This week we’re writing from our main character’s point of view, which is a little funny for me considering I AM my main character and all. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to post tiny, early chapter from my work-in-progress, the sequel to Caged Eyes. The tentative title is ALPENGLOW, and it’s the story of my journey to climb Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and the healing that went along with it.
The two men I passed at 13,500 feet on Missouri Mountain each wore bold, navy shirts and khaki trekking pants, and they moved quickly, with long steps. I didn’t notice their silver hair or sagging, wrinkled cheeks until after I caught up to them. “Good morning,” I said as I squeezed by them on the side of the narrow trail. We were a traversing across the mountain’s face, cutting through a steep field of talus rock. I had been proud of myself for passing other hikers, the first time I had ever done so. Then I noticed they were old enough to be my grandpas. I, admittedly age-ist in the peak of my twenties, thought it would be more likely to see them at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Beautiful morning,” one of the men said. His sunglasses were attached to a flap of black leather, protecting his nose from the sun. We all paused and looked up at the clear sky, still unmarred by mid-day clouds.
“Sure is,” I said, and then, “See you up there.”
The trail switch backed so that I faced away from the summit, and then it steepened. Finally, I reached Missouri’s saddle. This mountain was less conical-shaped than many, and its summit was a mere high point along this narrow ridge. From my vantage point, I could now see the opposite valley from the one I ascended, a fertile green from the spring melt. A few patches of stubborn snow remained on the surrounding peaks.
I looked towards the summit. From here, I had only 350 vertical feet to gain, but I had to walk three-quarters of a mile along this skinny spine. A worn, dirt path carved through the rock, dropping to the right a few times to avoid jagged outcroppings. Easy enough, I thought. I had traversed about a third of the way from the saddle to the summit when the trail suddenly dropped between two clusters of boulders. I toed the edge of the loose rocks and dirt. Twenty feet below me, the trail reformed. I took a deep breath and a few steps down, leaning behind me on the rocks. The drop wasn’t quite as drastic as it had looked from above. But then the trail cut straight across the top of a steep slope that rolled down the mountain. I took a few steps and my feet slipped out from under me on the loose scree, the tiny gravel-like rocks. I looked down to my right and wondered what would happen if I fell, if I would land somewhere among the trees thousands of feet below. I reached my left hand to touch to the rock wall on the upside of the slope. My feet continued to slip, so I crouched down to the ground. Roach’s route guide had called this a crux, but none of the trip reports I had read online had any complaints about this section. Nothing about this mountain was supposed to be hard.
The two men with gray hair whom I had passed earlier came to the top of the ledge. “Hi, again,” one yelled.
“Hi,” I said, attempting to stand in an effort not to look like an amateur. I leaned into the rock wall once more, my feet slipping again.
“Don’t lean into the mountain so much,” the man yelled.
He stashed his poles under his armpit and stepped down the drop, touching his fingertips gently to the rock every few feet. “Like this,” he said, and he walked straight ahead of me as if the drop weren’t there, like he was walking across a paved, level parking lot. “The more you lean into the mountain,” he yelled back, “the more you slip.”
The second guy had now caught up to me. “Think of an arrow pointing from your hips down through your feet. You want to point the arrow as perpendicular to the ground as you can. If you slant into the upper part of the mountain, your legs will tend to slide out from underneath.”
“That makes sense,” I said, impressed.
“It’s funny: the more afraid you are, the harder it is,” he added. Then he stepped across the trail. Just like the first man, he walked as if he were out for a casual stroll.
I followed behind them, trying to match their bravado. Standing up straight was indeed easier. “How did you learn that?” I asked when I caught up.
“Experience,” one said.
For the remaining route to the summit, the men chatted about the numerous adventures in the Andes and the Himalaya, including Everest. They only stayed on the top for a few minutes, and eventually, when I had savored the view and the summit long enough, I was left on my own to retrace my steps. I had never before been as nervous about a descent as I had been about the ascent. Always before, it was the cardiac work of reaching the summit that made me afraid. I hadn’t ever felt scared because of the difficulty of the climb. At least on the way up, I had had the choice to turn around. But now I was committed to getting down this mountain safely. Back on the loose scree, I reminded myself of what the men had told me: stand up straight, don’t be afraid. I was reminded of an expression I learned years earlier when I first left the Air Force Academy: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” At the time, I took it to mean I should get dressed in the morning, smile, and try each day to be productive, even when that felt impossible given my chronic pain and PTSD. Fake it till you make it, I thought again – pretend to be brave even when you feel afraid – and I walked confidently across the top of the slope.