Our packs were in the middle of the living room floor stuffed full of harnesses, warm clothes and food, with sleeping pads, ices axes and crampons strapped to the outside. We were almost ready to go, Seth said, just awaiting the arrival of two other climbing partners. I took a shower and put on shorts, tank top, zip-T, running socks, shoes. I threw a few more things into my pack, cinched down the straps, zipped closed the zippers and loaded it into the car. I scratched the dogs one last time and, with our friends, my partner and I drove north.
We were off to climb a peak in the southern Mission Mountains, a looming peak that weather pushed us off last summer, a peak I’d once thought I’d never try to climb.
I’ve always been active, but never an exceptional athlete. I’ve never been particularly good at or cared much for team sports. As a child in T-ball I’d lose interest quickly and spend the rest of the game in the outfield spinning around or digging in the dirt. This boredom seemed to only get worse as I got older. Then in high school I realized I liked to run. So, for the next 10 years, I did. First on the track team, then in road races, then in two marathons.
For me, then, running was fueled by angst. Teenage angst, early-twenties-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life angst, love and place angst. At 23 I ran the Chicago marathon powered by water, a Milky Way and the indecision of where to go to grad school. At 25 I ran the Portland marathon high on a recent decision to leave my live-in boyfriend. This running was mental more than physical, and I pushed past limitations I’d set for myself somewhere along the way, limitations rooted in intimidation and lack of confidence. I realized my body was capable of doing many things. I just needed to think my way through them first. When I got my head around the idea of a marathon, my body willingly followed.
Last summer I’d sat beside an alpine lake at the bottom of the same looming peak and thought for the first time that I wanted to get to the top. I was intimidated by heights, unstable rock and the isolation of the mountain, but slowly I was letting go of those self-imposed roadblocks. I finally got right with the idea of climbing the peak, and on a sunny August day my aching legs carried me to the false summit. My partner and I looked over the rocky edge to the true summit and a snowstorm coming our way. It began to rain, then snow and soon clouds enveloped the peak and we decided to go down. But I knew I’d come back.
As we strapped on our packs and started up the steep trail on a recent Saturday, I felt a stiffness settling into my thighs. We walked for a while in silence and I thought about the first time I’d hiked this trail. I was so anxious that I’d watched the thin line of trail in front me for snakes the entire way. This time I looked at the purple and yellow shooting stars, the lupine almost ready to bloom, and I stopped to sniff the vanilla-scented sap of the ponderosa pines. I felt good, and when we came to a scree slope that had once stopped me cold, I walked across it smiling to myself at how much it used to freak me out.
We arrived at the frozen alpine lakes tired and hungry. We set up camp, made a dinner of pre-packaged Indian food and passed whiskey around our one-pot cook stoves. The sun went down, the wind blew and clouds set in over the valley below us. I went to sleep in layers of polypropylene, capeline, wool and down. I was cold all night.
After a sleepless night we climbed out of our tents at 5 a.m.
“Did you sleep well?” I heard someone ask as I negotiated the wet tent fly.
“No. You?” Seth said.
We ate breakfast silently except for the occasional and perfunctory, “Do you need hot water?” We packed for the last leg up to the summit.
Our kick-kick-place rhythm carried us steadily up the steep face until one of our climbing partners, a dear friend, began complaining of back pain. He reluctantly decided to turn around— only after the pain became so intense that he began having trouble breathing—and climb his way back down to wait for the rest of us by the frozen lake.
I was disappointed for him when he had to turn back. It was partly due to his urging that we were even on the mountain that day. A strange combination of sadness and possibility had left him wanting to climb it. He’d recently lost a friend in a tragic accident, and as we kicked steps in the snow up this peak, our climbing partner’s wife was at home, five months pregnant with their first child.
Recently he and I have been talking about his impending fatherhood and what it will mean to him. We talk about it in abstraction, and I think we both walk away from these conversations excited, scared and overwhelmed. Seth and I have been talking about having a baby, too, and for months I’ve been fighting those old roadblocks of inadequacy and intimidation that for a while kept me from running marathons and climbing mountains.
We continued up the steep slope and arrived at the bottom of the final couloir before the false summit. On the steep upward slope the top layer of snow felt powdery.
“This snow is starting to concern me,” our other climbing partner said from behind me.
We climbed to a stopping place below a cliff to talk.
“It seems to have changed in the last 30 yards or so,” she said.
“Maybe we should turn back,” Seth said, putting words to our collective skittishness about avalanche danger.
“I think we should,” she said.
And with that I knew I was once again going down the mountain before reaching the top. As we stood looking out over the mountains in the distance, I knew my body would have carried me to the top if conditions had been right. We descended by carefully kick-kick-placing our way down the slope in our own tracks. As we descended, I looked up at the peak now shrouded in clouds. A wet, cold snow began to fall and we were all glad to be on the way off the slope.
Though slightly bummed about having to turn around, I know I’ll get to the top of the peak eventually, weather and conditions permitting.
On our way home in the dry, warm car, we munched on dried apricot and talked about baby names. I think the idea of actually naming his child brings the idea of fatherhood a little closer to reality for our friend. I realized, watching him, that just as I did with marathons and mountains, I am getting right with the idea of having babies. And just as it always has, I think my body will follow.