In which I did not climb Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades (but I did get some nice views and learned a few important lessons).
I wore a walking cast on my left foot for all of May, and then followed up with my doc. He said, “well, how’s it doing?” and I said, “I don’t know!” I was eager to get out of the boot, though, and I changed into sneakers in his office, walking out nervously with the heavy boot in my arms. My feet felt very light and my gait felt odd. But I didn’t have any pain.
I did have some minor pain, off and on, over the next few weeks. All told, though, things felt a lot better than they had in April, and I started riding my bike and going to the gym again. I went for a short hike on Mount Tabor, felt okay, and last weekend went on a longer hike, a loop up and down Hamilton Mountain. That went great, so on Monday and Tuesday (I’ve been on vacation this week!) I did a little overnight on Eagle Creek Trail past Tunnel Falls. The uneven terrain of that trail — I’d forgotten how rocky it gets! — gave me a little trouble; I even kinda half-rolled my ankle once, leading to a brief moment of despair and panic. Everything felt fine, though, after minimal rest.
So on Thursday I packed my backpack again for Rico’s three-day Mazama climb of Eldorado Peak, a spot on which I’d been lucky enough to get, and carpooled up to the North Cascades with a few friendly dudes I’d never met before.
When the chitchat wore down I stared out the window at the late-setting sun and thought about possible futures. Grad school applications open next week. Last week I put together a list of programs I’m thinking of applying to — thirteen so far, though I might cut it down, in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. If I can get into Pacific University, the health sciences campus of which is in nearby Hillsboro, I will absolutely attend. The program is great (my boss and another of the PTs at my clinic both went there) and I would save a large chunk of change in student loans if I could continue to live in my folks’ in-law unit through school. Besides, I love Portland; it’s home and it’s where I ultimately want to be, 100%. But that doesn’t stop me thinking about what it might be like to leave again for a few years, this time on my own terms, for my own reasons, with my own goals and ambitions. I guess we’ll see.
We got settled by 11pm into a hotel about an hour from the ranger station where we’d be meeting the rest of our team in the morning, and hit the hay.
We woke, ate breakfast, slathered our faces in sunscreen, laced up our boots, and drove an hour to the Marblemount ranger station, where we met Rico and the remaining members of our climb team. “Conditions look great!” he told us while passing out blue bags. The forecast was for warm weather and the ranger told us we wouldn’t need to camp on snow. We loaded back into cars and headed off. The trailhead was a little ways away, five miles up a bumpy single-lane dirt road. We all did last minute pack checks (harnesses? ice axes? crampons? helmets?) and weighed our packs with Rico’s hanging scale — mine was around 45 pounds. Yikes! I hefted it and we started up the trail.
I felt pretty good, though as soon as we started heading uphill, I felt every step in my hamstrings. Gotta do more deadlifts, I thought to myself. We walked in a ten-person line up the trail, hopping across abundant snow-melt creeks and working our way up through nice-smelling woods. Eventually the trail spit us out onto a snowfield, which we continued up, kicking steps in the soft snow.
Partway up, though, Rico and the assistant leader, Chaitanya, stopped to review their GPS tracks. Something didn’t look right. “Guys, we’re going the wrong way,” Rico told us, and we all turned around and headed back down, a little bummed to lose the elevation we’d already gained. One climber, Guy (who’d driven the car I rode up in), pulled out his map and brought it over to Rico. “Wait, Rico, are you sure? I think we’re going the right way,” he said, and showed Rico where we were on the map. Rico and Chaitanya looked at their GPS again — it looked like they’d downloaded a GPS track for a different route, though there was only one track on the Mazama website and everything was labeled the same way. The map attached to the prospectus, too, was the other route, but the route description in the prospectus matched the route we were on, and Guy’s map showed the route we were on as well. So we turned around again and continued up.
The views were starting to get pretty fantastic, with Mount Baker on the horizon behind us, and pretty peaks above us. It was a beautiful day, with nary a cloud in the sky, and I was climbing in a t-shirt. We took a lunch break during a brief respite from the snow on trail, and then continued up again towards the snowy saddle above us. There was some lingering doubt about the route, but the saddle didn’t look too far away and we hoped we’d get a good vantage point from up there. We kicked steps up the snow and I tucked in near the end of the line, stopping to take photos.
The North Cascades spread out before us at the top. I dropped my pack and opened up the PeakFinder app, pointing out Johannesburg Mountain, Forbidden Peak, Sahale Mountain and a few others to my fellow climbers. Rico and Chaitanya traversed over to the right, trying to get a better view and figure out exactly where we were and where we were going. The rest of us pulled out maps and looked at the topo — it looked like the route we’d committed to wanted us to traverse around to the left, behind one of the two small peaks at the saddle of which we were standing. To put it plainly, that traverse looked sketchy as fuck to me. It was all steep snow, some of it with apparent slide tracks, with run-outs that led over rocky cliffs. The snow was getting softer and softer in the heat of the afternoon.
Rico came back down from his lookout, and we all oriented ourselves. Eldorado Peak was somewhere hidden behind Forbidden Peak and the Triad off to our left. “All right, guys,” Rico said. “I don’t feel good about traversing over on this route. The snow’s really soft and the conditions aren’t right. We just don’t know what’s over there. Sunk cost. We have three options. First, we can just bag it, and go home.” Nobody much liked that option. “Two, we can get out of here, get to the right trailhead, camp there, and do the climb in one push tomorrow with light packs. Three, we can push the climb back a day, get to high camp tomorrow, summit on Sunday and descend the same day.” There was a fair amount of muttering and opinion sharing, with the general consensus being that we’d try again at the right trailhead, on the right route. “All right, well, the snow’s getting softer and we have to get down soon. Let’s go.”
We shouldered our packs and started down.
Suddenly there was a loud noise, and we all turned to watch a bunch of snow and debris slide down the mountain — thankfully not actually into the path we were about to descend, but it was still not exactly confidence-inducing. “Get it on video!” someone shouted, and I managed a quick photo.
We plunge stepped down. It was so warm and the snow was so soft that I followed the example of most everybody else and just lengthened my trekking poles slightly and set off, rather than pulling out my ice axe and putting on gloves. Yep, this is foreshadowing.
I watched as the climbers below me plunge stepped down. A few fell and slid a ways, and some decided to just glissade at least partway, as the run out below us was fairly safe. I watched one climber fall and slide into another climber, who also fell, but both stopped quickly and got back up, laughing. Then I fell, and it did not seem funny to me. I slid quickly towards a climber below me, yelling “heads up! Heads up!” I took him down and we slid together, our trekking poles entangled. I was clawing at the snow with my bare hands, unsure how to stop us, until finally some combination of friction and our efforts with our hands and trekking poles brought us to a stop. One of his poles was under my legs, and we disentangled ourselves as Rico descended to us to make sure we were okay.
We were fine, more or less, but I was pretty shook up. My hands were numb from the cold snow, and when they started to warm up they began to tingle painfully. “I gotta get out my gloves and ice axe,” I told Rico, and I took a few minutes to find my gloves, detach my axe from my pack, and replace it with my shortened trekking poles. “We gotta get out of here,” Rico said, and pointed out a giant snowball (snow boulder?) that had clearly slid down the slope — since we’d come up it? Hard to know. A bit further down was an actual rock boulder that had also left a path in the snow above it. I hurried down, slipping one more time but easily self-arresting with my ice axe. I could practically hear my BCEP leader Jay tut-tutting in my head. Descending on snow? Ice axe and gloves. My hands burned.
“How are you doing?” another climber asked me. At that moment, in full adrenaline comedown, I was doing pretty terribly. I just wanted to go home and cry. “I’ll feel better in a bit,” I answered, knowing it was true, and kept stepping downwards, driving my heels into the snow as best as I could. My ankle was still feeling pretty good, all things considered, though I was starting to feel a bit of mild pain.
Finally back on trail and out of the path of any potential sliding snow or debris, I stopped again to put away my ice axe and extend my trekking poles. I also took off my gloves and finally looked at my hands, surprised to see only a few tiny cuts. Even the intact skin was still burning and tingling.
We followed the trail down through the woods and finally back out to the trailhead. On one of the last stream crossings, I got just a little bit careless and slipped on a wet log, bringing my arm down hard on something as I fell. I was okay, but a bruise began to develop within minutes. It just wasn’t my day, I guess.
At the trailhead we all dropped our packs and gathered our thoughts. My hands were finally starting to feel better, and I shoved salty snacks in my mouth, working on getting my mood back to baseline too. A consensus was reached to head to the other (correct) trailhead, camp there, and head for high camp in the morning, then wake up early on Sunday, summit, descend all the way out, and drive home to Portland. Guy, though, wasn’t feeling great about this — he was up for one descent, he said, and he’d already done it. He had to ice his knee and recover for a few days.
“Anyone else not feeling sure about trying again?” Rico asked, and I raised my hand. My ankle was moderately achey by this point, and Guy had mentioned that the other route started out with 4300 feet of elevation gain in less than two miles. I was pretty sure I could get up that, but the descent would hurt a lot, and my muscles were already going to be sore after today — and of course there was my ankle to think about. Another climber, Aimee, the only other woman in our party of ten, was also on the fence.
We all walked 100 feet or so back up the trail to the last stream crossing to collect and filter water for camping or whatever came next. That accomplished, we made final decisions. Guy, Aimee, and I would head back to Portland. Everyone else would drive to Marblemount for beers, then camp at the right trailhead and get an early start towards high camp in the morning. We handed off the group gear we’d been carrying (a couple of pickets and half a tent in my case), shuffled some stuff around between cars, and then caravanned back down the dirt road to the main highway through town.
It was past midnight by the time we got back to Portland. My car was in deep NW Portland, so I had Guy drop me at my house, figuring I’d retrieve it the next day somehow. I didn’t even shower before falling into bed and sleeping hard.
I woke up on Saturday sore all over. My calves and quads, predictably, but also my arms (from clawing at the snow?), and, yep, my ankle, a little bit. I know that bailing on the climb was the right choice for me, but it still sucks. It was a lot to bite off in the first place while rehabbing an injury, but I’m so impatient.
I spent Saturday following Western States 100-miler mostly via iRunFar‘s excellent coverage. Do you know I registered for a 50k in, like, 2014? I didn’t run it, because I got injured at the Seattle Half Marathon in December 2013, where I set a personal record and finished in under two hours. That was my last race of any significant distance and the last time I ran with any kind of goal beyond getting through it without (further) injury. A few hours after the race ended, I started limping, and wasn’t able to run again until April 2014. When I first started running, and especially when I first started running on trails, I was so excited and ambitious. I was still finishing my first time through couch-to-5k when I found out about Tor des Géants (via this video which I found who-knows-where) and therefore ultrarunning and thought, “I am going to do that.” I didn’t think that over five years later I would be heavier than I was before I started running and that I’d wince while running half a block to catch the MAX. My running career, such as it is, has been defined by injury, and though I have learned from my injuries — and I have clearly found other ways to enjoy trails and wilderness — I am frustrated by my body.
I’ve been thinking about the essay I have to sit down and write soon for my grad school applications, about why I want to be a physical therapist. I have this vague idea of what I’ll write — maybe about the grand arc of my own athleticism — I was a determinedly unathletic kid, and didn’t discover until after high school that I am more happy and whole when I am moving and using and existing in my body — and how I would like to help others learn to work with, rather than against, their bodies, which after all are them. We are the flesh that houses us. But I still antagonize myself, fight against myself, hate parts of myself. The fact that I wrote and focused (internally at least) on “heavier” in the paragraph before this one speaks to that… and the fucked-up messages teenage girls receive about their bodies that they spend the rest of their lives trying hard to shake, of course. All of this is probably the real selfish reason I want to be a physical therapist — I want to understand and fix myself, to feel less helpless against the fleshy, frustrating, sometimes broken, sometimes beautiful body that is me.
On June 12th a couple weeks ago I had this funny sense of the date being significant for some reason, but it wasn’t until the next day that I remembered that nine years ago it was on that date that I was hit by a car while riding my bike home from work. I broke my collarbone and injured my knee, and had my first personal experiences with physical therapy following that incident. Injuries heal.
I’m not totally sure what’s going on with this current one — with my accessory navicular, my posterior tibial tendon attachment, et cetera. It’s definitely better than it was pre-boot, but it’s not 100%. Will it get to 100%? Will I be able to do the things I want to do? Will I be able to run again? I guess time will tell. I have learned from this injury — my feet have this extra bone and I need arch support to take some of the pressure off my posterior tibial tendon as a result. When I first started running I read Born to Run and totally drank the kool-aid on minimalist shoes; I ran barefoot in the Mission in San Francisco, even, from time to time, and ran my first (and only) marathon in sneakers I could roll up into tiny balls. All my casual shoes are super-minimal, and now I wear Superfeet insoles in them and feel a little ridiculous. No approach is one-size-fits-all. Bodies are annoyingly individual and unique and everything is trial and error. I want to have super strong feet and a beautiful arch and instead I have what I have, extra bones and all, and that’s me, and those feet sure have done a lot for me and taken me to a lot of beautiful places. On Friday they took me to the snowy saddle between two peaks, and I looked around, and it was beautiful.
Stacia you are such an incredible writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Friday’s mis-adventure. Saturday was a much more strenuous day than Friday. This was a really hard strenuous climb, especially if you are coming off an injury. We think we are invincible, then we get injured and realize how fragile the human body can be. It takes time to recover, give your body time to heal. I look forward to climbing with you in the future.