Hiking and the art of needing to be uncomfortable with blisters.

There was a week back end of July when it was hot. As in hot. Not humid because this is the Northwest, but it hit 107 apparently in town while the house hit ninety-one. Seemed everyone rushed out to scramble for every last window air conditioning unit at the local Home Depots and such. It lasted a week then it was back to normal.
But it made me think I guess. So did our holiday to California the week before. There it was really hot. Yes, hot. Sacramento and Bishop hot. Even Yosemite Valley. Oliver (my little trusty blue Toyota Tercel) of course does not have air conditioning because, well this is the Northwest. Ours was a spray bottle that we would aim at each other for some respite. Windows down didn’t help much. It was still hot. But we survived of course. And I thought maybe it would wind up Julian telling his kids years from now how he would take these road trips with his dad down to California for summer vacations and bake in the car with no a/c but that was just part of the experience because we would see such fantastic things and have such amazing adventures. Just part of the fun in a way, the suffering. Besides it being nostalgic we won’t remember how uncomfortable it was. We made it twenty-five hundred miles and have some incredible memories.
And that made me think I guess. But so did a weekend spent in the North Cascades a couple weeks ago. We were headed for Hidden Lake – a destination of mine for a couple of years ever since seeing a photo of it once,  glowing, sounded by star trails streaking across the sky. Up the trail, steep of course, because it was the North Cascades where all trails are steep. Under the sun it was hot and the biting flies were atrocious. Just don’t stop to put on sunscreen or drink some water. Bushwacking despite the fact there was a hint of a trail. Just a hint though was all. Did I mention it was steep? No worries of course though, I was home. And before we knew it we were above it all on granite, making our way to the saddle between the peaks, the lookout a peeking out from the summit off to our right.
And then there were blisters from shoes too small. Blisters but no complaining. And they were big and I felt bad. Granted I was fine that time but it would be me the following weekend socks worn too thin. Time to be retired up to Cascade Pass then Sahale Glacierand over to a ridge dropping off to glaciers on three sides. And even then no complaining. Want to go climb up Mixup Arm? Sure – we’re in the mountains and I don’t want to leave. Not yet, anyway and there’s no hurry. But the second day of that Hidden Lake weekend, then the day after on North Twin Sister, didn’t help her blisters any. Hobbling on the way back I guess I wasn’t supposed to notice. Thirsty. As in really thirsty since there’s no water on the route after maybe the second mile. And we biked another eight or so before hiking about three and turning around. Running out of time. Someone running out of energy. Not us. No complaining. So what?
©Thom Schroeder

So what about blisters and being thirsty and swatting at bugs? … Okay, the bugs are annoying. But get high enough and they’re not a problem. I’ve never had to swat a bug on a glacier. Julian once said to me: ‘Dad there are indoor people and there are outdoor people.’ Good thing I thought, not everyone is an outdoor person or it would be impossible to get a permit for Boston Basin in August or the Enchantments in October. It’s already hard enough.

But for us outdoor people I guess what’s the point?

It takes a lot of energy after all to get up into the mountains. There are no lavish accommodations. It’s exciting to find a flat spot with some rocks maybe like beneath Sahale or on the summit of Ruth or atop Cache Col piled up to block the mountain winds in which to toss down your nylon bivy sack and half-inch thick foam pad. We’re not forced to do it of course. It would have been so much easier not driving three hours along interstates and highways and gravel roads and hiking for miles and miles straight up sometimes whipped over by wind pelted by rain scorched by sun.

So why then?

I think it’s like anything. We humans have a way of not remembering the bad. Be it a bad relationship or a bad vacation. We weed out the ugly stuff and just remember the good. There’s always something good.

Walking down after nearly reaching the base of the west ridge on North Twin hot and thirsty and dying for some real food I remember thinking about blisters and such and the need to be uncomfortable. Because these days we’re all too comfortable too much of the time it seems. Not that I’m complaining necessarily. I enjoy an espresso in the morning on the way to work. My couch. My bed. My covered porch. Etc. But I digress.

So ask a climber why he climbs? Betcha one of the most-cited reasons would be to get away from it all. To get back to basics so to speak. To be hot. To be thirsty. To be in pain at least a little from something maybe a sore back maybe a scraped knee hopefully nothing much worse but just generally not the same as just sitting on a couch back home. It’s all about the elemental it seems. We won’t remember the pain anyway. When Matthew and I climbed Stuart we naîvely thought we’d do car-to-car in a day but it ended up being one of our biggest epic trips. I swore after two days more than I had ever done, out of this world exhausting, but felt such elation at sleeping out under the stars. Slightly cold and uncomfortable but on the summit, the Milky Way arched over us, then the next day, lost, dehydrated, trying to find the trail back up to Longs Pass for hours.  Thinking I would never climb Stuart again.

Of course I would.

Didn’t take more than a week and I wished I was back up there standing on a ledge with about five-some-thousand feet of air beneath me watching the sun set, shouting to Matthew to yell when he reached the summit one pitch above us because it was, well, getting dark and I was, well, standing on a ledge five-some-thousand feet above solid ground. We’re going to climb it again in a couple of weeks. Hell we’re going to traverse the whole range or at least as far as Dragontail or Little Annapurna.

But still … why? I’m not certain I know how to explain it. But I do know you can’t get this view from a car. Definitely not from anywhere with air conditioning. That you can’t get it without working for it. It wouldn’t be the same if it were any other way. Blisters and all. Because you won’t remember the blisters.

You’ll just remember the view.

©Thom Schroeder

You’ll remember waking up out of a seemingly-dead sleep something like four in the morning, to a perfectly clear sky, streams of the Milky Way overhead like some fantastic dream, ten thousand stars above, cold air against your face, not even a tent for protection, but perfectly calm and silent lying underneath it all surrounded by mountains silhouetted in the dark. Just able to make out horizons closed in the walls of mountains or open to infinity high above. Oh yes, you’ll remember the silence. The quiet. You’ll remember watching clouds spill over ridges onto glaciers without making a sound. You’ll remember that moment in the snapshot of being in that place, somewhere between reality and a dream. And it will last. Much much longer than any blister or bug bite or frustration of sore limbs or bleeding cuts.

So I can’t really say why I climb or why I am so in love with mountains in any meaningful way. But I look at photos that I took. Of snapshots from summits and along ridges and across glaciers and that helps. Because it brings back all the memories. Just not of hobbling down thirty-six switchbacks aching to be back to the car to eat real food to sleep in a real bed to crash on a couch, and a blanket, sore feet, maybe a good espresso, definitely a shower, only to turn around and long to do it all over again.

Blisters and all.

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