I am sitting in the living room, surrounded by the patient's family, looks varying from concern to fatigue. A gentle fire cracks in the stove as we talk strategy. "One of the best factors we have to work with is her will," I say. "Involve her as much as you and she can handle. Guide her hand to the rail; tell her the goal of the movement; ask her to help." It's business, mechanical, yet sensitive to both the patient's and the family's needs. The son nods his head, understanding; the daughters standing quietly behind the couch, arms crossed and listening, focused. We walk into her room, the hospital bed filling the small space, her cats still avoiding it for unfamiliar smells and sounds. As gently as I can, I coax her to roll, position, change sheets, sit up. Her grimace is evident, her desire to participate and fight still on the surface. She nods when I ask if she's OK. "Liar," I say to her, smiling. Her eyes look into mine, the light still there and challenging my retort. She smiles and pats my hand.
It's a long way up the ridge. I've looked at it for over a year, wanting to climb it in the snow. I also needed a test, both of endurance and to my foot, injected now over a month ago. I know it isn't done often this time of year, and probably with good reason. But I am going to try anyway. I load up the pack, a seeming unending line of gear and warm clothes. I am pleased by what I see on the scale for myself before donning the beast, then shrug when I see the overall result. The drive out to the start is short, and I slowly begin the trudge up the road. My feet want to take off, but I pull hard on their reins, knowing what is above me. A herd of deer climbs a low ridge to the south, and I follow, heading to the gulley with the least snow. We swap leads, their eyes following me on my slow ascent up the loose dirt and through sage. I am dripping sweat in the morning sun, rain falling from the brim of my cap, glasses fogging for lack of breeze. Breathing and steps are synchronized, the power in my legs feeling as though it had never left. They were made for this work.
"I have always wanted to climb Mt.Tom," the daughter says to me. "I grew up here, skied this mountain since I was 5. But I was so jealous when you told me you were going up there." A week later now, and I am talking with the daughter in the same living room. Other family has gone home to various corners, jobs, and their own families. They have said their goodbyes, but will be back if time allows. We talk of being out of doors, how restorative it is. She tears up, and I along with her, when she thinks of her mother's adventures, and how much she is suffering. "I want to get back out there," she says.
Above 8000ft, snow is consistent but still shallow, my steps biting to the ground beneath until I get to the crest below the ridge. A perfect outcropping allows for a lunchtime break and to listen to nothing for an hour. I jump, startled by my cell phone beeping in my pack pocket, having forgotten to turn it off. Laughing, I call Ken. "Watcha up to?" he asks. "About 8600ft," my reply with a giggle. It is impossible not to be euphoric up here: the land falls away to nothing so far below me, the face of Wheeler Crest jagged and towering to the north. A storm front cuts the sky above, lenticulars taking shape as the clouds are driven to the east. Crystal blue skies to the west bode well for the rest of the day's climb, so I don the beast once more and trudge upward. The snow gets deeper on the steep terrain, and I am starting to posthole, first knees, then thighs, then a few to my hip. It is an exercise in patience: placing my foot, shifting weight, waiting to see if the fragile snow will hold. I am surprised at the times it does. I struggle to dig in my poles for leverage, reaching for trees or rocks when available. At last, the ridge. I gasp looking down the sheer west face of Mt. Tom, hearing Pine Creek tumble and roar 4000 ft below. The snows up towards Royce Pass look deep, blanketing and rolling with the contours. I walk along the rock, cresting 9000ft, then stopping as I see the wall in front of me. It is 1400, and I have climbed over 3600ft today, so I decide to stop early and make camp. The warming sun forces me to strip to sports bra and pants, clothes hang on the trees in an attempt to dry everything out before sunset. My hair is flying as I dig a platform for my tent, perched behind a stand of mountain mahogany and sheltered, I hope, from the wind. The work is methodical, chores to be done at the end of a day. A whistle in the trees signals change as the wind nudges my bare shoulders. I turn into it, staring into the chasm of Pine Creek, pulling a strand of hair out of my eyes.
I had seen a copy of her book at our first appointment together, sitting on the stairwell. The title had to do with mountains, so of course I was intrigued. She had lived her life among the mountains around the world, and during our first sessions together, we had shared our stories, our mutual fascination. I ordered the book the next day, and was consumed by its opening chapter. "Mountains are good vantage points," she writes. "You can look back and see where you have been." Each passage resonated in me, bringing tears of pride and happiness; joy at having found, even too late, a common bond and spirit. "Would you be offended if I asked her to sign it?" I asked her daughter in the living room. "I'm sure she would be honored," was the reply. "To Laura, P.T.," she says out loud while writing. A pause, "MY P.T."
I sit bolt upright as the tent snaps back from the buffeting wind. The book goes flying from it's resting place on my chest, where I had closed my eyes for a moment in the fading light of day. I have to pee, but the thought of getting out of warm bags and into the wind to drop trou is extraordinarily unpleasant. I layer up, stumble out into the early twlight, gasping and telling myself to hurry up, dammit. The sky is grey as more clouds hustle overhead, the lights of Bishop twinkling far below. I crawl back inside the tent, grabbing the hot water bottle to warm my hands. I talk to myself about the day to come, wondering if the wind will linger. When I awaken again, the air is still, a bright moon paled only by the layer of clouds crossing the Valley. At the next view, warming light from the east, the gibbous moon bright behind the ridge and over the Sierra. If I am going to go, I need to get up, choke down oatmeal for breakfast. The sun is bright but not too warm, and I head up the slope where I thought the snow would be thin. No such luck. Thick crust on top of fluff powder isn't about to hold my weight in the slightest, and I struggle to get just 200 vertical feet above camp. Perched on a rock on the ridge, I look back and up, wanting so much to push on, but knowing the snow will get deeper and more unstable above me. With a sigh, I know the climb up is over, but I am accepting of that. For what reason would I go on? To say I slogged up to 10,000+ ft? What would it prove? The day is perfect once again: bright sun, no wind, view unimpeded. Why ruin it with misery and beating myself to death on a ridge that doesn't want to be climbed yet? Back in camp, I load everything up, take one more longing look at the ridge above me, and turn for home. My footsteps aren't hard to find or follow in the snow: heavy and short as I had leaned into the weight of the pack and the slope. The ground softened below the snow, the loose scree absorbing the impact as I descended the gulley to the road.
Her eyes are still bright as she lies in the bed, although she is a withered shadow of her former being. Pictures of her and her family surround her in the light of the room, birds eating the seed left on the windowsill. "I wanted to know just how much your book meant to me," I tell her, beaming. "I am so glad to hear that," the reply. "Your daughter tells me you have been travelling?" I ask. "Yes," she replies. "When I sleep." She takes my hand, her grip strong and warm. "Thank you," she says.
We are women of the mountains, she and I. I will go back to the North Ridge someday, possibly soon. Perhaps with someone, perhaps alone. Indirectly, I stand on her shoulders, and she will ride with me. "Mountains can be one's old, wise friends," she writes. Travel well, my friend. It is what we women of the mountains do.
Pictures from this weekend's adventure are here .
From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.
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