Copyright 2002 by Marc Robinson

A Hole in the Clouds

You wake when you should be in your deepest sleep. You wake to darkness and utter silence. Two a.m. Everyone in the tents around yours, except maybe one or two other teams, will be asleep. The few who are awake will be stirring around, exchanging a word or two. Maybe you see the gleam of a flashlight as they get ready. You sigh, and get out of your warm sleeping bag and into your cold clothes and your big heavy cold boots, which are going to stay cold for quite a while because they're so well insulated and they've had plenty of time to get down to the outside temperature. You dress as fast as you can, shivering, and pull on a down jacket, and then you start collecting your things. You've already packed most of them, but there are always odds and ends, the things you had to leave out, like the stove. You make a pan of cowboy coffee, which you drink, your hands in the darkness almost invisible except for the pieces of white medical tape covering the wounds where recent climbs have gouged them. When you finish the coffee, you put the pot and everything else except the stove in the crate and haul it back up, out of reach of the bears and raccoons that want your food. Then you shrug inside, and put the last things in your pack. You know the pack will be heavy, and you picture the contents, but you know there's nothing you can leave out, unless you want to risk being caught short when you need it. Your shoulders throb at the sight of your pack. If you'd been lucky, it would have been raining, and you could have stayed in your warm bag and listened to the patter on the tent, and drifted back off. But now you have to face the six-hour uphill slog.

First you have to find the trail. Then you have to not lose the trail. All of this is done by headlamp. Did you remember to put new batteries in? Your body hasn't warmed up, and you know it won't until you get on the rock. Your legs unkink, but with the pack on, your shoulders complain, and your back. It's like the two halves of your body, top and bottom, are in different states. Your mind isn't interested in reconciling them. It only wants not to be bothered in its interrupted sleep. It knows that this is going to last a long time. When you get to the climb, you'll already have put in what for most people would be an exhausting day, and the sun will just be coming up, and you'll have to get to work. You wonder vaguely why when you're climbing it never seems to matter how much sleep you miss. You've always assumed that it's the adrenaline rush, but you've always wondered whether that explanation isn't too easy. It's like war: there isn't any room for fatigue. You have to keep going, to get where you're going, and sleep would stop you from getting there.

Some trails rise gradually. This one is steep right outside the little illegal campground in the forest where everyone's tents are pitched. You hope the rangers don't raid the camp while you're gone - if you're not there, everything you have will be taken, thrown together any which way, even mixed in with other people's stuff. There's a lot of gear you spent a lot of money and time to get, and some of it you made yourself, especially some of the big-wall hardware, and you wouldn't be able to replace it. You worry about it for a while, and then you forget, because you've used up your worrying. It's a steep trail, and easy to lose in the dark. It's especially dark under the trees, and you're continually stumbling over roots and on rocks, until you slow down a bit and concentrate, using the headlamp. It's like driving to the coast: you know it's going to take forever, and knowing how long it will be only makes it worse.

About three thousand feet of altitude gain and you come out into a meadow and there's a little bit of moon. You pick out little spots of color that would be wildflowers in the daylight, but they're only washed-out shadows now. An elk bugles in the distance, and you wonder what the hell he thinks he's doing, this time of night. Elk don't bugle at this hour, at least not that you've ever heard. Since you left the camp, except for the sounds of you and Doug trudging wordlessly uphill, the elk's bugle is the first sign that there's any animal life around you. It's beautiful here, in this meadow, and sometimes during the day it's full of butterflies and you remember meeting a girl at the bookstore in the town twenty miles away and bringing her up here one afternoon. She wasn't used to such a steep walk, and it took a long time to get here. By the time you did, you realized you'd made a mistake, and she thought you were being a pain in the ass, when you only wanted to show her this place, and get a little further with her. Didn't happen. Too bad, too: no one ever meets girls here, and they all wondered where you'd found her. So you took her back to town that evening, and bought her dinner, but the day was ruined because her legs were so sore she could barely walk.

You take a break after a few hours and you and Doug briefly debate whether to get out the bivvy stove and brew up, because it's still cold, but there really isn't any question of doing so, because it would slow you down. Neither of you is tired, but you feel obliged to sit for ten minutes, and you do. Earlier you'd both taken off your duvets because you were warm from the uphill walk. Now you put them back on. After the ten-minute rest you get up and take off the jackets, jam them into the top of your packs, and put the damn packs on again. You always wish you hadn't taken the pack off, because it feels worse after than before you took your break.

The trees come to an end. It's always seemed odd to you that treelines are so distinct. Everything else tapers off, but with trees on mountains it's different. You'd think there would be a few stragglers above their brothers, but there never are. On the drive out here, you saw this again and again. You never fail to notice it.

There's more light now that you're in the open, but you can't turn off the headlamp yet. You need to watch your footing. First there's a long stretch of rocky ground, and it's hard to see the trail, which at this point is nothing more than beaten dirt between the rocks. This isn't a maintained trail, but one that climbers' feet have made. No one else comes up here, because there's nothing to see, and nothing to do, and it's hard to get to.

You manage to keep to the trail, mainly because Doug has sharp eyes, and because he's been here before. The dirt-and-rock gives way to a talus field, and you wend your way up, hopping from one rock to the next. At least it isn't like that approach in the San Juans that had a big blowdown to navigate, and a crumbling dirt cliff, and no trail. All you have to do is keep your eyes on the point you're headed for. After a while the talus gives way to scree, and you pedal uphill, trying to keep the little rocks out of your boots. Every step up, you slide part of the way back. But this gives way to the snowfield where a tongue of the glacier comes down. You're surprised to see and hear a trickle of water coming from under the snow; it felt colder than that, and you expected the water to be frozen.

You start kicking steps, and Doug, instead of stepping in yours, moves to the side and kicks his own. It's more work, and you know that he wouldn't make the effort, except that he wants to be out of the way - if one of the steps breaks and you come sliding down, he doesn't want you landing on his head and taking him with you. It's steep here, and you don't have an axe to self-arrest with, so you're likely to slide quite a way, even slide to the bottom, once you get started. But you'd talked about this and decided it wasn't serious, because the scree slope was low angle where the snow stopped, and there weren't any large sharp rocks to hurt yourself on. Wishful thinking, you decide, and just as this occurs to you, you are stepping up onto your right foot when the snow breaks out from underneath you and you start to slide. Your hands on the snow are probably futile. They're leaving grooves in the snow. You aren't in the least afraid; your mind is watching what is happening. You stand up straight. The sliding stops, and you kick two big steps and stand there. Doug asks whether you're okay, and you nod. But now your hands are cold and raw.

Halfway up the snow field you angle left to the ridge, and step over the íschrund and scramble up and follow the ridge to the place where it flattens. The two of you sit, and you look out over the valley. The other range looks much closer than the map would have you believe. Everything between you and those peaks is covered with cumulous clouds, the moon is shining on peaks and clouds alike. It is the most extraodinary thing you've ever seen. You are high above everyone, looking down at the world sleeping under a silvery blanket of water vapor. The silence is absolute. Nothing, not so much as a bird, to be seen. It is like watching the Creation. Doug feels the same. He's never one to delay, but you both sit and look, wasting more time than you can spare. Finally he picks up his pack, and you pick up yours, and you turn uphill again. An hour later you reach the foot of the wall, and you drop your pack and look out over the valley. The sun is rising, and the tops of the clouds have turned pink. There is a hole in the cloud, almost perfectly round, in the center of the valley, and through it you see the river.

You rack up and debate whether to wear the packs or haul them using the spare rope, and decide to wear them, at least at the start, where the angle is reasonable. It will save time. If they turn out to be a problem, you can change your minds.

The first lead is yours, and you reach for the rough granite, noting that here, in the shadow, the trickle of water in the crack is frozen. The moss is frozen, too, and you'll have to be careful where you jam your hands, and where you put your feet, or you'll fall. "Ready?" you ask, and when Doug answers you start to climb, and immediately get that feeling again that this is where you belong, nowhere else, that this is the only place on the planet worth being. You lean right in a layback and you're fifty feet up before you know it, and you drop a nut in the crack and clip in. Everything is easy and natural. The sun pops up, and you continue to layback, your shadow imitating you in a mirror image at your side, and your heart rises with your body. You want this never to end.