I know that there is somewhat of a tradition for climbers to carry significant items to the summit of mountains. Maybe it’s the flag of their country, the ashes of a recently departed friend or family member, or some personal item to leave in the “summit register”. This past September on my trip to Colorado I joined in on this tradition, carrying a picture of my father with me on all of my hikes. Now this wasn’t just any old picture. It was very special, having been taken just a month prior, at his 90th birthday party.
I remember the exact moment when I made the decision to carry that picture with me. Less than two weeks after my dad’s birthday we were sadly at a memorial service for his older sister who had passed away just a few days after his party. During the service, when it was time for the Roman Catholic rite of communion, even though he was sitting in the front pew, instead of my dad walking up to the altar the priest had to come down to the pew to serve him. A rush of emotion came over me at that very moment. To see my father not make that short walk was difficult for me. Over the years I had seen him complete this act countless times. But not today, as he was still recovering from hip replacement surgery, and that 20 foot walk would have been unnecessarily difficult. I couldn’t help but think about the irony. My hiking trip to the San Juans was just a few weeks away, where I would be walking several miles every day, but at this moment my dad had to pass on making a 20 foot stroll. Not completely understanding the logic of my decision at that moment, I decided I would carry that picture of my father with me on the trails in Colorado. I would spend many hours over the next few weeks trying to rationalize in my head why that decision made sense. Regardless, one of my last tasks before leaving for Ouray was to print up several copies of the picture and safely tuck them into my journal.
I suppose all the emotion of the summer helped fuel that decision. Just before Father’s Day my dad broke his hip. Within a matter of days he had surgery for a partial hip replacement. What followed were six long weeks of rehabilitation. Adding to the emotion of the summer was his upcoming birthday party. Long before he broke his hip my family was well into the throws of planning his 90th birthday party; and we were planning quite the affair. It wasn’t going to be as big as Bilbo’s, but by keeping it primarily to just family (and not inviting all of his nieces and nephews) we were able to keep the invite list to just under one gross. But the broken hip brought all the planning to a screeching halt as we assumed the party would need to be postponed due to his lack of mobility. But my dad, being a child of the Great Depression had “gotten through tougher times than this”, and he was rather adamant that he would be ready by the August 6th date.
Considering he is 90 years old, maybe I should have had more realistic expectations, knowing that the aging process would slow him down. I long ago understood and accepted that. But regardless of the age, it’s difficult to see the slow decline of your parent’s health. And it’s not like his mobility hadn’t been on a downward trend for a while. The first time I really noticed that was back in 2000 on a fishing trip with him in Espanola, Ontario when I saw how difficult it was for him to get out of the boat and on to the dock. It was a gentle reminder of things to come. Eleven more years hasn’t helped! The aging process is not always pretty or forgiving, as I was able to witness a little more closely during the six weeks my dad was at the rehabilitation center. Actually it seems to be a bit cruel at times!
I suppose carrying his picture would have made more sense if my dad held a deep passion for the mountains. But he doesn’t! Yeah, he thinks they’re beautiful, but I doubt that in his 90 years he has given much thought to walking in them. Not that he hasn’t done plenty of hiking in his life. He will be happy to brag about the 25 mile marches he used to go on during his service in the Army during WWII, always adding in “with full pack and rifle”. He also mentioned spending a little time walking around on Mount Suribachi in the spring of 45’, after the island was “secure”. But that would be the extent of his time hiking and climbing. And unlike myself, I doubt that he ever concerned himself with bagging 13ers and 14ers. Although he did spend a good portion of his life focused on 12ers and 6ers; between my mom and us 11 kids he had 12 mouths to keep fed and clothed, and at one time, (along with two of his brothers) he owned six butcher shops. So those 12ers and 6ers kept him plenty busy. But climbing mountains? No, he never had much time to think about climbing mountains.
I would end up summiting three peaks on my trip, and I could make up some lame story about how my dad’s condition motivated me to go climb those peaks. But that is all it would be – a lame story. Long before he even broke his hip I had my general itinerary for the San Juans all planned. There may have been some question as to which peaks we would finally end up summiting, but the trip was planned. No, the motivation to carry his picture with me came from the contrasts in our physical conditions. Here I was, ready to go spend a week, walking. Probably over 40 miles total. Walking up mountains for pure enjoyment, an activity I love so much. But at the moment I made the decision to carry the picture, I was at a funeral, seeing my dad unable to walk 20 feet. I suppose the stark contrast in our mobility made for the perfect emotional storm.
I did carry the picture with me on all my hikes. It stayed in my journal the entire trip, and each morning I safely tucked the journal in my backpack prior to heading up the trail. Originally I had planned on getting pictures of me holding his picture on each of the summits we reached, but I ended up having just one taken, on V2 which was our first summit. After that I was content with just having the picture with me.
During our hikes, and for many hours after the trip, I continued to wrestle with the idea of why I felt it necessary to carry the picture. I always seek a logical explanation for things, and this situation was no different. The initial decision may have been made as an emotional response to stimulus, but the aftermath was broken down in logic. It’s just the way my brain is wired!
So again, what is it about a mountain that makes climbers want to carry flags, ashes, pictures, or other paraphernalia to the summit? In the end, I believe for each of us answering that question would be much like our answering the question, “Why do you climb mountains?” The answer is deeply personal and I doubt that any two answers would be alike. And all the reasons may defy logic.
"It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed."
--Meursault in 'The Stranger'