Warm, drowsy, and floating. Last night I was listening with my eyes closed to a choir singing the works of Eric Whitacre being conducted by the composer himself. Hours earlier, I was up on the slopes of Mount Hood, at Timberline Lodge. The rain was pouring, the wind was blowing, and I was waiting my turn to give a try at carabiner ice axe belaying. A week ago, at Horsethief Butte, we heard advice that became moot in the miserable weather: to stand in a cold shower and practice knot-tying. The instructor said that we’d probably never do it, and there’d be a day when we’d think back to her advice and wish we’d done as she suggested. Who thought the moment would come so quickly. On Hood, while watching the precipitation hover between rain and snow, I was wringing out my gloves often–they got soggy quickly–and thinking back to that advice. Okay, cross one more item off of the list of things to do.
Drifting along with the music was ethereal; I must have come close to drifting off to sleep once or twice because my body would jerk to attention in an attempt to keep from falling. (After last week’s session at Horsethief, I couldn’t sleep, despite being quite tired from a day of hiking followed by a day of rock climbing. My conscious subconscious kept juxtaposing vertigo-tinged dreams of standing on a ledge or hanging at the end of a belay yet somehow knowing I was safely tucked in bed. The dizziness would start, the blanket of safety entered my mind, and I would wake up just to be sure. Many, many times during the night. Almost as exhausting as the weekend of hiking and climbing.)
Much of the day on Hood was spent learning how to use an ice axe in to arrest a fall. So we’d heave ourselves into the heavy wet snow, get some speed up, plant the pick, and find our way into the face-down spread-eagled pose that would ultimately slow our descent. And hike our butts back up to the top of the little slope and do it again. Use the dominant hand, then the non-dominant one, to drive the pick into the snow.
It was a blast, even under these conditions. In a real climb, on harder snow or ice, I can imagine it wouldn’t be quite so fun–or easy. I just re-read the section of Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void that describes his knee-shattering fall. Simpson’s experience is unique, and not really for comparison, yet it’s an extreme reminder that my little lesson has value as I explore this new world.