Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Haystack

We began with all the hope and vigor of two newbies ready to prove their worth in the arduous yet rewarding task of climbing a mountain.  We had been in Seattle for two weeks, and the momentum was palpable.  We had settled (mostly) in our apartment, we already took two great hikes with beautiful views, I secured my full-time job, Mike landed his studio for teaching, and I had met a friend.  We felt unstoppable.

Driving out of urban sprawl and reaching the vaster and vaster fields of green, with big hills undulating and turning into mountains, I breathed steadily and already victorious, imagining the lines of my boasting that I had climbed to the very summit of Mt. Si.  It wasn't really all that hard.  I just kept going, slow and steady, and here's this picture of me on top of a mountain!  The celebration began before the qualifying event, to be certain.

Joined by my aunt, uncle, and little cousin, we began our 4-mile hike through the woods and up, up, up.  We seemed to be moving impossibly slowly for the heaviness of breath and bodily exhaustion we were feeling.  Back in Chicago, a 4-mile hike meant a brisk walk on an entirely horizontal path, finishing with little more than a few beads of sweat and dusty shoes.  Here, in this new place, it meant a foot-by-foot effort of escalation, every moment a personal commitment to the summit above.  Seeing the hikers on their way down gave us hope; their smiles a spoiler of the reward ahead.  Every once in a while we'd ask, "Are we close?"  A smile and a soothing answer urged us onward.  And upward.  And onward.

Impossibly, it seemed, we reached the top.  The sun broke through the last layer of trees above us and revealed a sight incomparable to the flat plains of Chicagoland.  We were in Seattle.  We made it.  The mountains beyond us were now our home.  We made it.  We did it.  But, we had not, in fact, completed our immediate task at hand.  A vertical climb in a wall of rock, called the haystack -- the true summit of Mt. Si, lay ahead of us.  For most, where we stood signified the end of the hike.  For me, with a fresh zest of accomplishment and confidence, it wasn't enough.  I pressed on, urging my husband to follow.  The rest of our group stayed back to check out the scenic overlook.

I reached the rock wall first.  I heard voices from the top.  So close.  A man who had just descended told me "It's really not that bad."  I looked at the vertical wall ahead of me, latched my hands on, and began to climb.  One foot up, one hand up, one hand over, one foot over.  Mike reached me and gazed up, surely uncertain but ready to follow.  Once we were more on the wall and less on the ground, the nerves began spinning.  Just a little further, I urged myself as I moved my limbs, less surely now, to the next handholds. 

Then, I did what one shouldn't do.  I looked down.  Mike shuffled over the rock below me, our backpack swinging and teetering this way and that, the ground far below and the summit just as far above.  In that moment, all my confidence turned into desperation and horror.  What have we done?  What have we done?  I barely had to share this to realize that Mike was in complete agreement.  Each of us was waiting for the other to break.  We were nearly twenty feet off the ground, and both suddenly stricken with panic.  What have we done?  

We stopped at a small nook, just barely big enough for us both to sit in, and decided to comfort ourselves with the PB&Js we had brought along.  It felt doofy, really, to be sitting on the almost-top of a mountain, too scared to reach the top, munching on the sandwich choice of a six-year-old.  Yet, here we were.  Several hikers unsteadily descended as we watched, their clenched faces and wide eyes no match for the haughty, confident voices they employed.  Young broskis in their twenties, jabbing each other about being pussies for being scared.  It all made sense now.  This was damn scary, and kind of stupid.  We munched slowly, regretfully.  After a few moments of silence, a couple in their fifties emerged into our view.  The man was slowly and kindly guiding the woman down.  He flitted across the rock with the ease of a mountain goat.  She didn't even seem scared.  It wasn't fair. 

"Easier on the way up, eh?" I urped, uneasily. 

"Oh, yes," the man replied.  I watched with intense jealousy as they made their way to the ground.  To safety. 

"Great job -- ehmm, now it's our turn, I guess!"

"Want some help?"

"No, really, we're fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, maybe you just want to hang out down there and make sure we make it down alive?"

"I'll be right up."

He reached us nearly immediately.  He started directing, and I was suddenly out of the confines of my PB&J nook and back out in the sunlight, moving across the rock.  His words and my actions were suddenly in harmony, my nerves still sharp, but less so now.  He alternated between Mike and I, helping each of us find the next handhold and foothold, explaining to us about "cross pressure" and and other impressive climber-jargon.  His knowledge both impressed and shamed me.  My newfound safety made room in my conscious, exposing the real stupidity that egged me on this far.  I chastised myself as I descended.  I reached the bottom with a sense of gratefulness, both for solid ground and for this kind man, who completely unnecessarily helped an overconfident couple down the side of a treacherous mountaintop. 

In the end, I don't regret trying.  I never would have allowed myself to walk back down that mountain without at least trying.  Mike and I roiled in laughter later that night as our heads hit the pillows, our bodies sore and exhausted from our day of climbing.  What in the hell had we been thinking?  Where did that confidence come from?  What made us think we were qualified to scramble up the nearly 90 degree haystack atop a mountain?  The same zeal that made us move out here, to see what we've seen, to get stuck on the side of a mountain, to feel the electricity of teetering on the edge of sanity for a thrill.  I married the right man.

Mike managed to snap this photo.  The man who helped us and his girlfriend, before our descent.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks so much for commenting. I read every single one. :)