On the Mountain

My husband, Brian, is a mountaineer. I’m not talking about the cute mascot-y kind of mountaineer. He didn’t go to Appalachian State or WVU. He actually climbs mountains. That’s what he does. Go figure.

I, however, do not climb mountains. Instead, I write books. And there are more similarities between the two activities than one may initially think. Here’s a story to illustrate:

In the fall of 2005, I took a solo cross-country trip. Brian met me in the Seattle area, after a summit attempt of Mt. Rainier (his, not mine). The day he was supposed to reach the summit, it was pouring rain. (Shocker: the Pacific Northwest in October, and it’s raining.) It was also the day I was supposed to meet him at the trailhead, near the visitor center in Paradise, Washington. Yes, that’s really the name of the town. Friends who lived in nearby Graham drove me out there, and we waited for a while in the socked in visitor center, looking at fog. After about twenty minutes, a voice came over the intercom, announcing that “the mountain is out.” We rushed to the windows.

For five beautiful minutes, the gray clouds opened up and revealed the glaciated summit of Mt. Rainier. What was rain at five thousand feet was snow above us, and the blue-gray rock and white snow popped out of the gray and the dark green of evergreen trees with a hazy blue background. I took a dozen photos: different angles and light settings. I got some really amazing shots, even with my poopy little camera. Honestly, it’s hard to take a bad photo of Mt. Rainier. It really is so majestic, so old and wise and mammoth.

After a little more time, after the mountain disappeared behind another fog bank, we gave up waiting for Brian and asked about his group at the information desk. “Oh, they didn’t make it because of weather,” the man told us. “They left a couple of hours ago.” Wait. Didn’t make it? Didn’t make it? “They came back down at the halfway point,” he explained. Sigh. They didn’t make the summit. Not “they didn’t survive.” OK.

We drove back down the road to the bunkhouse where Brian and the other members of his climbing party were staying. No Brian, no group. “Oh, they’re up the road at the Copper Creek Inn for lunch,” the scruffy man at the outfitters told us. We drove the few miles up the road. Copper Creek was empty. A woman in a stained white apron swept under the tables, their upturned chairs kicking their legs into the air. “Oh, they left about twenty minutes ago,” she told us. What? We must have passed them on the road.

I started to cry. I hadn’t seen my husband in three weeks, and now, strangers I would never see again knew where he was, and I didn’t. I felt powerless and frustrated. We drove back to the bunkhouse, walked into the little cafe, and hoped to call Brian’s cell from the pay phone in the corner. I stared for a moment at a tall, lean back before I realized it was Brian. I ran to him and threw my arms around his middle from behind, holding on for dear life, the tears starting anew. Without turning around, Brian grabbed both of my arms and squeezed. “Hey, it’s you,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice.

As it turned out, Brian never saw the mountain. He was as socked in as we were, and above a certain altitude, the rain was snow, a blizzard. “The wind was so hard, we were leaning forward at about forty-five degrees, just to stay on our feet. The snow was blowing sideways.” He and his group had spent the night at ten thousand feet, in a climber’s hut called Camp Muir. When the guides tested the weather in the early morning, they knew it was too dangerous to attempt the summit, so they hiked back down the mountain in the blinding snow. All that time on a mountain he never saw, because he was too busy trying to climb it.

I showed him my photographs later. “Wow, so that’s what it looks like,” he joked. I framed an 8×10 print for him that Christmas. The following summer, Brian tried it again, and this time, he made it. It was a benefit climb for the American Lung Association: the Climb for Clean Air. Brian took a Tibetan prayer flag with my mother’s name on it to the summit, at 14,410 feet. Mom had died of lung cancer. This time, the weather was clear and beautiful. Brian came back with a vicious sunburn, having spent the training hike day out on the snow without sunscreen. He made it back safely, and he’d had fabulous views from the top. But I still had better photos of the mountain itself, Mt. Rainier, the mountain I inexplicably refer to as “she.”

Is there a metaphor here? Why, yes, there is! I’m so glad you asked. The other night, we had a long conversation about our “vision” of the future. For the first time maybe ever, Brian has a clear picture of where he wants his life to go. He wants to be a mountain guide. He’s going to be a mountain guide. He asked me about my vision. I shrugged. I’m usually the one who talks about visualizing a goal and setting an intention to meet it. It worked for so many important things in my life: a house, a partner, a graduate school. Now what?

I’m in the midst of writing a thesis. So far, it’s 120 pages. I’ve recently realized that a bunch of material I was going to include about my dad is going to have to evolve into its own animal. It’s not part of this thesis. It’s something else, something new. So now I have another book to write. As a writer, this is both good and bad news. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. At once, it’s:  “Yes! Another idea! Another project! Something to work on!” and it’s also: “Oh, no! I have to go through this whole process again? But it’s so hard! No-o-o-o!” It’s too hard. I can’t keep doing this. I cannot take another. step. up this steep, ridiculous hill. The wind is howling. The snow is blowing sideways.

I’m on the mountain. I just plant one slushy boot in front of the other, and I slog along the best I can. I can’t see the summit. I can’t see stunning vistas. I can only see my feet. One silly, stupid word after another. Maybe I’ll end up backing down and starting over. Maybe I’ll make it to the summit this time, or the next. Other people may look at what I’m trying to do and see only fog, or maybe they’ll see something beautiful. I don’t know. Because all I can see is the path in front of me: rocks and snow and the occasional marmot. Once the journey is over, I’ll look back or over my shoulder or up our out. Maybe then, I’ll have a vision of my future. But right now, I need to get up the mountain. Right now, I can only look down and keep going.

I hope, when I come back down, Brian will be waiting for me in the coffee shop. I hope to hold him and say, “Hey, it’s you.” Here on the jagged landscape of an unfinished book, I feel lost to him, far away. But he came back to me. I’ll come back to him, too. And I hope he’ll hear the smile in my voice.


One response

  1. I love this metaphor! I’m going to try and keep this in mind as I sludge my way through more of my own project this winter break. I feel like my first book was the mountain I tried to climb from every angle before having to admit it had me beat; I’m hoping this new “mountain” is kinder, but of course am always worried that I’m intrinsically flawed as a “climber.” But–oh well. What else am I going to do? Just keep trying to get up there.

    Thanks for the lovely post. How wonderful about Brian and the plan to be a mountain guide. That sounds exciting and fabulous!

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