The other Marolt
It’s not that I mind strangers buying me a drink, but I have to clear the record. I’m not whom you think I am. I don’t climb 8,000-meter peaks to ski down. I’ve never seen the Himalaya or shaken hands with a Sherpa. I have no aspiration to stand on top of Mount Everest. I’m the other Marolt. You’ve mistaken me for my brothers.Several times a week I am engaged in a conversation that goes something like this:”So, I bet you’re looking forward to your big trip, huh?”My mind churns, trying to figure out which big trip this unfamiliar person is talking about. Instead of taking the risk of sounding like an idiot and simply ask, I usually say, “Uh, yeah, I guess so.” “Wow, it must be so exciting.”By this time I have completely run through all of my travel plans for the next 12 months – a holiday trip to Texas to visit the in-laws, a springtime business trip to St. Louis, a summer trip to Texas to visit the in-laws, and another business trip to St. Louis in the fall. Sorting through these exhilarating trips, it dawns on me that this person thinks that I am one of my brothers, who actually are going to ski Mount Everest this spring … again.At this point I honestly try to come clean. “Ah, I think you have me conf …””I’d like to buy you a drink.””Mmmm … Well, OK. I guess one little drink won’t hurt anything, ha, ha.”For the next few agonizing minutes I sip my drink and answer a barrage of questions from an eager, new mountaineering fan with short answers like “uh huh,” “yep,” and “oh yes, awfully cold.” It’s so much easier than taking the trouble to tell them the truth and then have to recount stories about my brothers’ far-flung adventures anyway. If I had any nerve at all, I’d tell them the damn truth: I hate expedition climbing. I have no desire to do it. I think freezing on the side of some mountain 5,000 miles away from home is a perfectly foolish way to spend my vacation time.I should just give it to them straight and tell them about the very last miserable time I went on a climbing expedition with my brothers.Oh, yes. I used to climb with them. Growing up around here we spent just about every spare moment scampering up one peak or the next. But, as it turned out, that wasn’t climbing at all. That was just playing around. It wasn’t until after college that we got serious about climbing, along with everything else. No longer were the dinky old Rocky Mountains enough for us. We needed something unfamiliar, something larger, something scarier. In other words, most of the girls we knew were completely familiar with the peaks around here, and us, too, so we needed to find new ways to be impressive.We traveled all over. My final trip was to the northwest corner of the Yukon Territory. Our goal was to get to the summit of Mount Logan, the highest, and most desolate, point in Canada. We commandeered the only law-abiding bush pilot in Alaska, and he dropped us off precisely on the Canadian border on a glacier that no customs agent has ever set eyes upon, 20 miles away from our barren destination. Accordingly, the first week of our trip was spent slogging several tons of gear to the base of the mountain. Daytime temperatures with the sun’s radiant heat reflecting off the glacial ice felt like a hundred degrees. At night it dropped to 20 below zero. It was hardly interesting. While setting up camp one evening, there was a tremendous boom followed by a reverberating rumble. I looked up to see a huge wall of ice calving off a hanging glacier on King Peak 8,000 vertical feet above us. It came from so high that I had time to dig through my pack, find a camera, wind the film and still snap several pictures. After finally crashing to the glacier floor, it rolled out for about three miles. Across its path was the following day’s route!After a sleepless night, we paired up to traverse the Valley of Death. My brother Mike and I were first out. We no sooner got to the middle of no man’s land than we heard the sickening crack. Another chunk of ice had broken free directly above us. Roped together, we did what brave and noble mountaineers do in those situations – we ran like hell! What we couldn’t see from our perspective is that the avalanche was heading directly for a huge crevasse that would eventually swallow it whole, leaving us only in a harmless whiteout. Also what we couldn’t see is that we nearly ran right into an even deeper crevasse.Eventually we got to climb a little and established a camp at about 15,000 feet in a saddle connecting Mount Logan with King Peak. It was there that my climbing career ended. That night a tremendous storm arrived. Only God knows just how hard the winds blew, but I remember that we couldn’t stand up against it. For eight straight days we were tent-bound. You didn’t dare go outside for anything, and I mean anything! The 50-square-foot tent that used to serve as kitchen and bedroom was now an outhouse, too. Gradually snow built up against the walls, reducing the size of the tent to where you had to sleep in the fetal position on your back with most of your gear tucked under your head and legs. There was nothing to do, not even a window to stare out of. I cannot describe the desperate feeling of waking up hourly for the hundredth time only to hear the roar of nylon continuing its violent fight against returning to string. Frequent avalanches frighteningly close by made the only sounds that could compete. Nerves were so taut that we dared not play cards or even speak much. I spent most of my time during those days making a summit flag out of scraps of medical tape, a defiant grasp at optimism. I learned that the biggest danger in climbing is going insane.When the weather finally cleared, we inexplicably continued upward. On the massive summit plateau, the entire annual snowfall had been blown away, leaving the epochs-old glacial ice glistening and bare. Amidst this eerie backdrop I unveiled my summit flag, which read “Marry Me Susan.” We snapped a picture and headed for home. I realized right then that I’d gotten all that I needed out of big-mountain climbing. Mother Nature was not my soul mate. She turned out to be an indifferent mistress. I’ll always be in awe of her beauty, but I know she will never leave me fulfilled. That’s an awfully long story to tell every time. So, since I’ve warned you, next time somebody asks me about Mount Everest I’ll say once more, “Thanks for the drink.”Roger Marolt climbs best when he knows there’s a hot shower and a warm bed waiting for him at the end of a day. Belay your point to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Vignettes of life in the valley. Some you may have heard; hopefully, others will be new.