The Southern Prong

“Waiting, watching the clock it’s four o’clock it’s got to stop, tell me……”

what is the next line? I thought.

“take no more?” Barry said.

“take no more she practices her speech as he opens the door, she rolls….”

 

Our voices stopped and we both became still, listening. The rumbling had begun once again. We waited while the torrent built and escalated above. Barry stood up and turned. I stared straight ahead. He sat back down…the avalanche would miss us.

“she rolls over, pretends to sleep as he looks her over”

First the small rollerballs came tumbling past.

We’re so off key. It would help if I wasn’t shivering so damn much.

“She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man”

Then the slide, shooting down ten meters to our right.

This is so messed up. Just keep singing, Tess. It’ll be over eventually. Just keep singing.

“She dreams in colors she dreams in red, can’t find a better man”

Crap. What is the next verse?

More rumbling.

I need another verse.

Bigger rumbling.

 

“Barry we need another song.”

 

Then, the type rumbling that sits heavy in the back of your throat.

Barry stood to look.

 

“Brace!”

 

I felt him press me into the cold rock as the avalanche approached.

Would this one finally be the one? That swept over our seemingly sheltered rock outcrop, rip us from our shit anchor of half-buried pins in decrepit rock, and carry us down the mountain with it? Or perhaps it would simply bury us where we stood.

The rumbling grew, louder, louder still.

I felt afraid, but I also felt distant. Detached. I felt fine, actually.

A few rollerballs flung at our feet.

Did I trust our position in the alcove? Did I trust Barry? Myself? Our anchor? Why do I not feel horrified?

But the rest of the avalanche stayed skier’s right and away from us.

How can I just feel fine about this?

We watched the impressive display of snow until the movement and the noise turned into empty silence. We turned around and resumed our uncomfortable positions, seated on our flaked out ropes and backpacks.

I searched my brain for more songs to sing badly. It felt better than passing the time in silence, and thinking too much about how much we messed up.

“I feel like I don’t know many more songs, Barry.”

More silence. Climbing is so stupid. I kept shivering, as I had been for the past six hours straight, but I didn’t mind. I wonder if the body knows when things are going to be alright, as opposed to when they won’t.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

 

“…I feel fine.”

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We had begun climbing at Alaska’s version of dawn, something around 3AM. We were hoping to climb Peak 8505, a previously unclimbed summit on the Pitchfork Glacier of the Neacola Range. We had made around 2000’ of progress in the safety of the shade and cooler early morning temperatures. I had been thinking that the terrain would steepen, or that we could climb out of avalanche terrain once the sun hit. I had been thinking that we could figure it out, and that part of doing first ascents means taking more risks, right? In all reality though, I wasn’t thinking at all, and when the sun finally hit the mountain started to fall apart on us. We climbed to the safest spot we could find, a small rock outcropping on a ridgeline, where we sat for 7 hours until the shade encompassed the slope once more. In the evening we made our retreat.

We returned to camp at two in the morning. I didn’t feel epic. I didn’t feel like I had survived anything. I felt tired and a little stupid and I felt fine. When the morning came the last thing I really wanted to do was go climbing again, but Barry was very convincing and in all reality, did I really feel strongly about doing anything? What was happening to me?

We repacked our bags and at 7PM we left camp once again, this time with a new strategy. We would climb through the night in order to be on the avalanche-prone snow slopes during their most stable time. And that’s what we did. 3000’ of climbing later and we were on the summit sometime around one in the morning. I gave a “whoop” as I belayed Barry up the final pitch to the top, but only because I felt that I should. I mean heck, we had just climbed to a virgin summit in Alaska. This was the goal of the whole trip. But I didn’t feel like it was anything special, and in some ways I liked that. But if this doesn’t feel special, then what would?

I believe that most humans desire conflict. The way in which this conflict is achieved can come in many forms. It could be something as placid as learning a new skill, or more dramatically through things like fights, drama, and pushing limits. For me I feel like I need conflict, even in its most mild forms, to feel content.

I’ve always appreciated finding it in climbing. I like the feeling of being strung out and exhausted, because that is when the best and the worst parts of me show themselves. I also believe that I like it because it means that I do not have to find that conflict elsewhere. But, what happens when conflict presents itself elsewhere regardless of how much I find in climbing?

Since I started taking more risk in the mountains, and devoting more time to being there, life in the lowland world has felt undoubtedly harder. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Though what I find the most frustrating that my experiences in the mountains often feel dulled. I mean heck, over the 48 hours of our experiences on Peak 8505, we had accomplished one of the goals of the entire expeditions, I had spent almost 30 hours moving through the mountains feeling exhausted, and seven shivering while waiting for an avalanche to swallow us. How is it that afterwards I could be sitting in the tent feeling ‘fine’. Not entirely exhausted or strung out, not entirely psyched or relieved. Just fine.

Do I need to accept more risk to have a higher intensity of emotions in the mountains? No, that’s messed up. Do I need to figure out what is happening outside of the mountains? Probably, but what is even happening? Is anything even happening? Because certainly nothing feels wrong. Will the romanticism and novelty come back to me? How can something that feels so necessary make so little sense?

A large part of me started climbing when I was a kid because I thought it was cool, and I wanted to be cool. I kept at it because I wanted to push my physical limits, and I was drawn to the community. As time went on I fell in love with the romantic side of mountaineering. I wanted to be like the hardened alpinists with their ice-covered and grimacing faces. When that wore off, I wanted the mountains to help me understand things, about myself and about the world. Now, six years later, I just plain need them, and I have no idea why. And you know what, for now, I’ll take it, because it seems like things have a way of plugging along anyway.

 

For more information on the trip, click through the photos and captions!

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The remaining 6 days of our trip. Lots of time for rest, cards, cooking, and drinking bad whiskey.

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