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  • Patrick O'Regan

Mountain High

Mountain High

By Pat O’Regan

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.

—Albert Camus

The scenery was beautiful, but I was in a foul mood. Now and again, the Grand Tetons came into view through the forest, rising majestically to snow-covered peaks, but I didn’t care to stop and drink in the glorious vista or take a single photo. I was grumbling about the heavy pack and the steep hike to the campgrounds, but the actual cause of my ill-humor was hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it was the long, lonely drive from the Midwest yesterday and the day before. Or maybe it was the Ranger from whom I got the camping permit, who shook his head disapprovingly as he said, “We don’t like people going into the backcountry alone. You may get in trouble. Then what?” I just smiled confidently. He gave me the permit. Or maybe it was the heavy pack. I had always hated carrying a heavy pack.

Just then, I tripped on a root and fell hard beneath the pack. Cursing and readjusting the pack, I looked down at a sharp, flat rock just beyond my right knee. “Well, Mr. Ranger,” I thought, sitting back, “you were almost right.”

“Hello, there. Isn’t the view just stunning from here?”

Struggling to my feet, I came face to face with a short, thick-set lady of perhaps 45, with dark-blond, shoulder-length hair and a smile that lit up her face. Something in her manner and clearly her accent were unmistakably Aussie. ‘Yes,” I said, “it is lovely. Don’t you just love it out here? Were you at the campgrounds?”

“Yes,” she said, a little downhearted, “we’re heading down after three days in camp.”

Just then her boyfriend—she didn’t have a ring—came up and greeted me in that delightful drawl.

“How far is the campgrounds?” I asked.

“Not so far, anymore, mate,” the man said. “Just over the rise and another two or three kilos. You’ll make it all right.”

“Good,” I said. “For Heaven’s sake, right now, I’m beginning to feel like a damn pack mule.”

The lady blushed and looked away. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said.

“You know,” I said, “Twenty years ago, when I was in the Army, I swore I’d never carry another heavy pack again in my life—and here I am—on my vacation…”

“Uh-hah,” the lady said, and headed off.

“Hang in there, mate,” the man said, following her, “you’ll make it all right. We’ve had our share.”

“Sure, I will,” I said, after them. “Have a good hike down, folks. Take it slow. Don’t fall.”

The time and a mile or two to the campgrounds slipped away, and I was at the tent site.

After setting up the tent, I had supper and found a comfortable spot to watch the sun set in the mountains. Yellow to mauve to red it went down, leaving an afterglow on the crest that hid it. Two young women were watching the show near me. “To die for,” one said to me, as they went off. “Yes,” I said, “never to be forgotten.” I watched them till they disappeared into a tent.

Later that night in the tent, having marveled at the brilliance of the night sky, with its flickering shower of meteorites, my foul mood returned. I thought of being laid off from the job I loved, waking in the morning to the thought, “Okay, Benny, you can lie here and die, or get up and live… But I made it,” I thought, slipping finally into sleep.

In the morning, sluggish, I headed for the water spigot with my water bottles.

“Good morning,” I heard behind me, as I finished filling the second bottle.

It was a young woman, scarcely more than a kid, with short, black, curly hair, a round face and a smile that was still half asleep. I greeted her. “Nice out here,” she said, yawning, “away from all the crap going on these days.” We talked of politics, of all things. She was definitely way off to the left of me. Perhaps recognizing this, she said, “Of course, I can be awfully cynical.”

“That doesn’t mean you aren’t right,” I said. “You know the old saying, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.’ You could be both cynical and correct.”

“Sure,” she said, smiling and turning to go.

Her smile melted my heart. “Have a great day among the beauties of the place,” I said.

Her eyes darted over me as she left, brushing my soul like the wings of an angel.

I returned to the tent, ate a hurried breakfast, packed a daypack and set off on a hike, eager to take some great photos.

The beauty of the surroundings was astounding. Waves of mountains swept off to the horizon, far below a tarn, snuggled among the rising heights and caressed by pine trees all around, glittered in the sun, Mount Grand Teton seemed to behold all, approvingly. As I hurried along, I wanted to sing and shout for joy. I followed a horse trail that rose up and ran like a necklace along the mountain sides before ascending and disappearing through a saddle. Going off the trail, I labored to the top of a peak, far above the horse trail, like a thin ribbon tied to the mountain. Exhausted and grumbling, I sat before the fabulous soaring beauty. Eating and drinking lifted my mood, and thus, with earnest exhortations, I got down off the peak and back on the trail, bound for camp. Surveying the prospect, I determined to head off the trail, straight down the mountain to a point above the tarn, where I could catch the trail again and head for camp by a shorter route.

The going down was steep. My hiking shoes were inadequate to hold me. I clung to brush to keep from tumbling down, but pressed on. The mountain was beating on me. I came to a snow slide that dropped precipitously down to the lake. Frustrated, I thought that going down on my back and digging my heels into the snow would make the descent easier. But I lost my footing and slid down several yards, barely clawing into the snow, saving myself from a long, furious tumble to the bottom, where I would arrive surely injured in a variety of interesting ways. Then what? I returned to the brush, but could not make headway through the thick tangle. Sidling along the mountain, I came to a rock face. Almost desperate to get out of the brush, I headed up the rocks, pushing and pulling myself upward, higher and higher, steeper and steeper, with no firm notion of where I would end up. Finally, I found myself at a place on the rock where I could not make the next move up.

The dawning, nightmarish realization washed over me, “I’m stuck! Lord, I could fall and be killed here!” Oozing a cold sweat, I fought the panic down. “Stand still!” I exhorted myself. “Don’t move! You’re safe where you are!” Never have I wanted to live more. I would cling to the rock and to every last breath until my plight had become utterly and completely hopeless. “Easy…easy…” I thought. “Don’t panic… That’s the key…to die trying, not giving in to fear and desperation…. Just stand still till you get a grip on things, Benny.” For a long time, I remained motionless, pressed like a bug against the hard surface. Finally, saying, “Please, Lord, let me live,” I began to consider my options.

They were not good. I am not a mountain climber of any stripe, but going down felt marginally more precarious than going up. With the greatest care, I let loose with one hand and replaced it a few inches higher up, checking that the rock there would hold. Then I lifted my right leg and reset the foot slightly higher. This done, I carefully hoisted myself up a few inches. It worked. A brief wave of giddy exhilaration surged through me. “I can live!” I thought. Forcing down tears of joy, I gathered myself and made the next upward move. “Place the other hand… Now the other foot… Make sure each is nice and secure… Good. Now, up you go…” At each successful move, I had to repress the urge to cry out in triumphal joy. Thus, little by little, painstaking move by painstaking move, I inched my way up the wall. I can’t say how long the ascent took—30 minutes or an hour and a half—but I came to a place that got flatter. Finally, I could crawl and then stand securely. Not long after that, I came to the horse trail. With some celebration and prayers of thanks, wasted with relief, I headed back to camp.

I have never before or since felt so delighted to be alive. !


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