Thursday, August 30, 2012

Not the Top

How do you say “I hiked the mountain,” when you didn’t actually hike the mountain?

At least—if you hiked up the mountain, but you didn’t quite reach the peak?

If, in fact, about ten minutes away from the peak, you decided to turn around and go back?

I promised this post about three weeks ago, soon after making the hike, and I nearly told it last week, until I was distracted by the story of another hike. So, here it is at last, the story of my journey up the mountain.

All journeys start with a path, and ours was no different—from the lodge, I set out with four other mountain climbers, all of us geared for steep crags, blinding snow, blizzards, and dehydrating heat.

Well, sort of.

I packed an extra water bottle, and we all took sack lunches. We had been told to plan 7-8 hours for the hike, but I forgot to ask about the terrain and didn’t hear about the last stretch until we were nearly at the top. All I knew was that the path went up.

In fact, we were given a crucial piece of advice just as we were setting out—“If you’re going down, you’ll never make it to the top.”

We kept that advice in mind as we head up the Beaver Trail, and out along the trail toward Tanalian Mountain. We made the first stretch in just about forty minutes, with only one stop along the way.

And then, after the slightest of dips, the trail began to go up…

…and up…

…and up.

We went from birch woods and root-infested paths to grass jungle in the space of a couple hours, and we were still far below the tree line. And the path was steep. We climbed five steps, stopped to catch our breath, climbed five more steps…

The view was great, though, if you like leaves.

On one side, through the trees, we could see the mountain, peeking above the forest.

On the other, we could see the lake, nearly hidden by a mass of trees.

Not to worry, though, the path kept going up—and up, over a rock slide, through more grass jungle, up mud slide after mud slide. I don’t see tall grass often here, or wet grass either, but this grass was very wet, and very tall. And the path went straight up the side of the mountain.

The trail did level out in places, and even dipped down along one or two low spots on the hillside, but it always reverted to old habits and started up again before we could get too worried.

Finally, we began to see patches of open space between the trees—and the open patches got wider and wider.

At last, about three hours after setting out, we cleared the trees. The hillside didn’t get less steep, but we managed to scramble up a couple hundred yards above the tree line, to a semi-level knoll a couple hundred yards. We’d already left two people in our party behind, but the remnant of our group thought we’d stop and eat before we went on.


I was ready to sit down and have lunch right there (it was noon, after all), but someone suggested we cross over to the next hump and sit there for lunch. From there, it might have been a case of the grass always being greener on the next hump, except that the humps very quickly ran out and left us with a steep drop and a gorgeous view, so we stopped just short of the edge and ate lunch looking down on the world.

After lunch, of course, we still had a mountain to scale, so we packed up once more and set off on the last stretch.

The path kept going up, when there was a path—and when there wasn’t, we scrambled up anyway over short-grass alpine meadows. Meanwhile, the peak got closer, and closer…

…and closer.

A third person stopped, deciding to wait for us, but I kept going with another girl, while the path climbed over a series of spurs, slowly getting narrower, and narrower…

…until I finally decided I didn’t like the idea of crawling up a two-foot-wide ridge. Three feet maybe, but two feet was a little too narrow, especially with a steep drop on grass and rocks on one side.

And a steeper drop onto a rockslide on the other.

I halted once, before I managed to push on another hundred yards or so, but then I stopped for good, and we started sliding down the path back to the jungle below.

The fun thing about going up a trail, obviously, is going back down, over steep grass, vertical mud slides, and a cliff or two. I think we made it down in half the time, and with only a few tumbles. By the time we reached the rock slide again, I was wishing I had tried just a little harder—maybe I could have made it, maybe if I could have just got past that one steep stretch, maybe…

But, in the end, we came, we climbed, and we came down again in one piece. We might not have reached the summit, but there are some small consolations. I am a writer, after all. The regrets are easing even as I begin to wonder curiously just how long I might be haunted by the shadow of this mountain—and which of my characters might find himself stuck on a thin ledge of rock wondering just how he got to this place, how he will get down, and why he can walk a sidewalk downtown, but not a two-foot-wide path four thousand feet in the air…


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