Friday, July 8, 2016

The Flash and The Sunrise

"FffroOOOoom!" My snowshoe catches an alder bush and I stumble into the blinding white. Scared and confused, I catch my balance just as the flash recedes into the midnight wilderness. My headlamp beam bounces around the trail. Cole's light chases mine, also seeking the mystery spark. Louder than necessary, I blurt,  "Dude, what was that?" "That was your mom man. She's watching out for us." Cole's shadowy figure leans on his trekking poles. He's serious. We hold our breath and fix our ears to the forest. Only the lazy swoosh of Mountaineers Creek and the hum of wind in Douglas Fir breaks the silence of winter.

Just a few hours ago we sat in a mexican joint in Leavenworth, ignoring the hustle and bustle of tourists. Instead, we focused on our strong beer and giant burritos. "Would you guys like another drink?", the pretty waitress asked. Instead of ordering another IPA, we requested the bill and stepped out into the misty streets. While an inversion shackled town in iron grey, we knew the weather was clear in the mountains. The promise of granite and ice above a sea of clouds fueled our motivation. Cole fired up the car and drove us to the trailhead.

At 2:30 AM we dug out a small rock cave, obscured by hollow snow. The warm murkiness of the restaurant had faded into sharp, penetrating cold. Moonlight illuminated the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. We punched a door into our shelter and crawled in. It felt good to sit down after the ten mile approach. Our stove sizzled snow into water for the rest of the night. As I threw cubes of snice into the pot I couldn't help but wonder, what was that flash?

In 2007 I watched my mother lose her battle to ovarian cancer. I had never seen death. Instead of being distraught, a guilty numbness cut me. I sought the heights to escape the grief or perhaps, to bring it crashing in. During this period Cole and I climbed tirelessly, as we consistently had since meeting in a dusty climbing gym during the seventh grade. We read into each alpine experience with heady superstition. We had faith that everything in our lives was connected to the lines we chose, the peaks we climbed, and how each adventure played out.

At first light we started climbing the ridge. I was able to wear rock shoes on an awkward chimney and the crux, thin lieback a pitch higher. Every patch of white was solid neve and each swath of rock was bone dry. It was cold, but not too cold. The only clouds wedged themselves into Icicle Creek Canyon thousands of feet below. I knew how it felt to live in that gloom. Up here, above the inversion, it was heaven. I lead all day as Cole jumared with the stove, a half-bag, and a few energy bars. We operated like a machine, our systems churning without pause. As the short January day bled into night, we curled up on a ledge 1,500 feet up the route. A sunset, a smoke, dinner, and tea ushered us towards "sleep".

Vapor from my breath hung in the black air. "Cole". "Yo" he replied. "It's fucking cold man. I'm thinking we should just start climbing. The sun will be up in a couple of hours." We snapped on our spikes, stuffed the pack, and begin winding across the sharp ridge. Snow and ice smothered the granite, but it's concrete consistency made the climbing easy and aesthetic. Just as we reached a 200 foot gendarme, fiery, warm light washed over us. We stopped in awe and scanned the Cascades. Cocaine white, they rippled towards the sea. Like that flash, the dawn pushed us onward.

We monkeyed up the steep rock tower and then continued mixed climbing along the ridge. An hour later, I dropped 50 feet off the knife edge and caught an ice runnel tucked into a shady groove. I daggered up the gully and then mantled the summit blocks. Bracing myself in a nook between two fins of windblown snow, I pulled the rope in as Cole frontpointed the final stretch. The summit offered a swirling view of mountains to the west and desolate scablands to the east. To the south, Tahoma's glaciated mass dominated the open sky.

Three hours after leaving the summit we were back in the fog, digging for Cole's car keys in the wheel well of his Toyota. The last 40 hours seemed surreal. Surfing the icy backbone of Mt. Stuart, we sensed a cosmic energy. On the way home, between handfuls of greasy potato chips, I wondered about the flash and the sunrise. "You think that was my mom watching us?" I asked Cole. Ten and two, starting at the road ahead, he seemed so sure in his reply, "Oh yeah. What else could it have been?"

2 comments:

Michael Preiss said...

so you did the gendarme pitches or no?

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