On Climbing Mountains, Part IX

Mt. Silverheels from hike to high camp

Mt. Silverheels from hike to high camp


After hiking most of the morning on a steady but manageable incline with the mountain summit framed clearly before us, we started up an incredibly steep hill. At the top, a good three-quarters of a very steep mile away, we would be at tree line, perched on a shoulder of the mountain on a ridge that clearly led to the summit. I had been watching that ridgeline get closer all morning, and though I knew that Dupree and Phil would never tell us otherwise, I just knew that ridge had to be our route up the mountain. It just made sense. I kept telling myself that it would be a hard, painful climb to treeline, but then I knew that Phil would lead us to a wooded “high camp” just below the tree line, with protection from the wind, and we would have the afternoon and a blessed easy following day to acclimate before attempting the summit.


The climb required a good hard lean into the hill, under our full backpacks, and it nearly wrecked my spirit. One of the girls wanted to give up, and I took her sleeping bag off her pack to boost her spirit. Not that I wasn’t dying myself, but I thought I had it all figured out. I could gut out anything knowing we were near the end. Pam utterly gave up and burst into tears, even though Phil was talking to her all the way. Dupree, from the top of the hill where he had assembled the over-achievers, jogged down the hill and took Pam’s backpack and carried it up for her. As the rest of us slowly approached the ridgeline, the kids at the top came down a few steps and formed a finish line tunnel for us, like cross-country racers urging their slower teammates at the end of the race. Once everyone was at the top we took off our packs and took a fifteen minute break. Dupree shared a canister of Pringles potato chips from his personal gear, and Phil gave everyone a couple of gummy worms. I was sure that the worst was over.


I walked a few yards away from where the rest of the group had collapsed, so that I could sit on a fallen tree and rest. To sit on the ground, in my state, meant an embarrassing, ungraceful, return to my feet, something close to what a giraffe or a camel looks like, if you’ve ever seen video of one of those creatures returning to a stand from the ground. Beyond the tired, though, and the lack of grace that a standup from the ground would have worked on my own offended sensibilities, was the knowledge that I had wanted to give up on the hike up that hill. I very nearly had quit. And, this from a younger, much younger man, who as a teenager had run half marathons for the hell of it, back in the seventies before a half-marathon was even a thing, and who had built hiking trails for the Youth Conservation Corps as a teenager, during Mississippi summers, in near 100 degree heat and humidity that left my clothing drenched and my body covered in poison ivy blisters that swelled my arms another third of their normal size. I’ve followed powerlines cross country, going to my hands and knees to force my way through bramble patches, and I’ve weathered white-out blizzard conditions atop 150 foot steel towers. A decade and a half earlier I’d summited two fourteeners and nearly summited two more, and during hat period I had had gone on some backpacking trips with my wife and and a friend named Dave Baldwin that we routinely referred to as Baldwin Death Marches.

But now I was solidly in middle age, or whatever 54 passes for now, looking at the decline that, though not exactly imminent, must surely be my future.

After a while Phil told us to put our packs back on, and we crossed over the ridgeline and trudged down an equally sharp decline into a deep valley. At the bottom of the ridge, we turned away from the mountain summit and began to follow the valley down a heavily wooded drainage. And we kept going down and down, giving up hard fought for altitude, and with each step down, the pain in my knees grew, because going down is much more painful on the knees than going up, though the breathing is easier. The metaphors for what I was feeling have all been used up, and are now cliches. My knees were screaming? My knees felt like a hot poker had been thrust under the knee cap? I don’t know what that feels like, but I know that I side stepped down the mountain, alternating leading sides, first right for a few steps, them my left side. And I very nearly cried, though I’ve hardly ever responded to pain by crying in my remembered adult life.

As we went down I lost sight of the summit that had buoyed my spirits all morning, and I realized from the way the trail flanked the summit, that we were not, in fact, going to attempt the easy and straightforward south face of the mountain, the face we’d been walking toward for two days. As I thought bad thoughts about Phil, wishing that he had made a D in my class rather than an A, I realized that we were circling the mountain and would attempt to summit from the east—or God forbid—perhaps the north face of the mountain. Our high camp would be high because once we stopped going down, we would have to climb back up to tree line. Though I was surrounded by incredible beauty, my mind went to a dark place and got darker as the pain in my knees increased under the weight of the pack and the steady descent.

I didn’t quite forgive Phil and Dupree two hours later, when we stopped for lunch and then loaded our backpacks and “circled up,” presumably to begin the afternoon portion of the hike to high camp, and Dupree, leading us in prayer, asked forgiveness for lying because “we are at high camp.” Pam broke down crying, in joy, shed her pack, and crossed the circle to embrace Dupree. I was happy and relieved, though the elevation we’d lost still nagged like an old sports injury.

Packs off at High Camp

Packs off at High Camp

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