Category Archives: Adventure

Why Go Outside?

This short speech I delivered recently to the Marin Academy campus community as part of an all-school assembly.  It was a small part of a larger effort to promote MA Outings and the value of getting outside, but it figured prominently in the program, was requested by students, and I was proud to address my colleagues and students in this manner.  Other than my meager contribution, the entirety of the assembly was organized and presented by the committed and enthusiastic students of the Marin Academy Outdoor Leadership Emphasis (OLE).  It was impressive to witness these students owning their experience outdoors and promoting something they believe in to their community.

I have always wanted to quote Thoreau to my colleagues – one more thing I can check of my must-do list.  The speech went something like this:

Why go outside?  Some wonder: why do we do it?

Why have outings?  Why hike in the mountains?  Why go SCUBA diving?  Or snow camping?  Or kayaking – when there is so much good stuff to do – inside.

Why learn to surf?  Or climb rocks?  Or hike in the desert?  Or dive for abalone?  These things are hard – and they can be scary.  I can fall and get hurt, and I like to play it safe. So why do it?

And why spend the time and energy to learn the skills that these activities require?  Why learn to identify a wild mushroom?  Or the print of a coyote?  Or the call of Red-Tailed hawk?  These things take time.  And I don’t have a lot of time.  I have things to do.  Homework.  Emails.  Staying current.

So why do it?  Why go outside – to spend time I don’t really have – to do things that are hard and possibly unsafe?

It is not an easy question to answer.  Not really.  Not today.  Not for us living in a day and age in which we define progress as technological advancements in the art and science of  – standing still.  Think about it.  If we were to catalog all of the major technological advancements of the 20th century – and if you were asked to identify the one distinguishing feature common to them all – you would have to say that 20th century technology gave us a greater and greater ability to be less and less active.  20th century technology gave us the ability to produce more by doing less.

The radio, the telephone, air conditioning, light bulbs, the automobile, the airplane, instant coffee, television, the yo-yo, the parking meter, drive in movie theaters, the photocopier, the microwave oven, fast food, Velcro, cake mix, super glue, the credit card, the VCR, the integrated circuit, the microchip, the calculator, post-it notes, the lap top computer, cell phones, the internet, email, the tablet computer.  All came about in the 20th century in the pursuit of productivity – and all require almost no effort to use.  Progress is in some way defined by how little effort is required to produce a product or an effect.

What does progress in this light do to our sense of self-efficacy, our physical sense of our bodies existing in the world by the effect they have on our surroundings?  Do I exist in any meaningful way in the world if my body does not exist in an efficacious physical relationship with its surroundings?  Consider it?  How do you know you exist except by your effect on your surroundings?

You know, I spend a lot of time in the Outings Office – which is adjacent to the Science office.  My desk is not 35 linear feet from the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  And yet, more times than I care to own right now I have picked up my phone, which is within arms reach of the chair in which I sit, and I have dialed extension 274 – which is the numerical identifier of the phone which sits on the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  Why?  Why do I call instead of taking myself on a short jaunt into the Science Office to speak to my good friend and colleague John Hicks?  Because it is easier, it is quicker, and I don’t have to go outside to do it.  Of course, right?  No.

It is not a matter of course.  In fact, it is inconceivable, because it is not easier.  Not in the long view.  I memorized John’s extension.  Okay.  Not hard, right?  What is it again?  Right.  272.  And to do that I had to print out the Voicemail Extensions list – think: printer – manufacturing, shipping, diesel, electricity, ink, paper – I had to find his extension listed there – think about all that went into creating that list and the need for it – all those extensions, and all the work that goes into assigning them, reassigning them, and sending out electronic copies of updated versions – and then I pushed some buttons on my phone that elicited a few sounds from that device and I waited to hear John’s voice – think about what goes into that.  Yes, you get the idea.  Is technology of this kind really easier?  Or does it merely duplicate simpler existing techniques?

It is not easier or quicker to stay still and develop a dependence on technology.  Technology has done some wonderful things, of course  look at us here, now, inside this gym with heat and lights and a microphone and – but a dependence on technology is an addiction like any other.

For one thing humans grew up outdoors, understanding ourselves in relation to the natural world of physical things.  Real things.   Our brains evolved in response to outdoor challenges and we developed the ability to make meaning in natural settings.  Real is still more meaningful and more salubrious to us than virtual – and we can tell the difference because we are human and we are alive.  Nature – and its physicality – makes sense to us on a very deep level.

And the inverse is also true.  We make sense to ourselves in nature.  Nature doesn’t lie to us.  It doesn’t sugar coat the truth and it doesn’t respond one way or the other to the stories we tell it about ourselves.  It’s neither impressed with our successes, nor is it disappointed with our failures.  Nature is impervious to charm and wit and spin and elocution.  And yet, it speaks to us.  Every time we grow hungry, thirsty, sleepy, weary, or cold our deep and true selves are in dialogue with nature.  Even if we aren’t listening.  Nature reminds us in the language of our native tongue of the rules we must live by, the boundaries of our existence, and the limitations of our physical being.  Nature defines us.

So why go outside – to spend time – doing things we find challenging?  Because we are alive, because we are human, and because being alive means something by our relationships with the physical world.

But don’t take my word for it – I might just be nuts.  Listen to your self.  Listen to your peers.  And listen to our old friend Henry David Thoreau from the second chapter of Walden.  Listen to how many time he uses the word life – and live:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Marin Academy – I invite you – I encourage you – I implore you.  Get outside and into your next excursion.

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

A Toast To My Parents’ 50th

Years ago, long before my own marriage and the advent of my family, I posed a question to my father. I was twenty-something, full with the prospects of those potent years, and looking ahead – though not without some concern for, as I put it, “the direction the world was going.” At the time, I was imagining all of the usual stuff: a wife, kids – creating a family for myself in my own family’s image. But the world had just bested 6 billion humans and I queued with a kind of youthful idealism on overpopulation as my chief anxiety.

As it seemed to me, and as I explained to my father one night after dinner, there wasn’t enough space for all of the people who were already here. How could I, in good conscience, consider starting a family and adding a few more hungry bodies to the planet? They would just eat up more of our food, breathe up more of our air, produce more waste. Why would I add to the burden, the overcrowding, the misery of the world?

My father regarded me for a moment – perhaps he was considering where to begin or how to explain what he wished had been more obvious to me. After a moment he said, “You know, raising a family is everything. It is what humans do. If you don’t have kids you are not even in the game.” It was one of the best – and most straightforward – pieces of advice my father has ever given me.

My own marriage is 15 years old now and continues to be the most pleasing endeavor of my life. I have three beloved children and a daily sense that I am fully – often too fully – in the game. And I feel that I owe more than I know or can name to the example set by my parents. Like the concentric rings on the surface of a pond that begin with an event, a fish rising or a stone thrown, and expand and grow more subtle by the moment, until eventually they encompass, invisibly, the entire body of water, I am nurtured and moved by the long and continuing collaboration of two people who made the decision to marry 50 years ago. It is an enduring legacy, evidenced by me and my brothers and our families. We are all ripples in the pond.

With this I honor my parent’s 50 years of love and marriage, perseverance and compassion, challenge and growth. Thanks for the example and for encouraging me to get in the game.

“Weapon Rentals” – a day in the life.

This comes courtesy of my neighbor Tim.  Brilliant!

"So yeah I know it's kind of a hard sell the cars drive by pretty fast and they're not sure what we mean by "weapon rentals" they kind of look funny at us but as I was telling my friend Amy you never know when you might need a weapon even on a nice day like this I mean things just happen and you know if for some reason all of a sudden you needed a weapon for some reason how convenient would it be if there were a stand or something like right there you know what I mean? omg I mean you have no idea what the boys are like in this neighborhood they are so stupid they're always hiding and running around like idiots and sometimes you just want to hit them with a stick you know? you have no idea what it's like to be a girl up here do you like my necklace?"

The boys running up in the background is my favorite part.

Ah!  Summertime fun.

The Wall of Death

The photo is taken from the North Face Facebook page.

Here is a treat. Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser, young soldiers in the German army in 1936, care more more mountains than for the military. We first meet them as they are scrubbing urinals for returning late to base after a climbing trip. The CO comes to see if they have learned their lesson. “Can’t you read your watches?” he bellows, to which Hinterstoisser, standing at attention and staring straight ahead, answers in full formal address, “Sir. We don’t have watches, sir!” Their work detail is subsequently tripled.

It is a classic scene that illustrates the conflict inherent in addicted alpinists: the uber-relevance of climbing and the comparative irrelevance of anything else – time, duty, even Hitler’s army. Later the two quit to try to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger, and what follows is a gripping retelling of true events on what was known as the Wall of Death.

Interwoven are important and well developed sub-stories of honor, integrity, and what matters most. In one amazing scene that you will have to see to fully understand, a young journalist, just starting out and eager to make her name as a photographer, looks at her editor who is handing her a camera, and cans the whole deal by saying, “I didn’t come here to take pictures.”  In one short sentence, she nukes her editor and her journalism career, asserts herself, and redefines her reasons for being in Switzerland at all.  It quickens the pulse.

Another aspect of the film of no mean significance is its historical portrayal 30’s era mountaineering.  Belaying, rappelling, and ascending looked a lot different in the days before ascenders, ATCs, and figure-eights.  Rope in those days was a three-strand twist of what looked like hempen twine, and there is one scene in the film in which Andi and Toni are hammering out their own pitons in preparation for the climb – leading this reviewer to conclude that chief among the factors responsible for the explosive popularity of climbing over the last 40 years is that by the 1970’s if you wanted to climb, you didn’t also have to be a blacksmith with a full-furnace hot forge in your garage.

It is great storytelling.  Subtitled, so be ready to read.  Interestingly, all of my kids watched it all the way through and enjoyed it even though their collective tolerance for subtitles is probably three lines long.

Here is more info.  Have Netflix send it to you.  There is enduring truth to be found on the Wall of Death.

Northside Denied – or – No Picnic on Mt Shasta

We were soundly rebuked on Mt Shasta recently.  There are no two ways about it.  Five students and three guides shivered and whined in our tents overnight at 10,000 feet as a cold and steady snow blew in from the west.  By morning the icy squall had dropped eight inches of crystalline powder, leaving a blanket of windswept snow that buried our bivouac sight, muted the features on the moraine, and left our summit ambitions in ruins.

Fleeting moments of sun allowed tantalizing views of the peak.

It was beautiful, for sure.  In the morning, the sun was breaking through the waves of clouds that blew through in irregular intervals.  It would go from cold and dark, windy and snowing, with visibility falling below 100 feet to bright, glorious shining  sun and tantalizing views of the peak.  But those ecstatic moments would disappear all too soon and I felt myself swayed with the waves of clouds.  Weather has an immediate effect on attitude.

I was aware of my fickle inclinations and the effect of the whims of weather, but I couldn’t shake the vascillations.  As a cloud blew in and the sharp, shining needles began falling, I would think, “What are we doing here in a storm?  We have to mobilize to descend.  This could settle in, the winds could whip up, the snow could really start falling, and we could get stuck here.”  And then the clouds would break in rays of low morning sun, the wind would die down, and the mountain, what we had come to climb, would come back into view.  Spirits would rise, someone would inevitably throw a snowball – I even made a snow angel – and I would think, “Maybe that’s the end of it.  Maybe we can stay.  We are doing okay for now.  Let’s brew up again and wait a bit.”

We arrived at the trailhead – or as close as we could get in the van – on Thursday afternoon.  It was a planned 5-day ascent.  We would be down and out on Monday.  That left us time to acclimate, time to teach the important skills of roped glacier travel and self arrest, and a bit of flexibility in our summit window.  The road to the trailhead was still snowed in to two and a half miles out, which extended our first-day’s hike and cut into our itinerary – not a great way to start the ascent but not a big deal, either.  By the time we reached the trailhead parking lot on foot, we had already traversed a mile on snow and the last 300 yards in post holes.  That, and having come from sea level that morning made the decision to camp at the trailhead that night a good one.

The view from the North Gate Trailhead, Mt Shasta.

The weather was fine that day and that evening.  Clouds were building, but slowly.  The temperature was chilly but the sun was out most of the time.  And occasionally the mountain would come out in full view beckoning us toward her slopes.

We were optimistic despite the weather report.  How could you not have high hopes, if not high expectations, with a peak as shapely and inviting as Shasta smiling down on you.  A view like that can make you believe in yourself.  The forecast called for a couple of low pressure systems to come through beginning Friday evening.  Neither system was predicted to be strong and they were calling for little to no snow accumulations even at altitude, so we felt secure continuing on.  We would simply keep a weather-eye out, as they say, and constantly reevevaluate our situation, which is our practice in the mountains, anyway.  One of the two other guides, my second, and I had been on this route before, so we knew what to expect from the terrain.

So, we set off on Friday morning making for the moraine and our basecamp at just below 10,000 feet.  We could take a direct route up the valley because the trail that led our from the trailhead to the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers was covered in three to four feet of sintered snow.  Snowpack like that makes off-trail travel a bit simpler.  You can go wherever you want, take any line up the valley, and the surface you tread is relatively uniform and predictable – as long as it is cold, which it was.  It should have been easy hiking – except it wasn’t.  Not for me.

My energy was sapped and I was struggling to keep up with the group.  My pack was heavy and I felt it.  Sometimes a heavy pack is a joy, a sort of motivation in an odd way.  Sometimes you feel the heft and it is pleasing, like getting out of bed in the morning, a chore but a joyous one.  It is a lovely sensation that makes you feel strong and worthy and a part of something.  Other times your pack is heavy and you don’t want to heft it.  It weighs you down like a pig on your back.  It is crushing and you feel slow and you obsess over what you packed that you didn’t need.  Your mind begins to calculate and scheme and lead you into dark places, entertaining wild possibilities to explanation or escape the burden you bear.  Breathing hard, huffing for oxygen, well behind the group, mildly frustrated, and trying to keep my attitude on straight,  I actually wondered if one of my companions had hidden a stone in my pack.

I couldn't get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak.

I wondered if I could just be fabulously out of shape.  Teaching in the classroom all year doesn’t do much for physical fitness, it is true, but my struggle was indicative of a level of fitness well below my typical standard.  Had I let myself go that far?  My rock climbing had slipped, I knew that, but this was bad.  I couldn’t get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak, like I was recovering from the flu or something.  It was appalling, really, that I lagged so far behind, but it was what it was.  Whether a conditioning issue, a sickness my body was fighting, or some kind of long-built up stress response from the year, I didn’t know, but I couldn’t hide it and a group is only as strong as its weakest member.  I just wasn’t used to being the weakest member.  I took it slow, worked hard to suppress the anger that was building in me at having been left behind by my co-leaders and focused on my breathing.

Actually, it wasn’t entirely miserable.  In fact, I enjoyed hiking alone to a certain extent.  I followed the group’s rowdy footprints in the snow, analyzing their steps and tracking them like prey.  Slowly we progressed up the valley to the moraine.

By 1:30p the weather had deteriorated significantly.  We were almost at 9500 feet, climbing the steep slopes to the top of the moraine where we would make basecamp and spend the next three nights of our summit attempt.  As we emerged from treeline, leaving the last pines behind us, we felt a breezy but insistent wind blowing from the west.  It would snow soon.

It began snowing as we crested the mor

It began snowing as we crested the moraine.

It began snowing as we crested the moraine.  There were still moments of clearing, but they were shorter and less complete.  Tired and weary, some more than others, we lunched at the top.   Two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly disappeared quickly as we all passed them around and slapped together sandwiches.  We were huddled in a rocky outcropping, sheltered somewhat from the wind and snow.  It felt good to eat and I could feel myself growing stronger with the influx of fuel.  I knew we were close, but the immediate surroundings were unfamiliar.  We had come up a slightly different route than last year, hoping to gain our basecamp site from a different direction, but we weren’t there and I couldn’t tell from our lunch spot how far away or really in what direction our basecamp lay.

And then the weather hit.

In the span of 10 minutes the temperature dropped 15 degrees and the snows set it in earnest.  I urged efficiency in donning layers and packing up our lunch.  The kids were slow to respond in the teeth of the gale, but I didn’t want us to spend too much time out in weather like that.  Not only was the temperature dropping, but apparently a kind of post-lunch lethargy had settled over us.  It was time motivate and get on with it.

We pushed up and over a rise in the moraine, looking for a familiar chute near the far  lateral edge of the moraine, but near white-out conditions made everything harder.  The terrain seemed alien.  My glacier glasses kept the blowing snow out of my eyes but the wind bit my cheeks and nose.  I pulled my balaclava up over my nose and in an instant my glasses fogged up, obscuring vision and orientation.  My fingertips, too, were painful.  I wore thin, windproof gloves, which were far better than nothing, but my hands had become chilled at lunch and now were taking too long to warm.  I had full ice gloves in my pack but I didn’t want to stop moving long enough to retrieve them.  Even when I managed to keep my glasses clear of condensation, the visibility was so poor I couldn’t see far enough to gain a reliable orientation or a sense of where we were on the moraine.  I keep looking around, waiting, hoping that something I saw would connect in memory.  I just wanted to recognize something.  It all looked likely and yet none of it looked positive.  Uncertainty reigned.

At a flat spot, somewhat sheltered from the brunt of the gale, we reconnoitered.  My second and I decided to scout the area in an attempt to locate ourselves or a suitable bivouac site.  The important thing was to keep making progress toward getting us all inside and out of the weather.  I hesitated only a moment at the prospect of leaving the group to wait in the cold while we scouted – hypothermia can set in quickly – but as long as my partner and I went together and weren’t gone too long, it was a viable plan.  I noted to my third that we would be back in ten minutes and encouraged him to do what he could to keep people moving and warm.

It is called a whiteout because everything turns the same shade of white – or grey rather.  Sky and ground, up and down, all begins to look the same.  Topography recedes and abates, features disappear, everything lacks distinguishing detail, and your depth perception goes to zero.  In fact, walking about in the wind and snow, there were times when I couldn’t tell if I was walking up hill or down.  At times I staggered searching for solid ground which seems to shift under me.  It can be a dangerous situation if you are not sure what the surrounding terrain looks like.  A cliff edge can be absolutely invisible because the snow covered edge is indistinguishable from the air beyond it.  Experienced mountaineers have walked – not fallen – walked right off the edge of precipices to their deaths.  Footprints in the snow show a track of calm step leading right over into the abyss.

My partner and I were careful, though, and we scampered about arguing with ourselves and each other about where we thought we were in relation to last year’s basecamp – ultimately to no avail.  We were not lost by any means, but we didn’t know where we were in relation to where we wanted to be, which isn’t a bad situation, necessarily, as long as where you are is okay.  We weren’t likely to find our particular basecamp in the storm and I wasn’t even willing to keep looking, really.  My partner and I decided to find a suitable bivouac site, gather the group, and set up a storm camp.

The site we found was among some boulders – not quite as sheltered as I would have liked but gaining time, at this point, was more important than finding a perfect site.  In some haste, I gathered the students and laid out the plan for setting up shelters in the wind.  We needed to work together well and not, under any circumstances let go of a tent.  I showed them how to use ice axes as snow stakes to secure their tents and how to bury a rock as a “dead man” anchor.  We all worked together on each tent and then, together, moved on to the next to get the shelters set up well and quickly.  We all had an interest in every one of us having a shelter, and in no time we had four solid tents erected.  The wind and snow had not abated, and we all climbed into our shelters to hunker down and wait for the storm to lift.

At one point, after three and a half hours recumbent inside our tents, my second, who had set up his own tent and was its sole occupant, began to stir.

“Who’s got the mashed potatoes and sausage?” he bellowed.  “And I need a stove and a fuel bottle.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “What are you going to do, Scott?” I called through the gale.  I knew what he was going to do; I just wanted to hear him say it.

“What’ya mean,” he called back.  “We gotta eat!”

“It is pretty cold out, Scott.  And it is still snowing.  Let’s just pass around some power bars and gorp and call it good for tonight.  We can eat a good meal in the morning.  It is pretty cold.”

“No, no,” he said with resolve.  “The kids gotta eat.  Where’s the sausage?”

So, with all of his layers on, in below zero wind chill, with the snow coming across the moraine, my intrepid second leader, cooked freeze-dried mashed potatoes and sausage for our group.  When it was done, he and my third leader collected bowls from the students and delivered hot meals to their tent doors.  It was an amazing gesture, one of toughness and conviction.  It was something I learned about my partner.  I felt I glimpsed a bit of his fiber, his caliber, and I was proud to be up there with him.

The storm broke about midnight.  I didn’t see it, but I am told that in the early morning hours the skies parted and you could see stars blinking down on us.

There wasn’t much of a decision to be made in the morning.  It was still bitterly cold, but more than that the storm had covered the mountain in eight inches of fresh powder.  The avalanche danger higher on the glacier was now prohibitively risky, and ours was not a winter ascent.  The decision to pack up and go down was easy.

Wind still blew and an occasional snow flurry came through, but our descent route was clear and we glissaded down the moraine head wall.  Disappointed to have been denied our ambition but ecstatic to have fronted the elements and our own discomfort, we laughed with each other and at ourselves for the night we spent shivering in our tents as the snow fell.

The mountain is a fickle master.  You don’t go there to conquer anything except yourself.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 6: Of False Summits

As I walked, I muttered.  I do that.  I play out conversations before they happen.  Sometimes I have conversations with myself that I know will never happen or never happen that way, and I play them out in various iterations, testing them for the way they make me feel.  I am always surprised when fragments of those speeches, scripted by me in the absence of any interlocutor and with no intention of ever using them bubble up in the actual conversations that ensue.

In knew my co-leader, Robin, and I would be debriefing the event in time.  His leaving the map we worked so hard to get in the car constituted a screw-up of no small measure, not for the slip of mind, the forgetting, but for the lack of awareness that forgetting the map had put the group at risk.  It was the void of concern that allowed the forgetting to happen that troubled me most.

I had left my pack where I had left the group and so I was able to walk fast.  I had a rain jacket and a water bottle, and the stepped cadence of my pace against which to think it all through.

My intuition – the teacher in me – very naturally raised the question, “What is the right thing to do?  What does Robin need to hear from me right now?  What is the right speech in this moment?”

The outdoor leader in me sighed and held back despair.  How many more times can this happen?  How many more challenges can we meet?  Things had just begun to go smoothly and now this.  Not that walking a mile and a half back to get the map was anywhere close to breaking the deal, but this after everything else, coupled with how unnecessary it was, and how avoidable, I found difficult to take.  And the group, in this weather, in this canyon, shouldn’t be split.

And it felt somehow like a false summit.  Hiking out of camp this morning and settling into a rhythm with everything we needed on our backs had felt like arriving.  Finally.  And then this.  Again.  Like a false summit.  The feeling of pushing oneself for so long on the slopes of a mountain, all to gain a summit, to get somewhere, and feel something, waiting and working to feel something, and then attaining the mountain peak to find that it is just one more summit in a succession of summits and the next one is still 2000 feet up and 2 miles distant.  There’s nought to do but sigh, keep back despair, and keep moving.  Just keep reacting, keep making good decisions, and keep moving forward.

As in life, I suppose.

Soon I began to enjoy my solo walk, and I resolved not to bring the mistake up with Robin, but to let it come up, as I knew it would.  A bit passive, perhaps, but a part of me wanted him to think about it, to stew in it.  A part of me felt that if I addressed it with him straight off, if I gave him the opportunity to own it too soon and move on too easily, it wouldn’t stick.  I wanted this one to stick.  I wanted him to live with it so that it would stick.

And again I felt bad ass – this time for hoofing it back to the car, for retrieving the map without missing a beat, and for mentoring my co-leader.

By the time I got back to my pack, having been to the car and having found the map on the dash where I expected to find it, it was late.  As I hiked on fast down canyon, the diffusion of light through the torment of clouds was dimming.  The fading of the light was imperceptible, but over spans of time I could discern a deepening pall in the canyon.  First detail went in twilight, then larger features, and soon I thought of my headlamp.  Night was drawing the canyon in, shrinking it to the size of what I could see clearly.  Soon, I knew, under the blanketed, starless sky, I would be navigating by a pool of light that shone from my forehead.

Where I pulled off my pack in the wash to retrieve my headlamp there was a skull.  A cow that had died up stream and whose coyote-scattered parts had been washed down with the cobbles and had come to rest here, where I was resting and searching for a light.  Before I continued on, I propped the skull on the stream bank and stacked a cairn beside it.

The first thunder I heard was far off.  It came as a distant rumble.  I didn’t even see the flash.  But it drew near quickly and in the dark of the night canyon I could see flashes light up the clouds from miles away.

Counting the seconds between light and sound is a habit.  Flash.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four, and so on.  It turns out that sound takes about five seconds to travel a mile.  And light travels a mile virtually instantaneously.  That means that if you begin counting when you see a flash of lightning (one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three…), you can gauge the distance of the lightning strike by how many seconds elapse before you hear the thunder.  Five seconds to every mile.  The troubling thing is that lightning bends and slants and can strike miles away from the thunderhead that produced it.  Lightning within eight miles is cause for concern.  Lightning within four miles should initiate a lightning drill.

The canyon was shrouded in total darkness now and the rain came down intermittently. A steady wind buffeted me with 10 to 15 knots.  I wondered how far the group had made it and if there was a real chance that I would miss them in the canyon, walking in the dark and right on by.  And then a flash like the epicenter of a bomb lit up the entire canyon and light pulsed all around me.  Everything was illuminated for a just a moment.  I would have counted the seconds but the thunder came almost instantly.  It was loud.  Boomingly loud.  Louder than one might expect and it shook me.  Reverberating the walls of my chest.  It stopped me in the wash, startled and breathless.  I waited, half expecting it to happen again.  In a few moments the rain came down in sheets.

I hoped and expected, really, that wherever the group was, that last strike had sent my leaders into a lightning drill with the kids.  That was the right thing to do and standard protocol in backcountry situations with students.  But as for me, I kept walking.  I needed to be reunited with the group.  I kept moving forward and I began to mutter again.  Maybe I hadn’t ever stopped, but I began to rehearse conversations with myself that I hoped I wouldn’t have to have.  Conversations about lightning drills, about camp siting, about getting the kids fed and keeping them dry and warm and into their sleeping bags in the tents.  God help us to have the tents set up already.

I think I kind of imagined all sorts of things having gone wrong in my absence.  I knew -or trusted, rather – that they hadn’t but it was a kind of self doubt, I was beginning to realize.  Every new thing that went wrong or not quite right, caused me to doubt the choice to go down into the canyons at all.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  My worst case scenario involved a kid struck by lightning and rain swelling the dry arroyo in a flash flood, rain turning to snow, and all of our gear getting soaked.  Things were seeming pretty tenuous to me at that moment and they could go from tenuous to very bad very quickly.

As I turned the bend in the rain-wet but as yet not flowing stream bed and saw the single light shining at me from far down canyon, I kept thinking to myself, “Breathe, hold back despair, make good decisions, and keep moving forward.”