Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Not Over

The night is moonless and black like coffee. I ponder how many times I've descended Aasgard Pass, but my knees plead with me to fantasize about something else. Blake drifts through the scree ten feet ahead. "I'm psyched for next week man." I can hear the excitement in his voice. I'm stoked to try our link up too, especially since today's rehearsal went without a hitch. "We're not even done with this mission and we're talking about the next!" I joke.  But that's how it goes. This is our home turf. We've made this descent a thousand times.

Wise alpinists know that it's not over until it's over. Well now, it's over. An hour and half to the car, thirty minutes to Safeway, home eating pizza at eleven; it's not my first rodeo. To my left, a stream rushes through the talus. Blake and I follow it down and gain the main trail, one of the most popular in the Cascades. Then I hear a sound besides the crunch of our skidding approach shoes. It takes me a second to understand and then believe that a rock avalanche is 1,000 feet above our heads and bearing down fast.

"Run! Run! Oh fuck". The boulders gain on us. Dust clogs the air and the ground shakes harder. I glance to my right. Blake's doing the same thing I am. Recklessly gunning it down the slope is our only option. Just before being flattened, we instinctually throw ourselves under large, lucky blocks. A rock the size of a TV tomahawks through the beam of my headlamp. Basketball sized boulders chase it down the slope. My only thought underscores the nightmare. "I can't believe we are going to die like this."

The roar fades to a whisper. A millisecond later my headlight is whited out with debris. It's over. "Blake!" I yell. "I'm here, I'm ok!" I've never heard his voice shake. We stumble down to the car in utter disbelief. The hike, usually an afterthought, turns into an eerie stumble. Over and over, we mutter "I can't believe it" as shock flushes out our veins.

Back at Blake's Subaru, the rock slide feels like a bad dream. Next week we plan to push ourselves in these mountains again, tackling a goal as unattainable as anything we've ever tried. This past winter I lost a friend and a climbing partner. I also watched an avalanche narrowly miss a father of two daughters I adore. And now this?

If we can't understand the ways of the mountains, at least we can learn from them. The message is simple. We are not in control. Even in the most tame and travelled scenarios catastrophic accidents happen. We hop in the car and bump down the washboard road. Blake talks about next week's triple linkup. There are a myriad of logistics to nail down. Discussing the options is a coping mechanism. How do I feel? I just know I need a beer right now. I crack an IPA and take a pull off the bottle. The alcohol mixes with stale adrenaline. Can I continue this path I wonder? There's only one way to find out.

This is a behind the scenes look at:

 http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web14x/wfeature-herrington-holsten-stuart-range-linkup

Blake and I enchained Dragons of Eden and Der Sportsman a week before our triple link. The rockfall occurred on the lower flanks of Aasgard Pass. It was an insane event that the words above barely describe. It was so powerful that I wondered if we would be buried in rock. If you are familiar with the area, you know it's crazy to almost die a few hundred yards above Colchuck Lake in the middle of summer. Or is it? It might be a backyard run, but it's real in the mountains. Bottom line. This event definitely changed the nature of our coming goal. I was already struggling with Chad's death and then this. What were the mountains trying to tell me? Every time I pushed they pushed back. Even in the midst of a break from climbing I'm still straining my ear to the hills. I'm listening. 

2 comments:

Phil said...

Following you. This is compelling writing.

Steve Elder said...

Eerily familiar Jens. Wayne Wallace and I were very nearly killed in an avalanche on that slope in 1994. Glad you made it out as well.