FEATURED: WHEN IT ALL GOES TO SH*T: My Climb Up Through Hell, Part 2
The familiar tinkling of falling gravel with a sudden larger sliding sound behind it, “ROCK!” I yell before looking. Then I do look in time to see Chad flinch just enough to keep his ear from being shaved off by a New York Style Pizza slice of rock six inches thick. Good news: he still has a way to hold his sunglasses on. Bad news: he took the point of the slice in his shoulder and his arm dangles like a Ramen noodle.
He collapses back against the wall, somehow doesn’t fall. His mouth opens and shuts in a silent (which somehow makes it worse), agonizing scream. A gasping fish holding its broken arm. This is hell. Yesterday it was heat and mosquitoes. Today its been ledges, a glacier, and now this damn chimney.
The hand of fate is on me now
It pick me up and knock me down
I’m on the run, I’m prison bound
The hand of fate is heavy now
– The Rolling Stones
In the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno, the stinking, swampy waters of the river Styx is where doomed souls filled with wrath fight each. My wrath turns inward and I’m fighting myself for getting us into this god-forsaken mess.
It was my bright idea to go off trail with fully loaded packs in Glacier National Park to save mileage. A short cut that is turning into a long cut. We are working our way up a crack in a 100-foot cliff hoping there is an opening at the top. My nephew, David, leads and that’s a relief for me. My son, Larry, follows and then Chad, David’s friend. I’m the boat anchor slowly being raised. Our movement is simple but precarious. We hang on for dear life with one hand and pass our full packs up with the other. David wedges them into the rock, we climb over them and repeat. It’s a terrible system of endless one-armed 40 lb curls but we have no choice. We’re in over our head.
At one point a water bottle gets flossed off a pack. We watch it carom down the chimney, bounce out onto the glacier and slide down over the cliff. None of us saw a water bottle. We saw ourselves. We resume clawing our way up. Then Chad gets hit.
Chad is crumpled in agony holding his noodled arm to keep it from moving his broken shoulder. Fuck. I’m new to being in places I have no business being, but I know this isn’t good. I’m stunned too but it doesn’t hurt.I look at Chad, then I look up at David and Larry looking down at Chad. They look at me looking at them. Our eyes meet. We don’t speak. I look back to Chad and they look at me looking at Chad. Waiting.
We’re off trail. Nobody will just happen by. There will be no rangers riding horses to chase away this monster. Nobody knows we’re here. Nobody is coming. David will have to go for help. He’s the strongest and most determined. It will take him hours to get out and find help and then hours more for help to organize and find us. I’m new to backpacking but I’ve read the stories. Chad can’t go up or down on one arm. How do monkeys do it? I wonder how good Chad is with his bare feet. We will spend the night here. How can we literally hang on for that long? Its 9-11 and I don’t know where we’re at in the countdown until full collapse.
Chad has stopped his Edvard Munch Scream. He is slowly balling the hand of his limp arm into a fist again, and then again and again. He grits his teeth and slowly lifts the forearm as if curling a 60 lb dumb-bell. We’re watching. None of us say anything, but Chad out, “Just a minute” and grimaces as he slowly rotates his ruined shoulder. He is gaining motion and I am gaining hope. It’s a miracle, but nobody prayed. That’s the confusing thing about divine intervention. How the hell do you ever know? His shoulder is clicking but he thinks it’ll work and will try to climb. What else can he do? When you bite off more than you can chew, keep chewing. Still nobody says anything but I know we’re pants-peeing excited.
Exhausted, dehydrated, sunburned, and heads pounding, we kept moving – The Walking Dead going through the motions of climbing to heaven. It blurs together. Out of the blur David’s voice, “We’re here” and I revive a bit. He adds “There’s a roof.” Of course, and I’m dead again. WTF. We’d come all this way just to have the end of our climb capped off. Is there even a god up there?
We shimmy up jamming ourselves and packs into a space a little bigger than an outhouse. Clowns in a terrible circus act. I raise my eyes and my heart sinks. There is blue sky all around us now, but this rock slab ten-feet up caps the top of the chimney blocking our way to freedom just above.
David spots a crack off to one side of the slab and thinks we might be able to get through. I don’t, but keep my mouth shut. The walls are smooth at this point. Good God, how will we climb it? How would we get our packs up there? And like so many times when I think “we,” I mean “me”. I’m scared. I’m the oldest, heaviest, and clumsiest. A cloven-hoofed boar in an aerie of eagles.
Before I have time to launch my scheme for self-preservation by sowing seeds of doubt, David spiders up the wall and through the crack before I have time to tell him he can’t do that. Damn it! Focus Doug! OK, I’ve still got Larry and Chad to undermine so it won’t look like I’m the failure. But Chad already has his hands on the ledge and pulls himself through. Larry has already started and now I figure I’d better watch how they’re doing it. I’m gonna have to climb.
David drops a parachute cord. I tie on a pack which they hoist and jimmy up through the crack. The thin line has got to hurt like hell itself, like hoisting an anchor with fishing line. The other packs follow. Now I’m all that’s left, the biggest pack of all. What’s the weight limit for that parachute cord? I can’t even climb a wall with hand holds. What am I going to do with this?
I want them to come back down. I want to descend the chimney, glacier, and ledges to hike 23 miles around this mountain? My hesitation betrays my thoughts, the guys know the score and begin raining encouragement down with apocalyptic fury. I’m not only the oldest, slowest, and clumsiest, I’m fatigued, dehydrated, and sunburned. I am silently emotional and want to cry. I want somebody to save my ass. Nobody will. I’m between a rock and a jumble of self-loathing. I want this all to just go away, but it won’t just go away. I am nauseous from knowing only I can make this go away. But I don’t think I can. Then what?
“Chimneying” is the climbing technique of placing opposing pressure on two opposite walls to work yourself up. As a kid Larry did this in the hall. Irritated me then, but like in Signs, it had a future payoff because he did it again right here. I never did it in the hall but I watched him now. It’s my only move. What I lack in prowess, I can only compensate with either cowardice or intellect. Cowardice is easier.
David tells me to tie the thin parachute cord around my waist. They’d do what they could. Right. If I slip it’s a bungee jump with piano wire. I am about to chimney for the first time in my life. The shouts from go nuclear. I’m either stoked or scared.
I don’t remember Clydesdaling up the wall because I’m unexpectedly enveloped in something else. Either I’ve become a different person or something has embraced me in this moment and taken over. Either way, I don’t know how “I” did it. Up at the slab, I’m myself again. I know this because I think “I can’t get over this slab.” This is weird because the last thought I remember is, “I can’t get up to that slab.”
Strong hands grab at me. Real human arms are pulling me. The guys have taken over where Whatever It Was left off. My feet leave the wall and I’m ludicrously pedaling in ten-feet of air. I’m embarrassed but nobody is watching except maybe Uncle Kenneth from Heaven. He always listened when I talked about the things I liked. Ribs bend but don’t break, belly scraps but I don’t vomit, and I’m up over the ledge. The boys have landed their whale. The Young Men and the Sea.
The sun is shining and the view fantastic. We flop down and laugh completely full of ourselves now. We are badasses. Shucks ma’am. It was nothing. My heart is hammering, I am I am I am I am I am I am… I turn away from the others so they can’t see the tears. I didn’t fail them. My head is pounding. Desperately I take another Diamox, but I’m beyond its reach.
We lug our wretched packs a short trek up to the ridge where our relief and jubilation are quickly extinguished. We’re looking down a 2,000-foot scree slope. Scree is the small chips of rock that flake off from the freezing and thawing of the mountain. There are hundreds of years of scree piled up ranging in sizes from toe to torso – all as sharp as broken porcelain. Another 35-degree slope, probably 40.
Our fatigued brains aren’t in figuring-stuff-out mode, such as maybe there’s a safer circuitous route we could find. If we’ve learned one thing today, it’s that we’ve learned nothing today. Straight down we go into the Sixth Circle of Hell. My legs wobble with the first steps but I soon forget about that as I’m consumed with not cartwheeling headlong into the chewing mouth of a shark. Each step is a 6 to 12 inch slide where you fight to keep your top-heavy balance until the rocks pile up enough to stop you. Do not fall into the blender!
My legs quiver with each slide and I’m scared. But I’m used to that now. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be afraid. A fall would here would mean an avalanche of severed body parts. We take a break at a boulder half-way down. Larry sets his pack down. It tips over and is soon tumbling down the slope coming to rest about 700 vertical feet down. Cheater. I really, really want to do that with my own pack. I’m new to backpacking but know you don’t do that.
Relieved of his pack, Larry skips like a young Bighorn down the rest of the slope picking up the stuff that flew off on the way down. He lays down on his pack to nap waiting for us. This irritates me. Nothing should make this easy for anyone if it’s not making it easy for me. We finally get down. I don’t feel well at all and am ready to vomit. We take a break and I never want to get up again. Five miles to the Flattop Mountain campground. We would have been there four hours ago if we’d stayed on trail and hiked the 23 miles.
It’s a death march and the mosquitoes are back. I remember nothing except the mosquitoes. Dead man walking. We’re at Flattop. I’m sick but I tell the guys I’m tired. It’s too hot to lay in my sleeping bag so I lay on my sleeping bag listening to them fumble their way into supper. I usually cook. I can’t sleep. Something is wrong. This isn’t just fatigue.
Larry unzips the tent flap and hands me a bowl of food and I’m suddenly overwhelmed. He zips it back up and I begin to cry, silently thank God. I’m in agony here and my mostly adult son whom I ceased being relevant to seven years ago in puberty really does care. It’s a father’s best dream come true. Its been in there all along and I’ve misjudged him. This simple act of a plate of food isn’t food, it is love. I am sure I am delirious but I will always remember this moment. You take what you can get. I backpack for the stories.
It’s a night of tossing and turning. We leave the next morning and I confess I’m not doing well and can’t hike two-thousand feet up to Granite Park Chalet. I want to hike out to the road and hitch hike back to the cars. They agree. I slog along with too many breaks. They want to get moving but they’re kind. It takes most of the morning to creep the five miles out to Packer’s Roost on Going to the Sun Road. I’m getting weaker. We sit on our packs on the shoulder of the road with our thumbs out. Nobody is stopping. Nobody will ever stop. I don’t blame them. We’re disgusting. Thugs waiting for a tourist.
New plan: I herd us off the road and send out only David and Chad, after they clean up a bit. They’ll get the SUV’s and come back to us. Another Purgatory of waiting. Somebody stops. They leave. We’re alone. Larry is with me and I’m glad. I think of the food. I’ve crashed in the shade but still can’t sleep. I feel awful and wonder if this is what it’s like right before you die. How embarrassing, right out here in public. Just another carcass along the side of the road. Don’t they pay people to pick those things up? Maybe I will get a ride. I figure David and Chad will be back in an hour and a half with the rides.
Three hours later I’m not too sick to be stressed. Something happened and they’re never coming back. I can’t figure out how to make my sister believe I really don’t know what happened to her son.
They return. We drive to West Glacier and get the last available room at the motel nobody wants. The guys clean up. I don’t and crash into bed. They happily leave for supper. I can’t sleep in spite of my absolute fatigue and toss and turn unable to get comfortable. I’m miserable. The guys return with some pizza for me. Love pizza, but I can’t. I need rest. Lights out. They sleep. I don’t. The witching hour brings delirium and the Seventh Circle.
I’m up early. The guys sleep. Something is watching me from the bathroom. What the hell? I’m out of my mind now. It moves when I do and I know something is up. I get out of bed and go to the bathroom and realize it is my own reflection in the mirror. But it’s not me. It is a puffy, sagging, and wrinkled face of a thing that moves when I do. I’m looking at Freddy Kruger with bell’s palsy and jowls.
I freak out and wake the guys from their deep R.E.M. I’m desperately croaking at them in my horse voice. They don’t know what this Thing is, why it was sleeping in our beds, why it’s dressed in my clothes, or why it’s jabbering at them about the ER. A Goldilocks gone horribly awry. The Thing suddenly leaves the room and they let out a collective, stifled breath. The Thing scares the desk clerk and people having their Free Continental Breakfast! but gets directions to an ER. I pass them along to the guys, who are more awake now and will pack up and follow along.
A young, unperturbed doctor with an awkwardly, uncomfortable soft-touch checks me out and listens to my story. He explains I’ve taken too much Diamox (for altitude which I’ve learned since that I didn’t even need for that low of an altitude) and when I got sunburned it caused a photo-chemical reaction hence the face. He prescribes a steroid. This is all happening too fast. Larry shows up and I think of the plate of food. I feel better. The guys follow him in. I get the steroid, we leave this god-forsaken place for Spokane which should be a relief but Circle Eight has just begun.
The steroid is horrible. My heart races and my breath quickens. I’m driving. Unperturbed, Larry reads Still Life with Crows. David and Chad are following in their SUV with no clue that I’m having a heart attack. The spell passes and I don’t die behind the wheel. An hour later we hit a swarm of locusts which I thought was only a Bible story. Geez, God again and His weird ways. Both SUV’s are a mess. The wipers and fluid can’t handle the goopy mess but we learn wads of grass from the ditch can.
We haul what’s left of our grasshoppers to Spokane and get a room. Same routine. The guys disappear. I try to sleep, but I can’t. My heart’s racing. I’m restless. It’s the steroid. Night isn’t any better. I’m in and out of bed. I have this intense craving, the worst craving I’ve ever had for anything, for orange juice. I can’t not be drinking orange juice at any time. I’m playing the vending machine like it’s slots and soon empty it of orange juice and begin getting it out of the machine on the next floor terrified that it too would run out. But I run out of small bills first and I lose my mind until morning.
The next day Larry asks if he can have his own room. I promise him I’ll do better. I don’t, but I stock up on three 64 oz jugs of orange juice before lights out. That night I can’t stand even the concept of orange juice and feel bad for wasting money. I pace around the motel and get drowsy. I go to bed and am wide awake. This is how I spend the night and feel bad for Larry, but we’re tight now. He served me food in my darkest hour. The first two days on the steroid, I don’t sleep at all (at all!) even though I’m exhausted. The third day I sleep 4 hours. The next day leave for home and I’m in the back of the plane, separated from the guys, with The Minnesota Lynx – Minneapolis’ women’s basketball team.
As always, thanks for reading.