Everyone I had talked to who had done this hike told me it’s a total slog. Having lived in Bend for a few years now, I felt it was rite of passage as a “local” to trudge the notoriously arduous scree-slope to the summit of South Sister. I left at 6 AM to try and beat the weather that was forecasted to roam into the scene around 4 PM. From the trailhead, the root-bound switchbacks flowed like palace steps through the forest and opened up into a long, wide path cascading knoll after knoll while the eldest Sister, formerly known as Charity, feigned innocence under a wispy, white halo.
Hiking as a sport in itself held my attention about as much as nine holes of golf or watching somebody else knit. But I needed something to keep myself active and busy while recovering from a shoulder injury that immobilized movement of my left arm to rotate above my head – an overuse injury from not knowing when to take a day off of rock climbing. My physical therapist suggested that if I continued to climb on it, I would risk further injury with a much longer recovery time. I bitterly called all my friends and cancelled a trip to Colorado that I had been anticipating all summer. I sang sad songs until I let out a robust and cathartic, ugly-face cry.
I then turned to my next source of comfort for my grieving: Google. I disappeared into WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Wikipedia and a gallimaufry of strange personal blogs that all painted the picture of “worst case scenario”. I tortured myself relentlessly over articles about the anatomy of the shoulder, expected recovery times, and what kind of life I would live with permanent damage. I worried about the strength I would lose from taking weeks off of climbing and went out and bought a handheld grip strengthener that I would never use. Then I recalled a saying that carried me right passed all the self-centered melancholy: “Don’t waste five minutes worrying about something you won’t remember in five years.
I shook my head and wiped the blue glare, computer stare off my face. I closed my eyes and I swear I heard the sound of the sun shining. It’s an indirect noise, all the growing and thriving, that is only alive under an energy powerful enough to bring life to it, as silent as it may be alone. Across the street, a couple of slack liners were bouncing around between two Junipers. Every step, their body explores the capacity for balance, and with every fall, their body becomes more acquainted with the boundaries of it. The body is always seeking balance, through every change and setback. I would not let this injury keep me out of line for long. That would be a choice against the very grain of all the rules of healing.
What I needed was a goal. Something that would push me, make me sweat, maybe bleed, and ideally be kind to my recovering shoulder. I began perusing through guide books of the Washington alpine and drooled over routes in the Cascades. Shoulder or no shoulder, if was ever going to get out to Prusik Peak, I would need to train my hiking endurance for the ten mile approach – a warm up to the 8,000 foot granite summit in the Enchantments. Setting this as motivation, I chose four peaks in Oregon and was righteously cavalier in giving myself five days to summit them as training for my Pacific Northwest adventure.
Steeper and steeper, and with each step less ground than the last, I grinded my way up the slope of South Sister holding those Washington Alpine routes as motivation through misery. I pulled over to let a young man pass me. He looked at me and out of his mouth poured “fuckkkk” as if to put a word to the experience we were both in – separately, but together, and definitely with a total lack of social grace or care. I might have grunted. I’m sure it wasn’t cute.
A day previous I had set out to summit Mount Thielsen. I was told that it was a way more gratifying alternative to South Sister if you want to get on top of a mountain. I knew there would be a little bit of scrambling near the top and I assumed, since I am a “climber”, I could do whatever these “hikers” considered climbing, no problem.
Thielsen hikes up at a constant, but very gradually incline for the first three miles. It was the first time I had used trekking poles and I was imagining myself to be a giant praying mantis straight out of a science fiction novel. I got lost in the “flow state” as thoughts floated in and out of my mind like soft exhales of quite sleep. It wasn’t until I had my peak in view that I became set on my prize, the summit. I spent nearly an hour slipping back through scree before I met the base of the vertical rock with a single stream thought repeating itself over and over: I’m going to get to the top
The wind has a way of making everything feel more eerie and lonely, carrying messages to scare you away. As it blew whistles by my ears I had this overwhelming feeling like I was trespassing. I scrambled up and dropped my pack to evaluate the weakest line to the top. I heard a rustling near me and blood pushed into all my extremities in one powerful shock. Mountain lion! …No, just my pack falling over on its side. Why was I so scared? I’m not even climbing right now, I told myself haughtily. I began the class five scramble over slab for a few feet and then peered over my right to see a 500+ foot drop off down to a steep scree slop that I would not survive. I humbly down climbed and sat 30 ft from the summit in despair knowing that I would not get to the top without either some kind of protection or more boldness than I could muster.
Since South Sister is said to not have a “technical summit”, I expected she would help soothe my summit fever and heal a bruised ego over my failed attempt at Mt.Thielsen. I dug my trekking poles into the ever loosening ground, picking into the wound of braided trails that scar her ever-seasoned body. At around 11am, several hours earlier than expected, her mood took a dramatic shift. I stopped to unload the small rocks from my shoes and while retying my laces was slapped with a mouthful of mist mixed with dirt and debris. The temperature began to plummet and, despite a couple hours worth of built-up cardio heat, I noticed goosebumps rise through the sheen of unnecessary bug spray. A thick fog unloaded unto the mountain, but I was determined to keep moving. A dozen or more descending hikers passed me with words of caution, which I arrogantly threw to the wind.
I made it to an unnamed glacier lake and found myself, once again, eager, afraid, and so close to the top. Two guys erupted out of the opaque fog in a downhill scurry and were in and out of my view like a lapse in reality of sound and sight. I struggled to get my arms into my jacket as it flapped in the wind and plastered itself to my sweaty skin.
I could have been completely alone in the universe. The warmth of life that is brought with sunlight was extinguished by a cold and merciless sadness that hovered with each molecule of moisture in the air – a grey nothingness polluting the sky with withering hope. I couldn’t bear the thought of having a second failed summit, but as I staggered up the tiny lava rocks, I had to wonder why: why was it so important that I reached the very top of the mountain?
I dug my poles into her bountiful body. With each step I felt a familiar guilt surge through me as I violated a space where I was clearly not welcome. The fog began to spit a mix of ice and rain and I tried to create a little pocket in front of my mouth to breathe fresh air. I was not supposed to be there, and yet I continued to push myself up the mountain. And for what? To get to the top to say I had done it? To prove to myself and everyone else that I am capable of pushing hard in the face of challenge? In the midst of the fog that surrounded me it became transparent that I had lost sight of my values in an automatic mission to soothe my injured ego. I was trying to take something that was not mine in some kind of redemption for past failures. It needed to stop.
At that, and with a well deserved humility, I collapsed my poles and began my trek back down her velvet red skirts. I pulled off my hood and let my hair flow freely in the mist as I skiied down the scree twice as fast as I’d come up. As if to release me, the clouds opened up and I walked across the ridge with views of Moraine Lake and the surrounding valleys. I found my flow again and laughed out loud several times thinking about how foolish I had been.
“It is not a the Mountain that we conquer, but Ourselves”.
I’ve seen this quote lingering about many a computer desktop screen or facebook feeds without credit, but it was actually words spoken by Edmund Hillary shortly after him and his companion, Tenzing Norgay, returned from the first ascent summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Even after summiting the tallest mountain in the world, they reported their experience as an internal transformation because, although you expose yourself to some of the most adverse physical conditions through mountaineering, you ultimately end up revealing some of the most difficult truths about who you are, and letting go of those long-coveted parts of your ego that didn’t survive the journey.
While South Sister and Mount Theilsen are no Everest, the confrontation with seeing my true self was similarly profound. Despite feeling quite lethargic, I woke up the next day and set out for my third peak with a much greater sense of reverence for the mountains. I brought a small amount of climbing gear, just in case I would need it for the summit, and checked the weather for a clear forecast. Everything appeared to be in my favor, but I approached the hike with a sense of ease and excitement to just be getting out there. I moved slowly and chatted with a majority of hikers in passing. When I made it to the top there was a crew roping up to the summit. Had I been an hour sooner or later I would have missed my opportunity to get a belay. But on this occasion, I felt invited to the summit.
As it turned out, I was unable to get out to my fourth Oregon peak objective before my life swooped me away in another direction. Needless to say, I was not disappointed in my adventures, despite only seeing myself to the summit of one peak.