Time to write about aging. We all do it. It's just not polite to talk openly about it. In fact, we all look forward to it enthusiastically until about thirty years or so. I know I did. If you are a boy in Louisiana, your big age goal is to reach ten. The double digits. Drinking in bars, firing weapons and marriage are all now almost within your grasp. It is much the same story in Texas, with the addition of knowing how to drive your grandpa's pickup and reload your own shotgun shells.
With attaining this distinction comes much responsibility. You must look after the smaller children and monitor the doddering adults around you. You take it all in stride and try to work on your forty-mile stare in the meanwhile. Then God hits you with adolescence. Now all the shit you figured out since ten doesn't work anymore.
Girls are especially troubling as are young female school teachers in sweaters and Italian movie starlets and everything else remotely feminine. You start for the first time to doubt and worry over things. It's nice at this time to be around old ladies, because you know how to act around them. Any man from fifteen to fifty is begging to get his ass kicked as far as you can tell. The soldier in you is born.
You look all around you at the married women, usually any gal over twenty years of age, and you wonder what in the hell does that beautiful creature see in that slack-jawed mouth-breathing sorry-ass sack of dirt masquerading as a man. No answers are forthcoming and the philosopher in you is born.
Around twenty you have attained level two. You find yourself married before you really know how it all happened. You feel a deep kinship with other married young men, though you wouldn't trust them farther than you could toss a cannon ball. Married men in their forties don't appear so stupid as they once did. You wonder what parts of the mystery they might have figured out. The scholar in you is born.
By thirty a look in the mirror will confirm two things. One: You are the handsomest warrior ever sculpted by the hand of God. Two: God obviously made a slight error as it is clear by now that at the current rate of decay, He must have calculated on a lifespan of only maybe forty years, give or take.
You wonder how to broach the subject. The theologian in you is born.
At forty, you have your own children at level one. Sometimes you wonder what your wife sees in you. You look in the mirror and smile. Probably just tired or hungry. You rest and eat and thank God you weren't so impulsive as to ask her. You both stay very busy making the living. You realize you don't have a clue what she's thinking. You realize that it is the same for her. The pragmatist in you is born.
At fifty, you must suffer watching people at level two. This is offset by the joy of watching people at level one. You have made peace with God, but the issue of His design of your teeth is not signed off on yet. It is abundantly clear now that you are living in an artificial system. In the bush, you would have been ten years gone. The death would have been heroic and your spirit would have departed a strong body. You develop an interest in anthropology.
About this time God starts playing around with your hormones again like He did in your adolescence. It's for your own good, but that's for you to figure out. Females become totally confusing all over again, but you're used to that. You don't, however, feel like kicking all the guy's asses anymore. You feel too sorry for them. In fact, you feel sorry for everyone after learning what they are all in for. At this time, it is very nice to be around young girl's because you know how to act around them.
Halfway to level six, you have been around enough to discern some patterns. It is clear to you that any system is in perpetual, real-time balance. Balance is not something that looms in the future as a retribution or punishment or justice or any other such nonsense. Balance is all there is. As long as an item is useful within a system it will be used. If it is used it will be sustained. If it is worn out, broken or otherwise useless it will not be sustained. The teacher in you is born.
I was climbing a local mountain when I realized I had reached level five. Not long before that day, I went out one April morning to hike up a creek, through a valley, up and over a mountain pass, down a ridge and off the south side of the tree clad slope. I had chosen the time of year and the route on purpose.
The route was something that was written up as difficult and I had met a young woman who had been part of a group who were taken through it as part of their training for testing their limits. They had gone in summer and had heard of a man who had made a two day journey of it a few weeks prior and had died of exposure in his bivouac near the pass. The fact that you could die on that route was a strong credential.
I chose April to make my attempt, because the conditions would be even more treacherous. I could really see what I was made of. When I got to the trail-head I hopped over the orange plastic fence that announced the trail closed for the season. I was disappointed at the lack of snow, although it sure was cold and damp.
I knew the route from another trail I used up to about the seven kilometer mark. After that it was new territory and I gladdened as the snow got deeper and the footprints fewer. The way along the valley bottom lay east to west and the mountains on either side were steep. There was one set of tracks of two individuals that I followed til I saw where they had camped and then returned back the way I had come.
Pausing for a moment, I looked down at where they had been. The trail I was on was up the side of the hill maybe a hundred feet above the narrow valley floor. From this vantage, I could see just how deep the snow was. It was easily twice my height. I was on good stuff and was glad, as I had no snow shoes in my gear.
Along the way, I had to cross many creeks. As I got deeper into the valley, the creeks got farther away. It was the snow pack getting deeper. I would have to jump the gap made by the still running water, sometimes over twenty feet deep now and hope I didn't fall short or crack through. By about the seventh creek, the depth of the snow was such that it would have been impossible to ever climb out.
I thought of heading back, but over-ruled that idea with the bobcat logic that I would double my chances of falling in as the snow went slack in the brief sun of the day. On I went. A friend and mentor had warned me to count the creeks. Once the right number were crossed it was time to ascend the pass. The perspective inside the far end of the valley was weird and it was easy, even in summer, to go bumbling off into oblivion.
I reached the magic number and decided to take a little break, have some coffee and a Landjaeger or two. I could see the pass and also many other wrong routes that could have been the pass but weren't.
Crown Mountain off to the west was a big one and had a steep face covered in an entire winter's worth of snow. I chose a bare rock top jutting out of the snow at the base of the pass to settle down for my lunch.
Halfway through my second sausage, I felt a vibration. A moment later I heard a rumble and rushing sound. It was alien to me and my mind couldn't sort it into a convenient slot. I looked across to the west and saw the slope facing me sliding down to where I sat. I stood with nowhere to go. By the time the distance had been covered from Crown Mountain to my rock, the snow simply swirled around my rock and crept up about a foot higher up the sides.
Then dead quiet. I told God I was sorry for intruding and thanked him for sparing me. The scale of the avalanche was hard to frame with words. I put some rain pants over my shorts. I took my new definition of the word, “big” and carefully climbed off the rock. I chose a tree-top poking out a hundred yards up the pass and then chose a few more to use as landmarks on the way up.
I set to jamming my boots into homemade steps and using my bare hands as hooks. I made a mental note to include gloves in my next kit. I soon had my first tree and rested a moment before charging up to the next. After several more I was up! I surveyed where I had come from and turned to where I was going. The rest of the way was known to me from summer climbing in the area.
I smiled at having made it. Within two minutes a heavy fog blew in from the sea and I could only see a few feet, in spite of the daylight. My hands were taking on a bluish tinge. I tried to slap some blood into my refrigerated digits. I was standing in snow to my waist and the trees had only a foot or two of their tops poking above the snow. One had to be careful not to step close to the trunks where the snow had melted for fear of falling more than twenty feet down and being wedged til it melted.
There was a ridge to descend and it had a small lake off to the east to use as a landmark until the final mountain was reached whereupon I would skirt round the north side and down into the waiting lodge at Grouse Mountain and the fireplace. I rolled a smoke with numb fingers and put my topographic map and compass near the top of my pack. I started down the ridge.
The way was slow and every step had me up to my waist in wet snow, I grabbed treetops and at the same time tried to avoid falling down alongside their trunks. I was amazed how different ground looks when you are thirty feet above it. I plodded along. The light was failing, but I had passed the lake much earlier, so not to worry. It was barely visible in the fog, but I let out a whoop when I saw it.
I stopped again an hour later. I was perplexed. Below me was the damn lake just as I had passed it earlier. I couldn't figure out how I had gone astray. I fought down many feelings and breathed deeply. I was exhausted from plodding through the deep wet snow with out snowshoes. I contemplated making a quick pair and decided I didn't want to squander the energy and daylight for the project.
The fog was getting thicker and the next thought I had was to dig a snow cave here and eat the canned salmon I kept as a reserve, since I knew where I was by the lake. In the morning I could stumble out if the weather cleared. The part of this plan I hated was the worry it would have cost my wife and son. I always left a map with my wife and a timetable. So, far in all our years of marriage, I had come home on time or early, whatever the mountain.
I looked longingly at the white out in the direction of the lodge. Like magic, a tiny hole appeared in the fog. Framed in that hole was the lodge. Nothing else, just the lodge. I grabbed the compass off my neck and set the bearing. The hole closed up. I knew there was a God. I stumbled off in the direction I had taken.
It was as dark as it can get in snow and I was really tired now. On I went, constantly checking the bearing. Following the bearing was easy, but many obstacles must be gone around and the original bearing is relative to the point in which it is taken. I reached a point of collapse. No more gasoline. I started to construct a bed with the last of my failing strength. I heard a spoon tinkle on a coffee cup. I heard a woman's voice. I cupped my hands and shouted like an Arkansas hog caller. I didn't yell, “Help!” I simply yelled, “Hello.” After my third hello, my voice was shot. I couldn't have whispered in my wife's ear and have been heard. I made a mental note to include a whistle in my gear for next time.
I heard a woman say, “There is someone out there.” It was very faint and I could see nothing. These sounds floated up to me in a teasing sort of way. I got the brilliant idea to clap. My hands were both frost nipped and I could really bang them hard with no pain. This I did. After an excruciating wait I heard a snowmobile engine start up.
It was so loud I couldn't make known where I was until it was idling. After three or four forays, the driver stopped the motor and I was able to clap him near. When I could see him, I slid on my ass down the mountain I was on and into the grasp of his partner. They had me up and off to the lodge within minutes.
The post mortem showed that I had veered off onto the shoulder of the next but last mountain I was aiming for. It was named Dam Mountain. I call it Damn Mountain. I remember deciding earlier not to descend when I should have, because I wanted all the vantage of height I could get in order to help navigate. It was murky in them trees.
The fellows were two young North Van born and bred extreme adrenaline junkie snowboarding bungee jumping hang gliding deep sea diving mountain biking billy goats. They offered me a joint and asked where I had come in from. “Hanes Valley,” I said, “From the Headwaters.” The driver blew out a long puff of smoke and grinned at me with some respect and said, ”Chuh.... Dude...You had a busy little day.” I phoned my wife and had a hot chocolate in the lodge. I checked my watch. It was only thirty minutes past my estimated time of arrival.
Not long after this experience, I saddled up early one weekend morning to make a climb. It was a mountain I had climbed many times. The beginning was the same trail as just mentioned above. There was snow on the ground and this would make the day more interesting. There was a big creek to cross about eight kilometers in and it was spanned by two fallen trees which were covered in snow and ice.
The creek was swollen, icy cold and full of debris. I was just starting to get my body warmed up to the challenge and I started over the creek. Three steps along the logs and I broke through. My rucksack wedged me between the two logs and my feet and legs dangled inches from the torrent. Everything was slick, slippery and to get wet, meant not only hypothermia, it meant a cracked skull on the rocks, such was the current that day.
I grabbed the logs and wiggled a bit, hoping I wouldn't fall through. With much effort, I slowly and surely came out of the trap. I stood astride the creek and dusted the snow off. I rolled a smoke and watched the smoke drift downstream on the ice breeze. I turned on my heel with no hesitation, no remorse and no soul searching and walked the eight kilometers back to the Suzuki. I drove home and was in time for breakfast with my wife.
She asked me why I was back so soon. I said that I had just realized that I was middle aged. I knew that if it had been a day earlier I would have cussed, patched the bridge and went up the hill. So, that is how it comes. Age, that is. It cannot really be measured in years, they are a rough guideline and reference point at best. We simply know when to do what. I guess that partly makes up for the poorly designed teeth.
A few years after the events described above, I went on a special trip up Crown Mountain. I had just had another damned tooth pulled. I knew I owed the mountain for not me taking me the other times. I decided to go ahead and give it a piece of me. I put the tooth in my pocket and cheerfully climbed up to the peak. I set the tooth down as an offering and snapped the picture above. I e-mailed the picture to my dentist. I got an infection from that extraction and never went back to her again.
I am eagerly awaiting appointments at a new, better dentist next week to get yet another crown. Hell, with my excellent dental plan, my portion of the bill is a mere five hundred dollars. Perhaps if I bring a piece of rock from the mountain top to the dentist, I can appease everything that needs appeasing. As a friend of mine in Texas says, “Onward, through the fog.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.