Monday, August 02, 2010

A Very Long Story of Personal Accomplishment (In One Installment)

Monkey and I have always been fond of a quote from Hank Aaron, one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Now, the circumstances of the conversation in which this quote was uttered escape me, but we heard of it in the midst of Barry Bonds' tainted pursuit of Aaron's all-time home run record. As Bonds crept up on Aaron's number, Monkey and I heard of Aaron responding perhaps to questions about the significance of his accomplishment with a simple and direct (and somewhat boastful) line: "The fact is, I hit 755 home runs, and nobody else did."

The perambulations of history notwithstanding, in my heart, I still recognize Hank Aaron as the paragon of home run hitters. Drug-aided or not, what Bonds did was an awesome spectacle. It was amazing and fun to watch, but Hank Aaron's accomplishment seems more real, more legitimate, and, so, I still have him atop my personal list. But, I don't want this to be about baseball (I want it to be about relativism), so, enough about Bonds.

Let's talk about accomplishment. For, in the midst of a summer in which I feel like I have, with little intention, challenged myself emotionally, I managed this week to challenge myself, with slightly more intention, physically and mentally. Forgive me, as I write of this, if I continually pause to make excuses. I will resist the urge. But, I can't seem to keep the seeping "modesty" at bay.

For, in the grand scheme, what happened this week was nothing like hitting 755 home runs when nobody else did. It's more like hitting 100 home runs. Not everybody did it, but enough did to make it not that big a deal. On the other hand, hitting 100 home runs is a pretty awesome thing.

Whatever. Enough metaphor.

We returned this weekend from a long-awaited trip to Estes Park, CO. As we usually do when we are in Colorado, we spent most days in Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking and eating pb & j sandwiches. On this particular trip, we planned to take a two-day hike to the top of Longs Peak, the highest point in the park (14,259 feet), and one of 54 "fourteeners" (14000 foot peaks) in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The fact that this peak is one of 54 of similar height; along with the fact that it is about the sixty-first highest peak in North America; added to the point that, at 14,259, Longs is about half the size of Everest; and lashed to the approximated statistic that about 200 people summit the peak each summer week is what makes the accomplishment of reaching Longs' summit seem quotidian. However, the fact that deaths occur annually on the mountain, that certain stretches leave one's heart in one's mouth along the hike, and that just as many "climbers" turn back before reaching the peak makes a successful climb seem something of a feather in one's cap.

Whatever. Enough qualification.

On Wednesday morning, we left from the Longs Peak Trail Head, hoping to make our way to our camp site at the Boulderfield before the afternoon rains came. We had hiked this stretch of the park before. Two years ago, we had started from this point in the very early hours, in order to make it to Chasm Lake by sunrise. That magical hike ranks as one of our all-time favorites. The discovery, in the faintest of early morning light, that we were hiking through a large herd of foraging elk, is not the only reason we hold that hike up so high.

This time, it was a far more civilized 9 am as we left. One other remarkable difference included the need for Monkey and I (and our companions, The Twin City Ambassadors, as well) to carry much heavier packs than we usually did. After all, we were camping, not just hiking, so, instead of food, water, and a warm shirt, we needed to carry tents, sleeping bags, and additional important supplies.

In high school, and a few years after, a group of my friends and I were semi-regular Appalachian Trail hikers. We'd drive up to western Maryland, park the car on the side of some small road, strap on some heavily laden external frame packs, and wander off into the woods. That was a long time ago, and my body has lost the custom of walking up the side of a mountain with an extra forty pounds strapped on. Needless to say, I had a few moments of doubt toward the end of our six mile hike in, as my legs quivered with exhaustion over each elevated step.

As often happens, just as I was about to despair, our campsite came into view. A few rocky walls indicated the tent sites at the Boulderfield, which is perched on a plateau just below the approach to the Keyhole, the point at which the more harrowing part of the climb began. Monkey and I set up our tent and awaited the arrival of the other half of our party. They soon arrived, and our camp was complete. Just in time for the almost-daily afternoon storms to arrive.

And arrive they did.
During that first bout of storms, we had heavy rain, we had small hail, we had ripping wind, we had very nearby lightning strikes. Honestly, a thunderstorm on a mountain is nothing to mess with. When it happens, if you are lucky enough to have a campsite, just get in your tent, stay on the ground and ride it out. Which is what we did. Unfortunately, the high winds and hail converged to alter the configuration of the rain fly on our tent. It began to sag on one side, and water began to run down the side of the tent and in between our ground tarp and the floor of our tent. We were getting damp. And there was nothing I could do about it, as the lightning was blasting the summits of Storm Peak and Mount Lady Washington on either side of the Boulderfield. I could do nothing until the rain stopped. Which it eventually did.
After an hour or so, the storms passed, the sky cleared a bit, and we emerged from our tents. We shored up our rain fly, dried our tent floor as much as possible (not much), and heated some water for a bit of a warm dinner. We wandered about the rocks for a while, just to stretch our legs, and wondered at the beauty of the surroundings in the low evening sunlight. The passing thunderstorm had lowered the temperature considerably, and, while I wore my shorts, I donned a fleece jacket and a wool hat. After some post-dinner socializing, we snuggled back into our tents. It was 8pm, and we intended to climb a mountain at 6 the next morning.

Sleep did not come easy, as the hard ground, the damp tent, and the return of wind and rain (which the tent withstood admirably, this time), kept gnawing at my comfort level. Monkey and I dozed fitfully, and as the sun brightened the sky, we emerged, poorly treated by the night.

We donned our day packs (which contained only water and some energy bars) over our rain gear (it was a cloudy morning), and headed off to the Keyhole. One of the Ambassadors stayed at the campsite, never intending to make the summit. The three of us picked our way over large boulders, up to the craggy break in the rock. Once on the other side of the Keyhole, the view down into Glacier Gorge was spectacular. For the first time, we really got a sense of where we were (on the side of a mountain). A few pictures at this spot and we were off along the ledge that traversed the back side of the mountain. Along this section, Monkey got pretty tight. Eventually, she said she didn't want to go on. We left her to return to camp and continued.

We skirted along the side of the mountain and made it to a long climb up a scree field. This was arduous, but not too difficult. However, at the top of the scree, just as you are about to saddle the mountain and make one last upward climb, a large rock blocks your way. As far as I could tell, there were two ways to attack this rock. On the right, the way my companion went, a thin ledge leads away from the rock, switches back, and leaves you to scramble along for about ten feet before you reach a place of relative safety. I tried that, hugging close to the face of the cliff; however, I didn't feel any comfortable hand holds, and withdrew after about a minute of static contemplation (i.e., standing still, doing nothing, deciding whether to retreat or become petrified). The second way, was a straight vertical climb of only ten feet or so, with apparent places for hands and feet, which, at sea level, would seem like nothing. But, with a ten thousand foot drop at your back, you can get a little wiggy. Wiggy or not, up I went, and with nary a slip, made it to the top.

An even more intense climb awaited in the Homestretch, but, for a moment, I allowed myself to bask in the awe of the view into the rising sun from this side of the mountain. Below, Peacock Pool, our campsite, and even the flat lands beyond were awash in the sun (it was about 8:30, by now). It was beautiful, but, as I looked out, I was seized with another bout of fear. I sat on a rock and almost said to Mr. Ambassador, "That's it. I'm done." The last rock had really shaken me, and further evidence of the heights I had reached were assaulting my sense of self-preservation.

"How much farther," I asked.

"About a quarter-mile."

Well, hell, I thought, I am too close now. And on we went.

The Homestretch is quite an end to the ascent. It seems pretty steep, and there are points were you feel like the only thing keeping you from certain death are your thin fingers clutching a crack in a rock and a tentative toe shoved in a crevice. I thought to myself, in alternate moments, "You idiot, what the hell are you doing up here?" and "Holy crap, this is the most awesome thing I have ever done!"

And, just as I came to the realization that the latter is what I should be telling myself, I crawled up one last rock and stood on the large, flat surface of this mountain's peak. Below spanned the world, as far as I could see. Around me a couple dozen like-minded people milled around in the stiff, cold wind. I realized I had just done something I never thought I would do.

It's not the highest mountain in the world. It's not a record-breaking accomplishment. I didn't hit 755 home runs when nobody else did. But I did something that before (and even during) I wasn't sure I could do. I doubted and overcame. And it felt rewarding and amazing, something to be proud of.

Of course, now, I had to get down.


Sheryl said...

I luv this inspiration and witty self-talk! Congrats on the magnitude of your accomplishment but on your spirit and humor as well!

La Fashionista said...

Wow!!! What a journey! Congrats on overcoming! What a triumph!


Laura said...

So happy to be part of your journey... Longs Peak, Chasm Lake, Lost Lake :), Ouzel...wherever our hiking boots take us next.

You bring the Yatzi, and we'll supply the red wine.

Congrats, Lechero!