First there is a mountain then there is no mountain, then there is

There was the outfit I’d worn the day before and probably the day before that, in a pile on the floor by the bed. I sat up and got into it like I was going in reverse, stood up, slapped cold water on my face, went downstairs. I made coffee right away and sat down, looked outside. Even gray, it was bracingly bright at six in the morning now, here. There were a million shades of green, some yellow, in the moss on the rocks. I wanted to go out and lie on it like a lizard, like a nymph, but it was cold and wet. I tried to avoid mirrors in the morning but it was hard. I looked puffy and pale and my hair was a bird’s nest but it settled down by the time I got out on the street with my mug.

I was taken by this idea of coarse navigation from being in the Mountaineers club, the idea you could make a number of small mistakes navigating and they canceled each other out. And I didn’t like to plan so much anyway, by mapping coordinates out like that. I liked the idea of planning but implicit in that, you knew things were going to change and not work out as intended. There was an element of control to that. I liked any chance I had to let go of it.

We got lost coming off Mount Rainier that January, just me and two others, from work (Perry and Lesley). Who goes up Mount Rainier in January? We were bored and cocky. We’d climbed it before. You start thinking you can do anything, you get to the top of Mount Rainier. Brad and I even started planning for Aconcagua, in South America. Dawn bought me the map for it that Christmas and I started telling people I was going down there. We met with a guy who’d climbed to the top though, and he mentioned it’s a lot different there, in South America. When the snow melts sometimes corpses come out and they don’t do anything about them, they just let them be. That was different than what I had in mind.

We just went up Mount Rainier a thousand feet maybe from the parking lot. So many parties fail on that mountain only about 45 minutes from their car, coming down. There’s only three turns you need to make going up to the base camp, and they’re all right-hand turns, but if you mess up and go off to the left you can get caught on a really big glacier. And in a white-out there’s no frame of reference. The weather can change so fast up there, it has its own weather.

That time in January we made camp in the snow (it was kind of a practice run to test some of our gear, and just be on the mountain) and I was still using those blow-up, backcountry mattresses then. It had a leak though and was flat. That meant I basically had to sleep on snow. So I wrapped my sleeping bag in a garbage bag I always brought, propped my backpack under it, some empty Nalgene bottles…anything to put space between me and the cold ground.

Sleeping on snow like that, the heat from your body melts the ground beneath you and then freezes over to ice. It’s this constant shifting you can’t help but notice, the sound it makes with the micro cracks opening in the ground, the small, squishing sounds. I had a propane lantern to keep the tent warm but the problem with those is you can asphyxiate, which worried me after dark as the snow came on hard, and I had to get up every hour or so to shake off the tent, it was clamping down the little air holes and gaps I had around the bottom.

I got no sleep. In the morning we packed up and vectored off route for a couple hours, pissed off it was so hard to find our way back. We hadn’t put wands out to mark the route and there was no one on the mountain really, no boot-track: another party we ran into who were convinced they knew the way and we believed them, but they were wrong.

When I left my job some people said kind, pithy things to me: like, ‘when one door closes another one opens,’ or ‘sometimes things happen for a reason.’ I thought back about our year in Germany, about me taking the summer off before I started looking for work, and the job I started then and still have now…and I wouldn’t change any of it.

Maybe there is such a thing as intuition, a sense you can trust, like your sense of smell or hearing. It gave me hope as I kept up the writing, there was something to the senses you could believe in, and as ‘Hallmark card’ as it sounds, something in the heart too. How many of us let our senses be dulled or go fallow, how much I wanted mine to make something as good as the world I imagined. You realize you’re kind of on your own in this life. You can affiliate with people or your family but there’s an element of it where we’re all out in the darkness with not much more than what we’ve got inside us to know the way. We’re on the side of some mountain, either going up or coming down. Or worse, we’re not on a mountain at all.

Blog post title from the Donovan song, 1968.

On the Austrian/Swiss border, Alps (August ’15)

Categories: Memoir, travel, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. And people do this sort of thing on purpose? This rugged adventure? I would be a mess. A laughing stock. Last November we went to Disneyworld and I did a lot of complaining about how much my feet hurt from walking. Imagine that? Nice metaphor tie-up. That worked pretty well for me.


  2. Morning Bill, nice post, makes me want to climb a mountain, and just explore in general. Love me some Donovan, Atlantis is one of my favorites. Wayyyy out on the ocean, is where I want to be, you may be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems you are pretty far out in a proverbial ocean with your new property there. That’s good. Morning! — Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yessir, just watched the Neil Young Prairie Wind concrete, great lyrics in song of same name, “I tried to tell people but they never heard a word I say, they say there’s nothing but wheat fields out there anyway.” Cornfields and mountains in our respective cases, but the sentiments the same, and I don’t think I’d like it any other way.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Amen to that.


  3. So you got back to the car park then? Whew!
    Enjoyed this Bill, even though I’m not that familiar with snow (apart from a year in Germany). Like the Donovan song too. Wrote about him last week. That’s serendipity, that is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bruce, yes — I saw you wrote about Donovan after I scheduled this, funny. Maybe the one and only time I’ll refer to him…was cool to see he was referencing some buddhist reading though, as I was reading a book called The Snow Leopard my friend Brad gave me, and he and I do some climbing together. All funny, serendipity yes. That’s hard to type and spell before coffee though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a great picture, happy times. I really like the second paragraph and what you wrote about a series of small mistakes canceling each other out. There’s much reward in that paradox of careful planning and then letting go…you described it really well here. I don’t know about sleeping on top of snow, so you have my full admiration there. Pretty creepy to think about hiking past corpses in South America.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kristen! I like that idea of coarse navigation too. I played with it a while ago but it didn’t seem to go anywhere so I tried it again here. That was a long night, on the snow. And glad we let the South America trip die, I don’t think I was up for that.


  5. “You realize you’re kind of on your own in this life.” Yes indeedy. It sinks in as you get older, and makes you grateful for the one you’re with.

    I’ve never tried to climb a mountain, but I can easily imagine turning into one of those corpses. Bad travel karma. It’s fun to live vicariously through your ascents, though!

    Ah, Donovan. The man who taught John Lennon to fingerpick so he could give us “Julia.”


  6. “How many of us let our senses be dulled or go fallow, how much I wanted mine to make something as good as the world I imagined.”

    So beautifully written and so well expressed Bill. Maybe that’s the curse of an artistic nature, that need to express what we believe could and should be and would be if we all shared the vision and worked together. And then, “You realize you’re kind of on your own in this life.” The dream and the reality. Whew. That’s some deep stuff. Almost too much to consider for this old broad.


    • Ah, you’re not an old broad. Doubt it’s too much to consider either…but happy you did, and let me know. You nailed it with the curse, by the way. I think that often. Thanks Ilona. — Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  7. i am excited to just take hills and wander around hiking, this was very well written and i admire your mountain experiences –


    • Thank you Beth. I love to wander too, not surprising probably for as long as you’ve been wandering around with my blog posts. Thank you for that, by the way. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That was a great read.


  9. I’m in the process of creating my own path at work. I feel like I’m on that glacier. What the hell am I doing here? I’d rather be in bed.
    Fine pic.


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