Of Mountains and Meritocracies Part 2
The second time we tried to make our assent to the top of the mountain, we had planned and prepared a bit more wisely then we had for our first trip years earlier. As a troop we realized that most of our members didn’t have the stamina to make it all the way up the mountain in one go. This was evidenced by the fact that at the end of the last attempt, there was only three remaining members, two boys and a leader. This time we planned on splitting the mountain hike into a two day event. We would hike half way up and make camp for the night and then the next day we would finish going all the way up and then turn back and make it all the way back down to base camp before sundown.
Not much happened the first day of the hike, at least, I can’t remember many details of the first day hiking halfway up the mountain. About all I remember was a few moments setting camp half way up. I remember that it was cold and that it was threatening rain. I also remember that I didn’t pack particularly warm clothing. All I had was a thin jacket, t-shirt and jeans. That night I dined on something unusually fancy like couscous and eggs… That was my usual M.O. when camping, I became quite known for making simple recipes that surpassed the usual fare of ramen noodles and jerky.
After that first trip I became an odd duck in the scout troop, doing unconventional things like making couscous, packing way more than I probably should, etc… But I found some sort of zen in camping. I became incredibly focused and present, aware of my body and aware of both the danger and the detail of anything that was in front of me. I felt more alive, more touched by the cold winds and scorched by the sun in the glaring cloudless sky. I took fatigue and sunburn and gloom in stride. And because of that, no one was really surprised by how quickly I caught onto things. I was the first one to strike the stump in an archery competition, firing arrows that we made ourselves. I could group the .22 shots under a quarter very quickly. I tied knots then that I couldn’t tie now to save my life. Knowledge was always like that, Pick it up quickly, and forget it when I wasn’t using it, because I knew when I needed it I could go find it and acquire it again.
But I’m getting off track. Mostly, I want to say that the expectations had changed for me. The First time, everyone expected failure from me… This time up the mountain, everyone expected that I’d have no problem what soever. I almost feel like I became a lucky charm… Everyone wanted to stick with me because they felt like if they could stick with me, they too would make it up the mountain. But there was also a bit of sadness and regret. We wanted to make it up the mountain this time to make up for failing last time.
The next morning, we woke up in the pre-dawn glow, stoked the fire, ate our oatmeal and other breakfast foods quickly, and struck camp. By the time the morning light allowed us to see the path ahead, we were on the move. The troop split up pretty early into a fast group and a slow group. The Slow group pretty much stated that they’d be happy just to make tundra and turn back. The Fast group was jovial and immediately determined to reach the top.
However as the fast group emerged from the foliage into the open tundra we began to get weary and had to stop every hundred-or-so paces. I also began to feel very sore in my legs. They began to cramp up badly and I was having to force myself to move on. One of the problems with splitting the trip into two days is that you get really sore. If you have ever done weight lifting, you notice that if you keep a slow even pace you can generally recover enough between reps to keep going for a very long time. But once you stop and your muscles cool down, they begin to repair and become very sore. I imagine that was what was going on in this situation. Now with my new baggage of having all these expectations to live up to, and a campsite on my back, I was realizing that even I was not really prepared for this trip.
As we were stopped and taking a break, I looked out over the valley towards Pike’s Peak. What I saw sunk my heart. An ominous black cloud full of precipitation and lightning hung over the land. I pointed and nudged the leaders and started to voice a word of caution…
But they wouldn’t hear any of it, we had failed to climb the mountain once before, we would succeed this time. I watched as the cloud rolled steadily towards us, unrelenting to our prayers and hopes. Up ahead of us we noticed two other hikers nearing the saddle between the two peaks. The cloud rolled over us and headed strait for the two other hikers on the saddle. Lightning struck the mountain within a hundred yards of the two men. They had skis on and promptly shot down the snow coated side of the mountain. I felt we should quickly follow suit.
Instead we continued on up and across the saddle to a large rock under which we all huddled for refuge from the rapidly intensifying snow. In hunger, fatigue, and cold, I about passed out save for one member of the troop repeatedly jabbing me in the ribs and telling me that If I fall asleep, I wouldn’t wake up. Another member of the troop, a man destined for the military jumped up in the middle of the blizzard that was now hammering us and said, “I’m going to make it. I’ll be back.” and ran up the side of the mountain. We sat under that rock in shock, sure that this friend was going to get struck by lightning. His father was our leader and he told us that he was going to go retrieve his son. He instructed us that if they weren’t back in ten minutes, and if the storm didn’t let up, we were to slide down the mountain and go get help.
It turns out, jeans don’t slide well on fresh snow. After a few minutes waiting, we did as ordered, and turned to slide down the mountain in defeat, again. If it weren’t for that friend who kept me from falling asleep, I don’t know if I would have ever made it off that mountain because I ended up using him as a sled. He was wearing some sort of insulated nylon based wind breaker pants that slid down the snow pretty well. So I sat on his legs and we made it down the mountain, suffering only one or two wipe-outs (wherein I lost the cork on [and contents of] a bottle of jelly beans in my backpack which I was saving for the express purpose of being a celebratory snack atop the mountain peak. As well as [and more importantly] I lost the nozzle of my off-brand camel-bak water pouch, and subsequently, all the water in the pouch.)
At the base of the snow, still about two thirds the way up the mountain, we waited for signs of the leader and his son, wondering if we should rush down and contact search and rescue. Five minutes later the sky cleared, the sun came out and the leader and his son came sliding down the snow. Neither of them made it to the top of the mountain in the blizzard.
We returned to camp, cold, damp, thirsty, hungry and defeated. In a tortoise and the hare twist of fate, the slow group waited out the snow in the shelter of the trees and a few of them made it to the peak after the skies had cleared…
I’ll leave off here and return in a few days to share the story of the third trip up the mountain.