How can something so beautiful be so, so… unforgiving, or maybe unwelcoming? The mountains of New Zealand are cruel mistresses. They tempt me with their beauty, accessibility and challenge. I teeter around her outside edges, staying low and sneaking peeks up her valleys and up her mountains. I move in for a summit attempt and the fury of her storms and wind deny me access to her bounty. My hand slides up her shirt to cup her breast and the hand of a long protracted storm pushes it away again and again.
I saddled up for another round, a second austral spring in Aotearoa knowing full well what was to be expected. It is the mountains that drew me back, tempting me again. Now at the end of a second season of work in these hills I have not ruled out coming back.
The Southern Alps I know are tinged with clouds, brutalized by wind and not easily granting of their affections. They are audacious flirts, lifting their cloud cover just long enough for me to get a glimpse, get fired up, and strike off up their flanks and ridges before once again, shrouding themselves with the long white cloud. The Southern Alps I know are dull greywacke and argillite covered peaks rising into and through heavy wet clouds that swirl around their tawny, tussock covered bottoms. I know all to well what these mountains can be like but I come back anyway. Maybe it is because I know what these mountains can be like that I come back.
I awake to a calm sky and walk to the toe of the glacier, ambling across the loose moraine, my socks continually bunching around my instep in my Holeys. Standing high on the lateral moraine, the rising sun casts my shadow on the dry glacier far below. The high, snow covered, divide peaks stand, encircling the McCoy Glacier, inviting with open arms. The wanting returns.
Back in camp we simultaneously work and relax as high cirrus clouds stretch out lazily up in the stratosphere. The torrential waterfalls that cascaded down every wall yesterday are mostly gone and below us both forks of the McCoy Stream have mellowed. I sit next to Sean and eat a breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Across from me students strum the ukulele, hang out and banter about the storm. I stare to the west and my eyes trace the passes and peaks of the Cloudy Peak Range and the dreaming begins again. It begins again even though I know it will end in heartbreak. In the moment though the future could only be perfect and I love the moment.
Last night Sean and I talked about how this storm was making next fall’s work requests that much easier. We talked about type two fun and about running like chicken from the next wave of rejection that was headed our way. Thirty-six hours with nary a wink of sleep. Running through driving rains, anchoring tents, tightening guy lines, bracing and sewing tents, we both agreed that it was not worth it, not worth the cold shoulder of the mistress that only kisses us when she is drunk. But now twelve hours removed from the last heinous gust, again she opens her arms to let us in. She looks warm and inviting but we know that there is danger lurking over the divide. We want to push higher though, go further, explore a little more. We know the outcome but will do it anyway.
Tucked away underneath our cerebral cortexes, a cluster of nerve cells, the nucleus accumbens, once again releases dopamine. Pleasure is felt the morning after, even during. Repeated bouts of the good fight, battling wind, rain and snow, and coming out on top (alive) have caused our decision making part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) to communicate with the nucleus accumbens in a way that makes us seek out the source of our contorted pleasures. So we climb up into these hills, throw ourselves at these peaks and get pummeled. Sometimes it is the intensity of the storm and sometimes it is the intensity of the climb that provide the rush and the ensuing release of dopamine.
I feel intense urges to be in the mountains but am not driven by the summit. It is being in these environments. I know the consequences and loathe them while they are happening, whether those are weather beaten nights in the tents, all night rappels in the teeth of a gale or the lost wanderings around a glacier in a whiteout. I swear it off again and again. Still I come back for more. I know what severe gales can feel like and I know what they can do. I know what heavy precipitation and novice students can do. I have seen the consequences and I loathe them but the morning after is the high. It is the thrill of one more notch in the belt, another mountain experience. It is the having climbed, or tried, that I revel in, but I can’t decide if it is the knowing or not knowing that keeps pulling me back for more, cause maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll get lucky.