Thursday, October 15, 2009

Higher

There is this peak in Juneau that I've wanted to climb ever since I first noticed it looming over my office building on a cold September day in 2006. It's called Observation, which I agree is a lame name for a mountain. But there's something about that name ... Observation ... as though all I would have to do is climb to the top, and I would be able to see everything, all of it. I coveted that view. It's never come together for me, most often for lack of time, others for weather closing in, others for outright intimidation by the scope and length of it. But lately I've been practicing mountain trekking, a lot. I have more experience, I'm more efficient, and I knew, based on weather reports, that Thursday was going to be my last chance this year.

Conditions were not perfect. Winds were still high, and the lateness of the season meant the ridge would be covered in ice. Clouds were supposed to close in by mid-afternoon, and I was coping with a heavy fatigue, possibly brought on by a minor virus, but most likely due to how hard I've been pushing recently, between mountains and work, and how little recovery I've actually had. Still, last chances loomed in my mind. I sent an e-mail to my ex, Geoff, asking him if he had been up there recently and, if so, what the snow conditions were like. He called back and asked if he could go with me.

Geoff and I have both spent a lot of time in the mountains this summer and fall. I walk, and he runs. He can go to Observation and back in less than five hours. I estimate on my best days it would take me at least eight, more often nine or 10. But there are often days where we'll unknowingly be on parallel treks ... I'll be over on the Grandchild Ridge while he traverses Heinzelman; I'm on Roberts while he's across the way on Juneau. I get the feeling that we're both seeking the same things.

But I was surprised when he said he wanted to come with me. For starters, in his world, I'm slow. No way around it. This is a guy who finds walking to be an exhausting activity, compared to running, because to him running is a much more natural way to move. And secondly, Geoff and I haven't spent any real time alone together since we parted ways in San Fransisco in May. It was going to be awkward, I just knew it. But at the same time, it would be a great chance to test out all of the theories about myself that I had formed during all of my autumn solo treks up high - that I really was ready to move on.

I woke up feeling just slightly on the up-side of awful. I started up the Blackerby Ridge trail at 8:30, knowing Geoff wasn't going to start until 9. I was hoping to beat him to treeline, so he wouldn't see just how much I was struggling on the steep approach. I didn't quite make it. At about 1,800 feet, he came breezing up the trail. I was still clutching the large cup of coffee that I had cradled on several hands-over-head scrambles, and I was breathing hard. "I'm sorry if I become a total drag today," I gasped. "I'm not feeling even close to my normal self, and even that's not very good."

Geoff just shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not in a hurry."

We launched into stories about our recent runs/hikes, which developed into discussion about what was going on in our day-to-day lives. Geoff had a lot to tell me. He walked quickly. I followed quietly, and listened. I expected the things he said to hurt, but they didn't. What I felt for Geoff was strong compassion, for the way he was exposing himself to me, up there in a place that meant so much to both of us as individuals. What Geoff was looking for was understanding, and what he offered me in return was closure, and it felt real ... and good.

The cold wind that had been sweeping around us along Blackerby Ridge grew to hurricane force as we reached the face of Cairn Peak. It blew so hard that it seemed to whisk all the oxygen away before I could draw any in. I gasped. I couldn't breathe. I dropped to my hands and knees on the ice-coated talus. My face burned but I didn't want to take off my pack to pull out my mask, for fear that the wind would carry the entire thing away. I looked up and saw Geoff, who is substantially more sure-footed than I am, clinging to a rock outcropping and yelling something at me. There was no sound but the roaring wind. I crawled up to him.

"You OK?" he yelled, still difficult to hear even as I crouched right next to him.

"I'm scared," I admitted. "I'm scared of the wind."

"It's like 95 percent mental," he said. "Five percent of it really will trip you up, but most of it is getting past that mental block."

I nodded. In all the years we spent together, that was the most substantial thing Geoff taught me: That most of my "can'ts" are mental. That sometimes I focus too hard and spend too much time in my head. That sometimes I need to shut out everything else and only be in the absolute present. That's something Geoff has always been very good at. No worry for the future, no regret for the past. The wind won't blow you off the mountain if you don't let it. Just grit your teeth and plow forward.

We crested Cairn Peak in a frigid blast. My cheeks burned and my eyes watered. My heart was racing. I felt nauseated to the point where I doubted I'd be able to get any food down. I couldn't remember the last time I felt so weak and vulnerable. I pulled on my face mask and mittens. Geoff was wearing all the clothing he had with him - mostly wind layers, not much to block out the driving cold. He stood facing Lemon Glacier and Observation.

"Wow, it really is pretty close," I said as I wavered against a jet stream of air.

"We're not going to Observation today," Geoff said, which I already knew. We weren't prepared for two to three more hours of that kind of exposure, in that extreme of an environment. I was wheezing, Geoff was coughing, and we were both shivering in the brutal chill. But as I braced against the wind for a few quick gasps of view on top of Cairn Peak, I realized that Geoff and I were both completely exposed, and it was exactly where we needed to be.

There's Observation on the left, Mount Olds on the right - both recent failures of mine. But oddly, I'm completely OK with that. Because Thursday's hike, especially, feels like a success.