needed to eat to keep warm. The great thaw began as we marveled at the day and took seconds. Epic climb, avalanches off in the distance, unseen but heard, moved beyond depletion to total physical emptiness. Ready to eat at a moment’s notice. That night I awoke twice to consume. It was as if I was pregnant.
After dinner Dallas gave us a brief overview of the next day and of the storm that was moving in from offshore. There was a chance we’d have to leave the mountain early. But first we would get to play in the snow. I had visions of snowball fights and snow angels as I looked around the Gombu for saucers we could take up the slope. I quickly shelved the idea of sledding. That would mean more climbing up and I needed a day off. His idea of play was rope ascending and crampon work.
Now the fun begins. My harness would come out, the crampons would go on and Terry, Philip and I would be roped up. With just the right amount of nervous energy I stood to leave. I had taken off my soft shell jacket for dinner. But when I tried to put it back on it got stuck. It was too wet. Dallas kept it in the Gombu so it could dry out. I needed that jacket. And I needed it to be dry to keep me warm. The walk back to the bunkhouse was just enough to refreeze.
That night I held my hands to my face so the heat warmers in my gloves could stop my cheeks from freezing. Sleep was a challenge. I have never been so cold. I tossed. I turned. And apparently I spooned (if you can call it spooning when sleeping bags and 50 layers of clothing are involved), because when we got up in the morning Terry made fun of me for it.
I was just happy to get on with the day and forget the night.
That day we made Camp Muir our playground. It was non-stop training from post-breakfast until after 5. Dallas taught us how to walk in the snow in boots, which I was SO grateful for because I was a mess going down the tiny slopes in camp afraid I was going to bite it and hit my head on one of the rocks that lined the walkway and stairs. Then we roped up and rest-stepped our way up the hill behind camp. Sarah stepped in for some avalanche rescue training. We dug, tied knots, climbed up and down and practiced self-arrest with our ice axes. The guys were SO into that they literally threw themselves down the hillside to see if they could come to a stop. I dropped to the ground, rolled over and threw my ice axe into the snow. I needed a day when I wasn’t totally soaked and frozen.
As we learned how to bury pickets in the snow to create a pulley system for crevasse rescue I noticed that Dallas was way over and up there on Muir Peak. The sun was three quarters through the day, throwing light on the rocks that pushed skyward. I saw a fixed line.
Okay. Not expecting THAT.
The guys were ready to toss Sarah and me in a crevasse and get over there where all the fun was going to happen. I had to pee. The same sensation I would get every time I entered the gymnasium in grade school and saw the rope hanging from the ceiling. Eventually, Dallas descended and came to get us. As with every single activity, Terry and Philip were off and running and I was still getting my crampons on. Dallas was helping me. I wasn’t going to say anything, but then this tumbled out:
I’m nervous. I don’t know. Crampons on rock. That’s like, vertical!
He laughed. Because it wasn’t actually vertical. But in my mind’s eye it was the Hilary Step.
Dallas, this climb is all about trust. I know. I know. I have to trust. (I was speaking to him, but I was really trying to convince myself.)
Then he said: Your boys are going to think you are the coolest Mom ever.
Done. As I walked behind him I fought back tears. Yes, they will. It took extreme focus to not succumb to my emotions, to remain present. There would be time later to ponder what was ripping through me. But at that moment I had a fear to conquer. A fear of going vertical.
I climbed Muir Peak. Dallas had to stay beside me and pep talk me the entire way. It was ludicrous, really. I was roped up, and if I did fall it would be all of about three feet. Twice on the way up he yelled, LET GO OF THE ROCK! LOOK AROUND! Once he made me pause for a photo. I’m pretty sure you can see my comfort zone in the background. I’m nowhere near it. When I got to the top of the peak I stuck to the rocks like a starfish.
For no good reason.
The descent did not bring out my fearlessness either.
Finally, as the sun set, I hit the snow, fell back and laughed. And immediately wanted to do it again. This time with the knowledge that I wouldn’t perish, unless I threw myself off the peak.
That night the guys congratulated me for persevering. For holding nothing back. I thanked them, but inside I was fighting the realization that I am not a natural on glacier peaks.
That kind of puts a damper on the whole Everest quest.
As the week progressed, something else would come between me and my goal of climbing Mt. Everest. It was to be my takeaway all along.
You get what you fear.