The wind hounded us throughout the night from all directions, flinging wet clumps of snow as it banged into the tent. Through the dark hours, one of us would feel a side of the tent get heavy and smack it with an open palm to clear it from the weight of the built-up slush that threatened to collapse our shelter around us. It broke free and slid to the ground with a satisfying wet crackle. But, for the most part, after the day’s long climb, the howling was just a lullabye and we slumbered deeply.
I awoke staring at the inside of my sleeping bag drawn tight over my face, the swirl of my visible breath, and the sound of Brian going “Duuuuuuude. We got a little snow inside the vestibule.” I sat up and saw that the entire front of the tent, where we stored our boots and some extra clothes and gear had been turned into a miniature version of the glacier. Luckily we had bagged our stuff well enough to keep it dry, but we had to brush several inches of snow away to get at it.
Brian and I stumbled out of the tent to check the scenery, which had been erasered away to nothingness by the frozen white. Christian stuck his face out of his tent, looked around and shook his head.
“I appreciate you trying to make us Minnesotans feel at home, but knock it off already. “ I grinned.
Christian shook his head again and repeated what had become the unofficial motto of our expedition. “Things could always get worse. Until you’re fucked.”
While we huddled over bowls of oatmeal and instant coffee, Christian and Alex flopped halfway into the tent to discuss our plans. There were some peaks we wanted to go after, but the recent heavy and wet snow made them a pretty sizable avalanche risk. Christian said we could go up and take a closer look, but he wasn’t optimistic. We agreed we’d head back down to the treeline and they could do some classes with us there. The renewing pitter patter of near frozen rain on the tent sort of answered for us.
We immediately set about breaking up camp in the freezing rain. Knots on the tent stays that had been pulled into singularities from the cold and wind resisted being tugged apart by fingernails and creative cursing alike. After a few minutes your shaking fingers refused to help very much. This is where smart and consistent pack management comes in handy. You know where everything is, where everything fits and if something is missing. Within the hour our gear and homes and food were all reduced into back-sized bundles and we headed out from the valley.
I turned around for one last good look, squinting against the wind and prismatic blobs of snow the storm threw against my goggles. The peaks were obscured behind a whirling mass of white, but, for a brief moment, I saw three dark peaks, rising as waving fingers, before disappearing back into the void.
At the mouth of the valley, the snow had changed to a mild drizzle. We could at least now see the loose uneven rocks we were walking on, but they were no less slippery. But by now the clunky Frankenstein mountaineering boots and the heavy pack—lightened somewhat by less food—had become an extension of my body.
It was a short hike, by this trip’s standards, to where we would call camp tonight. We stopped by the mammoth boulder we had left our cache at on the way up. Locals called it Heart Rock because, well, here, take a look…
The rock gave us a sheltered spot to cook and build a fire. There was a stream babbling nearby. And it was good to see trees again. From a distance our tents looked like a pair of bright orange animals foraging for food among the narrow trunks vested with shags of pale green lichen.
We did a quick class on how to properly set anchors for climbing and then made dinner. It was a massive one, since it was better to eat the food than hump it all the way back down tomorrow. I could get behind that logic. This was also the Last Supper for the cheese moon. We sent it to its melty demise atop heaping bowls of meat-filled tortellini.
As we sat around the fire nibbling chocolate and trading tales, I pulled out a small plastic bottle of Jameson I’d brought along to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Alex and Christian looked at me oddly and I thought they were upset because I’d wasted pack space on something like booze.
“What…” he began.
“It’s for St. Patrick’s Day.” I said, perhaps a bit of apology crouching in my tone, just in case.
“I carried in my pack. But now we all get to share it.”
“What…were you doing saving that for so long?” he finished.
The bottle made a couple laps with cheers and toasts at each stop. Its sweet wooden burn filling me with as much golden heat as the fire was.
It was hard to believe this part of our trip was almost over. It only seemed like we were meeting everyone at the airport a few days ago. This had begun to feel like home. These routines, these surroundings, were now the familiar ones. It happens on most extended trips–without me knowing exactly when–but I love when I recognize it. Life is more immediate and simple. Each day has an undefined purpose, but one that reveals itself nonetheless by the time you earn your deserved sleep.
I wasn’t feeling so poetic in the morning when the drizzle started up again right after breakfast. Remember all the muddy hills and fallen logs we had to navigate getting up to base camp in chapter two? Today was that in reverse. The rain was making everything eel-slick. Rocks lept up to grab your ankles. Logs pushed your boots away. Cricks had puffed themselves up to boisterous streams; emboldened by their new-found strength, they had begun bullying their banks, pushing them back into the forest. In the damp cool rot, colonies of bright-capped mushrooms popped up almost in front of your eyes where before there had been nothing.
Eventually the trail flattened out and I never thought I’d be so thrilled to see horse poop, but it meant we were close to the ranch. As we neared the edge of the property, a few horses trotted across the open field to greet us. I wasn’t sure if their tossing heads were a hello or a laugh at how tired we looked.
Back in the bare-boned shelter of the barn we were at last able to put our packs down. This circle now felt complete and it was time to celebrate. John welcomed us with hot mate and cold cans of Cristal Dark Lager and fresh-picked fruit from the farm and popcorn drizzled with balsamic vinegar and honey. Our voices rose festively as we reflected on the past week as if it were years ago.
We strung up our wet and dirty gear like captured battle flags and put on clean dry clothes. I shucked off the mountaineering boots and put on my regular heavy-duty hiking boots. They felt like ballet slippers. Not that I know what those feel like, but I’m guessing. They were so light I actually broke out into a jig.
Before the next round of beers took effect (I secretly wished they would have named them Dark Cristal Lager), Christian delivered one last class on pulleys. Pulley systems are especially useful for things like pulling a body out of a crevasse. Since we were now safely off the glacier, Christian instead had us rig systems to pull a case of beer to safety. Also very useful to know.
John rang the big metal triangle dinner and we sprinted to the main house through the downpour. That was to be our shower for the night. Dinner was full of cheap box wine and local cheese and bread and roast vegetables and beef and plum liquor. It felt good to sit on a cushioned seat next to a roiling stove while the rain came down overhead.
We laughed our way back to the barn by the bobbing wobbling beams of our headlights. John had shut down power for the night, so we raided his fridge in the barn for more beer and drank it by the headbeams.
Bed was still on a mat on a hard surface in a sleeping bag, but having a bit of space and a real ceiling over my head felt like a luxury. I chuckled one more time at what we’d been through and what still lay ahead and fell asleep with snapshots of the past nine days flipping through my mind’s eye clearer and more amazing than most dreams.
In Our Next Episode: Everybody disco!…