The Gombu, a dining pavillion compared to our little snow kitchen lower down the mountain.
Staying fully present in the moment has its distinct advantages when facing an uphill climb. Literally or figuratively.
We broke down our elaborate winter camp in preparation for our ascent to Camp Muir. It’s never a guarantee that you’ll get there in the winter. Just a few weeks prior a Denali prep class spent the entire week at their winter camp. I was so grateful for a break in the weather so we could make an attempt. I wanted to see that little stone castle, have an actual latrine WITH a door, get much closer to the summit and be able to get a cell signal so I could call my Mom.
Mr. Perfect Timing gifted me with a battery pack for my cell phone. IMG said there would be intermittent cell service at Camp Muir if the stars aligned. You know how I feel about stars. And how they feel about me. I envisioned being able to describe the Tatoosh mountain range to her while standing on the ridge, 4,000 feet below the summit. How the shadows thrown by the thousands of trees make the mountains look like a paint-by-numbers canvas. How the clouds, whites and grays swirled together like soft serve ice cream, swell to fill the valley far below us and then retreat, as if stretching out over the trees to scratch an itch and then curling back up out of sight for a nap.
I put the phone in my jacket pocket to keep it warm, slipped on the avalanche transceiver, adjusted the straps on my snowshoes and sucked in some 6,000 foot air before hoisting the 50 pound backpack, made heavier by carrying group food, up onto my right knee, then swinging it behind me (I almost fell over every single time) and gracelessly getting my left arm through the strap. With Sarah’s help I got it adjusted so it didn’t feel like a tiger with its claws wrapped around my clavicle.
Off we went…
I had no idea how hard it was going to be.
The plan was to stop every hour or so for a break. In between we climbed UP. Dallas taught us how to do the rest step before we left camp. If you’ve seen any footage of people climbing Mt. Everest you’ve seen the rest step. One foot forward and all your weight on the back leg which is locked. For just a beat. And then the next step. By doing so you get a micro-moment’s rest as your skeleton holds your body weight and the weight of that freaking pack.
And those snowshoes…
The snowshoe waddle makes it so you don’t catch one of the shoes on your pant leg or on the edge of the other shoe. If you do, well, that 50 pound pack makes it really easy to totally lose your balance and off you go. Sliding in your soft shell pants down a snowy slope. Would you die? Not from the fall. But you’d die a little from the realization that you have to climb that slope again. While the snowshoes keep you from sinking up to your waist in snow, they don’t give you Jesus powers. I recall three times when, on a traverse of course (ERRR!), my downslope foot slipped bringing my other thigh parallel to the earth. I grunted like Maria Sherapova in an attempt to will myself out of the hole. If you want thighs you can bounce a quarter off of I highly recommend this torture. I mean workout. The last time it happened I committed out of fear of not being able to extricate myself again to not slide. Ever. I simply didn’t have the extra strength.
Philip and Terry were up ahead. Dallas in front of them leading us. Sarah was on skis placing flags in the snow so we could descend without biting it in a crevasse. And all around us was mist. It was as if we had been injected into a ping pong ball. Everything was colored the same flat white gray. The snow, the air, the sky. It was impossible to distinguish footsteps from virgin snow. The air didn’t move. Our winter wonderland collided with a sub-tropical cloud forest, resulting in misery. As if beginning our climb by traversing (ERRR!) through avalanche terrain ONE AT A TIME – just to make it even scarier – wasn’t distressing enough, we had the non-pleasure of having to climb in an alpine environment within the atmosphere of South Jersey in August. The mist was so disorienting I could have fallen over just by standing still.
I have NEVER sweat (Sorry, Mom. I know you prefer perspire or glisten, but this was SWEAT.) so much in my life. During our second break Dallas instructed us to take off layers. I had wool long underwear on. Top and bottom. Before we dropped our packs and pants Dallas asked the guys to walk up ahead so I could have some privacy. I laughed. It was more of a one syllable attempt at laughter because I was already spent at hour two.
Dallas, I’m cool. I’d hike this naked if I had enough sunscreen.
Off came the clothes. Down went the water. In went trail mix, Lara bars, quinoa bars, and Shot Blocks. I CRAMMED food into my mouth. We had 15 minutes to take off snowshoes, boots, clothes and put on clothes, boots and snowshoes. Eat. Drink. Then the sunscreen. Every hour because the radiation was so intense. I felt like a greased, wet, force-fed pig who had just been standing on the side of a mountain in her underwear. Her super sweaty underwear.
Off we went…
Somewhere during hour three I left my body. I had no choice. I was boiling hot, my muscles were doing their job well but complaining the whole time, my knees were starting to feel loose. That was disconcerting. If one of them shut down I would be going down. Not an option. I had to step outside and spend some time with my heart. Open it wide so I could connect with the mountain. Staying in the space where I was consumed by the outside was preventing me from seeing insights. If I let the body remain in the zone without me stressing it out we had a shot at finishing this climb. At no time after hour three did I think it was a done deal. I left my body to be fully present in the moment on the mountain and I got present with my soul.
Trust. I picked up and put down themes and words. Trust kept wiggling its way under my fingertips. The word was charged. Saying it as if I was going to DO it made me wince. I had made the word bigger and scarier than the mountain.
Trust. I needed to demystify the word that ranks right up there in complexity with love.
It isn’t the end of the world if something or someone isn’t reliable. Once we know that we can’t rely upon something or someone we can make choices. Plan Bs. Stop trying to make them reliable, stop trying to control them, and be responsible for our own choices.
Without trust there can’t be love. There can be like, lust, desire, obsession, co-dependency, complacency, but there can’t be love.
Don’t fall in love until you revel in trust. That means that over time someone does what they say they are going to do. Pretty simple.
Deconstruct. Demystify. De-complicate.
Is trust earned? To a degree. But if I shut the door in order to protect me because I don’t yet trust that I’ll be safe then I’ve already made the determination: Not trustworthy.
That is self-sabotage.
Fear making my choices for me. Never a good idea.
We were in the midst of the Muir Snow Field, the site of an alarming number of fatalities on Mt. Rainier. Shame on me for thinking a snow field was flat like all the other fields I’ve ever known. 2.2 miles and 2,800 vertical feet of treacherous landscape sucked the energy out of my thighs. I couldn’t see a thing. My glasses were fogged by the heat of my body. My eyes burned from salty sweat. The air was thinning out. The rhythm of the rest step was the only comfort. I tried to think of my Mom, The Dudes, Mr. Perfect Timing. I couldn’t. It was all too distracting. I went back to trust. And refused to look up. I didn’t want to not see Camp Muir.
At another break I sucked down water. I wasn’t hungry. Not a good sign. I forced myself to eat a quinoa bar. Historically I have to force myself to walk away from the quinoa bars. Sitting on my pack trying to find a comfortable angle for my knees, I listened to Dallas and Sarah give us a pep talk. We were tuckered out with no space for banter or humor. Just nods of heads. I didn’t want to count the breaks or the hours. Just put the pack on and get this over with.
As I hoisted my burdens, I mean backpack, up with a grunt, I whispered to myself, Trust. Trust your body. Trust.
The guys pulled away from me a bit on the next leg. It was a relief. I didn’t feel like I had to keep up. Their stride was longer, their pace out of a break faster. I wanted, I NEEDED to keep it slow and steady and rhythmic. By this point I had sweat through my soft shell jacket. I was soaked. I had killed my water. I knew we were over halfway there. Had to be. But I had lost track of breaks and there were no landmarks to be seen. We couldn’t see anything.
Up ahead Dallas and Philip and Terry cut through the snow. Sarah, in a feat so remarkable to me she had ascended to Goddess rank by hour four, skied behind me. Every hour or so she would cheer me on and then ski away to find a route more suitable or plant a flag for our return. I could smell Camp Muir. I would get there, but I was on steam. And steaming.
I called up to Dallas, D, I need a pep talk!
His words got me through another half hour. And then I looked up to see Terry and Dallas standing in the midst of buildings. Philip was 50 yards away. I was a football field back. Chocolate brown structures cut though the mist. It was a done deal.
I was SO freaking thirsty.
Dallas pointed us to our shelter. Said he’d be back in 30 minutes with water. That was before he realized that he and Sarah would need to dig through seven feet of snow just to pry the plywood off the door to the camp kitchen, named The Gombu after Nawang Gombu Sherpa. Gombu reached the summit of Mt. Everest on May 1, 1963 with Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the top of Mt. Everest. Terry, Philip and I got horizontal on plywood after miraculously locating enough energy to get out of our climbing gear and into our sleeping bags. It was then that the temperature change afflicted its pain on my hands. Then my body. All that sweat started to freeze, taking me along with it. But I made it.
We made it to Camp Muir.
I spent the next 15 hours shivering uncontrollably, but I ate like a trucker and drank like a camel. That made up for sleeping like a breast-feeding infant.
I didn’t even have the energy to check for a cell signal. That would have to wait until after sunrise.
Adrenaline would carry me through the next day. But at its end, when I got my first taste of crampons on rock, it would be trust that I would need most of all.