“Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, Washington, Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower.” I repeat to myself over and over again as I struggle to keep up with Joel and Dallas as we approach Washington’s summit cone. I watch them disappear over the crest. Eight peaks. Just four today. I look up, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone coming back for me. Above tree line, the visual of your climbing partners is security. For a lifelong Floridian traversing her first mountain range in the winter, it was everything.
“Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, Washington – ” I pause when I see nothing but snow and sky. My mantra is interrupted by the sudden unwieldiness of my backpack and heaviness of my boots. My head feels light. I’m about to get an introductory exposure to the loneliness of the mountains.
Fear and doubt cloud my mind as I crumple my aching legs into the snow. Turn around. Wait for them to come back. Look for an escape route. Sit and mope. After a minute of self-flagellation, 60 seconds of battling my demons, quietness sets in. The scary solitude of the mountains slowly turns into quiet tranquility. Before long, I’m back on my feet, turning the tranquility into clean hard hurt, tasting metal in the back of my throat, counting steps, reciting peaks. “– Washington, Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower.”
What kid hasn’t dreamed of climbing mountains? I don’t know what age my ambition died. Practical my nature, I became fascinated with the high peaks in the same way I was drawn to outer space. Unfathomable. Preposterous. Beyond. But my first mountaineering experience, a winter presidential traverse, became a turning point. I often went back with Joel, attempting to replicate that immeasurable desolation, to find peace and calm in a whiteout (both literally and metaphorically speaking).
I learned to accept the cold, heaviness, and uncertainty of the wilderness and mountains. Each moment we cramponed up was revered. Every descent respected. Friendships tested and restored. Sanctuary found at the end of every soul-scrubbing suffering. We come out on the other side and we are alive.
“Spring fever … You don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” We know what we want. They say spring is the season of change, but last winter was what changed us. We want to go longer, harder, and bigger. No more waiting for the right time. For once, don’t think. Give in to adolescent dreams. Give in to what keeps you up at night. Disrupt your life. Head west and hunt down adventures in antithesis of titanic sort. Pin your ears back and run before you change your mind.
I rub the sleep out of my eyes. We’re in a teepee thousands of miles from the place we used to call home. I have only a few weeks’ worth of clothes and seven pairs of running shoes. For now that is enough. The strange pinnacles and spires of the Badlands taunt me in the distance. The west may have already been won, but I have my own exploring to do.
Perception is a funny thing. The grass is always greener, they say. For us, for now, it isn’t anymore. We’re right where we’re supposed to be, running as fast as we can away from the crowds until we’re by ourselves, save for the lone deer. We ease up our pace and hope time slows down with us just this once.
Wake up and repeat. This time, under the lofty peaks of the Grand Tetons. “Today’s plan is simple, really,” he says. “We’ll go as far as we can until we can’t anymore.” So we keep moving until we deplete our endorphins and are running on nothing but the promise of something extraordinary around the bend. Just a little further, over that crest over there! I discover new edges to myself as the snow deepens, the trail steepens, the environment grows more lonesome, and still onward we trudge.
Maybe I’ve actually mastered the concept of making room for pain. Maybe it’s the healing power of an ice cold plunge. Either way, the aches vanish and soreness dissipates and all we are left with is the view and freshly seared memories.
“St. Helens, Adams, Jefferson, Hood, Rainier, Denali,” I repeat to myself as we approach our new playground.
Don’t forget to grab a roadside tchotchke or two, something to remember the hunt by. Rest up and soak your tired bones. Prepare for the next one.