The challenge of the outdoors presents age-old problems that our minds and bodies are well equipped to adapt, master, and win self-confidence. The simple yet seemingly rare desire to connect with the cold, the insects, the dripping rain, or the impenetrable fog has slowly strengthened my resolve. Each successive excursion fed what started as a tiny flame flickering in a Wisconsin farmhouse that now roars in the great hearth of the Cascades poised to catch and spread and grow to a massive wildfire of possibilities.
The oppressive heat of the Midwest summer waffled through the cracks below the old farm-house door into the kitchen where the drop-ceiling threatened to give way to the weight of all this humidity. Thick shag carpet ran golden like a plume of spilled paint sweeping into the remaining corners of the first floor. Little Ray scampered down the steep stair pitch barefoot and he noticed father was already up as evidenced by the aroma of coffee wafting from the den where the new computer whirred to DOS commands both pounded into the keyboard and grumbled loudly at the green raster monitor.
These encumbrances of perception didn’t slow Little Ray from running straight outside and onto the dried grass then tip-toeing across the shale rock driveway towards the chicken coup and beyond to the fallow field where the spiky walnut, brambly raspberries, and grove of elm upstarts hid a tiny ravine. This wooded gully on the edge of the nine acre plot was where the boy could for a moment act independently.
Little Ray started a nice campfire in a rocky pit next to the dirt mounds and lilies both transported from the front of the house to make way for a new addition and basement. There he sat native-style on the lowest trunk of an elm that had grown horizontally allowing for nice boyhood bounces. Surrounded by green field grasses and barren dirt littered with chunks of sandstone and the occasional remnant of farm implements like rusted tractor seats and crumpled transmissions, Little Ray did not yet ruminate the philosophies on how to best remain in contact with Nature. Before internet and cable television had reached the countryside and back when rotary phones were still in use, it was easier to connect with reality: he charcoaled his hand reaching to stoke the fire and so he wiped it on the ever-fresh bark of that favorite bouncing tree. Here no calls from parents could be heard and no activities might be seen or judged.
Running back to the house for dinner, Little Ray passed the old barn, ferrous red paint long eroded away to bare greyed redwood planks collapsed in a heap over a simple cemented stone foundation where he undid the rusty chain from around the whitewashed fencepost and pushed open the yellow gate. The day had already passed from bright blue to amber as he slowly opened the door, sidled up to the kitchen table, and scooted his wheelie chair in to inspect the strange wild rice concoction that his stepmom Claire imported from California.
“On Monday Claire and Kristen are going to Florida while we stay and oversee the construction.”
“I’ll help you cook, Dad." Little Ray replied.
“You can help demolish the kitchen with a sledgehammer and paint once the new walls are up.”
First, went the horrible cardboard wall in the shower which had partially sluffed-off on its own. Then they attacked the cast iron bathtub, smashing it into transportable bits that with each delivery sunk the minivan deeper onto it suspension. The joy of blasting a hole right through the kitchen wall from inside to out was overwhelming. At night, with Mom gone, he was afforded some additional freedom. He sat outside catching a jar full of lightening bugs then began reading “The Things They Carried”. It moved him into action at the thought of surviving and even enjoying life in the dangerous jungles of Vietnam.
Determined, he grabbed a sleeping bag and walked out to the field. He felt the warmth of the house leave his body, but he was resolute that if soldiers could fight way over there and write beautiful books about it, then he could endure the comforts of his back yard. In the end, it was the incessant whine and constant swatting of mosquitoes that drove Little Ray back inside sometime late into the night.
Midwest Mountain Man
I sat consumed with an easy spirituality, something that always comes with sitting cross-legged on the snow. The bristling top of Crater Rock and the clear sweep of the snowy ridge up to the Pearly Gates, obvious and beckoning, called the Hogsback. Ancient fumaroles spew sulfurous gas as scores of people stop and remove climbing ropes, harnesses, and helmets for the remaining walk down. Through repetition drawing from that desire to connect with the outdoors, Little Ray transformed that buggy Midwest campout failure into a resolute mountain man now poised to summit Wy’east for the first time.
I haul a complete overnight setup complete with bivvy, shovel, stove, sleeping bag, pad, and more. While seemingly more experienced day climbers zip past me in tiny packs and fresh looking gear as though straight from REI, I pursue a different goal; preparation. The stories of the wickedness of Mount Hood were not lost on me. Because of a childhood knee injury that could cripple me in the backcountry, I trained to travel through these wildernesses with self-sufficiency for the worst of conditions.
I often think about the story of those poor school children groping in the fog for hours, losing hope, becoming buried alive in the deepening snow as they dug for their lives and huddled together for warmth with no protection save their jeans, sweatshirts and other assorted school field-trip attire as their classmates nearest to the outside of the snow cave slowly slipped into permanent sleep. If the worst happens to me, I am determined to be able to setup a bivy and hopefully brew a warm cup of tea that might save my life. Therefore, I venture out slowly but often and always carry everything. This probing work allows me to acclimate to a route, test it and myself in all seasons and weather, and eventually feel completely at home.
The first attempt, Dan and I tried the summit route in boots along the ski groom up to the top of the Palmer Express only to find a sheet of ice above and a strange swimming feeling in the head.
Chuck and I tried again, this time with snowshoes. The ice was manageable and we stayed right on the Triangle Glacier, but were spooked by the steepness and eventually petered out at the top of some arbitrary lump. The key was discovered on the return as we tried to avoid the steep - a nice snowfield above the Mississippi Headwall and the Zigzag Canyon which was flatter and less scoured by wind.
We returned again, this time donning new yellow aluminum MSR snowshoes for lighter weight traction and pushed past the Zigzag snowfield and up a fairly steep sidehill with one switchback below Crater Rock looking down on Illumination Saddle speckled with yellow and orange snow tents. We halted at Devil’s Kitchen and though the Hogsback was in sight, retreated having sufficed with a wonderful view of the Steel Cliffs and the yellow-green Sulphur vents.
Two more times we pushed and attained the Hogsback, now exclusively using La Sportiva Nepal boots with Black Diamond sabretooth crampons, where we reveled in the sunny snow looking out on the runs of Ski Bowl and Mt Jefferson beyond. I swore I would never try to summit Wy’east - the dangers were too great.
Finally, Dan and I pushed up the darkness together listening to Moonlight Sonata picking up steam as we passed numerous groups under the chairlifts with ease. We paused at the Hogsback and we both could feel it; we were going to attempt the summit this time as more and more beta came back from early climbers that the Berchrund was gone and the Pearly Gates were free of ice.
“I love you man.” I say as some sort of karmic prayer in case we die here. Sliding up the Hogsback, we find a very secure perch below the Gates and after watching one group hop right up with an axe in each hand, we move out and find the steepness bearable.
We think that a fall here may not result in much more than landing in the snow ditch below though we don’t press our luck. And then, there we are! We rise into the sweeping open summit plateau and celebrate with high fives, pushups and hoots knowing now the feeling of success after years of desire and perseverance.