To begin with, if I'd known that the San Juans were so bloody far away, I never would have gone. Of course, if I'd known they were so bloody beautiful, I'd have been there sooner. Then again, had I known how soul-straining the climb was going to be, I never would have left the car, let alone made the drive down. But, on the other hand (the what, fourth hand, now?), had I known how righteous the one-eyed raccoon sunburn on my face was going to feel when I got back to town...ah, but who can know in advance the joys and suffering? Not me, thank Ullr, else I’d die of the boredom of fore-knowledge.
In the end, the combination of ignorance and drive is irresistible, so I go. After a full day's work on Friday and an evening of bluegrass and beer at Avogadro's Number, I jump in the truck at midnight and head south from the Fort, hitting Denver at one o'clock. South, south, south through the early hours of the morning; through the Springs, where I bear southwest and weigh miles to go against speed and time, promising myself sleep if I can just make it to... ...to Canon City... ...to Salida... ...to Gunnison... ...to Lake City... and finally, at mile 382 at 11,320 feet and 6 inches of snow above sea-level, to the trailhead at the American Basin.
Ah, rest. Sweet blessed rest. “Death's dream kingdom,” wasn't it that famous mountaineer, T. S. Eliot called it? The slumber of the brave... what the bloody hell is that under my leg, why does my neck hurt so much, why can I not get comfortable, just what the hell do the engineers at Nissan have against the idea of sleeping in their trucks... I struggle mightily to wrestle a comfortable position from the cab… ah, stretch out across both seats, scootch sideways, thighs up over the 4wd shift, that's better. Before I close my eyes and let seven hours of driving wash over me, I take another lingering look around. Such a beautiful place this basin is in the half-light: the rampart of peaks at the far, southern end of the basin rearing high and clean against a sheet of cumulohumilis that moves eastward, low and swift across the high rocky point of Handies itself; Cinnamon Mountain to the west kissed yellow by the first rays of the...
…SUN! Shit! The sun is up! What the hell am I doing trying to sleep in here while there's sunlight burning outside?
This would be the latest start of any climb this year; certainly the first to start after dawn. Hurry washes over me as I extract myself from my pretzel of aborted sleep and quickly stumble outside. Cursing all the while, I strip in the cold wind. Off with the civvies—the jeans, the Tevas, and the t-shirt—and on with the polypro, the fleece, and associated hardware and weaponry. In a flurry of clothing, I am transformed from a mild-mannered graduate student to a Gore-Tex-plated Mountain Warrior.
The first surprise of the climb is the set of virgin footprints leading away from my where I’ve parked the truck. Not having passed another car since sleepy Lake City, some 20 dirt-road miles back and 3000 feet below, I am somewhat puzzled by this, and not a little disappointed to have to share the basin with somebody else. But still, the prints are perfectly spaced for my stride and they lead in precisely the right direction, saving me the need for my snowshoes, which for now are stowed on my backpack. When I catch up to whoever it is, I think to myself, I'll thank them for saving me from this.
It is only after a couple of hundred yards that I realize that whoever has so kindly broken trail has been doing it barefoot. Barefoot in the snow? What kind of nut does that? This is someone I feel I have got to meet; and they can't be too far ahead, judging by how perfectly crisp are the prints. And then looking at them again, I am not so surprised to see them go barefoot; I mean, look at the size of those feet, and how long those nails are... how could you buy boots for feet like that?
Soon the footprints veer directly up a side-slope—the wrong slope—and the penny drops: I have been following a bear. And no small bear, either—not the Baby Bear that made the fist-sized tracks I crossed last weekend in the Crestones. No, these prints are huge. My left hand—already exaggerated itself by bulky insulating gloves—fits easily into the print, with room for my right hand beside it. No, this is Poppa Bear.
Chastened, and feeling my position on the basin’s food-chain slip a notch, I veer away from the slope and cross the creek at the earliest opportunity. I search the landscape for signs of marauding, hungry bruin and pause to don my snowshoes; the better, I think, to hurry on up the basin. Which I do, hugging the east slope and keeping as far away from the willows around the creek as possible. There is no further sign of bear, and soon enough, as I climb southwards through the basin, up through 12,000 ft., the only tracks are those that I leave behind me.
Up here, in the simplicity above the trees and beyond the krummholtz, the world has distilled itself into texture, light, and effort. The effort is simple: throw snowshoe-shod foot down into the snow, dig in toes, lean forward and extract the trailing snowshoe from its burden of inches of powder and ice, then swing it forward and around; gain a rhythm and practice it. Each step gains a couple of feet forward and maybe an inch or two upward. Of colors, there are three: a thick white drapes every surface not vertical; the bright blanket of new snow is punctuated here and there by black rock in streaks, shelves, and cliffs; and above the jagged rim of the basin, the deep blue vault of the Colorado sky in fall. Snow-cartwheels comb a thousand hairy paths down slopes rendered unstable by strong sunshine.
At the toe of the western ridge, I turn abruptly eastwards and upwards, following the ridge crest—careful route-finding through laden snow-slopes being the better part of valor, or of avalanche awareness. At about 12,500 ft., I cross over the head of a gully out onto a broad apron at the base of the towering west face, where I leave my snowshoes and start the steepest part of the ascent, keeping to ridges and ribs where possible, and post-holing through thigh-deep snow where not. It is heavy, uneven, frustrating going. Soon I am trapped in a familiar, private world where endless mental loops attempt to drown a physical exertion bordering on pain: again and again, I re-screen a single memory—an awkward moment from a recent dinner with L.—and accompany it by a soundtrack—Natalie Merchant singing “The San Andreas Fault runs its fingers through the ground…” Not the entire song, nor even an entire verse, just that simple, spare line, again, and again, and again.
With every step, chunks of snow fall off my boots and tumble down, down, down, not stopping for a thousand feet or more, running out of sight over the convex horizon below. Where I hit bare scree, I send whole towns of pebbles scattering down the slope. Desperate for any distraction from the pain, I watch gravity’s play, and I wonder how they arrange their falling selves such that they tumble around their short axes: something to do with Moments of Inertia, I think, or Radii of Gyration. Although I am supposed to know about this sort of stuff, nothing else comes to me. Nevertheless, it is an oddly comforting thought up here, bringing the mountain home to a context I am familiar with.
Eventually, I find myself stopped, unable, for now, to go any further. My feet are buried thigh-deep in the snow of the 45-degree slope, and my wrists hang in the straps of the poles I lean my weight on. My breath and heart beat out a rhythm together, cold and hard in the back of my throat. My head turns up-slope to the peak, and I look around, peering through a gathering snowstorm as my brain bargains for altitude: what is that peak over there? Is it Point 13,588, and that is that the saddle at 13,460 between it and here, in which case I must be above 13,500. No? Oh, please. I can't face more than a few hundred more feet of this shambling, anoxic torture. And then again... 382 miles...382 miles... The thought keeps rushing in my head... 382 miles is a long way... 382 miles is an awfully bloody long way to come to turn around at 13,500 feet on a mountainside. It is a familiar dance, this search for reasons to continue.
This dance, this game must be struggled with, must be played out, yet the final result is known in advance. It is always the same, because I only know one way to play. I only know how to continue. Lyndon Johnson once said that it is not difficult to do the right thing; just to know the right thing to do. Of course, he was talking about Civil Rights legislation and not mountaineering, but, still, he was wrong. I always recognize the point at which I should turn around; I just don’t do it. My body refuses to obey the cognitive self. I know when to quit, I just don't know how. And such arrogance borne of ignorance has led me to do some stupid things. Stupid things like climbing Mount Adams—a Cascade volcano in Washington state—alone into the raging white-out of a lenticular cloud. Like hiking to the peak of Mt. Elbert directly into a blizzard. Like climbing Mts. Democrat, Lincoln and Bross while a thunderstorm raged overhead—I had seen it coming, but hadn’t completed the trifecta yet. Any pride in these achievements is dubious to say the least. Some of them are irredeemably witless, particularly climbing into a thunderstorm, but they are decisions I would probably repeat.
And here, too, I continue. I pull my feet from their graves and plant them another step higher, then another, then another, until a rhythm has been established that drowns out that of my cardiovascular system... I continue. I climb.
And it turns out that this time, on this single occasion of the dozens that have gone before, the bargain has been struck in my favor. I finagle the better deal: that patch of rock above is indeed the final slope, the final few feet to the summit, a fact I don't believe until I am standing on a snowy cairn at the highest point to which it is possible to go.
The summit is here. The edge is a cornice of perfect form, curled over on itself and poised thousands of feet above Grizzly Gulch. The chasing storm arrives at the summit with me and my first view is of a joyous collection of flakes clearing the summit and dancing down into the abyss. The wind is gusting forcing its frigid way through zippers and seams, and pushing me off my rocky perch towards the cornice and the nothing beyond. Zipping up tight and bracing myself, I turn around carefully on the rocks, arms outstretched in an approximation of triumph, or of release, perhaps. Or gratitude at being allowed to get away with it. And I say, aloud but to no-one in particular, “This is Handies. And these are the San Juans.” Grandiose, maybe. Meaningless, for sure. But I am cold, anoxic, dehydrated, hungry, and light-headed. Maybe it is simple happiness. Maybe it is the simple truth that I climb after, the answer to the question that comes unbidden at every pause for breath, “what the hell am I doing here.” Not an answer perhaps to that question, and not an answer enough for a goal-driven, western rational male standing atop a mountain-as-metaphor, but all the answer that is ever available. “It is enough that you are here.”
If I could learn a lesson from such meditation—and I fear I cannot—it would be how to be in a place without the urgent sense of a task half-done, how to do something for the doing, to go somewhere for the going. To proceed in life without the certainty of destination. To climb a mountain without lusting for the peak. To let life unfold without forever tearing at the wrapping.
It is far too cold in this hostile place for such delicate musings to last. A windward glance reveals only further darkness and snow, and I descend. Plunge-stepping down the slope, stopping only to route-find. Down, down, and down... the snow is a comfort now, cushioning each step, each vertical stride. Soon I am back with my snowshoes and I sit down heavily on one while I put on the other. When I wake up twenty minutes later, my foot and leg are dangling from the straps like dead meat. I shake myself awake and continue on back to the truck, muttering dark incantations to the bear.