Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What it's like to Climb a Mountain

People often ask me what it's like to climb a mountain.

Usually I hem and haw, and just say things like, "You just have to do it, it is totally worth it."

I don't want to discourage anyone, or make them realize how desperately uncertain the whole deal is.

In an act of random truthfulness, I have decided to give you an in-depth view of what you can expect to experience should you decide that you, too, want to climb a mountain.

First of all, please realize, I never actually "climb" on mountains. I don't know how. I walk on them. Sometimes it is steeper than other times, but I don't use ropes, and I wear hiking boots. Cliff faces are appealing, but I am pretty sure that climbing up cliff faces would lead to my death, so I haven't tried it yet.

  1. You get up at a godawful hour because in the summer (which is the only time you can really do this without ropes), there is going to be a thunderstorm in the afternoon. This happens pretty much daily. So you want to give yourself enough time to go up, get to the top, and get back down below treeline before being zapped by lightning (which can be uncomfortable). Do not be lulled into a sense of ease when the sky is amazingly blue, and the forecast is for "severe clear". It will change.

  2. Get winded between your car and the trail head. This is the mountain telling you that it is going to spend the day trying to kill you.

  3. Walk for a bit. Realize the trail is uphill. It will be uphill all day, just so you know.

  4. Yes, you may feel like you are going to die.

  5. Stop for a snack, but don't get too comfortable. If you get too comfortable, it will be like starting over. For every second you stop, your brain will try to forget how freaking hard this is, and it will be that much worse when you get going again.

  6. I would recommend 20-30 second "photo op" breaks every time you start wheezing. This gives you an excuse to catch your breath without losing face.

  7. The trees may start getting shorter and leaning at odd angles that defy gravity. It will start to get even harder to breathe here, but who needs breath?

  8. Once you get past the point where trees can survive, you will notice strange little animals, pretty flowers, and snow on the ground at the end of June. Often, this snow will not melt all year. This is to remind you that hey, if even trees can't survive here, what the hell am I doing?

  9. You will submit to endless plodding over rocky terrain after even the grass stops growing. There will be little to no dirt here, just rocks that will attempt to turn your ankles, beat up your feet, and make you feel even more unstable than you should with the thin air.

  10. On average, if you don't do this enough, or you are just getting started for the season, you will go slower than you think you are going. I generally calculate a ridiculously slow rate of slightly slower than 1 mile per hour on the way up, and somewhere around 3 on the way back. If the top of the mountain is 6 miles away, plan on it taking 6 hours up, or 9 hours total. Often it will take 12. Just be warned.

  11. Consider turning back at every step. Think about maybe faking an injury so you can go home and stop torturing yourself. Possibly, you should cry silently behind your sunglasses. It might be tempting to smoke a cigarette. You will feel better for a minute, but it may not be the smartest thing to do. Resist if you can without killing anyone.

  12. You had better have enough water. If you run out on the way up, just go back. Plan on 2-3 liters minimum for 8 hours of walking. It seems like quite a bit, but you will need it or your head will explode.

  13. You will not need to go to the bathroom until there aren't any trees. Mountains like to embarrass you.

  14. The top will seem like a few hundred yards away for the last two to three hours of walking. There will be false summits, and everything is farther away than you think because you are moving slowly, and there is nothing to compare the rocks you see above to. They are not pebbles. They are boulders.

  15. Victory will be sudden. HOLY CRAP YOU MADE IT! People have different things they like to do here. Sign the log to prove they did it, take a nap, eat something, take a bazillion pictures. The view will be amazing. You will spend more time at the top when you plan.

  16. The clouds moving in make everything look magical. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. The clouds are like lure fish. They want to eat you. It will talk longer than you think to get below treeline. Remember how your brain tries to forget how hard everything is on your way up every time you stopped? Your brain will also think you are done, accomplished, and can relax now that you are at the top. Realize you are only halfway through the hike, distance wise. You are only about a fifth of the way though it, danger wise. Most accidents happen on the way down.

  17. Probably, the thunderstorm will catch up with you as you scramble down. Realize that this will suck. This might be accompanied by driving rain that will hit the backs of your legs hard enough to leave welts, and hail stones traveling at about 100,000,000 miles per hour and flying sideways.

  18. The return trip will pass in a haze of fear and pain. Going downhill for 6 miles is a bit harder than going uphill for 6 miles because you are more tired and it stresses your joints more. You will find yourself dreaming of the idyllic uphill climb from earlier.

  19. I would suggest taking breaks on the way back. Very few people do, and this part of the hike will turn into a death march.

  20. Quite suddenly, you will be at the car, and the ordeal will be over (assuming, of course, you didn't fall into a ravine, take a wrong turn, get eaten by a bear, struck by lightning, or any number of other dangerous things that can occur).

  21. In the days that follow, you will experience a strange bliss. And may wish to brag. Most of your pictures will be from the walk up and at the top. There will be little evidence of the tortuous trip back. The pain and desperation will fade, and all you will be able to think about is which mountain to tackle next.

P.S. Keep in mind that if you are safe about the whole thing, you will probably fail more than you succeed when climbing mountains. As you become more experienced, this won't feel so much like "failure", but if you are honest, you are one.


Molly said...

I love this. I like how it's just a little cheeky to keep you interested and remind me you have a sense of humor but you also now how to stay on task and write well!

Love this line: "get back down below treeline before being zapped by lightning (which can be uncomfortable)." It reminds me of something Douglas Adams would write.

I'd love it if you could check out my blog sometime, withmonsters.blogspot.com.

Rachelle said...

"Realize the trail is uphill. It will be uphill all day, just so you know."

Dude, this is deep. Also fucking hilarious - I grew up in the lower mainland of British Columbia, and always managed to make myself forget that there aren't really any flat spots on the trail.