I was sitting in a cloud, breathing with intent. Joe had gone ahead, upward, with the others. Their single-file track in the snow coalesced out of the pale gray gauze a few feet below me and disappeared back into it a few feet above me. Breathing had become a conscious act, a set of discrete steps. Pull each lungful in through the nose, fill to capacity, hold it for two seconds. Visualize oxygen bubbling into capillaries, and the heart jackhammering enriched bloodfuel down to leg muscles. Force the depleted air out through pursed lips to create backpressure, wringing every molecule. Repeat.
As I sat there on my pack, spine erect, eyes vacant, and my steady breaths adding white to the cloud, a finch, of a type I’d never seen before, appeared and landed on my ski pole sticking out of the snow three feet in front of me. It looked at me hard with first one small dark eye and then the other, and then flicked itself back into the cloud. By my feet, a spider of some kind crept calmly over the pure snow, going through its day. How does it live up here, in the cold, on the snow? When the cold had begun to seep through my layers of mountaineering clothes, I stood up slowly and shouldered my forty-pound pack, ready to continue the climb.
Eric, my patient shepherd, the guide who’d been dispatched to stay with me as I’d fallen further and further behind the team, had been waiting off to the side, watching me. He stood when I did, shouldered his own pack, looked me in the eye, nodded slightly, smiled encouragingly, and together we returned to the trail.
A couple of hours later, when we rejoined the rest of the team in bright sunshine above the clouds at Camp Muir, elevation 10,000 feet and change, they were surprised to see us. They all thought I’d turned back. We’d gotten there about 30 minutes after the last of them. The bright summit of Mount Rainier was still over 4,000 feet above us.
“Where have you all been?” I joked, as they gathered around us. “Eric and I have been worried sick about you. Thank God you’re all safe.”
Everyone high-fived me, and patted me on the back for not giving up. “Man, am I glad to see you!” Joe said, beaming. He gave me a bro’ hug. “They said you’d turned back. Let’s get that pack off!” I was glad to see him, too.
Once I’d eaten and rested, and chomped down some chocolate covered coffee beans, Joe and I stood together in the slanting afternoon light, really digging the high, pristine place where we stood. The clouds below us had broken up and drifted away. We looked over what we could see of the path that had led us there. We’d come from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to climb Mount Rainier. We’d crossed many old paths of mine, along the way from Tulsa to Camp Muir.
Except that there’s really only one path, and who can say where it begins?