Is it possible to de-assess myself? Stress is weighing on me, heavier than the sixty pounds of gear and food I am shouldering up this long, steep gully. Kick, kick, step with the left foot; breathe. Kick, kick, step with the right foot; breathe. Kick, kick, step with the left foot; breathe. And on and on and on, again, and again, and again.
“Yeah, why don’t you just take some time and relax. I’m fine, heck, I’m excited to teach a bunch of classes.” Will looks at me over his bowl of fried granola, pausing, seemingly thinking of the offer. Around us the snow and clouds engage in an ongoing debate, regardless of who is winning, snow falls sideways from the sky, landing, existing, and finally melting into oblivion on my jacket and gloves; I watch its transition absent-mindedly as breakfast is eaten and plans are made. The sleep of the dead had overtaken me last night and I am buoyant and eager.
Over the course of six days in the North Cascades, indeed in the course of six hours, or as many minutes, I ride the wave.
Around us the weather is holding. Above us Cache Col seems much closer than it did several hours ago; the same could be said about its feasibility. Clouds flit over and around the broad saddle but there is enough of a view to make me think it wouldn’t be that bad. Optimism is more prevalent than forty-five minutes ago. My emotions oscillate with the regularity of a metronome. It doesn’t seem that difficult. The weather isn’t that bad. The other side is an unknown, but that is my job. Manage risk. No problem. Our perspective reveals less of a cornice, more of a headwall. Something will happen. It’ll be fine.
The stress has returned. The col was surmounted and we pushed down to camping below Kool-Aid Lake. But now the weather has settled in. “This storm is gonna have a little pop in it” Kyle had said a few days earlier when we encountered him and his friends on the side of Sahale. The word “pop” came out with a sound effect matching the word. I said nothing, simply sat there wondering what that actually meant. Now the “pop” was here. Temps dropped, rain changed to snow, clouds settled in, and the wind picked up. Pop. Our location over the col meant forward progress had been made. But where to from now? How many days? How will we get around Arts Knoll or down the glacier? Can Mike walk across snow-covered boulders? Will we move quick enough? So many questions, so few answers. The unknowns pull at my emotions. I sigh my sigh of sighs, a long pursed breath.
At the re-ration/transition, Prani talks about plans for the coming ration. He has come to replace me. We talk students, skills, classes taught, worries, hopes, and dreams. He feeds me delicious curry from a small metal bowl. I think of the fun they will have on their way up Glacier Peak. It will be hard and yet I have fear of missing out–FOMO. It has been six nights and five days. They couldn’t get me to go at first, now I want to stay.
Mountains have never been easy for me. They have never been straightforward. Despite having spent a large portion of the past twenty years in vertical, mountainous terrain, experiencing feelings of competence or feelings of confidence is rare. And I don’t know the fuck why. Alone or at work, personal or professional, it doesn’t make a difference. In actuality, it is not as though I am incompetent. My brain tells me that, my emotions tell me different.
The breadth of emotions I experience as I approach, ascend, descend, and reflect are predictably variable. I can usually depend on doubt and fear. I can usually depend on nervousness and dread. Relief comes when I am out of the mountains. Relief comes when I give in to the urge to bail. It comes when I stop looking up and start looking down. And with that relief comes the feeling of incompetence, one of defeat. There is sadness and resignation too. Elation, inspiration, contentment, humbleness, competence, and confidence are there, but uncommon and fleeting.
I ride the wave, I dislike the emotions, but I feed the addiction, the one that has me keep trying the same things and expecting different results. I keep trying the only way I have ever known.
I guess the good part is that optimism always wins out.
Featured Image: Students ascending the Sahale Glacier in North Cascades National Park, WA