by Thaddeus Laird
A brush with nature is both humbling and uplifting.
The wind outside the hut threatened the paper-thin window panes with each new gust, causing loose paint chips to bounce around on the sills like Lotto balls. A storm had been blowing in from the northwest all night, rolling across the Tasman Sea, and chopping waves onto the coastline of New Zealand. The storm then climbed the western slopes to the front door of this abandoned cabin in the mountains.
The gut of New Zealand’s highest range, the Southern Alps, sprawled in every direction outside the hut’s crooked entrance. From the soured mattress inside, I could barely make out piles of mountaintops stabbing up through the underbelly of a thick cloudbank. And I noticed that near the upper reaches of the highest peaks, the clouds were beginning to untangle themselves from the sky, bringing in a wash of silver moonlight. The storm was weakening.
At the first glimpse of a star, I kicked one naked leg from the warmth of my sleeping bag and stuffed toes into a stiff climbing boot. When I dug them down, the cold leather groaned, as if annoyed by their presence. My other leg followed, and soon I stumbled out the door where I hopped around in predawn dimness, gathering warmth for a pee.
Bracing against the wind, I was relieved to find the scent of foreignness still in the air, the same scent that continually reminded me I was far from home, on some remote island in the Pacific, and was therefore allowed to act out my deepest impulses of adventure. The scent had given me the ability to climb in the mountains of New Zealand as if I were invincible, endowing me with a certain strain of confidence I had never before felt.
It all started the moment I stepped off the plane from Honolulu and waddled past customs with a new country under my heels. Outside, I noticed the sun was sharp and hypnotic, and the land itself seemed to vibrate with the movement of far-off glaciers. A trance-like state gripped me, some outward force latched onto my common sense, and I was kidnapped for nearly six months while the rest of my body scooted off to climb in the Southern Alps. After a dozen peaks were conquered without harm, I was convinced that each successful peak I scaled in New Zealand would allow me to become more and more invincible, and quite possibly, could lead to powers of immortality.
Back inside the hut, I choked down wet granola, filled my backpack with an assortment of vitals: ice axe and crampons, helmet, map, stove, sleeping bag, and bits of food. The sun was still far off to the east, projecting shadows on some other distant land.
I followed a vague trail through the mud-choked valley and noticed the forests beyond seemed to invent new jungle noises: strange chirps, odd whistles, loud insect sirens that hadn’t reached the Amazon yet. And the shape of a mountaintop came into view, hovering above the beech trees.
It was Mount Oates, one of the peaks I had come to climb during that particular weekend in late Autumn. Angling away from its summit, I saw a high ridge sketching a skyline to the west, past unnamed ripples, to where it eventually rose to meet the mighty haunches of another peak I had come for, Mount Franklin.
My plan was to climb steep portions of snow and rock to the top of Oates, then traverse across the alpine ridge that led toward the incredible hulk of Franklin. It was to be a long and difficult traverse with uncertain obstacles. Steep rock? Obnoxious exposure? A bivouac?
Moving on, I found a snowfield on the eastern side of Mount Oates and hiked toward it, passing through an invisible line where all things green faded into the grayness of old rock, schist, and limestone where the sea once sat. I fit crampons over the soles of my boots and moved onto snow as hard as oak.
After an hour of rhythmic slogging, I found a gully that had been carved into the mountainside by a century or more of rock slides. I hurried up it before the rays of a new day could lick the relative safety of frozenness away from its loose innards, then stumbled onto the summit of Mount Oates.
But there was little time to celebrate. The ridge I had come to explore buckled down and away and into a cloud soup, poking out once in a while on its journey to join Mount Franklin. The ridge looked lengthy, perhaps two miles in its entirety, and had been sharpened by ice age storms and tectonic movements. Glaciers rubbed against it, perhaps a thousand years later, and left it twisted and serrated like a busted bread knife. Below the ridge, I could see ancient snowfields lapping at its edges. And beyond, all things tall blended into the horizon before dipping into the Tasman Sea.
I moved quickly past nasty drop-offs, dodging the occasional tumble of gendarme parts that protruded from the steepled ridgetops. Once again, it was a feeling of mightiness I could smell, almost taste, on the kiwi wind. And it was my hankering to find that gift of immortality that kept reality at bay and calibrated my fear to courage. At the top of a mere bump on the ridge, I discovered that a section of it had broken off during the last millennia of erosion, leaving me nowhere to go. I was forced to downclimb until I could skim its base, thus avoiding the chunk of missing crest. Down there, I found a few goat bones littered across the rubble, reminding me that I, too, was made of such things.
I needed to regain the ridgetop in order to position myself for Mount Franklin, but the only way I could do that was to ascend the continuation of cliff that lay in front of me where hanging boulders and moss parts collected to define the eastern border of the ridge. The cliff was slick and ugly and looked steep enough to fall freely from if climbed improperly.
But there was little time to stall with my conscience. So I began to climb, hand over hand, foot beside foot, upward, in the usual manner. In fact, I paid little attention to the space that slowly separated me from the ground. Instead, I focused on the several hundred feet of exposed climbing I needed to negotiate before I would be able to flop over the ridge and continue on toward the brawny flanks of Mount Franklin.
Everything was going as planned: The ground was becoming increasingly blurry beneath my legs some 50, 100, then 200 feet below; my nerves were staying where they should; and I was speaking to myself in a low, hushed voice about something entirely off the subject of solo mountaineering.
Suddenly, and unpredictably, a tiny piece of moss disagreed with my boot placement, a slight tug of gravity disrupted my composure, and I felt my weight shift.
Before I could prepare myself, I noticed that I was slipping off the rock. And in that surreal moment of astonishment, I felt something muscle in on the false front of confidence that had been built over the past few months of climbing in the Southern Alps. Just when I needed them the most, my thoughts of immortality began to fade, a silliness from the term invincibility took shape, and I was left there to fend for myself.
The slip was small in a relative sense, and lasted only a few seconds, but the message it sent to the rest of my body was in a font every cell understood: If you let go, you die.
There was clarity in the moment. I accepted this as truth, and my life paused to gather some lost wits. Unfortunately, this did little to help my situation. With an unexpected abruptness, my knees began to jiggle and then opted to quake, my fingertips vibrated and threatened mutiny on their grip, and my head dribbled down off my neck and hung there like an overripe grapefruit. It was as if everything inside me was about to fold and call on the moment of being airborne.
My mind played a moving image of me peeling off, spinning through the air, and landing in a heap of compound fractures on the rubble where the goats had already pioneered such feats.
I begged to be anywhere else in the world than on that mountain. I begged to be nursing beers with the boys back home on a Monday night during football season. I begged for the feel of ocean currents, and bubble baths, and swimming pool lounge chairs. And to rediscover just how great ice cream tasted.
Pathetically, I decided to partake in the number one no-no when dealing with height-related problems: I looked down. And when I did, I saw that the forces of death were gathering beneath my feet. I swear I could feel them mulling over my fate.
I attempted a downclimb, but it resulted in another slip and an unplanned shriek. There were only two apparent choices here: Hold on until fatigue forced me to let go or continue upward and face death fighting.
The next handhold was six inches above my left shoulder, a funny-looking piece of rock that seemed to be attached to the cliff side with kindergarten paste. I tested its strength, closed my eyes to the point of pain, and cranked on it. Nothing bad happened. So my feet followed and somehow found holds for themselves. Then little edges appeared from nowhere as if summoned by my terror.
I continued, always on the verge of slipping, for what seemed like hours, and in hindsight, it must have been that long. At times I felt like I was about to go, but each time I would hold on just long enough to find another hidden ledge, a teetering bit of rock, or chunk of moss with good roots.
I remember the frantic relief that coursed through me the moment I crawled to safety on top of that ridge. And I remember how my mind searched for an emotion to fit the moment but found that it had not been given the chance to invent one yet. During this time of indescribable relief, I noticed that something was glowing in front of me. When I lifted my head, I saw I was standing above the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen.
To the west, dusk colors bred with a newly approaching storm, an atmospheric orgy with glimpses of a turquoise sea off to one side and pink-rimmed mountaintops poking out from behind. To the east, day-old sunshine blended with the gray-backed hills of the distant Craigeburn Range, and further on, the mutton-field flatness of the Canterbury plains conjured up the hues of a late-summer forest fire.
It dawned on me that I had never stopped to extract what this land was really lending me: the ability to live my dreams and to build an appreciation for the powers locked in mountains. It was apparent that I needed to live through the days of New Zealand and come away with an understanding for this power, not pieces of it. The lap dances with death and missions to conquer peaks were a misinterpretation of this gift, and I felt silly knowing that just a minute before, I had narrowly escaped a threshold that could have wiped away all of this.
The Southern Alps aren’t a place one goes to die; they are a place one goes to begin living. To follow their empty paths and travel to their highest holds was only a part of it. The rest lies in trying to incorporate such beauty and adventure into the bonds of real-life living.
I had persuaded myself into believing that the immortal qualities of mountains would somehow rub off on me the more I tested my own mortality against them. Instead, they proved to me that humans are only capable of living and dying while mountains keep on going. It may be said that flirting with death while climbing is often unavoidable, but it should never be used as a tool to discover the true delicacy of living.
The reality of this was staggering, and it forced me to collapse to my knees where I placed elbows on thighs and cradled a heavy head between my palms. The only thing left to do was cry. Which I did, in repentance, until the last veins of orange, gold, and sapphire had disappeared into the western sky.
Thaddeus Laird is a Pacific Northwest-based freelance writer whose passion for writing and adventure has taken him to five continents. His current and most ambitious project is a 200-page guidebook to rock climbing and mountaineering in North Idaho and Western Montana. He has spent four years researching, writing, and establishing new climbing routes for the book, which will be published in the summer of 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in Mountainfreak Magazine, Summer 2000.
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