Alpine Emancipation

I am climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, and sweat keeps greasing down my brow and burning into my eyes. I’m choking back vomit and my spine feels like a roman candle, yet wallowing in this abject misery is glorious compared to what happened a few weeks ago. And soon you’ll understand why.

But first—a little about me. Sport climbing is my thing, but only routes with short, flat, and easy approaches—“belay off the bumper” stuff, preferably. If the approach to a crag crests 15 minutes, those pages get torn out of my guidebook. So with no backpacking experience, borrowed alpine gear, and poor cardio, I decided to take on one of the hardest summits in the country: dangerous climbing, consistently exposed positions, notoriously unpredictable weather, and low odds of reaching the top. Aaron, my hardcore backpacking friend, laughed in my face and gave me his prediction: “It will destroy you.” Perfect.

Why? Well, life was once clean and beautiful. After coming back from a weeklong climbing trip, it seemed like a good idea to swing by my adorable, wonderful girlfriend’s house and surprise her. I did. She was. So was her ex-boyfriend, who she promised she’d never speak to again. His attendance and their configuration—well, that really fucking surprised me. In crippling silence (the sound of our shallow breathing notwithstanding), they just stared at me, their mouths open enough to see the shiny fillings inside. Once the clock started moving again, I bid them adieu, drove home, threw up, and got drunk for a week. (Or two. Not sure. Not important.)

After countless weepy trips to the bar and an endless barrage of apologies, it dawned on me that wallowing in my own bottomless self-pity was driving everyone crazy and something—anything—needed to happen: self-immolation, seppuku, pull a “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. After careful consideration, the unrelenting mental and physical pain of mountaineering seemed like a more reasonable outlet.

And now one of the hardest peaks was on my plate. Remarkably climbed after Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and Wyoming’s Gannett, Granite Peak was the last state high point to be conquered. After multiple attempts from multiple parties, Elers Koch finally scored the first ascent August 29, 1923—just two weeks after he found his wife Gerda in bed with his longtime friend, Bernard DeVoto. [1]

“I need you to promise me something, Dan,” I tell my climbing partner between wheezing breaths on the saddle overlooking Mystic Lake. “No matter what I say or do, make me summit. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I might try to quit.”

I’m a junkie before a painful detox, making sure that needle stays out of my arm for good, no matter what desperate bargaining might take place. I want enlightenment, goddammit. And it’s not at this altitude. Staring at him, I say, “I need to summit.”

We hit the Switchbacks From Hell, and my existence is reduced to one stunted, 12-inch step at a time. And, with each mile traveled, infidelity is fading from my consciousness. The blue sky starts to rain as we approach tree line, and for the first time in weeks, a sober, genuine smile blossoms over my face. With the deep blue waters of Mystic Lake spread before me, flanked by massive jagged peaks, it begins to dawn on me why people sometimes hike farther than 15 minutes.

Kinda. My knees are really starting to hurt.

Next comes Froze-to-Death Plateau. Like some giant, soggy treadmill, we slog through marshy swamps and leftover snow banks on our death march to the peak. Now every joint south of my belly button feels dipped in hot sauce. Roving gangs of mountain goats circle us for miles, bumping each other out of the way to lap up any salty urine we leave behind. Piss vultures. Gross.

Just when even one more step seems impossible, we finally arrive at a decent bivy site, the summit of Granite poking over the ridgeline like crooked teeth. Collapsing against the stacked rocks, I am a sacred vessel of hurt. I am the holy martyr of suffering. My name is Saint Gangulphus of Burgundy, the remarkably appropriate patron saint of deceived husbands, unhappy marriages, and leg pain. [2] 

Every joint is throbbing. Genuine, palpable, physical suffering has replaced all my petty emotional suffering. Perfect. This pain is manageable. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. Maybe it’s the elevation. I can’t think good. Her “dog caught in the garbage” facial expression doesn’t exist. Her blonde hair doesn’t exist. Her long legs. Her face. At 10,000 feet, she doesn’t exist. Any effort to remember her registers a grey cloud. Zen-like. Happiness overwhelms me. Time for bed.

Cold dark alpine start.
I awake to black and wind.
Granite by moonlight.

Endless skies above.
I’m on the highest mountain.
Montana beneath.

Bivy site and goats.
I pack the tents, pump water.
Time to return home.

This is bullshit. While it was easy to transcend the issue of indiscretion on the hike up, with each passing mile, my psyche is dipping back into emotional torment like an old man easing into a hot bath. “Where’s my enlightenment? Where’s my damn inner peace?” I say as we get off Froze-to-Death and head back down the switchbacks. Dan tells me to shut up and walk faster. Damn. What a waste of time. All this suffering for nothing, waiting for something to happen—deep spiritual clarity, inner peace, a moment of realization, etc. It’s so goddamn annoying that nothing happened. And then something did.

Fifteen hours of constant effort begins to break down my doughy sport-climbing physique. My pace slows to a labored, waddling gait. Joints begin to scream in protest. Every footstep sends lightning bolts of pain up my legs and my eyes start to leak. My climbing partners roll their eyes and charge ahead around me, agreeing to meet me at the car, which is still six miles away. 

A mile later, my right leg goes on strike, refusing to travel another inch, and a stabbing muscle cramp clutches my thigh mid-step. I stand all of my weight on the side of my foot and then crumple to the dirt like a Hefty bag full of ground beef. Grasping my ankle and biting back tears, it finally—finally—feels like the next step is impossible. In a few seconds, the drumrolling lub-dub of my heart swells my ankle to the size of a softball. The pain circuits are overloaded. The fuses are blown. Red alert. System failure. Perfect.

Like a bratty toddler, big fat tears roll down my cheeks. This was such a goddamn stupid idea. And now I’m going to die. 

A few desperate minutes later, pulling my forearm across my face and wiping a shiny trail of snot from my wrist to my elbow, it dawns on me: getting the hell out of this canyon is entirely up to me. Feeling bad for myself isn’t going to do a damn thing. My friends are miles ahead. It’s getting dark. The betrayal and the distance to the car are hard, concrete facts that are never going to change. The only changeable variable is myself. I am going to get to the car and I am going to get over her because it has to happen. Simple. Why not do it right now? 

Because the next few hours of my life would involve crippling pain, my revised plan is to enjoy it. The last six miles are now my complete nirvana, slowly limping with a massive smile on my face as every delicate inch of sinew in my lower body begs for mercy from constant abuse. My deranged laughter echoes through the desolate canyon. 

Long, long after my friends arrive back at the parking lot, my hobbling gait inches me down the hill to join them. “What the hell took you so long?” Dan calls out from the parking lot. Oh my God. It’s over. All praise be to thee, Saint Gangulphus. 

It’s over and we are triumphant. We have conquered the highest mountain in Montana. Life is clean and beautiful again. Reality is a different place now, and I’m ready to face the onslaught of apology messages with icy ennui. Nice try, but you can’t hurt me anymore. Limping my sorry ass up a big damn mountain and back is nothing compared to blowing you off when you come crying. Sorry.

Later, in a tremendous display of karma, she got fired from her job, had to move back in with her parents, and is generally miserable. [3] Perfect.

[1] That’s not true. Could be, though.

[2] That is true. Google it.

[3] Bitch.