I am climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, and sweat is pouring off my brow. I’m choking back vomit and my spine really hurts, yet I’m happily wallowing in this abject misery. And I think you’ll understand why.
But first a little about me. I’m a sport climber. And a lazy one. I belay off the bumper. If the approach to a crag crests 15 minutes, I seriously reconsider ever climbing there again. So, with no backpacking experience, borrowed alpine gear and poor cardio, I decide to take on one of the hardest summits in the country: dangerous climbing, consistently exposed positions, notoriously unpredictable weather and low odds of reaching the top. Aaron, my hardcore backpacking friend, stated my odds the most eloquently: “It will destroy you.” Perfect.
Why? Well, I’d left the International Climber’s Festival early to swing by my girlfriend’s house and surprise her. I did. Surprised her ex-boyfriend too. In crippling silence (the sound of hurried re-buckling and shallow breathing notwithstanding), we all stared at each other for the longest minute in history. Following that, I drove home, threw up, wondered why I’d been with her for two years and then got drunk for a week. (Or two. I dunno … Not important.)
After countless weepy trips to the bar and an endless barrage of apologies, I decided that I couldn’t wallow in my own bottomless self-pity forever and I needed appropriate catharsis: self-immolation, seppuku, pull a “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. After careful thought, I determined the crippling mental and physical pain of mountaineering was a more reasonable outlet.
And I had picked a damned hard mountain at that. Remarkably climbed after Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and Wyoming’s Gannett, Granite Peak was the last state high point to be conquered. After multiple attempts from multiple parties, Elers Koch finally scored the first ascent August 29, 1923 — just two weeks after he found his wife Gerda in bed with his longtime friend, Bernard DeVoto. *(That’s not true. Could be though)
“I need you to promise me something, Dan,” I tell my climbing partner between labored breaths on the saddle overlooking Mystic Lake. “No matter what I say or do, make me summit. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I might feel like I can’t and try to quit.” I’m a junkie before a painful detox, making sure I end up clean no matter what desperate bargaining might take place. I want enlightenment, goddammit. And I’m not going to find it at this altitude. I stare at him and say, “I need to summit.”
We hit the Switchbacks From Hell, and I exist only one stunted, 12-inch step at a time. Slowly, with each mile traveled, cuckoldry is fading from my
consciousness. Despite a rapidly growing level of physical discomfort, I’m feeling better overall. It starts to rain gently as we approach treeline, and I can’t help but smile. With the deep blue waters of Mystic Lake majestically spread before me, flanked by massive lofty peaks, I slowly begin to understand why people go backpacking.
Kinda. My knees are really starting to hurt.
Next comes Froze-to-Death Plateau. Like some giant, boring treadmill, the flat miles inch along. We slog through marshy swamps and leftover snow banks on our determined march to the peak. Now my lower body aches deeply. Roving gangs of mountain goats circle us the entire way, hungrily lapping up any salty urine we leave behind. Piss vultures. Gross.
Just when I think I can’t, we finally arrive at a suitable bivy site, with the jagged summit of Granite peering at us over the ridgeline. I collapse against the stacked rocks. I am a sacred vessel of hurt. I am the holy martyr of suffering. I am Saint Gangulphus of Burgundy, the remarkably appropriate patron saint of deceived husbands, unhappy marriages and knee pain. *(That is true. Google it.)
Every joint is throbbing. Genuine, palpable, physical suffering has replaced all my petty emotional suffering. Perfect. This I can manage. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. Maybe it’s the elevation. I can’t think good. I can’t remember her “dog-just-got-in-the-garbage” facial expression when I walked in. I can’t even remember her face. She doesn’t exist at 10,000 feet. I feel a Zen-like calmness. I’m happy. Time for bed.
4:15 a.m. Cold dark alpine start. I awake to black and wind. Granite by moonlight.
10:15 a.m. Endless skies above. I’m on the highest mountain. Montana beneath.
3:15 p.m. Bivy site and goats. I pack the tents, pump water. Time to return home.
I’m pissed. While I was able to transcend the issue of indiscretion on the hike up, I can feel it start to (re)consume my consciousness on the hike down. I’m slowly dipping back into the Hot Tub of Emotional Torment. “Where’s my enlightenment? Where’s my damned inner peace?” I mutter as we finally get off Froze-to-Death and head back down the Switchbacks. Damn! I feel cheated. All this suffering for nothing. I’m waiting for something to happen — deep spiritual clarity, inner peace, a moment of realization, etc. I’m annoyed that nothing took place. And then something did.
Fifteen hours of constant effort begins to break down my doughy sport-climbing physique. My ambitious pace slows to a labored, waddling gait. Joints begin to scream. Every footstep sends lightning bolts of pain up my legs and my eyes start to well up. My climbing partners scoff and charge ahead around me, agreeing to meet me at the car, which is still six miles away.
A mile later, a stabbing muscle cramp clutches my right leg as I step down. I stand all of my weight on the side of my foot and then crumple. Grasping my twisted ankle and biting back tears, I finally feel like I can’t. Every joint is screaming and I can feel my ankle swelling. I’ve overloaded my pain circuits and blown the fuses. System failure.
I give up and cry like a bratty toddler. It’s all too much. What the hell was I thinking?
A few desperate minutes later, as I wipe the snot off my face with my forearm, it finally dawns on me: only I can get me the hell out of this canyon. Feeling bad for myself wasn’t going to do a damned thing. My friends were miles ahead. It was getting dark. I couldn’t change the fact that my ex-girlfriend betrayed me or how far away the car was. I could only change myself. I was going to get to the car and I was going to get over her because I had to. Simple. Why not do it right now?
I determined that the next few hours of my life would involve crippling pain and I decided to enjoy it. I spend the last six miles in complete nirvana, slowly limping with a massive smile on my face as every delicate inch of sinew in my lower body weeps from constant abuse. I can’t stop laughing.
Long, long after my friends arrived back at the parking lot, I finally hobble down the hill to join them. “What the hell took you so long?” Dan calls out from the parking lot. I’m so happy I could throw up.
I had done it. I had successfully returned from the highest mountain in Montana. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I come back to reality with a renewed perspective, ready to face the onslaught of apology messages with icy indifference. Sorry, but you can’t hurt me. All this suffering is nothing compared to what I just put myself through. I just limped my sorry ass up a big damned mountain and back, so I can sure as hell blow you off when you come crying. I am at peace.
Then, in a tremendous display of karma, she got fired from her job, had to move back in with her parents and is generally miserable *(Bitch). Perfect.
Dave Reuss is the managing editor of Outside Bozeman magazine. This is his first piece for the Gazette.