Hi! If you’ve been reading my blog the past couple weeks you’ll know I’m working on completing v.3 of my memoir, through a 40-day exercise…I’m breaking from the logic with this post, that steps out of the time sequence to the present, and will see if it works. Either way, it’s for my good friend and climbing partner Brad Shaffer: dude-love.
I met Brad at the Pancake House off exit 53, Snoqualmie Pass, the name my grand-dad remembered from his first time out here, when I told him we’d be moving to Seattle.
We left my car there and took Brad’s, headed east to Stampede Pass, to climb a peak I hadn’t heard of, Tinkham. I wasn’t up for climbing though; it meant dealing with snow, getting my ax out, and Dawn was more nervous about my outings now, having read my blog, what I really did when we went out.
But the hike up to Mirror Lake was pretty easy, mostly snow but well compacted, a few places you had to watch, you could punch through to your hip, tumble into a tree well. And we got to talking about our mutual friend and hair stylist Donnie for some reason, and Brad said Donnie was going back to Alaska where he grew up, in hopes he could end his memoir through some rediscovery, since so much of his story mapped back to his parents, bush pilots: Donnie’d grown up on the shoulders of Denali, which explained a lot of his intensity: the sense in talking to him for just 15 minutes every couple of months that there was so much more to him, in layers.
I told Brad it was seeing Donnie that altered my planned ending for my memoir, because Donnie knew Chris Cornell, had told me things about him I didn’t know or imagine, which gave me a better ending for my story.
And it was only 10:30 in the morning when we pulled in to camp, a reasonably melted out site near the lake with a fire pit and reliable water source right by a river flowing from the lake, along most of the trail, that wasn’t as much a trail as a “route,” given all the snow and slide runout, the bracken look to the slide alder and devil’s club bony and stark, all that vegetation just starting to leaf out, still easy enough to navigate without much hassle.
It triggered Brad’s memory of Gunsight Pass, the first time he and I overnighted and right after 9/11, early November: Brad had overestimated my abilities from all our locker room talk (mostly mine) about climbing Rainier and joining the Mountaineers, but I still didn’t know jack shit, had overpacked for the trip, wasn’t nearly as fit as Brad, got myself entangled in the slide alder and devil’s club with my ax-arm stuck in the leash, in the brush, and going over on my side with my arm still stuck, twisting my shoulder, screaming like a girl, no use in camp later shoveling it out, and not enough alcohol, just the small, airplane bottles.
All the straps and accessories on the outside of my pack are now broken or missing from overuse or mistreatment, so I don’t have a way of strapping my ax to it short of rigging something up—but Brad offered to strap it onto his, and with the two axes on the back it made an X-shape and looked bad-ass, the crucifixion “X” of St. Andrew the Scot, the same as our American Confederate flag.
We were in camp in no time, and gloating about that. We had nothing but time now to climb the ridge up to Tinkham or just fart around in the hills, in the snow. It had a sub-alpine look, some twisted trees near our tent with tufts of Spanish moss that’s not really moss Brad said but lichen, looks like gnome beards, fluorescent green, Lorax style: stubby arms, tree branches sticking out, imploring how could you, how could you cut us down like that?
Brad brought his BlueTooth speaker and really cranked it: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Baby Got Back: two white boys shaking their butts, blowing snot-rockets: no amount of rightness to it, but all perfectly right—and just then a few women in their late 50s ambled up, asked, did we know the way to Mirror Lake? And Brad said it’s right there, and they said no it’s not, that’s Cottonwood: Mirror Lake is over the saddle, up there. And we both knew they were right and felt stupid, more because they had to correct us and we’d been feeling pretty bad-ass with our axes, our gear. It’s why we got there so fast, we’d only gotten half way.
Brad strung the tarp over our bivy area and demonstrated the Bowline knot, the rabbit comes out of the hole, goes ’round the tree, goes back down the hole. He said you should know this tarp, it’s the one from that time out on Oil City, and I said I’d just written about that, but remembered it blue—and he scoffed, blue?—that’s fucking eastern Washington, blue tarps—and I said, you are from Eastern Washington, you fucking dick—and we gave each other a shove and a laugh, and Brad mumbled something about a cigarette, and then we’d go up the ridge.
I was feeling pretty self-assured and good about myself as I took that first step on the log to cross the river, and then I went right down: I went up in the air, twisted, spun, landed on a rock splat, my chest split right on the nub of a rock big enough to constitute “boulder,” and for a few seconds lay there thinking, ribs cracked, broken, bruised? Internal bleeding? Adrenaline masking serious injury? I lay there on that rock married to it, my arms hugging it, looking up over the log to see if Brad had seen me from the other side but thankfully, hadn’t. It was a cartoon fall, Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote style, now peeled off the rock, my body deformed: I stood and regarded myself, felt for my glasses, looked for my ax, my phone: just got the air knocked out, I said…crept to the river: and it was sketch, way-sketch: no good place to cross, flowing hard and cold as fuck, all the good steps mossy, slick as hell—and I thought on that rock lying there, this must be a sign, a signal I need to hear: to not climb Tinkham Peak today, maybe never.
I followed Brad through the forest, side-hilling to the saddle, where presumably Mirror Lake was tucked below, at the foot of Tinkham Peak. Sometimes I lost Brad or he lost me, and I was too tired and distracted to follow his boot track, and it was easy to lose the tracks in the sun cupped, swale-like look of the snow mixed in with the fallen twigs, needles, the lichen beards, the occasional red micro-organism on the snow that looks remarkably like blood but isn’t, yet still imparts morbid thoughts: but good snow, and I could remember how to use my ax and change positions with it, could hold it with my glove like a crab claw.
It was the ax I got in eastern Washington that first time we went to Brad’s cabin, the anniversary of 9/11. It was my second ax; the first one I’d left on Mount St. Helens but didn’t like that ax anyway, the pick was so short it looked fey, a ‘foofy-ax,’ if you could imagine such a thing, and French, which made matters worse. I overcompensated with this ax: the pick side is all business, eight or nine inches long: a real saw-tooth look to it, heavy as fuck, nail polish red. Brad called back and reminded me not to fall on it which is good advice, it’s easy to gouge or gorge yourself with them, which is why I don’t sharpen mine.
Brad had used his ax back in camp to cut out and remove the remaining plates of snow on the ground: he used the pick end to saw the snow into panels, then the adze end like a crowbar to pry the plates off the ground and as he did, it gave the drama of a heavy casket lid opening, the lid on a religious artifact. And with great effort he lifted each piece and mounted them on the side of camp in angular slabs like a snowman, two-dimensional; camp art, Brad said.
By the time we got to the edge of Mirror Lake, having rounded the shores, it terminated to the south into a river/waterfall, opening to another valley below, more snow-dusted peaks: and it was there Brad said he’d last been with his ex-wife Melissa; they’d taken pictures of each other standing in different spots, handed the camera back and forth…there was a tinge of sadness, the way he said it: 1991.
Brad stood at the spot and pointed up at a twisted tree that was dead, double-headed, prongs of a fork you’d use to turn meat; he tried to push on, if it would budge. And it was time to decide if we’d climb Tinkham, I knew. Brad was filtering water and we didn’t have packs, didn’t have rain gear, only what we were wearing. Up on the flanks of Tinkham it was gray and misty, snow and rock, the weather, mixed: I could picture us up there looking down on the lake, two bugs scrambling on the back of some beast: it really looked like a troll (the mountain face), like the one under the bridge here in Fremont, its stony-marble eyes…and I said Brad, I don’t think I can do this, today. I didn’t want to disappoint him but I thought about Dawn’s concerns for me, and frankly wanted to just get back to camp, to drink beer.
Brad said, it’s about this moment, the “now”: there’s this narrow window we all move in, this opportunity to live that’s not in the past or future, but only right here, in this small space. And the Four Noble Truths, he spelled those out for me, the first is commonly misunderstood, that all life is pain and suffering. And I didn’t ask him to elaborate or explain, I was pretty sure I knew why. I moved with him, corkscrewing the hillsides back to our camp, my legs bending into the snow, my ankles turning at times like Gumby, both of us singing REO Speedwagon, but we couldn’t get past the first stanza.
I pictured myself old, really old: I was wanting to tell stories I could remember, stories of interest, of interest to me: I had my arm raised, a finger to punctuate like my grandfather did after his stroke; it was hard to get people to listen to you when you got old. I was learning how to do that now, I had a wave I used, the way you would with a server when it’s time for the check, when it’s time to settle up. I was trying to get someone’s attention, but they’d stopped listening to me a while ago.
We crossed the river and threw our axes in the snow and howled and burped and farted, and Brad was about to take a leak when he saw another party right there through the trees. And he went back up the ridge later to climb higher and I stayed back to write, used a mock-wife voice (“be home by 5!“), sat in the sun where it opened through the trees, gave thanks to god: I took what I could, gave what I had, and now there was no more to consider.