Climbing As Epilogue


Last week I got invited, spur of the moment, to climb Mt. Rainier’s Kautz glacier. The following is based on that experience. Please consult our Obligations page if any confusions arise.

I am laying on my back in the dirt and scree of the crater rim. I smell a hint of sulfur in the mist blowing from the fumarole a few yards away and I can’t tell if that’s what is making me nauseous and dizzy. I wonder, in an oddly detached manner, if I am about to pass out. I should eat something and drink something and get out some sunscreen and put on my shell jacket but I don’t. The sun, from which yesterday I wanted shade, is now covered by a thin layer of clouds. This preoccupies me to an inordinate degree. I shift my back against the rocks, shaky and confused, and try to form a new plan. I’m not going to be warm here. It’s too windy and too early in the morning and I need to eat something and drink something and put on my shell jacket and start down. I don’t know what cerebral edema feels like but I remember having a pneumothorax and not being able to catch my breathe no matter how hard I breathed. This place feels like death, like if I sit here long enough I’ll just fade away.

I am balancing on my front points placing an ice screw, and then another. The cores are good but the ice looks rotten and I can’t stop thinking about taking the fall I’ll take if I weight this anchor and it rips out. I balance, one foot sideways, and clip in to the master point, but I don’t lean back and instead start building the v-threads with one hand while the other holds my ice tool. My father is standing a few feet away on the snow with our other partner, Alan. They know what I’m doing, but they’ve never done it themselves; I’m going to toss them the ropes and they are going to rappel first. It occurs to me, as Alan starts down, my father already in the snow at the base, that I weight thirty pounds more than either of them. In the tent the day before I was reading Marcus Aurelius: there is no cause to curse fate, only our decisions can have morality, can be good or evil, and to die doing what is right is no evil. I weight the v-threads and remove the anchor, all the convolutions of slings and quickdraws and ice screws reduced to two cords through holes in the ice and a hundred and twenty meters of rope dangling underneath me. At home before I left I was reading Daniel Quinn: What is the knowledge that all civilized people have that they wonder at its absence in the savages they encounter at the ends of the earth? The fruit of the gods passed through them without nourishment – the lie at the heart of all our arrogance. I spit out the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and let the rope slide through my hands. Forty seconds, maybe sixty, and my descent is finished. Today must not be the time ordained for me to die.

I am striding through the scree beneath the glaciers and into the parklands and it rises up from the pines and the flowers, this scent like joy made fragrant. After these days of ash and wind and gritty water these meadows seem like a new heaven and earth created just for us. Every part of me is in pain but I don’t feel a thing. Rushing on, to pure water and hot food and rest, I almost wish I could stay here and never have to see what surely waits in the forest below.

I am sitting in my car, mapping a route to a very tall bridge. There is a gas station across the street and I came here to purchase alcohol but then thought maybe otherwise, maybe it was time to be leaving. To live a life is to enact a story, to choose a course and bear it out, but epilogues do not have destinations and I have been aimlessly tacking on pages for longer than I have been going places like that crater rim. Up there the haze seems to be of another world entirely, the meadows flattened out the peaks lost all perspective, it could be a painting but for the red moon that moves above it all, but it is wholly one thing, the ice and pines and the fires far away. You cannot pick out the parts that love you. You do not have to know what is good and what is evil to see the imbalance of this: there is one mountain and though it feels massive beneath your feet the smokey hills outweigh it by many orders of magnitude. If fate decrees that you be alone all your life can you still lower your head and give praise to the gods? Are there some ordinations against which you can and must rage? Do you have to be a part of this world?