I’m reading Steve House’s book about the mountains. Not about training for alpinism, but the one about his adventures. And I notice that all those tempestuous storm clouds have turned pink. The sun is setting and I go outside and walk up to the top of the hill and I’m basking in the glow, then suddenly I sink down to my knees. My tears are so hot it feels like I have a sunburn. It’s cold outside. It almost feels like winter. I forget that leadville is like this. I’m not done thinking about this year but the weather feels like it’s wrapping up too fast. Im not sure I know yet exactly who I am.
So why did I choose running? This wasn’t the first time I learned this lesson and I was all set to choose climbing, I had gone down that road so far I was about to make a career in it, and the certifications I worked so hard to get were certainly not cheap. Then I threw it all away at the last minute, for running? For that smug bitch Heather!? [You’ll meet Heather later. This is called foreshadowing, and it’s making you more likely to read on, apparently. Maybe.] The reasons that I’m not a better climber pile up: they are the Himalayas of excuses. My chest feels tight. Love is physical. So is fear.
My first trip to the Tetons was with my friend Chris. I remember we went up one night to the lower saddle of the Grand, or almost up there. On the way down, we sat on the talus and looked at Irene’s Arete. It was and maybe still is the most aesthetic line I’ve ever seen. I had never felt that way about a rock climb before, it doesn’t even lead to the summit of anything! [However, it is one of the many aretes of everyone’s favorite Teton, Disappointment Peak!] That thing is the dramatic, smooth prow of the coolest, most badass pirate ship that you want to be on. It was the first time I had ever looked at just a rock climb, not a mountain, and thought, “I want to climb that.”
I haven’t. I’ve been back to the Tetons three times after that and I have not climbed Irene’s Arete. Why? I don’t know. Rock climbing scares me. You know what happens when something scares you and you neither do it nor face your fear? It gets fucking worse. You know what else scares me? People. Trusting new people, getting to know them. I looked through Mtn Proj a bit when I was in the Tetons this year for partners, and just said, “Nope.”
So I was reading this trendy self help book, because they’re like Pringles, and the girl said to think about your hero, then imagine what they would do when faced with the same decisions. Once you start, the fun don’t stop. So I thought about my heroes. Mike Libecki is the first name that comes to mind, don’t even need to think about that. Brette Harrington is the second. Of course I thought about Kilian, also Jessie Diggs, Andy Anderson, and Nick Elson, sometimes Steve House. So the thing about this list of people is, and I don’t know them personally, but I don’t think a single one of them would say they’re primarily a runner. Some of them are runners. But I don’t think even Kilian would say, “I’m a runner.” if you asked him what he does. I think for a moment, what if I had made all of my decisions thinking, WWMLD, What Would Mike Libecki Do? Put on an animal mask and said, “Why ration passion?” And I laugh, why indeed?
I can remember the first time I felt like I knew I was risking my life. It was physical. I don’t have a very good memory. Actually, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I can tell from other people’s reactions over the course of my life that they think my memory leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t remember what we’re fighting about if it goes on for more than one day. I forget dates, like birthdays. I forget if ive told a particular person a particular story (although, you can tell me your stories over and over because I probably won’t remember them after a certain amount of time). I forget what happens in books and movies so I can watch the same ones over and over and not even realize it sometimes. Anyway, I have a physical memories that are so visceral that I will never forget them [who can forget being charged by a bear? Really.].
I remember the first time I climbed a mountain and I thought, “I would die for this.” it was South Teton, and I was alone. You’re always unproportionately scared when you’re alone. But as I scrambled up this loose and snow filled gully, it wasn’t the first time I assumed risk and did something dangerous. It was the moment I realized the level of risk I was assuming and I said, yes. I will. It was a great relief, like a low pressure system moved in and the sky itself put less pressure on my body.
I remember what it felt like the first time Chris and I climbed Middle Teton, gained the ridge to the north and suddenly stood face to face with the Grand Teton, it was like I could open my ribs up like Hanuman and anyone could see my heart beating for it. I remember standing on the summit of Harvard, and being able to see the entire Nolan’s line in both directions and finally understanding the aesthetic of that line, each summit lighting up like the Plinko board and it was as if I could feel the routes and the summits and all the miles I’d spend on them cumulatively, it was like my heart grew outside of my body and wrapped itself around this mountain range like a bubble. I remember falling into a crevasse on Rainier (like it was yesterday!) I could feel the blackness yawning beneath me, and of course the melting relief of getting down safely, every cell in my body vibrating with joy, nearly exploding like tiny fireworks when we got back to the parking lot and sang “We didn’t die! We didn’t die!”
I’ve had some good ones running, too. This isn’t anything against just running in general, it’s against Heather. Don’t forget. I remember the first time I ran up something so hard that when I summited and stopped moving, it felt like my whole body evaporated into the air, and I swear I could feel wind pass through me, gravity clearly not being strong enough to hold my cells together. I remember coming down Elbert so fast, my toes barely brushing the ground and I felt like I was flying. I can only vaguely remember any of the races I’ve done, the most memorable things being, of course, the vomiting and the pain.
I’ve stood up, walked back to the truck, and laid down in the back, on my belly, on top of the sleeping bag. I have Steve House’s book open before me [actually, it’s on a Kindle, if you’re really trying to picture this, and I’ve got a forkful of eclair that’s hanging precariously in the air] and I’ve just read “Now that I’ve finished it, I am afraid I may have failed. Failed to answer questions such as why I take deadly risks, why I leave home for months at a time, and why I routinely spend my savings on air tickets to remote lands. But I see success in degrees, and failure provides valuable lessons. The depth of any story is proportionate to the protagonist’s commitment to their goal, the complexity of the problem, and the grace of the solution. Success must never be assured.”
My chest gets tight, which, not being something I feel very often at all, is immediately uncomfortable. It feels like my ribs are closing in on my heart and lungs. I read on, “When I stood on the greatest summit I’ve ever achieved, success vaporized. The moment we think we have atained the goal, we lose it. Success is empty. The sum of all our luck, judgments, lessons learned and heeded, elevation gained and lost, our fitness and skill is zero.” the forkful of eclair continues to be suspended in midair, so near my dumbfounded mouth, but so far.
The universe puts things in your way when you need them. I would’ve read this book ages ago but I didn’t know he’d written such a thing. I’m cried out, I guess, probably too dehydrated for more tears as the altitude is ravaging my body once again. I’m always thirsty. It’s clear now in that one word, success. My mind is waging a war of ideals, and this year, success won. It buried what I wanted to do, it asked me to bleed for it. But mountain running is an honest sport. I’ve given the same advice to several people regarding their first ultra, “You need to know what you’re fighting for, because when you really start to suffer, your mind will do anything to make you stop, and if you have nothing to fight for, you will.” the values or ideals I had around success asked me to lay my body down for it. And I didn’t.
I mean, I didn’t stop, I finished the damn thing. I’ve thought a lot about what the most important value is to me, and I know it’s Never Give Up. That’s the thing I aspire to be, and when I am that, it’s what I’m the most proud of. I’ve now spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in that race. Didn’t I give up? I described it afterwards as, “I blew it, and I knew I was blowing it, and I didn’t care.” It took some suffering to really polish up my underlying motives and see what I was up against. There I was, asking my body for something that I wanted, SUCCESS, but that I also knew I didn’t really want at all. Gosh it’s hard to explain, and certainly I’m writing all of this because it’s helping me work through it more than you care to know this much about the inner workings of my warped, forgetful, prideful, obsessive, but at least devoted brain. I finally eat the eclair.
[Let’s give the-values-or-ideals-I-had-around-success-and-pride a name, and that smug bitch shall be called Heather, not because of anyone I know personally named Heather, but because I recently watched Heathers.]
When Heather asked me to destroy my body for her, I didn’t. My mind struggled with this a bit, and mind you, at this point I was what? 6,000ft of climbing and somewhere around 17 miles in? I thought, if I don’t pull it together now, I’m going to be a failure, I’m going to be humiliated. Like I’m suddenly the center of the universe and anyone cares about the nonsense I get up to! Heather asked me, “But what about your dreams!?” and I thought, THIS? Heather, is this my dreams? I have a big long list of dreams and “climb a long Jeep road to nowhere as fast as you can because if you’re better at it than other people, you’ll get some kind of recognition for being strong.” is nowhere on the fucking list. Actually, when I think of the list, I’m ashamed, because I didn’t do a single fucking thing on it this year and instead I wasted all my time on …. Ugh, we’re back here again. No, I don’t regret it, because I had to know. Now I know. [Fuck you, Heather!]
I hope I go back through and edit this before I post it and somehow make it funnier. I’m not sure how, but I aspire to do that. Although, Steve House is basically never funny, so if I thought right now, WWSHD? It wouldn’t be, go back through and make your writing funnier. Ugh but if I thought, WWMLD? It totally WOULD be, lighten this up a little. Why my heroes got to be conflicting me like that? I’m not sure how, but this is all Heather’s fault.
No, actually, you know what? Heather, that asshole, wanted me to fight for something that is not in line with my values, but is moreso culturally ingrained in me. But I stood up to her, despite that it meant I’d have to walk away with nothing, whether anyone else cared about it or not. And muddled in there with the moping and failure and waste and feelings of nothingness, also the identity crisis and the crushing lack of confidence, I actually am proud of that.
I went climbing a couple times this week. It was hard. Some of the time I felt strong, some of the time I felt weak, some of the time I felt frustrated, some of the time I felt inspired. It’s just like anything else that’s worth doing, I suppose. Heather showed up on one pitch, and I wondered if I’d always be fighting her, trying to trick her or slap her or pull her hair and hoping she’ll leave me alone to pursue what I actually want. This was certainly not our first fight, but at least I know her style better now. I’m starting to learn her weaknesses. I climbed a new mountain the other day, during a linkup of other mountains I’d climbed before. It was like, 13,9-something which means that it has no trail and never gets climbed, despite being less than 100 feet off of being a coveted 14er. I looked out at the inifinite mountains, over the Sawatch, towards the Elks. I closed my eyes and I could feel the pull of the space between earth and sky; the groundedness in my feet on the summit’s talus, the lift of my heart to the sun. I get this feeling a lot, but it’s still my favorite. I think, “This. I will do anything for this.”
[And there’s no sign of Heather anywhere]
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