Shared Suffering and Summits: A Trip up Mt Hood
I have a tendency to come up with excuses when opportunities arise that don't have a clear purpose. Call it being overly pragmatic, but attempting to exist in a freelance world where the pressure to always be shooting, always traveling, and always figuring out what the next move is going to be has rewired my brain into one that looks for business and personal advantages in everything. It's a subconscious approach that without me realizing it until recently has eliminated room for the "just because" occasions; those things that we go do just for the sake of doing. They are the times where there isn't any prospect of a beautiful photo or an important business connection, the variables are completely out of our control and the expectations for the outcome have zero connection to the enjoyment of the experience.
It's a new year, and for maybe the first time in my life I took time to step back and analyze what I want to prioritize for the next 365 days. Last year I faced a bit of a burnout as 2017 came to a close. I had zero motivation to take photos and I felt like creativity was this elusive state of conscious that I couldn't quite close the fingers in my mind around. And as I began to try and unravel what it was that was so stifling, my thoughts kept drifting back to that word, "purpose". A dramatic shift needed to happen in regards to what the word purpose meant to me. How could I remap my brain to look deeper into moments, beyond the surface level of their purpose and how that relates to immediate business or financial gains, but rather at the connectivity of shared experience, the power of story, and ultimately the attempt to build a more human, more compassionate me.
This year is going to be the beginning of my search for those answers. And while I don't expect to find them anytime soon, one thing I do believe is that they can be found deeply rooted in our ability to say yes to opportunities that make us a bit nervous and also our ability to ignore the voice of temptation pushing us toward surface level purpose and a constant awareness of monetization. Which all leads me here...
So I said yes. Yes to leaving that night to drive a few hours to sleep in the back of my friend's truck and wake up early in the morning to start walking up to the top of a mountain. We had no clue what the weather was going to be like. All but one forecast called for high winds and heavy snow and rain, but this is my year for saying yes, right?
I have lived in Central Oregon for over 5 years now and had yet to summit a mountain on my own power. As a self-labeled "outdoor enthusiast", this always seemed like a ridiculous thing to not have had done with how many easily accessed summits there are within driving distance of my home. But that being the case, I figured why not do the biggest one in Oregon first. So I said yes and we drove to the Timberline parking lot of Mt Hood.
It was a little after 10pm when we arrived and the winds were howling and the snow was coming down sideways outside of the truck. My friend, Adam, had just bought a “new” camper shell off of Craigslist and laughingly admitted that he hadn’t spent an extended period of time sealing it and making sure there were no openings or leaks. So we spent the night in the bed of a truck, pushed together by the wheel wells, with enough periodic bursts of frigid wind and snow coming through the cracks in the shell to make sure we never fell into a deep enough sleep to get any real rest.
Our alarms went off without consulting with us first, and we struggled to get out of the warm sleeping bags and enter into the biting cold, knowing that it would mean the walking was soon to begin. There is always a bit of buzz when you first wake up for these kinds of missions. Some people call it adrenaline, but I like to think it sides closer with delusion. We each ate half a cookie, chugged some coffee, and began the shivering endeavor of getting geared up. Thankfully the sky broke in the night and we could see the stars and the faint outline of the summit of Hood. I had seen this mountain and views of its upper headwalls countless times, but something about knowing that we were hopefully going to be standing on top of it made it feel much more intimidating while staring at it. The beauty of this trip was that I entered it with zero expectations, leaving the gates open for me to celebrate if I made it any distance up the mountain and if the weather was any better than snowing sideways. So for me, a little bit of wind and clear skies meant that this trip was already a success. Right as we were finishing getting ready, Robbie, the third member of the party arrived, making it in record time from Portland. We all three stepped into our skis and began walking.
The next section of our trip was by far the most time consuming, and is by far the most difficult to write about. If you have ever spent any significant time in the backcountry, you know that the majority of your days are consumed by walking. One foot slides forward, one pole stabs into the snow, the other foot slides forward, the other pole stabs, and so on. The rhythm can be meditative sometimes, and during other times excruciatingly boring and exhausting. Eventually the group tends to spread out a bit and all you are left with is the sound of your heavy breathing, the crunch of the snow beneath your skis, and the voices and thoughts that begin to consume your mind.
Personally, these voices usually find themselves spinning in a cycle starting with self-doubt in regards to the ability to push on, to me becoming aware of that doubt and countering it with positive speak, to an appreciation for struggle and the place of presence these kinds of experiences take me. My mind, one plagued by an inability to focus on a linear task, needs these kinds of situations to force itself into a state of awareness where I am reminded what it feels like to slow down and breathe.
So breathe I did, and we walked, and walked, and walked as the sun rose above the ocean of clouds at our backs and illuminated the brilliant formation of rock in front of us. As we went higher and higher, we began to notice the effects of the elevation, and each five steps were soon met with a brief pause and a few deep breaths, followed by another five steps. In this fashion we made our way up, occasionally throwing out some small talk, but mostly trudging along in the tracks of those that were making better time and were far more motivated than we were.
After some time, we finally arrived at the point where our singular unit would divide into two. Adam and Robbie had plans to go up the Devil’s Kitchen Headwall, a more challenging route to the summit than the typical path through the Pearly Gates. This was my first time putting on crampons and using an ice axe, so we decided it was probably not in my best interest to attempt to follow them up their route. After a quick rundown of techniques on the ice and some words of encouragement, we parted ways and I began the slog up my route to the top.
A quick disclaimer is that I would not personally recommend anyone just say “to hell with it” and attempt to summit a mountain, use crampons, or use an ice tool without proper instruction and practice. There are guides for this sort of thing. My choice was a personal one, and with a background in rock climbing I was confident in my abilities to do the route. I also knew that Adam would not send me on my way solo without also being confident in what he was getting me into.
From what I hear, the scene near the top of Mt Hood is typically a long train of people making their way to the summit. Large amounts of people funneling their way into one ice climb can make for some less than ideal situations, so I had told myself at the beginning of our climb that if that was the case when I got near the top that I would back off the summit and try again a different day. The last thing I wanted during my first time climbing ice was to be scared and distracted the whole time that someone above me was going to fall or kick something down. Luckily, there were only three other parties of two near the top, all of who were making their way down as I was halfway up. This was huge for me as I was able to follow directly in the footsteps of the people who had gone before.
One slightly concerning aspect however, was that while passing each party on their way down, every single one of them made it a point to tell me to “be careful up there” and that the Pearly Gates “were a bit tricky today”. Perfect. Once again I set my expectations low, knowing that if I encountered anything out of my pay grade that I would turn around immediately. Despite the fatigue setting in, there was something transformative about being able to go through that final bit of the climb solo. A fine line exists where actual danger and perceived danger stare each other in the face. Although there were a few times that I had to verbally tell myself that I was okay, I knew that I never crossed that line into actual danger. Instead I was able to experience that seemingly brief moment of confidence that turns into a long-term building block for growth and improvement when any sense of self-doubt is overcome.
As beautiful as the summit was, and as much as I wanted to relish in the fact of what I had accomplished, I didn’t stay up there long and I didn’t take a single photo from the top. I was still processing the climb up a bit, but I felt somewhat indifferent about that point in time. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly gorgeous and I was proud of making it up there, but that specific moment was so far from what that trip was about for me. The whole idea of “embracing the process” and “enjoying the ride” seem to be beaten to death these days to the point where I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I hear them said. So go ahead and roll your eyes here, because I know I am as I type this. Sure enough, those damn cliches were true. This trip wasn’t about checking anything off of a list or standing atop some rock. It was a trip about physically and mentally pushing my comfort zones, but more importantly getting to share an understanding of those feelings with people that can only come through experiencing them together, and suffering a little together as well.
With that, I made my way back down to my skis as quickly as I could and worked my way over to our rendezvous point to rest my legs, eat a frozen bar, and wait for Adam and Robbie to join me. After just enough time of sitting to make my legs not want to stand back up, I saw Adam and Robbie making their way down the Pearly Gates. Adam chose to ride the line down from the base of the Gates, while Robbie worked his way from a little further down the Hogsback. They arrived with grins on their faces that told the stories of success, relief, and a bit of the exhaustion that comes with the territory. We excitedly told each other of our experiences while resting a little longer and shoving some calories down our throats. The last bit of the trip was coming up, which tends to be everyone’s favorite part...riding down.
We rode our way down the surprisingly good snow just as the sun was beginning to dip below the cloud bank we had become all too familiar with that day. Just as we crested over the hill back towards the lodge, Adam pointed out how incredible Illumination Rock looked with the clouds behind it. When you’re exhausted from a long day and honestly just want to get back to the car, it helps to have friends who push you that extra bit to pull out your camera and snap some more photos. So Adam and Robbie both charged their way towards the rock to try and keep enough speed to make a turn or two on the slope that reached it’s way to the base of the blocky fortress. I held back, snapped some photos as they rode, and put my camera away, grinning the entire time. No part of me understood what had happened at the time, but as I reflect on the trip decisions like that one and the reasoning behind them become a bit clearer. In a much smaller way, I had said yes again. It may have felt insignificant then, but hopefully it instilled a bit more of a positive reflex towards that list of goals that lives on a whiteboard in my office. Say Yes. Recognize Opportunities. Rationalize Fear. Seek out Purpose.