WHEN IT ALL GOES TO SH*T: My Climb Up Through Hell, Part 1
“You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
We enter the northern boundary of Glacier National Park at Belly River trail head and are hiking through mosquitoes so thick I have to put a bandanna over my mouth. I can’t clear my lungs of dead mosquitoes and keep coughing. My son, Larry, asks me if I’m OK which makes me mad. My nephew David and his friend Chad keep their mouth shut. Good guys. It’s July and a thousand degrees. We’re ludicrously dressed because of the bugs – long sleeves, pants pulled up, hats pulled down, handkerchiefed mouths, and sunglasses. Thugs looking for trouble.
I’m sweating faster than it can wick, faster than I can drink and absorb. Sweat runs down my face, legs, chest, back, and crack of my crack. I’m sodden and disgusting. This isn’t what the photos in Backpacker look like. This is Dante’s first circle of hell. I don’t see Virgil, but I am baptized – in my own sweat. I take another Diamox. Diamox is what I take for altitude. It increases your red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry the oxygen to your muscles.
But after forever, The Great Mosquito Era of our lives comes to an end and we are older than when we began. The woods opens up into meadows leading to Glacier’s jagged peaks. It’s gorgeous. Bandannas down, we can breathe. There’s a “Watch Out for Grizzlies” sign and we’re stoked. So far it’s been a cow and a calf in the road to the trail head. Ten miles put us at the foot of Glenns Lake where we camp.
Pyramid Peak is as stunning as first love, but it goes unrequited. We collapse into the grass feeling sick from dehydration and exhaustion. Two rangers ride horses into camp to do some maintenance. An experienced guy and an intern girl. They disappear.
A black (not grizzly!) bear appears, looks at the horses, suddenly shits, and boils into the brush. Bears are afraid of horses. We’re afraid of bears and go running to the rangers. The guy grabs bear spray and goes charging into the brush after it. I’m new to backpacking but I know you don’t do this. He’s showing us his is bigger and knows the girl will see that we know his is bigger. They share a tent.
Nobody wants to set up camp, but we do. Nobody wants to eat, but we do. Nobody wants to filter water. I tell Larry to do it. The sun sets. I take a Diamox and crawl into my bag to die.
I sleep like I’m dead and wake up like I’m in heaven. Clouds swirl around Pyramid Peak giving it the look of Valhalla. I will tell my grandchildren of this someday. I love backpacking for the stories. Today’s a big day for us. Instead of hiking 23 miles on trails up and around Cathedral Peak, we’re going to leave the trail just past Stoney Indian Pass at Paiota Falls and cut across up and over a ridge next to Sue Lake. On a flat map it’s less than a mile of route finding to save 12 miles of trail. My idea and I’m awesome.
We’re really, really tired from yesterday. The morning is cool but I begin sweating again in the first few steps. I pop a Diamox. Gravity is a god that has it in for me today. My pack is a big bag of cinder blocks that I lug up to Stoney Indian Pass. I wouldn’t last half a day building a pyramid. My nephew David and his friend Chad, along with my son, are quicker. I’m beat and my slower pace holds them back. Thank God we’re taking the short cut. Paiota Falls is beautiful. We step off trail towards a series of soft grassy ledges that we’ll scramble up to get over the ridge.
After two of the ledges, I’m beat even more than I was beat when we started. Just one more ledge, but it’s not. There are more ledges hidden by the first ledges and none of these bastards are as soft as looked from a half-mile away. Dante’s second circle is here, but Virgil is not here to rebuke Minos and so our torment continues. I want to cry, to give up and have someone make this easy but I can’t. I’m in charge. We claw our way on all fours up each two-hundred or three-hundred foot ledge. The guys suck it up and stay at it. I’m miserable. I don’t remember when my head began to pound but now I can’t remember what it feels like not to pound. Each “last” ledge reveals yet another ledge. It’s a treadmill of ledges. They looked smaller from the trail and much smaller on the map. I realize that contour lines all pinched together on a topo map really do mean cliffs.
Raven Quiver Falls is nice like Paiota Falls. I don’t care. My head is pounding and stomach a little nauseous. Not drinking enough, eating enough or using sunscreen. I just keep pushing us thinking just a little more and we’ll be over the hump where we can relax. We must almost be there. But we’re never there. There is no hump. We just keep climbing at the same rate the tectonic plates are raising this mountain. But like the Great Mosquito Era, after ten-million years this Paleocene of Pain Epoch ends too and The Rockies are formed. We finish the ledges and take a break. I gag down part of a Clif bar and another much needed Diamox.
The “soft” grassy ledges are done. We heave up to a small forty-foot rock wall. I can see the ridge still above us in the distance. My God. There’s got to be a pass somewhere. A truly benevolent deity would certainly have peered into time immemorial, seen us here today, and created an easier way to get up and over. A humane god wouldn’t want us to suffer. Please don’t make us go up there. But my prayer, like so many prayers, gets no response. God ignores me like I ignore him – until we want something from the other. There is no pass. There is nothing to make this easier. I want to throw up. We take a break and my Clif Bar tastes like it looks. I smell like it looks. Nobody is talking. They hate me. I hate me.
It’s hard, not just the physical exertion, but it’s hard because I don’t know exactly what I’ve gotten us into. I’m afraid. My thoughts grow fur and bolt into the insanity of hell’s third circle of putrification. My cognition begins to decompose. Are we in over our heads, or just putting up a new route? I don’t want to turn back and hike 23 miles on the trail. I will die. Am I dying now? How do we know that earth isn’t actually farming humans for mulch and harvest time is here?
It gets worse. I suddenly realize the last human won’t get a funeral and I’m sad. If pigs could fly, their wings would be delicious. Taking candy from a baby would actually be the responsible thing to do. Why doesn’t male pattern baldness start with the armpits and back? I wish I could turn this whole trip off and then back on like my computer. I’m out of control. Being brainwashed to pursue comfort and success, I naturally assume when something is hard I’m doing it wrong. Are we doing it wrong, or are we genuine badasses? I’m responsible dammit. Make a decision. It’s a knife fight in a dark closet, and I have no offense.
We can go left and fall off a cliff, go back down, or up that glacier and hope there’s a way to climb that 100-foot vertical wall with a bag of rock salt strapped to our back. We’re not ready to jump off a cliff yet and retracing steps isn’t something hikers do (mistaking ego for wisdom). I’m indecisive. Hubris is the pick we use to unlock the door to something we shouldn’t get into. The devil is whispering in my ear with a hand rubbing my back and I know what to do. We’re going forward up the unnamed glacier, unnamed because nobody comes up here. It slopes at 35-degrees. That’s steep.
We’re ill-prepared for this. We have no rope, ice axes, or crampons. We have hiking poles and forty extra pounds teetering us on (pun intended) worn soles. The downward edge of the icy slope drops over a cliff a couple hundred yards down. The top is a 100-foot rock wall with a few fissures that we’re hoping we can somehow get up. I lead. It’s early afternoon and the snow is soft in this fourth circle. I kick a few steps into the snow and immediately regret it. But my wobbly legs hold and I don’t tumble to my death. If I take one step, I can take two. If I can take two, I can take three. I’m betting on The Law of Increments – one more at a time.
Seeing me still alive, the guys follow. Half-way up the glacier, I’m frozen by the sudden terror that one of us will die here. The feeling is as palpable as it is horrifying. I rehearse conversations with my wife and sister on how I killed their sons. If it’s Chad, David will have to deal with that.
I am silently, desperately praying again to the Super Hero god of my childhood who is removed from us far away in outer space somewhere – who’s only interaction with us now is reluctant intervention. I’m pleading with this Idea of god for just such an interruption to the normal course of events. I want this Super Person Being to wake up, take my concern seriously, and disrupt the Laws of Cause and Effect that he set up in the first place – the same laws I have somehow set against me. I keep this god in a box for moments just like this. I try to ignore the fact that this god has a solid track record of dispassionately watching bad circumstances run their course. It’s all I know. Mental note: rethink god.
Because nothing catastrophic has ever happened to me, I’ve been lulled into thinking nothing ever will. I’m as immortal as a speeding teenager and this is why we’re out here. And it is here, in the middle of that unnamed glacier, on ice between a rock wall and a cliff, on ice between life and death, I see my foolishness. Author V.S. Naipaul said, “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves” and I get that now. I really, really get that. I wish I had gotten it sooner. Truth is that popular kid we all want to be seen with but secretly despise. Mental note: stop lying to myself to create a reality.
The sun is beating down on us like we owe it money. I have no sun screen on but the glacier keeps us cool. A sliding sound behind me and my head owls around. David is on one knee. Slipped. He laughs it off and get’s back up. All I see is my sister hating me forever. Moments later another slipping noise. Someone’s water bottle goes skittering down the slope. We solemnly watch it slide towards the cliff and it’s no longer a water bottle. It’s one of us and all the things we’ll never do. The bottle stops twenty yards from the edge. Hope flickers.
Surprise! We make it to the cliff! Maybe answered prayer, maybe not. How the hell do you ever really know? The guys check out the fissures to see if they’re climbable because I’m useless at this point and sit with the packs. David thinks one might be climbable, the others definitely aren’t. I trust him and am amazed, not for the first time, how the 3-year-old who wouldn’t shut up at my wedding has grown into this man. We very carefully pick our way over to the workable crack with our awkward loads. It would be embarrassing to fall after having made it this far.
I look up the chimney. We can’t see if it’s open at the top, but it’s open as far as we can see. Good enough. David takes the lead and it feels good to have someone else take responsibility. Larry follows, then Chad. I’m the boat anchor physically and emotionally, but now is not the time to tell them I’m deathly afraid of heights. We spread out like a totem, arm’s length from each other. With one hand we death-grip the rock wall. With the other we pass up the 40 lb packs. It’s straight up into the fifth circle of hell.
In part two, I’m in the ER and on steroids.
Best regards, and thanks again for reading.
PS. These posts are being read in more than twenty countries. Thank you so much all of you. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to sign up to receive these posts via email. I appreciate that and thanks again!