by Simon Frez-Albrecht
Slogging up the south couloir on the north face of Ptarmigan Peak, my thoughts drifted to the raspberries and dipping chocolate I had waiting for me at home. I imagined I would improvise a double boiler from a pair of pots to avoid burning the chocolate; I would get some wax paper from my roommate to lay on the cookie sheet; I would then use a pair of chopsticks to dip the berries, so that they would come out smooth and pretty instead of all globbed from my fingers or a spoon. I could practically taste the sweet fruit center, cold inside the still-warm chocolate, the small seeds rolling across my tongue and getting stuck in my teeth.
The wind slapped me in the face and I snapped back to reality. I paused, panting, and looked around at the world tinged yellow through my goggles. A row of neat steps in the snow disappeared into the mist, back down and around the way I came. Dark rock stuck up through the snow all around me, down to the valley and back up the other side. This peak isn’t even 5000′ high, but it felt like a big mountain in those conditions, up there alone.
I almost didn’t get out of the car that morning. As soon as I cut the engine, I felt the wind rocking the Kia like someone trying to push the poor little car over. In the predawn light I sat looking at the speckles of rain collecting on the windshield, finally deciding I had nothing better to do that day.
Boots, headband, iPod, pack. All set to go. Walking up the trail toward Ptarmigan Pass, the wind grew stronger until I was leaning fully into it, sometimes stopped dead in my tracks by a powerful gust. Pausing occasionally to snap photos of the west ridge of Ptarmigan, I worked my way around to the north face and looked up at the route I had intended to solo. I ate a candy bar, took a swig of water, and made one move up the route before confirming my suspicion that today wasn’t the day. Shifting my gaze up the couloir I decided that a waterfall, Only Hookers Get The Blues, was more fitting. But part way up, I stopped and rappelled off. The ice was too thin, the conditions too rough, and my will not strong enough to climb this without a rope today. Resigned, I began plodding up the south couloir, a moderately steep snow climb to the summit.
The snow continued leftward, taking a ramp to the summit. Bored with dragging myself through the snow, I attacked a rocky cleft for a direct line to the summit. As I pulled up, the corner seemed to lean over me, imposing, and I realized it was steeper than it looked from below. My mind changed with the terrain, no longer slogging in tedium but focused in the precision needed to ascend.
Time fell away. I reached up, stuck my pick in firm consolidated snow, and moved up. Over and over: I looked down, moved my steel crampon points up to higher ripples in the rock; I looked up, scratching through the snow with my ice tools, feeling for positive holds in the rock below. Perched delicately, my tool raked through the snow twice, thrice, four times. My hands were unfeeling, cold as ice. I looked at my bare red wrists, and returned my focus to the tips of my tools dragging through the snow. The next song on my iPod started: a groovy bass riff pounded through my ears.
“Shake your groove thing, shake your groove thing!”
A wry smile twisted in my mind, though my face remained frozen in a grimace, scratching for a hold with clouds obscuring the exposure yawning below me. A stream of loose snow poured down the rocky corner and I groaned as it trickled into my sleeves.
“Bumpin’ booties, havin’ us a ball, y’all!”
Feeling the cold creep down into my arms, and into my chest, a clear thought echoed through my head: I don’t want to stay here. I want to go home. The way home is over the top. Chocolate dipped fruit, my girlfriend’s lips against mine, a hot shower and real food—it’s all over the top.
I reached higher, stretching, and found a hold. With a deep sigh, I found new footholds and continued upward. Soon I was on the summit, changing layers in the scant shelter of a rock, hurrying to scarf down a candy bar and the last of my water. I gleefully slid down the south face on my butt and hurried back to the car feeling on top of the world, the wind at my back.