One Step At A Time
It was the summer of ‘83 and the July air was warm and dry. The grass in the hills surrounding my house had turned a beautiful glowing golden color, providing cover for the thousands of grasshoppers in their mating season. Their mating call, a never-ending drone, could be heard above all other noises and overhead shimmered a vast expanse of blue sky. Northern California’s summers set a precedent for Mother Nature’s beauty. Yet, I dwelled indoors, bored and depressed; wearing shorts; I sat on the couch changing the channels of a thirteen-inch black and white television, while unamusing reruns of “Bugs Bunny” and “TJ Hooker” polluted my thoughts.
My seventh grade school year had ended a month previously and, since the first day of my vacation, I had been unable to constructively occupy my time. My mother had pushed, prodded and threatened me with an all-out effort to displace me from my stagnant state of mind. However, two days later she informed me that she had discussed with my father the prospects of sending me on a wilderness trek with a group teens, called “Siskyou High Adventures”. I didn’t blame her for showing hesitancy; in fact I think she expected me to flatly refuse to consider her idea. Surprised her with my remote interest, her spark ignited a chain of events.
Two weeks following that last boring day of my vacation found me at the flight-ticket counter of Transworld Airlines, clutching a huge frame backpack containing weeks of clothing and necessity belongings. While fear formed knots in my stomach, I boarded a flight for Arcata, California.
When we touched down a short time later, the small plane shuddering as the wheels made contact with the pavement. Upon entering the small airport, I immediately recognized a few fellow adventurers, as each carrying a large frame-pack similar to mine. Upon drawing near, I gradually grew frigid; being only thirteen, I was the youngest of the group, not to mention I was remarkably shy. Moments later, to my relief, I came to the conclusion that they were an outgoing group of young adults, as they immediately made me feel welcome.
We grew acquainted with each other during the long drive to the Siskyou Mountains and, pondered on spending a week trekking through the alpine country.
The adventure had a climax with a brave trek up Mount Shasta (14,162 feet), the tallest mountain in the continental United States (from base to height).
Mount Shasta is an awe-inspiring mountain. To the tourist, it is an extinct volcano, somewhere to lounge close to and picnic. To the opportunist, it is a goldmine of natural resources. To the climber, Mount Shasta still lives, possessing a unique personality, a hostile temper, strong emotions, and above all, steep slopes, providing gallant challenge.
Along with our normal gear and warm clothing, we armed ourselves with high-energy snacks, cramp-ons and ice-axes, then began our two-day ascent. Starting our trek in the wee morning hours, with heavy packs and light hearts, from a Sierra Club cabin called “Horse Camp”, our braveness and aspiration was at a climactic fervor.
At 3:00 P.M. we had reached our initial goal of 9,000 feet, the bottom edge of the first large snow field and, on an upper slope of the mountain called ‘Hidden Valley”, we set up a base-camp from which we would attempt our final one-day climb to the peak.
At 5:00 A.M I was brought from ray slumber by the shrill drone of a wristwatch alarm, followed by a groan emitted by the motionless body next to me. Footsteps drew near and a heavy hand shook our tent compellingly. “Rise and shine, boys”, our leader said in an determined tone and, the camp around me suddenly came to life. Sounds of tent zippers, pots and pans, weary voices and wind, traveled to me through the thin atmosphere, while the easiest way to bring my mind to crisp focus is to breathe the frigid air deeply into my lungs.
My partner in the tent that night was Michael, an eighteen-year-old boy from Mississippi; he sat-up next to me and smiled groggily. Unzipping his sleeping bag, he exposing a fully dressed body and sarcastically groaned, “Let’s have some freeze-dried oatmeal”! Resolved to the facts, “Yes, it is 5:00 A.M and I am half of the way up the side of Mount Shasta” and, “No, I am not just in my bed at home, arising from a long dream”, I slowly left my sleeping bag and began donning my clothes, layer by layer.
Few words were spoken over breakfast; each member of our group was pondering the climb ahead and trying to build a mental psyche with which to conquer the mountain. Faces were expressionless, as we are all absorbed in personal thoughts. The looming peak appeared distant, touching the orange-tainted clouds of dawn overhead. With the dregs of hot chocolate warming my veins, I relaxed for a moment, suddenly prepared to meet the unspoken challenge of the mountain. After having come this far, turning back was not part of my personal agenda.
After breakfast had been eaten, we strapped cramp-ons to our boots and shouldered our packs solemnly. Our goal was to reach the peak and begin our descent well before noon, so as to avoid hazardous lightening storms and strong winds, not to mention other perils of an ill-tempered mountain. We abandoned the crude comforts of camp in a single file line and began trudging directly up the slope. An arrow was shot at the target and we began our toil.
Stepping from boulder to boulder, I warily pondered on each gaping crevice, as poor footing would result in a detrimental injury; in the shadows of dawn, these cavernous spaces seem to conceal evil danger.
Once into the heart of the first snow-field, the danger of twisted ankles and scraped knees was reduced, as crevices were concealed by a thick icy crust. Though the danger appeared to be less, the climb was more difficult; with slopes angled steeply upward, we adopted a traversing ascent.
Eventually, the face of sun appeared above the summit and its rays penetrated our dark glasses. Looking at the peak became impossible, while the brilliant rays changed the darkness of the daybreak into a glaring world of light.
As the morning hours diminished, we continued our upward struggle, pausing at intervals, adjusting personal respiration rates, relative to the altitude. The slope continuously grew steeper with upward progress and, a climactic cornice was formed, hiding the peak. From my perspective well below, it was an impassable towering wall of ice. As minutes crept past, I took-on graspable proportions and grew to be directly beneath it. Digging my steps deeply into the wall, I clung to the ice and finally pulled myself up and over the edge.
The peak loomed in the distance, seemingly miles away, taunting me with solitude, daring me to push my physical limits. Although my strength was ebbing quickly, the game has become a mental test. Undaunted, I trudged on.
Directly ahead of me, and the last true challenge lying between myself and the summit, was the “Football Field”, a vast expanse of level snow, a sight that had discouraged countless climbers. Because of the glare of the snow, and its uniform color, it was virtually impossible to gauge distances on the field. As I began to make my way into it, I was unable to guess how far I had traveled, or how much further I had to go. Only my legs gave an indication of the distance climbed. With my quadriceps and calves screaming with pain, I searched for mental devices with which to wage war on the mountain. Counting steps, I recited poems and sang songs, to no avail; strained muscles sent a clear message of fatigue. Eventually, the discomfort served as a driving force, on which I could focus and, it pushed me to the edge of the Football Field. With a last step from the snow to a boulder, I felt as though I scored the winning touchdown in a Superbowl. In my mind, the crowd took up a victorious chant and applause. Blood chorused through my ears, louder than the whipping wind around me and, an inspirational rush of adrenaline was cherished.
The windblown peak, only a hundred and fifty yards away, was bare of snow. I dropped my pack and frantically scrabbled at the buckles on my cramp-ons, trying to tear them from my feet before my inspiration was swept away by the wind.
I rose and began a final relentless sprint toward the highest point, within hundreds of yards. Leaping from boulder to boulder, with a swollen passion to reach the climax, my legs trembled with strain and again inspirational desire propelled me to achieve my goal. My feet were on fire and, with a final lunge I was atop the stony peak. Triumphant.
Elation. Exhaustion. Inner peace. A smile. A sigh. Pain and pleasure mixed and became one. I sat on the peak of Mount Shasta, 14,162 feet above sea level, and stared off into the hazy horizon, and the world below. What a high.
Somehow I found my feet and rose, gazing back down
the slope towards the Football Field. The others were regrouping
below and Michael had fallen behind. I wondered if he was battling
his emotions as I did. I hoped that my friend would find the strength
within his head to finish the climb. After all...
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