The Velvet Hammer
Life - Vistas and Valleys
I am reminded of a trip I took to the Grand Tetons in Idaho to summit the middle Teton with my son and a group of young men and adults. This trip took place a couple years after a gunshot wound I suffered in my ankle a few years earlier. The trauma left my ankles range of motion limited and the foot completely numb. A constant sensation of awakening in the lower left leg was and is the constant result, and as the nerves try and reconnect the pain is peaked most of the time. Despite this and perhaps even to spite this event I came to the Middle Teton with my son and his group of gangly and fit young men to climb to the top.
Upon arriving to at the trailhead the park ranger suggested that we not climb as the ice was heavy and the danger high. As an old rescue guy I felt like minded but willingly followed the group as we headed up the muddy trail with our ice axes, crampons and packs.
Life is not unlike the climb this day and as we began the rush to the top the division of the fit and not became evident. In all groups there are the fast movers and then the slow but steady few. Because of the recent injury I quickly became the leader of the slow and not so steady followers. At one point early on I beckoned to the leader of this expedition, a recent Mount Everest summit veteran, to yield to the slower young men and go as a cohesive group. I challenged that getting there together is better than a few racing to perceived success and leaving the others strung out along a very long and steep mountain landscape. My attempt at helping the leader see my vision of a happy, steady plotting team was scorned and I saw their bouncing packs disappear and ascend into the mountain.
As I considered being ultimately the last one on the trail I thought about my younger days as a would be commando and how I use to run like the wind. I was lean and sometimes mean. Now I could hardly walk with the correct gape and the fire of failure looked me square in the eyes. I had known about the trip for months and was luke warm about coming until the month prior to the event. Once I committed to the journey I began to do what I could to get ready. On this climb altitude doubles from about 6,000 feet to over 12,000.
For those who have climbed mountains on a traditional well trodden path you will recognized the term switchback as the seemingly never ending trail cut into the side of the mountain in a zig zag that leads to the top. On the Middle Teton this zig zag path takes you 6,000 to the saddle of the Middle and Grand, and then to the summit of either. It was along this zig zag journey gaining elevation at every step that a new clarity of life emerged for me. While this was not Mount Everest or the Himalayas it was nevertheless for me and a few others a lesson in putting one foot in front of the other.
As the morning turned to late afternoon, and my progress was labored and slow, I cut the bottom of my pants off to relieve the dragging sensation on my legs. Had I planned better I would have worn the zip off leg pants that were stored in my closet at home. At one point I took my rucksack off and considered burying the items I did not need to lighten my load. I was doing everything I could to make it to the saddle and then the summit. Step by step and one switchback at a time I travelled. Along the way I would come upon a young man who was sitting or lingering and considering quitting the journey. I would stop and gather each one up and then we would together plot our way up the narrow trail to the next turn to the top.
At each turn on the zig zag trail I would take the time with the boys to stop and view the grand valley below and then look up to the seemingly high definition Grand and Middle Teton looming in front of us. We would admire the view, take a photo and then turn the corner and gaze up the next long and steep leg of the trail. Slowly I would bend my shoulders forward, tilt my head and put my lead foot forward. At one point a couple of the young men decided they could no longer go on and wanted to head back to the bottom to wait. I contemplated this and looked up at the mountain and then at them. Finally I looked down the mountain and weighed letting them return together while I ascended. I felt that they could make it to the bottom safely and I continued to climb one pace at a time while sucking at the thinning air.
As early evening began to set in, and after many hours of trudging the long paths while pausing at the turns to view the beautiful vistas, my little band of stubborn and fatigued travelers found themselves on a very long and inclining trail to the base of the Middle and Grand. Once there we realized that we were alone. We wondered if the jack rabbit group from the morning were already at the base of the summit and standing near the top of this part of the world without us. Then, a few minutes later and just above us on a higher part of the vertical trail we heard some voices. As we called out a couple of young men looked over the cliff and greeted us. They were the first to arrive and told us that the main bulk of the fast tracking group lead by the Mount Everest leader had taken the wrong turn while racing to the top. They were a few miles away trying to backtrack to join these two who had taken a slower but more accurate trek. Even with my slow and feeble limb, and while witnessing the beauty below and above at most every turn me and my little band of rejects had beaten the world class climbers to the saddle. For me there was not a deep feeling of victory, but more of an irony that slow and steady did win the apparent race that day.
As the lead elements of the lost group began to turn the corner at the saddle they saw me standing there with a smile. The look on their faces were evident and implied “you gotta be kidding me”. They knew a little of my injury and recovery efforts, they knew I was not sure about this journey, and they knew I was hoping we could all word together for the mutual benefit of all those who came. But, there I stood in my cut off pants, a t-shirt and a smile on my face.
As the story goes we got everyone to the base of the summit. The ice was as foretold by the ranger way to dangerous to climb the summit that day. The team for the most part had come to the top of this part of the earth to view the world at its highest point only to have to back down to nature and its unforgiving forces and risks.
For me and perhaps a few of the boys who travelled with me this day there was another summit that took place. One that was more weighty and important than a mountain peak. It came in the form of putting one foot in front of the imperfect other. It came in walking a long ascending strip of trail to a turn and then stopping to view the landscape, the beauty around. It came by gazing up at the objective in the panorama that can only be found at the mountains knees and then chest. It came in gathering young and weary men and encouraging them to climb one step at a time and divide the mountain one switchback at a time. It came in seeing that racing past the turns to make a point neglects the beautiful vistas and valleys. It came in building the character of the long straight elevation gains to get to the next turn. It came from seeing the hand of the almighty as he stretch mountains to the sky and then buried his hands in the earth to make the valleys below. It came from leaving no one behind. It came from just breathing the thin hard to earn air for hours.
For me the journey to summit of the Middle Teton was the same as the journey in life. Some run to fast while others go to slow. Some quit. For others it is one segment of the trail at a time, then stop and view with awe the majesty of the landscape, the people. Then with commitment and pain begin the next segment again with one foot in front of the other, feeling the gravity and weight of the earth, struggling to breath the thin cold air. Then another vista or valley. Eventually we reach the top. It is not a race with others, it is a personal steady climb at our own pace, against our own gravity, and with our own personal challenges and opportunities. It is recognizing the vistas and the joy in the journey. It is rejoicing in the beauty and blessings even during pause and while the pain still lingers while we rest. It is found in celebrating each milestone and then, continuing the journey.
May we each this very day look at our journey, find strength to continue, to progress with patience and persistence. May we look left and right, in front and behind to see those around us who need encouragement. May we have the faith to believe, the hope to continue and the courage to act.
For me life has never been about winning at all cost, it is about doing it right while those in your circle rise with you.