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With cold hands, we unclipped carabiners, reclipped carabiners, and Kyle began climbing. I fed rope through the belay device and soon he disappeared over a shelf of cliffs. Since the bulge, we could have climbed the Class 3 and 4 rock without the rope, but we needed it to rappel back down.
"Rap station!" hollered Kyle in no time, his voice tumbling down over the rock, unmistakable. Then three tugs on the rope.
"Hell, yes!" I screamed back at the top of my lungs. "Coming up."
Soon, I joined Kyle at the rappel station—a small boulder wrapped in neon-colored slings—and we peered over the sheer northeast face. Our packs were tiny dots on the rock near the Notch.
"You want to keep climbing, or go ahead and rappel down?" asked Kyle. "I know that bulge was sketchy."
"I'm not going down yet," I said. "I have to rappel down this beast either way, so we might as well climb it first. I don't think we have far to go now."
"Me, either," Kyle said, with a bigger grin than usual.
Sure enough, the next few hundred feet was mellow, Class 3 stair-stepping. We moved quickly and freely, having left the rope at the rappel station, and before we knew it, we crested the small summit.
Smoky skies hung in every direction, obscuring the distant peaks of the park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. More than 5,000 feet straight down, Coal Creek drained the valley, a sinuous thread of gray through the red autumn. I spun a quick 360, snapping pictures, and spent the next few minutes studying the shape of the summit and the rocks that lived there. I still couldn't believe I was atop Nick. It seemed like forever coming. And I didn't know if I'd ever make it back—this might be a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
With sunlight waning, we paid our respects to the mountain and then hurried back to the rap station. If the rope got caught on the way down and it took half an hour to shake loose, we would be rappelling to the Notch in the dark—a scary thought. Kyle played guinea pig and hopped over the cliff while I sat on the ledge, anchored to the boulder. Racked by fatigue and driven by a desire to be on flat ground, I didn't hesitate when it was my turn and cruised down the rope. The descent was surprisingly fun in that it offered the most bizarre view of the mountain, what a bird sees sailing down a cliff face. I studied the rock as I lowered myself, fascinated by the perspective and suddenly filled with the desire to rappel down every mountain wall, like a pioneer or explorer. Before I knew it, I had descended four rap stations and we stood at the Notch.
I howled, loud as I could, and then hugged Kyle.
"Amen, mountain," I said, too, and bowed.
No rest for the wicked, though. Before we could relax, we still had to drop a thousand feet down a precipitous goat trail. Following the bouncing halo of our headlamps, Kyle and I managed to joke about how peaceful it was to stumble along without seeing the tremendous exposure that fell away just beyond the beam of light. We could have been walking in a valley and it would not have appeared any differently. Never, however, did we let our guard down.
Hours later, we forded Coal Creek and retrieved our gear from the Elk Creek campground. We had stayed there for a short spell of sleep the night before beginning the climb. Back out on the trail, we followed our high beams, plodding numbly ahead, one foot in front of the other.
At 4:30 a.m., more than 23 hours since we first left the backcountry campground, we threw our packs into my car and collapsed onto the seats. Exhausted. Spent. Barely able to focus.
An hour later, at home in Columbia Falls, and without a wink of sleep, I helped my 18-month-old daughter, Harper, from bed. Like always, we made cereal, shuffled some Coltrane on iTunes, and began our day.
"Daddy went hiking," she said in her cute bird voice, milk dribbling down her chin.
"Yep, Dad climbed Mount St. Nicholas," I replied. "In the park."
"Harper hike, too!" she hollered, tossing her head back and dunking her spoon for another bite.
"You want to hike this afternoon?" I asked. I couldn't help but smile.
"Yeah," she squealed. "Harper hike with daddy."
So we did, up the North Fork. Nothing crazy, just a mellow walk in the park: whistling at birds and looking for bears. Counting clouds and rocks. Naming trees and flowers. Flat ground felt good beneath my feet.
Looking south, in the direction of Nick, I couldn't help but wonder if someday Harper and I would climb mountains together. Or if the new baby would. Or maybe all of us.
I hoped so.
Maybe I would see the top of St. Nick again, after all.