Summit Day Isn’t Always About the Summit
Why do we push ourselves, anyway?
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A couple hundred feet from the top of Avalanche Gulch on Mount Shasta last Monday morning, my friend Abi and I had a check-in.
“I’ll probably need to cry today at some point,” she said up to me as I leaned on one cramponed ski boot in the frozen snow. The sun had just popped onto Casaval Ridge above the route we had climbed, warming the snow and sending small ice balls down the gulch.
“Sure, whenever you need to,” I said. This was her fourth time on Shasta, and I was sure she wanted to finally summit this time, and we had a pretty good weather forecast and no real reason to rush.
Abi had spent yesterday, her second Mother’s Day as a mother, slogging up from the Bunny Flat trailhead to our camp at Lake Helen, and in our conversations the previous couple days, she mentioned crying—but in a crying-and-then-moving-on way, not a crying-and-giving-up way. She also mentioned a few times that she felt out of shape compared to previous, pre-child years, and she wasn’t convinced she’d be able to get to the top of the mountain. Forest, Mitsu and I, her partners on the trip, said of course, totally no pressure at all, do whatever you’re comfortable with.
In my head, though, I was really rooting for her to summit. Third priority, of course, after getting her back to her son Quin and husband Eddie alive (No. 1), and having fun (No. 2). I figured three times halfway up a big, snowy volcano was fine, but a fourth time with no summit might feel pretty disheartening for her. Still, she definitely wasn’t sure when we reached 8,000 feet, or 10,000 feet.
Abi and I topped out on Avalanche Gulch and sat down to wait for Forest, eat some food, and take a break before trudging up the final 1,300 feet to the top. I have been above 12,000 feet dozens of times in my life, and I have never felt good at that altitude. Food doesn’t taste good, my digestive system usually gets pretty wonky, I’m tired, and I almost always have a headache. That’s usually enough to make me want to quit. But, like most male mountain climbers, I’ve never had my period or been lactating at high altitude. Or, had my period and been lactating at the same time.
“I’m bleeding into my pants and I’m going to need to milk myself when we get down,” Abi said, grimacing and trying to eat some Cheez-Its. We talked about the view to the west, the lingering snow on the peaks of the Trinity Alps, the next few hundred feet of climbing up the snow slope to the bottom of Misery Hill, and smartphone apps to track your menstrual cycle, which is a thing I know about.
When I asked Abi to come with us on this trip a few months ago, I hadn’t realized it was Mother’s Day. And when I realized it the week before, I felt bad that she’d be dragging a heavy pack up a big mountain that day instead of spending the day with her family. But Abi was into it, Eddie was into watching Quin by himself all weekend, and the higher we got on the peak, the more I thought she might finally summit. And maybe that would be a great moment for her.
We stomped up to 13,200 feet, the bottom of Misery Hill, so named because, no shit, it’s a miserable slope of rock that’s in your way of the summit of Mt. Shasta, and the air is thin. My boots crunched through the crust every time I kicked my crampons in, and I started to count my steps as I gasped: A hundred steps, then take a short break. Fifty steps, then take a short break. I turned around to check on Abi a few dozen feet below, and Forest a few dozen feet below her.
At the top of Misery Hill, Abi and I dropped our packs for the last 300 feet to the top. We plodded up the snowy climbers’ trail until it gave way to the final rocky steps to the summit, and then argued about who should go first. I said she should because I’d been there before and it was her first time, and she said I should go first because if she saw me do it, the exposure wouldn’t seem as bad. Finally, she stepped forward and scrambled to the top and as she took in the view, and it was a moment, and the end of a story. Some tears, the happy kind, ran down Abi’s cheeks. Forest came around the corner and he and I scrambled up to take a summit photo with Abi.
“You give up so much of yourself when you become a mother,” Abi said. I didn’t even pretend to know how that feels or what it means because I’m not a parent, let alone a mother who’s spent the last three years carrying, birthing, and then nurturing a tiny human.
Sometimes I wonder about all the time we spend doing ridiculous things like climbing mountains, and if there’s a bigger point to it or a point to it at all, and if I should try to move on to something else. I’d been on the summit of Shasta once before, in 2009, via the same route, but for years I’d wanted to ski down it. I’d brought my skis this time, and dragged them all the way up there so I could have a crack at it.
Abi plunge-stepped her way down the softening snow all the way back to our camp, and Forest and I skied ahead of her, stopping every couple hundred feet to wait. I made a hundred shitty turns and maybe five good ones in 3,700 vertical feet, and maybe the climbing wasn’t the point of the whole thing, and maybe the skiing wasn’t the point either.