Sunday, December 13, 2009

My December mountain bender

(Note: Most of these photos are from my Saturday trek up Mount Jumbo with my friend Bjorn. So the photos don't necessarily match the text, but they still illustrate to some degree, so I'm posting them.)

When I sat down on Friday to write about my experience on Blackerby Ridge, I genuinely could not find the words. Descriptions like "sublime," "transcendent," "spiritual" and "closer to God" all fell flat to their inevitable cliches. I started the trek at 8:15 in the morning in the midst of a thick fog, both mental and literal. I went to Blackerby Ridge mostly because I had already told a few people that's where I planned to spend the day Friday, and it's always good when people know where you are. But as I began the trudge up the ice-slicked trail, I felt tired and downtrodden and disconnectedly obligated, just going through the motions.

Why the obligation to climb a mountain? It's tough for me to say. There's the physical factor - exercise is good for me. And there's the environmental factor - this long high pressure system has created absolutely ideal winter climbing conditions - hardpacked crust, lighter winds, mostly clear skies and relatively low avalanche danger - that should be taken advantage of while the going is good. There's the emotional factor - I find a lot of comfort in big spaces, swept clean of confusion by a blanket of snow, bright and flawless. But there's something else there, something deeper than my physical being and emotional state, something that approaches spirituality. But as I continue this activity with increasing gusto and dedication, I'm realizing that this really is my spiritual outlet - a temple where I can touch the greatness that is everything and connect with the more abstract motions of my soul.

And I realize that sounds hokey. Thus my reluctance to write about it. But there is little else I can say to describe those short, beautiful daylight hours on Blackerby Ridge. I followed my own week-old snowshoe track up the icy slope. There were a few bursts of sun through small sucker holes, but when I was above treeline and approaching the bottom reaches of the ridge, I was still encased in fog. I thought that was going to be it - just another gray walk in the clouds - but then, just above 3,000 feet, the most amazing thing happened. My head just sort of popped out of the inversion, and suddenly I could see the sharp, infinite horizon.

The rest of the day followed my long photo sequence in the previous post - awestruck, wandering, a solo journey above the clouds. The inversion hung above 3,000 feet, beyond the upper reaches of most of Douglas Island, which means I was likely alone or nearly alone in the region's sunlight on Friday - not a whole lot of people around here do mainland ridge walks or even skis in December. I hiked along the rime and hard crust to the backside of the ridge, the base of Cairn Peak, and gazed up at the looming monolith with its treacherous near-vertical pitches of mixed ice and rock that will keep me off of it until the snow melts. Winter had dramatically changed this fairly familiar place in a way that was both daunting and satisfying.

By the time I returned to the cloudline, it was 2 p.m., nearly the day's end. As the fading sun turned the mountains a deeper shade of gold, I lingered on the edge of the ridge, waiting for sunset. My hair and eyebrows were caked in frost, I was otherwise drenched in sweat, and it was impossible for me to stay warm in the freezing air unless I kept moving. So I danced. I literally danced, skipping and twirling in loopy circles on the snowy tundra. I had been hiking, hard, for nearly six hours. I still had two more to go before I would reach the trailhead. My body had to work even harder to stoke its own heat in temperatures that ranged from the low-teens to low-20s since 8 a.m.; I had only a frozen bagel and a chocolate bar to eat, and I was dancing as though I were trapped in a warm room with an endless supply of unchecked energy. It was an incredible feeling as the disappearing sun lit the deep-frozen world on fire. My prayer and praise to the powers that be.

My incredible day on Blackerby Ridge pretty much drained me, and I probably would have passed out before 10 if my friend Bjorn didn't call that night. The high pressure was set to linger at least one more day, so we decided to climb Mount Jumbo on Saturday morning. I shouldn't have had the energy for it, but I felt surprisingly strong. We followed the snowshoe track that my friend Shannon and I had worked so hard to punch out last week. It was well-hardened on Saturday, the "stairway to heaven," Bjorn called it. We climbed easy and free, nearly twice as fast as last Friday, and continued toward the peak.

At the top I struggled to fight back a huge grin, trying not to look too blissfully deranged because this kind of stuff is fairly elementary to Bjorn and he already thinks I'm a bit of an odd duck. But I've been to the top of Jumbo more than a dozen times and I've never seen it like that, coated in wind-carved ice. It looked like a frozen fountain, or an elaborate delicacy at the center of a wedding spread. I quietly said my prayers and started down.

I mulled the possibility of another trek today, but I was in all honesty beyond exhausted. As much as I want to take advantage of the last gasp of a long stretch of good weather, I couldn't drag myself out of bed until 10 this morning, so I went for a sea-level bike ride instead. Still beautiful, still fun, but missing that aspect of the sublime, that deep connection to something bigger than myself and everything around me. No wonder church is such a popular pastime. Juneau's weather is set to break tomorrow, and the first new snow will turn these mountains to avalanche central for a while, but I do hope, body and mind willing, to return soon.
Friday, December 11, 2009

There's no way to write it down

My day on Blackerby Ridge, Dec. 11, 2009

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Modern Romance, part 2

A couple of months ago, on a sunny Tuesday morning in October, I hiked up Thunder Mountain and wrote a blog post called "Modern Romance." This is its continuation.

Headlights run together in a pale yellow stream as commuters make their way through the morning fog. A school bus stops and everybody waits. Children in thick coats sprint from dark houses and clammer onto the bus. Flecks of ice swirl through the billowing plumes of exhaust - frost or flurries, I'm not sure which. I'm taking a gamble that somewhere beyond the fog, it's a nice day. But the morning is kind of ugly, thick and gray, and grumpy because I couldn't sleep, so here I am, joining the pre-dawn commute. They'll go to work and school, and I'll go to Thunder Mountain.

(It's been a tough week. A relationship I had been cautiously optimistic about hit a dead end. These things happen. Nothing I can do about it, but it's hard not to feel frustrated and wonder what's wrong with me. I gave myself some time to feel bad about it and haven't been able to sleep much, but the weather's been gorgeous, as ideal as December weather can be, sunny, just below freezing, and no wind. That's the formula for stunning winter beauty, and spending as much time as I can afford to spend out in it really does keep me grounded, comfortably, somewhere between mania and depression.)

I'm dripping sweat all over the freshly frosted trail when Geoff calls, somewhat randomly, at 8:18 in the morning. He's been in San Francisco all week for a big race, a big race that went well, and he placed second, still ahead of the old course record, and won $4,000. I had decided earlier in the week that I was hurt that he hadn't called me about it, but that emotion didn't stick. It's hard for me to believe it's been eight months since we broke up. It does not seem like that long. I burned through my anger on the Great Divide, made my peace, and came home knowing he was right about the whole thing. Since then, we've had an amicable if somewhat distant friendship, based on reserved kindness and a whole lot of honesty. On the phone, we talk about his race, about our old friends, about his girlfriend. I'm sleep-deprived and gasping up a virtual wall of roots and frozen mud, so I don't feel a whole lot, but I'm glad he called.

Very slowly, I start to climb out of the fog. At first I see streaks of brighter light through the gray, and then the ice-glazed snow starts to sparkle. It's still early enough for orange light, burning hot through a hole in the clouds, and then I push through the hole, and there's nothing beyond but blue sky. The snow-coated mountain ridge is surrounded by a sea of clouds, everything shimmering gold beneath a low winter sun. Beauty like this brings me instant joy, no matter how ugly I feel inside, every time.

I reach the ridge and strap on my crampons. I weave up and down the slope so I can practice spike-walking in places where the consequences of falling aren't too disastrous. Learning the daunting art of mountaineering is something I really want right now. I'm not even sure where this desire came from. I've never felt this way about it before. I always saw mountaineering as this highly risky sport that required more skills and guts than I could ever possess. But now I see mountaineering for what it is at its surface - a way to go farther into these places I truly love, the mountains.

I stop for a moment at the edge of the ridge and look out over the shrouded city. A roar of sound fills the white spaces as though there were three feet of vertical space between us instead of 3,000. I hear vehicles streaming down the highway. I hear planes taking off. I hear machinery moving earth. I hear trucks backing up. I hear everything as though I were down there, among the din of traffic, but all I see is a wilderness of mountains and clouds.

As I work my way down the ridge, I see small tracks from a mountain goat, so I follow them. The goat went where I want to go, following the friendly side of a cornice, all the way to the edge of a knife ridge. I work my way up to my point of no return. There is an exposed traverse on this ridge that involves a scramble up loose talus. It frightens me even in the summer, when it's warm and dry. No way am I going up that section through the snow, with my limited skills, alone, unroped, in the winter. I notice the mountain goat didn't go that way, either. It turned right, scrambled along an even more exposed edge, skittered across a wall of barren, icy rock, and rounded the next corner out of sight.

I turn and look back at my own tracks - big, awkward, not at all like the goat's. I can't remember the last time I felt so much envy toward another creature. Mountain goat didn't need crampons. It didn't need an ice ax. It didn't need to spend years trying to figure out what it was doing. Mountain goat didn't traverse this ridge because it was restless, or wandering, or searching for clear answers to foggy questions. Mountain goat traversed this ridge because it was the most natural thing for it to be doing. Somehow, in this frozen wasteland, it had access to food, it had a home, it had a life. I wish I could be like mountain goat.

I glance at my watch and yelp. I am spending far too much time on this mountain. I reluctantly start making my way back down. The sun blazes, bright and warm. It's probably close to freezing up here. It may even be above. I feel cozy and comfortable. I have a down coat in my backpack, and a bivy sack. My cell phone has full reception. I wonder what my boss would say if I called him up, told him that I wouldn't be coming to work any more, that I would be moving to the top of Thunder Mountain, to become like mountain goat.

He would probably just laugh. I reluctantly follow my tracks back, thinking about freedom and happiness. Up in the open air, it's very easy to believe that I can just "follow my bliss," if only I knew what that was. Travel around on my bicycle? Find a better-paying job, acquire a house? Give away all of my possessions save for my bicycles and my hiking gear and move to a small cabin and become a starving writer? Work for a struggling newspaper and find freedom in my surroundings, these beautiful, incredible surroundings? It's a moot thought exercise because the only place I truly believe in change is up here, and when I return to life below, the fog always seems to fill in these hollow hopes.

I reach the junction of the ridge, where the route drops back into the murky grayness. Traffic is still roaring. I frown, because I am not ready to go back. Sweat pours from my forehead. The temperature is rising. It feels like it's 80 degrees. I dump by backpack with the snowshoes and coat dangling off of it; I fling away my ax and my trekking pole. I strip off my gloves and fleece, and I take off up the other side of the ridge, running, as fast as my crampon-weighted feet will carry me, running into the calm winter air and white, bright snow. I run until I can not breathe, and still I keep running. I get carried away with the emotion of it; it feels like strong happiness, happiness as strong as love. I feel like I'm in love, but only with Thunder Mountain. Again, just Thunder Mountain.

And I wonder, I wonder about that emotion. If a person is in love with cold and desolate places, does that make them a cold and desolate person? I think it's a valid question.

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