The mountains of today
I forget even now which one of us said it. “Some years since we have stood on a summit together eh?” I did the math in my head, nodding slowly and gazing absently at the unfamiliar peaks spread out around us. “Glacier Peak, and the one to the right is Baker. And a lot I don’t know.” Dylan pointed to the two prominent peaks in the distance, and I tried again to hold some semblance of orientation. North. East. South. West. I tilted my head in each direction, getting my bearings. There was a Gatorade bottle stuffed with tightly rolled pieces of paper as the summit register. Loose sheets and a cheap little notepad advertising some prescription drug, like one found in a doctor’s office waiting room, were scrawled with a few dozen entries spanning five odd years. I didn’t add an entry to the disarray.
Counting years in one’s head becomes a complicated endeavor as they begin to blend together. Maybe I need to take better notes or something; I’m definitely too young to be showing the signs of the Alzheimer’s carried in the genes of my father’s family. It was 2013, a ski trip to Mount Rainier’s Fuhrer Finger. Even that year, it had been a couple years since we had tied off to opposite sides of a climbing rope. But nothing changes really. Like the old adage of riding a bicycle: you don’t forget how to do it. The motions remain the same, the motions of climbing a mountain with an old friend.
Sometimes the motions terrify me, whether in climbing or even driving a car. Like when, despite having been in your own lane for miles, you realize that you haven’t really been paying attention to the road. Or when threading a rope through an anchor and rigging yourself for a rappel becomes second nature and you must remind yourself that a lapse in that action, taken over by muscle memory, could have life or death consequences.
I was in my hometown a few days before coming out to Washington. I ran into Dylan’s father on the street, on the one night a month where Hamilton, Montana closes down a half a block on Main for a band and a beer tent. “You guys are my heroes,” Bosco told me. “Climbing mountains, traveling, living out of trucks, and all that crazy shit. But be careful out there. At Dylan and Sara’s house, you know, their fridge is covered with memorials and all; seems like someone is always dying in the mountains.”
Out in the outskirts of Bellingham, the mentioned refrigerator had more “Save the Dates,” holiday cards, and pictures of dogs than memorials, though I did note a funeral program for two guides who died on Rainier on the adjacent wall. Dylan shrugged when we talked about it at our camp outside of Mazama a couple nights later. His shrug wasn’t one of indifference, but rather one of vulnerability. Yeah, a few this year. Not doing anything particularly hard or particularly stupid, he told me. No more dangerous than driving a car, just bad luck. He told me about the falling ice that got way too close this year, and how his co-guide, a veteran Mount Everest Sherpa, had thought “the one” had finally caught up to him. We went back to quietly sipping our beers from the tailgate of the truck.
I don’t know if I could tell you the first mountain that Dylan and I climbed together. Just that we were teenagers in western Montana, cutting our teeth and building our chops in the Bitterroot Mountains. Canyon Peak, Sky Pilot, North Trapper, and all the others – they were a long time ago, and the foundations of the mountains of today. Lately, our mountains have been different. Dylan is a mountain guide, climbing Rainier and Baker more times than he cares to keep track of. North to Alaska for Denali some summers, and south to Argentina for Aconcagua some winters. Myself, the ski mountaineering in the Teton Range has kept me in Jackson, Wyoming for too many years. We tell the stories of who we’ve become as mountaineers, the stories of the peaks we haven’t shared that fill in all the little gaps between the ones we have, from those days in the Bitterroots to today, atop the lofty summit of Cutthroat Peak, looking down at Highway 20 and outward from deep within the North Cascades.
Dylan talks of clients, expeditions, and the side-work that prevents him from burning out as a mountain guide. Myself, more about skiing off summits, and the things that make me think about quitting: watching a partner get dragged through a rocky choke, having another pop a couple pieces of a rappel anchor and nearly break rule #1 (don’t fuck up and die), or about the people who have broken rule #1 on the very lines and summits I have skied off. But also the places we’ve been together: the desert towers in Southern Utah, skiing off the summit of Rainier, or the unlikely pleasant October weekend we were able to sneak into the Wyoming’s Cirque of the Towers. And about the future things we hope to do: little summits in Dylan’s North Cascade backyard, a ski trip to Denali, or to get back out on something in the Bitterroots, something we haven’t done since finding a decomposed suicide victim on a remote summit eight years ago (another story for another time).
Back on the summit of Cutthroat Peak, we have another route planned for the next day. Dylan points across the valley to the Liberty Bell group: the Liberty Bell, Lexington, Concord, and the Early Winter Spires. I immediately forget which of the middle ones is which, focusing on the dramatic bookends of the namesake Liberty Bell and the South Early Winter Spire, our objective for the next morning. That night at camp, we cook dinner on the truck’s tailgate and take the last sips of our beers before brushing our teeth and crawling into sleeping bags. We don’t set an alarm or set up a tent, counting on a clear night and an early sunrise that will wake us with plenty of time to make coffee and breakfast, pack bags, and drive up the road to the trailhead.
We go to bed to wake up and do it again; the mountains of today quickly become the mountains of yesterday as they are added to the collective of our shared experience. They become the stories we will recall the next time we meet for beers as one of us passes through the other’s town, the next time we take in the view from a quiet mountain summit, or the next time we sit on a truck’s tailgate after a climb. They will become the stories we tell our kids someday, the old photos that will adorn our walls, and the explanation as to why we chose to live our lives the way we did.