Peak experiences


Michael on the way up St. Mary’s Peak in the Mission Range. (photo by Israel Lafrombois)

One way of reckoning time is to remember the hikes. The mountains don’t change, but our perspective does.  I remember vividly a hike Valerie and I took to Mollman Lakes on the divide of the Mission Range with our five children. The twins, Michael and Becky, were hardly more than toddlers, so teaching them how to press on when the going was tough was part of the game we were playing. My practice has been to slow down as much as it takes but not to stop.

Israel's first hike. His mother, Christa, carried him to Gray Wolf Lake (with help as needed from the rest of us).

Israel’s first hike. His mother, Christa, carried him to Gray Wolf Lake (with help as needed from the rest of us).

The trip had moments of perfection, which, of course, is what I remember. I suppose there were aches and mosquitoes, because there always are, but I don’t really remember.  The cutthroats were biting. Each cast of the lure was followed within a few seconds by a strike–mostly one- to two-pounders. Each of the kids was allowed to catch one trout, which we wrapped in tinfoil and cooked for lunch in a small fire on a massive boulder on the shore. The sky was blue and the air warm. An eagle glided in slow arcs overhead. We saw that it was good.

I remember another hike we all took right after my oldest daughter, Christa, had her first child–Israel–an overnight trip to Gray Wolf Lake. Israel was much too young to walk. He was set up in an aluminum backpack frame, and we took turns carrying him, though Christa did most of the work. We stopped to eat huckleberries along the way. Morning at the lake with the sun shining behind us and onto the peaks of the Mission Range–a visit to the dawn of Creation–the eternal becoming.

I didn’t take enough hikes with my kids. I was always either a teacher or a principal, and I always felt swamped by my work–mostly because I procrastinated so much, reading, thinking, looking for better answers than the ones I already knew. I was more distracted and distant than I should have been. But then, what is good persists and multiplies.

Last April at dawn Michael picked Israel up in his one-ton 1996 GMC flatbed. They drove to St. Mary’s Lake and parked at the end of the road on on the northwest shore of the lake. It’s not really a trailhead, because there’s not much of a trail. They had some granola bars and smoked oysters from the Amish store and their snowshoes.

Michael had been to the summit of St. Mary’s Peak four or five times, but it was Israel’s first ascent. They’d climbed Mountaineer Peak  near the Garden Wall together the year before, and Israel thought that was “pretty awesome,” and he wanted more.

Israel (without gloves) earns every step through the deep snow.

Israel (without gloves) earns every step through the deep snow. (photo by Michael K. Umphrey)

Most trails up steep terrain zig zag their way up. but the trail up St. Mary’s pretty much goes straight up to the ridge. It was too steep to stop and rest, Israel said. “Even just standing, you’re not really getting a break,” he said. It was hard going. He said his legs got tired before he really got winded.

“When I’m climbing, I don’t think of it as climbing a mountain,” Michael said. “I think of it as just walking. I’m just going to take a step. I’m going to take another step. Take another step. And pretty soon you’re someplace really cool. It’s not that hard just to take a step. ”

The snow and the snowshoes made it harder.  “Snowshoes are a pain,” said Israel. “About two thirds of the way up we needed snowshoes.”

“Every step you take your snowshoe sinks a foot or so, and so you’re kind of taking baby steps while you’re packing the snow down,” said Michael.  “It’s hard to take a step, and it does take a lot of energy because you’re tired, and you put your weight on it and it bears it for a half a second–then it breaks back down and you slide. That’s the hardest–the false steps.

“It takes effort to keep up morale when you’re doing that. It helps if you have a partner to switch off who’s leading.”  The snow was worse in some ways on the way down.

It had melted some, and  “even with your snowshoes you would sink to your knees,” Israel said. “And they’re hard to pull back out.”

Michael appreciated Israel’s grit. “Never did Israel say, ‘Oh this is really hard.’ He didn’t talk about how hard it was or mention that he wanted to turn back–maybe go sit in the hot tub for the day instead. He just kept talking about whatever interesting things came into his head.”

Israel felt the same way about Michael. “He’s a morale booster,” he said. “He enjoys it, and when he’s enjoying it it’s hard not to. He’s exciting.”

white out at the summit

Photographs don’t really capture the raw intensity of conditions at the summit. (photo by Michael K. Umphrey)

After about four hours, they made the ridge.  “The last section of the ridge is flat, said Israel. “You could land a helicopter up there. From the runway, it’s another hundred or hundred and fifty feet straight up to the peak.” The final ascent was in a sharp wind and white out conditions. Israel said you couldn’t see three feet. “It was pretty bad.”

“There are cornices at the top,” Michael said. “They’re formed by the wind blowing the snow over a steep ledge, so it kind of curls around, and it’s steeper than steep. It’s a ninety degree angle but then it bends back around–so it’s impossible to go up what should be the easiest route. You have to skirt around the very top of the peak to the south, where the most intense elevation drop is. It’s almost a straight cliff for nearly a thousand feet. So at the very top, right before you make  the summit, there’s an edge you need to skirt around. There’s no trail  because the snow’s so wind-blown. You have to chop a little trail out and go piece by piece, kind of crawling on your belly

“I got up there right before Israel, made a little path, stuck my ski poles in and pulled myself up on my belly–just terrified. I’m on my hands and knees crawling in the snow, digging my hands in and I turn around and take my gloves off and try to give them to Israel. He’s just about to crawl to the top of the summit on his belly too, and he won’t take my gloves.

“He says, ‘No, no, I’m fine. I actually like this better; I can hold on better.’ The wind is blowing, and it’s twenty degrees out, and he’s crawling with his bare hands in the snow trying to drag himself on his belly onto the summit up there,” Michael said, laughing. “He’s pretty tough. Not a whiner.

A day well spent.

A day well spent.

“We went snowshoeing to the top of a 10,000 foot mountain and he didn’t think to bring gloves. He did have a hat but his hands were probably almost frozen off. But he was captivated by other things–the mountains he was in, the interesting ideas he wanted to talk about while we were walking. When you’re hiking you run into really uncomfortable situations, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re there, and you’re a lot more uncomfortable if you dwell too much on problems. If you just work through things–pay enough attention and work through it–and keep going–keep enjoying yourself, it’s a lot easier, and you can look back with fonder memories.

“It’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you stand up there, and you’re looking down on a lot of other pretty impressive mountain tops.”