Marolt: Big things in the big country, Part 2
(Note: the following is Part 2 of the transcript of an oral story I told for Writ Large at Justice Snow’s a couple of weeks ago.)
Hundred-mile-per-hour gusts pounded our tents with deafening ferocity. We sat in terrified disbelief, barely able to communicate above the roar. In brief moments of quiet, we could hear avalanches breaking loose around us as our minds strained to recall the topography and where we had situated our tents in it. We couldn’t leave the tent for any reason whatsoever.
Days passed. Food ran short. More worrisome, we were low on fuel for firing stoves to melt snow for drinking water. Drifts buried the tents. The walls sagged under the weight and reduced the volume to the point where we had to pile all our gear beneath our bent legs while “sleeping” on our backs.
During our confinement, I passed time fashioning a summit flag out of medical tape. For fear of losing everything, I carefully wrote, “Marry me Susan.” It was a beautiful and tangible way to tether myself to a safe place — my own future.
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After the storm finally ended, we emerged from our snowy prison, weak and shaken, yet we decided to press on. We had only three days of rations left, so we had to move quickly.
Stepping onto the summit plateau at over 18,500 feet, the entire mountain shuddered from deep within, a pluck on taut nerves already dangerously frayed. We later discovered it was caused by the noteworthy ice tower we had seen below, collapsing over our tracks.
As we surveyed the 6 miles of relatively flat terrain between us and the summit, we were greeted by an eerie sight. The fierce storm had blown the entire snowpack off the mountain, leaving exposed an eons-old sheet of blue ice glimmering in the sun. There was no way to secure a high camp.
We had two options. The first was to stash most of our gear and travel quickly to the summit and back in one long push. At this high altitude, we figured we could cover the dozen-mile round trip in about 12 hours. The weather was good, so that wouldn’t be a factor. It would be really difficult, but we could probably do it.
Instead, we took the second option, which we had never considered during the months of planning and training for this adventure or during the difficult weeks we had already spent in this inhospitable place. After several hours walking around the summit plateau searching for a workable campsite we might have overlooked, scouting potential routes to the summit and evaluating our own conditions, we finally pulled the plug and turned for home.
This leaves a nagging question: Why is it that we so often in life get so close to reaching our goals only to come up short?
Some would say we had given it our all, that there was nothing left in the tank, that we were just too physically and mentally exhausted to take those last and most difficult steps.
Others might say that an ordeal in the extreme such as what we had endured is enough to change your perspective and priorities so getting to the summit just wasn’t that important anymore.
There are also those who will point out that success is one of the scariest things in life that you can stare in the face, and so we turn away out of fear of the unknown.
I don’t know.
But I do know that I have no regrets about that decision or the trip. I got the shot with my summit flag from our high point, and Susan said “yes” to my proposal when it popped up at the end of a slideshow at home two months later.
Even after 23 years, I still get chills thinking of this, and gladly, so does she.
I could go on about the mishaps and near misses we encountered on our retreat from Mount Logan, but instead I think I’ll end this tale while it’s still a love story. If everything I went through on that harrowing journey led to the great joy of my life as a husband and a father, then I’ll treasure it as a metaphor lived — I never have to go back to that dark, frozen and lonesome place. I will never have to retrace those dangerous and frightening, even if exciting, footsteps. That time and place gave me everything it had. And, all things considered, my last climbing trip ended really, really well.
Roger Marolt would like to give special thanks to Alya Howe, who organizes Writ Large and the Digital Story Lab at the Isaacson School for New Media, along with Justice Snow’s for their sponsorships of the events. Email email@example.com.
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