A few weeks prior to graduating, I was asked by a professor to speak to my fellow English majors at our department’s chapel. This was as befuddling as it was flattering. I mean there I was, a senior English major having just turned down the only career I had been offered and on the verge of doing…what? Any random job I could to get by? What on earth was I going to say to them?
“Hi…uh…my name’s Bryn. No, no, it’s a guy’s name. I liked being an English major. It helps me talk good. I don’t have much of a job yet. Except I’ll be a kayak guide. I think. In Maine. It’s pretty…”
Point being, I was perplexed as to what exactly I would say, and I remained perplexed until the day of the speech, which I forgot I was giving, when I entered the room with a slew of other peers, whom I forgot I was addressing, to participate in the chapel, which I forgot I was a part of, and was pulled aside by the professor who asked me to speak to make sure I was in fact ready to speak. Ladies and gentleman, the University’s finest.
As I sat in the pew, waiting for my turn to shame the department, I raced through my mind for some sort of spark. Why was I an English major? What on earth had made me choose it? Was it the books? The writing? French 101? Why did I eve-
Then my name was called.
I walked to the podium holding a scrap of paper with scribbles on it and cleared my throat. I tried my hand at humor (no laughs), then charm (confused faces). Whew boy. I looked down at my scribbles and a thought crossed my mind.
“I became an English major,” I began, “because I love stories. And I love God. And I guess, when I think about it, I view God as a storyteller. I see it in the Bible, and I see it in my own life. And so I want to know how to tell my stories and properly understand the stories of others.”
I looked at the audience. Most of them were still conscious. One looked at his crotch and smiled (texting), another in the far back picked his nose. I just kept going:
“I’ll be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen after college. I’m not sure if I’ll even use my major.” I let out a small laugh. “Basically, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure God does, and following the analogy, I think He’s got a plan- a story, if you will. Almost like He’s up in heaven with the blank pages sitting before him, all white…”
Or something like that. Point is, I didn’t make a complete buffoon out of myself. Although I did hear later that four students changed their major immediately following the chapel, to French, nonetheless. I think it was unrelated.
Nearly eight months later, I found myself on the slopes of Mount Washington, smiling for almost no reason at all in a world I just seemed to have noticed. After my brief pause, I glanced at my watch and decided it was time I got going. I trudged up the trail, feeling a little lighter than before.
The snowfall was increasing around me, which was not in itself surprising. You see, Mount Washington sits in the middle of the White Mountain range, a name that is intentionally foreboding:
“They’re called the White Mountains for a reason,” a Park Ranger so memorably noted. Then, just in case you missed it, he added, “it’s because they get a lot of snow.”
Needless to say, I’d heard plenty about the weather coming into my climb (something about “the worst in the world, blah, blah, blah” I’m not really sure), and thus far was pleasantly surprised to have encountered little other than flurries. That would change soon enough.
After another mile of meticulously picking my way over icy patches and loose rocks, I reached the beginning of the Lion’s Head trail and began a steady climb. I progressed up a series of abbreviated switchbacks, covered in a thin layer of snow and ice. The climb steepened and at one point I lost my footing and plopped once again onto my butt: although this time I slid within reach of a small drop off. Not a big one, but big enough to convince me it was time to gear up. I took my crampons out of my pack, as well as my ice axe and chest harness. Once I’d gotten the crampons on (“wait how does this stupid %$# thing click into plac- OW!!! $%#^@”), I downed a goo pack and some water and was back on my feet.
With crampons on I was able to pick up the pace significantly, moving quickly through icy sections of the trail that previously would’ve demanded intricate attention. I cleared a majority of the Lions Head trail and began the approach to its’ peak, .9 miles and just about 1,000 feet from the summit of Washington. I glanced at my watch. I’d been hiking for under two hours. At this rate, I thought, I’d be to the summit and back by lunchtime.
The terrain thinned out as I left the tree line, and I glanced back, hoping to get a view. The clouds were fairly thick, but through an opening I could see valley below me and the visitor’s center where I’d begun that morning. However this snapshot was only available for a moment before a cloud rolled in leaving me unable to see much past the trail immediately behind me. It was the last view I would see that day.
The climb steepened as my visibility decreased; I now couldn’t see much further than fifty yards ahead of me. Although the crampons had helped significantly in the snow below the tree line, up here the terrain was exposed to the elements and there didn’t seem to be much of a snow base but rather large drifts followed by bare icy patches. This made climbing with crampons rather difficult. While they were necessary for the patches of ice and snow, wearing them on an insufficient base was like asking for a sprained ankle, which was no joke in solo mountaineering. At the same token, climbing without crampons would be like trying to scale a kitchen floor in waxed socks. My only point of contact would be my ice axe, and self-arresting would be much less reliable.
Either way it was a risk: the idea of trying to scale a winter summit without crampons seemed dumber than, say, kayaking in a hurricane. But I couldn’t get over the feeling that continuing to climb with crampons would result in a twisted ankle or worse. For the first time since I’d begun, I really wished I wasn’t alone. On Mount Rainier, something like this wouldn’t have been an issue; I had two reliable and wise rope leaders there to tell me what to do, and threaten to throttle me over the head with an ice axe if I did the wrong thing (here’s to you, Allen). There was a whole team to support me and people with much more experience to make the difficult decisions.
Now it was just me.
I looked up the trail, attempting to get a sense of the terrain ahead. It was no good; the visibility was as bad as ever. In a decision that I dwelt upon for the rest of my climb, and doubtlessly would have been called into question should something have actually happened to me that day (spoiler alert: I lived through my climb, you can breathe now), I sat down in the snow, and removed my crampons with the foreboding sense that things were about to get interesting.
With my crampons removed, I continued towards the peak of Lion’s Head. Barely a tenth of a mile from where I’d just stopped, the trail came to stop a wall of ice. It was probably only six or seven feet tall: during the summer I’m guessing it would’ve been a large rock with small cracks into which hikers could stick their toes and easily scale. But now, in the winter, it became an intimidating obstacle of sheer ice.
This was the first time I wondered if I should’ve stuck with the crampons.
I reached up with my ice axe and tried to find a section of ice solid enough to hold me. I felt the ice axe rest on the top ledge of the rock, just barely within reach of my extended arms. I pushed my body against the rock and, with both hands on my ice axe, did what was essentially a chin up to where my axe was holding; then scrambled to find footing at the top. It couldn’t have looked any more eloquent than a walrus doing jumping jacks, and for all the loneliness I’d felt just a moment ago, I was grateful no one was there to see it.
I continued up the trail and couldn’t help but notice how rapidly the visibility continued to decrease. I was just starting to wonder how far I was from the top of Lion’s Head when the trail flattened out and I found myself cresting the top of a ridge.
Suddenly, a force hit me knocking my whole body backwards and sending me dancing to gain balance. It was like the hand of God, or perhaps some mountain top monster, had come down and slapped my entire body back a few feet. I regained my balance managing though in a stooped position. I looked around to see what had happen. What had knocked me back was no cosmic force, though I suppose you might call it a monster.
It was the wind.
My mind was reeling. I had checked the forecast for my climb several times and it called for cloudy weather but winds in the 30-40 MPH range. While I didn’t have a load of experience to fall back on, I could hardly believe that what was howling by me at that moment was a 30 MPH breeze. I moved forward a few steps, and immediately felt myself being blown off course. (A few days after the fact, I pulled up the weather report for my climb. Rather than an average wind speed of 35, the winds during my time on the mountain averaged above 60 MPH and actually topped out at 95 MPH. While certainly not the worst the mountain could offer-namely 231 MPH- I found it remarkable the weather could turn so quickly from it’s forecasted state. It was almost like it was the worst weather in the world or something….oh wait).
“I can’t believe this,” I said out loud. Although anyone standing next to me would’ve heard something more like “IIIIIIIII kkaaaaaannttttaaahhh bbeeeellleeeevvveeeee diiissss!”
As if in reply, a gust of wind picked up and I was blown off course again, losing balance this time. I went to the ground, banging my knee on a rock and feeling immensely insecure. I’d read several accounts of climbers on windy peaks being turned into human kites and the fear of free paragliding suddenly crossed my mind. I looked up and spotted something a few yards ahead of me. I slouched up to it and found a wooden sign that was mostly frozen over but with the notched words still visible. “Mount Washington Summit” it read with an arrow” “.3 miles”. I let out a sigh of relief. I didn’t know how, but I was much closer to the summit than I’d expected. It sounds wimpy to read about it, but mileage in mountaineering is not something that comes easy. There are mountains that have 9-mile routes to the summit which require days of climbing to attain. Indeed, .3 miles still wasn’t a long distance, but it was enough for me. I was not digging the wind.
I turned away from the sign then had a second thought and turned back. Just for verification purposes, I decided to scrape the ice off the sign completely. I ran my axe over the words and slowly scratched off the missing link: the “3” became a “9”.
My profanity was lost in the wind.
I turned and continued down a small rocky path. The wind howled past me and I became extremely grateful that I’d chosen to bring my goggles; I would’ve been blind without them. Even with them on, the fog had increased and visibility was less than I’d ever encountered; I could barely see 10 yards ahead of me.
The path ended shortly and the terrain turned into scramble-style boulders, through which I assumed there was some sort of trail. If it existed, it was buried in the snowand I was forced to scramble over them and through large drifts. My only means of navigation (seeing as a map and compass would’ve been useless when I’d be blown off course in .2 seconds) was using rock piles called “cairns”. These man-made piles are commonly used trail markers and on Washington were rather large, for which I was grateful because finding them was hard enough in the haze.
Once again, I began to question my decision not to use crampons. I climbed, slid, and maneuvered my way over rocks, then made my way through snowdrifts towards the next cairn, which was often barely visible in the distance. And I slipped, a lot. I’d lose footing and being to slide, then throw my ice axe into the snow next to me, sometimes I’d stop, but other times I’d be too late, and would slide back a few feet, a disheartening occurrence to say the least. I thought of stopping and reattaching my crampons, but several times I fell through a snowdrift onto rocky footing below and realized that crampons were no safer now than my slipping and sliding.
I moved as quickly as possible: scrambling over rocks and pushing through snow drifts; my axe often the only support I had. The wind kept billowing around me and several gusts knocked me to my feet or forced me to lay low until it had finished. Minutes turned into hours and I became exhausted; I’d been climbing way to fast and hadn’t taken enough breaks, but I couldn’t stop now. I had de-layered before hitting Lion’s Head and wasn’t wearing much more than a running shirt and pullover underneath my jacket. In this wind, stopping could mean a significant decrease in body temperature.
So I pushed on. The drifts seemed to get larger and several times I fell through or slipped and found my head resting on the snow. I was forced to stop at several cairns and desperately scan the haze for the next one. Many times I wouldn’t see it and set out in the direction I’d been traveling keeping the previous cairn in sight, and turn around if I hadn’t spotted the new one within a few feet.
I came to one such juncture in which the cairn sat right before a large snow bound crossing, perhaps thirty yards wide. Across on the other side, the rocky terrain picked up again, but I couldn’t see a cairn. I looked around me and saw no sign of the trail heading in any different direction. It had to be across that snowfield, but climbing it was going to take effort and should I slip while crossing, I could slide for quite sometime…though I would “stop eventually” as Allen used to say. I laughed to myself thinking of my Rainier companions, and for a moment wished they, wished anyone, were there to go through this crazy experience with me. But I quickly pushed these thoughts out of my mind.
I set across the snowfield in the direction I hoped the trail was leading. The snow came up to my waist, and trekking through it was exhausting. The footing underneath was unreliable and I kept slipping backwards before finding a hold with my ice axe. I took another step and fell through the snow again, this time up past my waist. All I wanted to do was lay down for a moment, but something inside of me knew that if I stopped I wouldn’t go again. I pulled myself out of the drift by my ice axe and took another step, falling through again, and repeated the process three more times before I found myself at the top of the bank.
I crested a small boulder and looked into the fog for some sign of the next cairn. I couldn’t see it.
Discouraged and exhausted, I slid down the opposite side of the rock. I found myself sheltered between two large boulders and, for the first time in a while, out of the wind. I looked out into the fog once again, but still couldn’t see the next cairn. So I just sat there; arms huddled around myself, trying to ignore the inevitable cold and fatigue that was taking over my body and the feeling as though I’d been blindly climbing towards the summit for hours.
And for some reason I thought back to that day in chapel, addressing my fellow colleagues. I’m not sure why, but I thought about what I’d said then, the whole “blank white pages before God” thing, and I thought about what I’d been trying to say.
Part of the allure of scaling mountains (personally at least) is the rewarding views. During my climb, I’d had none of those. Heck, I hadn’t taken my camera out once the entire climb. It’d be pointless; I could hardly see past my outstretched hand. But I couldn’t help thinking this was something beautiful in itself. Doesn’t the curtain of fog hold a beauty so profound a camera couldn’t capture it? Isn’t the anticipation of what’s coming, or perhaps what could be, a beauty to behold? Doesn’t a blank canvas in the hand of an artist hold almost as much beauty as the finished painting itself?
And I thought about what I’d said, that God is a storyteller. Although this is true, I’m not prone to believe my story, or any story for that matter, is one that He’s writing on the fly. My story was written, of that I was sure. But what exactly it would be, on this climb, during this week and for the rest of my life, was about as vivid to me as a blank sheet of white paper. An obvious statement perhaps, but I admitted this to myself for the first time: I was in a somewhat precarious situation. There I was, on the side of a mountain huddled against the cold. I was alone, I was exhausted, I was potentially lost and the weather was living up to its reputation. I had very little ability to control the next chapter in my story. Despite all this, I realized then what I always should have known: my life had never been in my hands to begin with. Such a revelation was frightening, even terrifying; it felt something like the desperation of a fist clenched around that which it loves the most. But this was accompanied by an overwhelming comfort. The pages of my story appeared blank to me, and yes, they were out of my hands, but I knew the author, and I couldn’t wait to see what He was going to do. My story was in His hands.
I took a deep breath and stood up, still exhausted but resolved to move again. This is a turning point, I decided, if I can’t find that cairn quick, then I needed to turn around. I stepped out from my shelter between the rocks back into the wind.
And all I saw was white.