“The poplars, and willows, and birds pass me by
The mould of the earth to the space in the sky
Free from my roots and I’m lost in the wind
Wind on the mountain, and the mountain’s my friend”
Country Mile–Johnny Flynn
(Today’s title is a revised line from Johnny Flynn’s “After Eliot”)
Two days ago I drove to Kite Lake to climb: Mt. Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross. I arrived alone, on a heavily clouded and rainy evening with the hopes that the next day would be brighter and more welcoming. I splashed across a stream and scouted the beginning of the route in the fading light of the day. I decided not to set up my tent and get all my gear wet, I opted to sleep in my car instead. At first I had some trouble quieting my imagination, but eventually I fell sound asleep. My alarm went off at 4:15, but I snoozed until 4:45. I didn’t feel good and it crossed my mind that I could skip the climb. Thankfully, the thought was quickly shot down by my desire to be accountable to myself. I ate a light breakfast, laced up my boots, and by 5:00 I was ready for the day ahead of me.
A few hikers had gotten up just a bit earlier than me and I could see their headlamps glowing ahead of me. I brought my headlamp with me, but I didn’t feel the need to use it. The day had already begun to be illuminated by the sun and the path was lit well enough for me to see all I needed to see. I kept a slow pace, but I was steady and didn’t take any breaks. That pace took me past the early risers with the headlamps in no time. I stopped to talk to them for a moment as they rested, they told me where they were from, and we all wished each other a safe hike.
When I reached the saddle between Democrat and Cameron, the mighty wind was blowing with a relentless fury. I put on my jacket and continued toward Democrat. The rocks were like glazed donuts, slick and shiny from the previous day’s frozen rain. I slipped here and there, but made safe progress with careful foot placement. Near the false summit there was a large patch of snow across the main trail, however, it was easily avoidable. A few more patches of snow met me along the way, and I crossed in the places that others had clearly crossed. I matched my steps to those of a stranger who made the same journey before me. I wondered what their day had been like: how many peaks had they climbed? were they tired at this point? how old were they? And so on.
The sight of the final leg of the climb gave me a new energy and I greeted it with eager eyes. The clouds were also eager to make it to the summit of Democrat, only they had a much faster pace than me. Two young boys (about 16 or 17) also had a faster pace than me and they sped along past me. I took their pictures for them and I followed them down the ridge toward Cameron. If I had gone my own way, I would have retraced my steps and taken a long route back down…but I trusted the path of the boys ahead of me. Though, it was a rocky descent…it saved a lot of time and energy. The boys hopped about like adolescent mountain goats, and back at the saddle they ate like adolescent mountain goats too. I passed them as they refueled, but it didn’t take long for them to leap frog ahead of me. The sun was blotted out by misty clouds that swirled into a mesmerizing vortex. The hungry mountain goat lads shouted back at me, “Look at the sun!!!!”
I felt tired and weary of the weather, but the sight of two older men plodding along ahead of me gave me hope. If they were going to push on…so was I! I caught up to them and we made the summit of Cameron together. They had climbed Democrat on another day, Cameron was their first peak of this day. It was windy and the view consisted of white mist. This summit was not rocky or spiky like some, it was bald and somewhat flat.
The older men and I made our way to Lincoln together. One of them asked me questions and told me a few details about his life. He was from Oregon, out here to climb some peaks and enjoy the freedom of being retired. He told me that his son was a scientist and a man of the outdoors. When I answered his questions about me he said, “If I had a daughter, I would want her to be like you!” I thought that was a very nice thing for him to say, and it made my heart smile.
My speed increased as I got closer to Lincoln and I pushed ahead of the older men. The two boys were at the top when I arrived, along with another man without any shoes! He was wearing some short spandex shorts, a jacket, and a pack…but no shoes. His feet were quite tough, but they were still bleeding from his ascent. I was frozen solid once I stopped moving…and I wondered how he could stand being so exposed. But I suppose we humans were once accustomed to utilizing our bodies in a more natural state, free of water proof boots and expensive outdoor gear. He didn’t remain in my sights for long, and he disappeared down the ridge on a path that nobody else was going to take that day.
The young boys and I walked toward the saddle to Bross at around the same time, but after a bit they opted to run for much of the way. I thought about when I was like that! Strong, spry, and fit! I remembered skipping between summits and feeling my own version of a runner’s high in the high altitude. I was almost precisely their age when I felt that way. And then I looked back at the men behind me: strong but slowed by time. There I was…caught somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of life (figuratively and literally)! I’m in my 20’s, I’m not old by any means, but I’m not the same as I used to be. I used to have an engine that never quit. Sometimes I feel like certain things have aged me prematurely, both mentally and physically. It’s true that sometimes people hesitate to serve me alcohol because they think my ID is fake, and I look younger than I am…but I feel time weighing on me internally–heavily and quite often.
Sometimes climbing has been immensely stressful and other times it has been enlightening and rejuvenating. I am realizing that pleasure and pain are largely a state of mind, however, in the moment it is hard to realize that. I picked these quotes from a website my brother showed me (big brother…are you reading this?).
“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead”
“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”
“Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints”
The route to Bross is technically closed, but I wasn’t about to skip it because someone else had claimed it with some paperwork and greenbacks. No way! The path looked pretty gradual and easy, and it was for the most part. I got a little tired a few times right near the top, but it was a nice walk along a very defined path. The boys ahead of me took a longer route and I made the summit just a few minutes after them. When I arrived, they had a dozen Hawaiian rolls, various lunch meats, different kinds of cheeses, trail mix, food, food, food, and more…food. They offered me some of their grub with full mouths, and then offered some to the older men when they caught up to us. Between the two little hungry mountain goats, they ate almost every scrap they brought.
I really admired their adventurous spirits and their maturity. Sure, when I was their age I climbed some peaks, but I was with teachers and other students during the school year. They made the drive on their own and climbed on their own. I hoped that they could keep their strong spirits and their maturity throughout their young lives, and not get caught up in dating or parties. In that moment I felt like what Holden interpreted a Catcher in the Rye to be, like I was silently trying to protect their innocence.
All five of us sat at the top of Bross talking about adventures of the past and future. The oldest man prided himself on being a mountaineer, and he had climbed every 14er in the state…some more than once. He reminded me of a teacher I had in high school, who took me on a trip to Leadville to explore abandoned mines and on interim to see Anasazi ruins in Utah.
For a very long time, I have longed for a niche or a group that I might fit into, and that day I found what I was looking for–with the two young boys and the two older men. We all just clicked! We had a common goal and easily made conversation. We all cared about each other’s safety and happiness…it was a solid bond, formed in an instant! When the day was over the oldest man gave me a hug that was kind and pure. I felt happy. I could insert some fancy SAT words and try to string together some imaginative similes or metaphors here to illustrate how I felt……but my feelings were simple: despite the fact that the bonds made that day disintegrated almost as quickly as they formed, I was happy! Sometimes a good thing doesn’t need to last long for it to be great. Climbing mountains, for instance, is a long laboring process and the summit is only enjoyed for a few minutes. But those few minutes of crisp bliss in the thin air are what the climb is all about.