Friday, June 7, 2013

Peace, sans the summit

I saw Anick for therapy this morning at 11 a.m.. Her office window boasts a beautiful view of this mountain. The hiker's body was discovered last night at the base of a 60 ft cliff not far from the trailhead. I estimate he probably hadn't been on the mountain more than an hour before his fall. Early in the session I noticed a helicopter flying along the mountain where search and rescue had been working. It puzzled me and so I watched carefully. Why would they be back the next day when the search was over? When I learned the answer I was stunned.

Every time I step foot on a mountain I immediately become aware of my mortality. Hiking is a choice to gamble with odds that aren't always in my control. Most women my age have grown past the teenage  sense of invincibility; I'm still waiting for an adult portion of caution to set in. M— asked me if people were avoiding this trail out of respect for the fallen. I told her that they might, but that my show of respect is different. Hiking this trail today was retribution, taking the threat of the mountain's power and showing it that the human instinct to climb is indomitable. But I was aware, more this time than before, that my feet are just as fragile as any others who've walked its path.

M— and I chose a poor time to leave on our hike. 4 p.m. temperatures on this mountain are sweltering, and I believe most of our time and effort was spent on the switchbacks to the main trailhead and then to the point where the hiker fell, where the trail wraps around the southern aspect of the pass, away from the unrelenting sun. There was a deep feeling of calm along this part of the trail. It is sometimes said that violent deaths are followed by unsettled atmosphere, a malevolence. If that be the case, this was a quick, gentle death. Or at least, and this I believe, this boy's soul is truly at peace.

We pushed on. The steepness of this trail is a challenge. It also takes hikers into bear country—a rest spot labeled "Bear Flats" on the map—and with reports from search and rescue that the animals are abundant in the area we were both a little jumpy, even with the bear spray holstered to my hip. The final length of the trail is devoid of switchbacks. Instead, it charges straight up the back of the mountain at a grade that leaves seasoned hikers winded every few yards. We probably marched 1/4-1/2 mile up the mountain before the light began to give out and M—'s anxiety began to get the better of her and she was seeing things everywhere in the shadows. By this time, 7:30 p.m., we had been hiking for 3 1/2 hours and were probably only another 1/3 mile from summiting, but I called it off. Besides the other issues, which were plenty cause to cut the hike short, we'd promised M—'s dad we'd be back by 9 p.m. I didn't want to give him a scare.

We turned around and immediately M—'s spirits improved. We talked all the way back, discussing what we'd learned from the hiker's death, how it applies to our family, how we worry about E— because he is bold and fearless and won't listen when he is told to stay on trail. We talked about agency and tragedy, about being able to trust in ourselves at the same time that we must be aware that we have little control over other variables in any given situation, about the need to return and report. 

There was a perfect amount of light left to bring us out of the deep woods, back to the first bend around the face of the mountain where the hiker fell. There on a rock lay a bouquet of flowers left by some anonymous mourner. It was an image that made my heart momentarily stand still. M— asked if we could pick some to leave too, and so, for a few minutes before continuing toward the conclusion of our gesture of defiance against this mountain, we did.

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