Two emerald green slits stare at me intently, hovering a mere inches from my face. The inquisitive, unblinking gaze comes from within an otherwise impenetrable inky darkness; the weight on my chest my only tangible reminder that these green orbs belong to a creature not imagined in the dreams of my last night’s restless sleep, but instead to the realm of the waking and walking. I probably shouldn’t have battled the dragon so fiercely last night; my head is still filled with that putrid stench. He shifts, rolls over on his side, and cocks his head at me, as if to ask, why? Why are you disturbing me at this ungodly hour? In response, I mumble something about early worms and catching birds. He nods, as if satisfied, although we both know these are simply the lies we tell ourselves when we have no better explanation. To prove his point, he steps off my chest and on to the bed, rolls back over, and proceeds to lick himself. My life would be a lot easier if I could do that.
I throw the covers off of me, burying the cat in the bed as he gives it his best, and stumble to the shower to receive mine. The hot water begins to clear my head of the demons that reside therein, but it’s not until a bowl of oatmeal has made its way through my system, I have passed a herd of very low-class elk grazing on the very high-class links (I’ll bet they didn’t pay their does. I mean, dues.), and I’m halfway to the trailhead that the fog actually lifts.
And just in time.
As I round the final bend, the sky begins to light and I am aware, just for an instant, of being caught in that state of being that is Dawn; not yet fully light but no longer in the dark, not yet fully awake but no longer sleeping. How appropriate, since the prospects for success today fall into a similar purgatory of possibilities. It’s February in Oregon, but it hasn’t snowed in weeks, and the west is gripped by the worst drought in a decade. Instead of winter, it’s been abundantly clear, overly crisp, and painfully dry. Much like my uncle’s sense of humor. Or certain Argentine whites. Ah, Mendoza. El Tierra Del Vino. Land of Wine. That’s what the sign says, in twenty foot-high letters on the side of the airport, as you disembark from the plane. Now there’s a place to call home. The vineyards of Mendoza harvest the most remarkable combination of grapes and women I have ever seen in my many years of traveling. Not that I travel for those reasons, of course. I travel to taste the mountains, not the women and the grapes. Although the latter pair can have an equally pleasing flavor when aged appropriately. But I digress. Back to Mendoza. And the Andes. Really just close cousins to the Cascades into which we, Eric and I, are now climbing. They’re close enough that they couldn’t get married to each other, except in Appalachia, which probably explains the Smokeys, the Ozarks, and their assorted sibling ranges.
As we cross the frozen lake, I glance back at Bachelor Butte, where, in a matter of a few short hours, Civilization will cinch up her corset, pay the piper, and then spend the majority of the day entrapped in the machinery of Man’s invention. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hell, I like being tied down occasionally too. But that’s back to the Argentine women and grapes, and my sordid fantasies have, at this point, been supplanted (no pun intended) by musings of the paths ahead. It’s nice to be headed north. Away from the Machine, and towards the Major Bear. It’s nice not to know what lies ahead. To have uncertainty in your future. It’s the very thing that makes you alive, that uncertainty. Not knowing the future is to live; only death is certain. (Taxes are, in the abstract, voluntary.) To manage the plethora of possibility is the exercise of intelligence over entropy, the bringing of order to chaos. It is, fundamentally, the essence of the human struggle. Or perhaps these are just the lies we tell ourselves when we have no better explanation.
The first sight of our jagged peak as we crest the ridge above the lake washes my jumbled thoughts away, and I am silenced by the absolute wonder of creation. Plus, I’m really out of breath. We slide through forests of old powder and meadows of hoar frost, glittering like a million tiny diamonds sparkling in the hands of Frankie Four Finger. Benicio got shafted in that role. Boris didn’t really have to kill him. Although perhaps he deserved it for robbing a bunch of Rabbis. Honestly, who does that? Fuck with the bull and you get the horns. Or something like that. We gain the last of the intermediate ridges, and see before us the expanse of the Broken Top basin. I try to contain my partner, urge him to reserve his strength for the climb ahead, but it is no use. He is stoked. I fear the worst, but dutifully snap a couple pictures, and we press on.
Soon we fall into a steady rhythm. It hurts, but not nearly as much as falling into, say, Brick Top’s pig pen. Now there was a weird character. This kid, Pigpen, was so dirty that you couldn’t even see his face half the time. I think Schultz was on drugs. Scooby and Shaggy were certainly high a lot of the time. And who knows about the Smurfs. Lots of little blue men running around, living in mushrooms? Or maybe that’s just the altitude talking. Must focus. Ten steps, drink of water. Ten steps, extra deep breath. Ten steps, drink of water. Ten steps, extra deep breath. Ten steps drink of water. Ten steps, extra deep breath. Bite of Cliff Bar. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. It goes on for what seems like forever, the mountain looming above but never getting closer. I put my head down and repeat my mantra, hoping that it will help me Zen the time away. Women and Wine. Argentina. Women and Wine. Argentina. Women and Wine. Argentuna. Ha. We-men and Wine. Argentuna. Ha ha. We-little-men and whine. Arggggh. And Tuna! We are little men, and why are we not simply fish in the sea? Gasping, obviously delusional, and unable to go any farther, I collapse to the hardened surface. It appears that it is I who should have been concerned about reserves of strength. I awake some unknown minutes later when Eric lowers me back to the ground from his shoulders. We have crossed the flats.
The route now climbs up the outer southwest ridge of the amphitheatre, gains a sub-peak halfway up, and then continues to the west summit along the corniced ridgeline. We plan to ascend to the west summit, ski the west face, climb back up to the west ridge of the south facing sub-peak, and ski the south facing bowl to the west of the lower portion of the climbing route. But countless other lines inside the stunning upper ring of reddish-brown spires draw my attention as well, and I vow to return to make multiple descents of the terrain that Eric praises as second to none (having skied many of these lines already). Re-energized by the prospect of our descent, we charge up the lower portion of the climb, reaching the halfway point by 11:30a. I appear to have acclimatized greatly in the last hour, as I am now able to trade leads with Eric, kicking steps in the steep slope. I am indebted to him for his quiet heroics. He is, to borrow a young person’s terminology, “sick.” And I mean that in a good way. “Siiick.”
A quick break, and we are again struggling upward again. The snow is softening, and we appear to have beaten the odds on this day. By 1:15p we are at our high point, looking down 55 degree chutes into the amphitheatre from above. We traverse the other direction, out onto the west facing slope, and find a small ice bulge with a moat forming below. We carefully step into relative safety, and strap on our jocks for the 2,000 foot plummet to the base of the west face. Skis on. Packs on. Helmets and goggles on. Helmet cam on. Check. Check. Check. And check. Doctor? Doctor. Doctor? Doctor. Radio on? Check.
“J.J.? J.J.? Can you hear me? J.J.? Are you there? Where are you? We’re at the base of the Pine Marten lift. J.J.? J.J? J.J? J.J.? J.J? J.J? J.J.? J.J? J.J?”
“Excuse me, but we’re looking for Nancy, could you switch to another channel? Nancy? Honey?”
“J.J? Is that you? J.J?”
“No, lady, I’m trying to find my wife Nancy. This is Dave. Nancy?”
“J.J. J.J? Can you hear me? J.J? J.J? J.J? Where are you J.J.?”
“J.J., is that you?”
For fuck’s sake.
“Ma’am, you see that mountain way up north, off in the distance? The one with the jagged top? Sort of looks like a “broken” top? Yeah, well, we’re on it, looking back at Mt. Bachelor, and we can hear you just fucking fine. My guess is that J.J. has his fucking radio turned fucking off. And Dave? Nancy is shagging your buddy back in the condo. Maybe you should both just go skiing.”
“J.J? Is that you?”
Eric looks at me, nods, flashes me a grin, and drops in.
* * * * * * *
12 hours, 10 miles, 3,700 vertical feet, 5 Oreos, 3 liters of water, 2 cliff bars, 1 Ham and Cheese wrap, and no sunblock later, and I am walking back in the door of my apartment. My cat nonchalantly finishes peeing on my carpet and strolls over to see what the fuss is about. I’m too tired to kill, cook, and eat him, so instead I throw the leftover Thai Chicken Curry I made two days ago in the microwave, jam a couple leftover sushi rolls from yesterday into my mouth, hop in the shower, scour myself with scalding hot water, get back out, scarf the luke warm Thai, and collapse on the couch. Twenty minutes later, as I am pounding on my quads which have cramped up in excruciating pain, I wander back to that odd but perfect mid-winter corn snow, and tell myself that it was all worth it.
Or maybe those are just the lies I tell myself when I have no better explanation for why life is so much fun.
* * * * * * * *
P.S. Picks can be viewed at super size on Biglines.com. Thanks to Biglines for image hosting.