Part III: Do Not Persist In Bad Decisions

Swiftcurrent Pass. You can see the trail zigzagging up the right side. That is the dwindling Swiftcurrent Glacier up top, and the incredible waterfall it spawns.

I am just over the crest of Swiftcurrent Pass, and it is very windy. In fact, it is clearly windy enough to blow a 150 pound man carrying a 35 pound backpack off of the trail and down the 1,000 foot cliff he is on. I decide it is a perfect place to stop for lunch.

I promised my wife that I would eat more on this trip, so I pick a little promontory off the trail and sit down beneath a ledge and slightly out of the wind. I lay rocks on top of my gear so it won’t blow away, and the re-hydrated granola with milk and blueberries is so good. I’m sitting there, eating this wonderful stuff that the wind is blowing out of my spoon before it reaches my mouth, literally on the edge of a most beautiful cliff, feeling this force that could care less whether it blows me over the side. A wonderful place and time.

That is Mount Grinnell to the left of Swiftcurrent Glacier

You see a lot of mountain goats in Glacier, but they are almost always up in some incredibly inaccessible spot, so as I eat I am scanning the mountain across from me, looking for those improbably perched white spots. I finished my lunch without seeing anything on the other side, and as I stood up to get back on the trail I turned to face a goat sitting barely fifty feet away from me the whole time. I had not considered that I was myself in one of those incredibly inaccessible spots.

I love this about being outside, the unexpected miracle. Looking back now, on this trip and all the others, I think “that was not so hard.” You do these things, see and feel these things, and at that instant and forever after you know it is worth it. But there are moments of doubt, of weakened resolve. At the very start, I always feel deeply guilty for doing something so selfish. And the first day or two, surrounded by mountains and sky and wind, I sometimes wish I were home in a comfortable bed. But then I tell myself “this is where you are, now. You have to be somewhere, and you are here, so be here, now.” Then I am where I need to be.

I have always been very fortunate outdoors. I make good decisions. I prepare, I adapt. I allow myself briefly to credit marvels, and to be astonished at the simplest transactions of the physical world. I let go of the complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans.

And then the trail is covered in bear shit. Sections of the trail above Cosley Lake, and later near Granite Park, had piles of bear shit every fifty feet. Those bears were eating a lot of berries, and if I was their medical professional I would recommend that they cut back after seeing this. At one point, I would say there was either a pack of 20 bears regularly shitting on this one trail, or one bear that really had an issue. I was so proud to come upon a pile of bear scat that looked totally different, fewer berries, intimations of hair and bone. Proud because I was able to see the difference, to see grizzly. Looking at shit.

Bald eagle, just sitting there waiting on an osprey to do the work.

You tell yourself “it is what it is” often, and realize that is perhaps both the most inane and the most profound statement, underlying all of life. The trail is steep, or it rains, or you cannot eat because you are too cold, but it is what it is, and you have to be somewhere, so this is it. And then you are standing at the top of Triple Divide Pass, feeling so tiny; or you are watching a bald eagle steal a trout from an osprey that has just swooped down to grab it from the mirror surface of a silent mountain lake; or you come upon a tiny glacial runoff, draped in perfect tiny moss, just beneath these enormous mountains, and you are so deeply, deeply content.

A Japanese garden could not have made a more perfect moss-covered waterfall.

I was briefly worried that I would die, which does not happen to me often. Everyone has do die sometime, and I am 60 years old and ready, but please not just yet. You think “that was close; I have had enough.” You ask yourself if a view is worth risking your life. The Zen master intones “do not persist in bad decisions,” and I think perhaps to throw in my cards before I have lost everything. And then 24 hours later, after a hot shower and clean bed and two meals of meat and fat and beer, I begin to think “that was not so bad. If I just fix one or two little details, next time I will not have these problems.”

Old School motel, just outside West Glacier, where I got warm and clean and ate.

My last day inside Glacier was not easy, and then it was. After I met my bear, after I knew I would not lose fingers and would make it out, I had only a few miles to my last campsite, at Granite Park, a half-mile beneath Granite Park Chalet, the precise site of two of the three 1967 grizzly attacks in the same night that revolutionized the way the Park Service manages the bear/human interface. I had avoided the Chalet and its day-hikers on my way in over a week ago; now on my way out I considered stopping there for water, perhaps a dry bunk. But the Chalet was already closed unexpectedly for the season when I arrived, and the crew there heli-lifting out supplies informed me that my campsite farther down was closed due to bear activity. They said they would escort me to a safe spot to camp near the Chalet once the helicopter had finished the last lift, but I decided to hike on out the last four miles to my car at the trailhead, down an easy trail I already knew, past the closed campsite.

Campsite closed due to bears. That is so cool.

You have to be somewhere. It is what it is. And some views are worth it.

Part II: Let The Bear Come To You

Life is endless challenges, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. The difference between an ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while the ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse.

Carlos Casteneda

The bear is standing in front of me, and I am cold and wet. I have been soaked and numbed by the cold for two days, and that is all I can think about. So when the bear steps onto the trail, what I think is “there is a bear, and I am cold and wet.”

When things go bad outdoors, they go very bad. Problems are normal on the trail, so anything less than very bad is just an inconvenience. But bad is very, very bad. Extreme semantics. Still, you need to understand how my bear and I arrived at this place together. It was not easy.

Millions of years ago this was a sea-level mud flat. It dried in the sun, and other minerals filled the cracks, and now it sits on top of a 9,000 foot mountain pass.

Faced with mountain geology, your notion of time alters. Everything you see seems forever, and you become aware of your own transience. A few days out from the trailhead, time the way you understand it stops. Your concerns are immediate: stay dry, get food and water, don’t get hurt, cover the distance. And when things go wrong, time alters again: everything flows into and out of the event. Now don’t freeze, now keep walking, now keep your sleeping bag dry.

Now I cannot use my fingers. Now my feet are very cold and wet, but I can still walk. Everything I own–everything–is soaking wet, except my sleeping bag. It has been this way two days now, and all I can think is “keep walking, and DO NOT LET YOUR SLEEPING BAG GET WET.” I had had one wonderful day to dry out at Mokowanis Lake after a wet day coming up the river. Everything was soaked, so I spent the day naked, swimming in the lake and sunning, while my gear and clothes dried on lines that would normally have been used to pitch my tent and hang my food.

Mokowanis Lake

The clouds were rolling back in the morning as I left the lake, so I knew it would be wet again. The trails here are tightly hemmed by wet knee- to shoulder-high thimbleberry plants that soak you as you walk by, but it is a pleasure to simply reach down and eat a berry just because it looks so perfect.

Thimbleberry

Well before I got to the top of Stoney Indian Pass I was completely swallowed by the clouds, walking within the steady drizzle. I only realized I had reached the top of the Pass when I came up to a sharp edge where the trail suddenly turned, with nothing but cloud beyond: land, then cloud. I couldn’t see anything, but I sensed a great void, just there within reach of my outstretched arm. Then the trail started downward.

Stoney Indian is a small campsite, only three slots, next to a lake which I could not even see until I had almost walked into it.

Stoney Indian Lake

When I arrived I found a group of four Romanians who were up in Kootenai the night before. “I want you to hear this,” one of them said, pulling out his phone. “A pack of wolves started howling last night all around our camp at around 2 a.m. They didn’t stop until almost sunrise.” It was amazing.

I was too cold and wet to eat, so I pitched my tent, stripped off my wet clothes, and curled up in my sleeping bag on my side, hands between my knees. It rained all night, and I woke occasionally as I became aware that my tent wasn’t able to keep up with all the water. When I awoke at 7 a.m. I realized that my tent was full of water, and only my air mattress had kept me dry. “This is not good.”

Packed the wet tent and headed for my next camp at Fifty Mountain, a little more than eight miles away up the Waterton Valley. Head the other way and you are in Canada within the day. Out of the mist I see a guy approaching, and for a second I am sure it is Willy Nelson. It turned out to be a wonderful, cheerful little man, perhaps in his 80’s but seeming quite fit. When he told me that he was headed for Kootenai, I told him about the recording of the wolves howling, and he said “oh, gee, that would be wonderful! I have always wanted to hear that. I hope I get to hear that.” I hope he got to hear that.

Fifty Mountain was bad; there is no way around it. All I owned was wet, except that sleeping bag. My heavy winter gloves had given up trying to stay dry, and I eventually decided my hands would be warmer without them. Unable to light my stove with frozen hands, I was just barely able to pitch my tent, strip off once more the wet clothes, and dive in.

Somewhere during the night I realized the temperature was dropping severely. Even curled up naked in my bag, I realized I was cold. Found the entire mountain face above me blanketed in white when I crawled out at dawn. It was not a choice to simply stay there and freeze, so I took down my tent with more difficulty than I had anticipated, and took the trail.

I have made some difficult hikes. Of course, a lot of things that may have been hard before look easier to me now, in my memory. But coming over the col above Sue Lake was the first time I have said “I am not sure I can do this.” Steep climb, thirty mile an hour headwind, heavy sleet and snow directly in my face, hands so cold, soaking wet. That enormous black mountain face, now covered in ice.

I obviously made it, although I don’t have any pictures of the rest because I could not hold a camera. The bear finally came to me, but it no longer mattered. My hands had thawed by then, and I had passed Ahern Drift (which looked more intimidating from afar than it was up close).

Ahern Drift, fairly narrow and steep but not as bad as it looked when I first saw it and said “shit.”

I was somewhere on the Highline Trail, only a few miles from Granite Park. There was something strange happening in the dark forest of the cirque down below this section of the trail. Something was making a loud, sharp chirp over and over down there, but I couldn’t tell what it was; a strange, otherworldly cry. I saw three marmots together, running away in a weird way (I actually thought “that was weird; I’ve never seen marmots run like that“). And then I looked up just as an adult grizzly stepped from the brush onto the trail about thirty feet in front of me. I instantly thought of the moose at Elizabeth Lake that was stuck on the same trail I needed to use. I laughed at myself a little when I raised both hands like I was being robbed at gunpoint and said “hey bear.”

My hands were still quite numb, but as I stood there facing the bear I reached around to my right side, where my bear spray canister hung on my belt, right next to the pocket that held my camera. “Get a picture, or get the spray? Get a picture, or get the spray?” I backed up gently as the bear took two steps toward me, and looked over my shoulder trying to find a spot wide enough for me to step aside and let the bear pass. He sniffed the air once, decided I did not matter, and disappeared silently into the brush he had come from.

Part I: Do Not Seek The Bear

Literally everyone I met had had a daily bear encounter by my fourth day in the Glacier backcountry. Everyone but me. Maybe I was trying too hard. Perhaps, it was just not yet my time.

The trail out of Elizabeth Lake (head)

I am hiking fast from the head of Elizabeth Lake, up the Belly River drainage and then a ford to Cosley Lake to my next campsite at Glenns Lake. “Avoid surprising a bear,” the Ranger said, which sounded like good life advice. Just let them know you are coming, and you avoid most of the problems.

I am striding along, looking out for bear, staying out of trouble, and BOOM I walk into the ass of a 1,000 pound bull moose. How I could not see this enormous thing, I do not understand, but the trail exploded and the moose took off down the trail in front of me. “Holy shit, George, that was stupid. You need to pay attention.” I am thinking “bear” so much, I do not see “moose.” I start walking again–there is only this one narrow trail out of there–and have just the time to tell myself “you don’t want to make THAT mistake twice,” when BOOM–same moose explodes a second time out of the trailside as I come over a little crest.

We’re both stuck now. With a steep slope down to the lake on my right or up the mountain on my left, this little path is the only avenue for anything larger than a chipmunk that wants to get away from anything. Clearly, this moose wants to get away from me, and I’d pretty much like to get away from him. So now I’m walking slowly forward, calling softly “hey, moose; hey, moose,” and every fifty feet or so there he is, shocked and offended that I’m still there. He’s bolting off, I’m trying to get to Glenns Lake, and I’m hoping he doesn’t decide he’d really rather get away from me by going the other way down the trail and over me.

My stressed-out moose, finally able to huff himself away from me.

We finally worked it out. I’d walk, he’d bolt, and I could hear him stressing, making these deep little “huff, huff” noises, but we both, together, eventually made it to the foot of Elizabeth Lake where he was able to get off the trail and let me pass. I was happy for him.

I decided to stop thinking “bear.” If I didn’t notice a moose standing right in front of me, how did I expect to see a bear half its size? “Do not seek the bear”–there’s this little Zen master voice I start hearing inside my head after a few days out–“let the bear come to you.” After a pause, I just shook my head and said “that’s the stupidest thing you’ve thought in a while.”

The trail up to and down the other side of Ptarmigan Pass

It’s not as if big animals are jumping out of the shrubbery every 100 yards, but after bumping into a moose once or twice you realize that you have probably already walked right past a couple of bears and mountain lions and mountain goats without seeing them. Conversely, the smaller creatures–the martins and birds and marmots–you have to wonder why you see them so much when there is so much else out there ready to eat them. Walking the trail up to Ptarmigan Pass, I came upon–wait for it–a ptarmigan! You’d think a delicious giant quail would fly the heck away, but this one just stood there and told its chicks to join it in the path of a giant omnivore.

I eventually had to shoo them away from my boots so I could continue. All I could think afterward was “I feel like a fraud right now. I really need to look in the dictionary when I get home. I don’t know if it’s the “p” or the “t” that’s silent in “ptarmigan,” and enunciating them both about half-way is cowardly. I need to stop thinking about this bird” Even typing both the “p” and the “t” right now feels dishonest. “Ptarmigan.” What a stupid word.

Like Snow On A Rail

A friend still in the dive business, still in New Caledonia, posted this on Facebook recently. I’m guessing he went up to Hienghene from Noumea to dive (even diving several times every day as a job, it’s still something you want to do on your free time), and got this shot.

He is on a dive site called Dongan Hienghu, and it is an extraordinary spot on this Earth, a concentration of intense, burning, roaring life. And I found it. It was mine.

So much of living makes me laugh, and as I packed my gear for another trip to Glacier I laughed when I looked at my pile of gear and thought of this picture of the reef. I have this big, unorganized mess of stuff, but I don’t own anything I don’t need, so I know that I just have to drag out my pile and pack it, and I’m ready to go.

How I get all that stuff into that pack always surprises me. I never carry more than 35 pounds of gear, and as time goes by I seem to have space left over in my pack that I didn’t in years past. And of course when I return there is even less. All of the “consumables” are gone: those things I carry to nourish and sustain me during the short time I carry all that matters on my back. Nothing is left but dirty and smelly gear, gear that will be cleaned and put in a new pile and be ready for me the next time I want to go. There will be no trace of this trip. Like snow on a rail.

I have written several times about how I discovered Dongan Hienghu (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/dongan-hiengu/) . I found several extraordinary dive sites off the coast of Hienghene, but Dongan–you really need to know what you’re doing to even believe that it could be there. So to see this post on Facebook, with no mention of the history of Dongan Hienghu–no mention of who found it–was surprisingly painful. I talked about it with my wife, and because she is French she explained that someone would have found it eventually anyway. The French embrace the hopelessness of existence, but I cling–much like a butterfly that thinks it has discovered flowers–to the idea that my time here matters.

My pack is ready now, and this is going to be a big trip. My biggest yet, if we are talking aspirations and ambitions. But as my friend Rob Graham once said, “every time you’re out there doing something pretty badass, someone else comes along doing something really badass”–plenty of people can and have done what I am doing. Nonetheless, it’s a big deal for me, in great part because I know the meaning is ephemeral, something I will experience and then it will be gone forever, changing nothing of the mountains I walk through, but changing so much about me. Much like finding Dongan Hienghu, I suppose.

Dongan Hienghu is the most beautiful spot on Earth. But if I had never found it so that it could be seen, would it still be “beautiful”? Of course, it would still be there, and all that life would still roar, but what would that mean if no one ever saw it? I wonder if I have placed my emphasis on the wrong set of expectations.

Several years ago, I was playing around on Google Earth, and looked at Dongan Hienghu. You can see the reef in the middle of Hienghu Pass, but you have to know what extends out into the pass from the reef to find Dongan. I zoomed in on Google Earth, and there was my little boat, all alone, moored above all that life. If you go to Google Earth today, those images have been updated–there is no sign of my boat, or of me on that boat. But you also cannot see those hidden pinnacles now, as if they do not exist.

Part III: Water, Rock, Man

“Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence.” Thomas McGuane, Weather

Where I live, we do not observe the changing Autumn leaves with melancholy, or wait out the cold, dark Winter, or burst with life at the coming of Spring. We have days short and reasonably cold, and then days long and unreasonably hot. But I know there are seasons up high, and my year turns around following the melting snow, and beating the first flakes of September, and seizing the moments between that new life and the long, silent sleep that follows. You can confirm an entire life in that breach.

And here I am, inside my tent, waiting out the rain. Wind River surprised me with the quantity of water I’d have to deal with, water in every facet of your day. Rivers to ford. Melting glaciers pouring water across and along the trail. Biblical plague-level mosquitoes. And light rain showers every evening as the clouds spun by mountains cooling at the end of the day.

Backpacking is full of ironies. I stop to rest in the shade during a long hike, worried that I won’t find a good place to camp before nightfall, and suddenly realize that there are no mosquitoes, there is a breeze across this small patch of flat ground, and I am sitting in a perfect spot to pitch my tent. And the instant my tent is up, the breeze stops and mosquitoes swarm. They are undeterred by pants and long-sleeves, requiring me to don my rain gear to eat. They cover my spoonful of food before it reaches my mouth, and blowing them off just sends one up my nose. I blink, and trap one squirming between my eyelids. Ironic.

Wind River mosquitoes do not care where you are. There are mosquitoes in mountain passes. There are mosquitoes in the morning, at noon, and at night. There is a smaller species that swarms the instant you stop moving, requiring you to pace back and forth to eat your dinner at the end of the day, when all you want to do is sit down and rest. And there is a larger, malevolent species which you will not see until you are zipped safely inside your tent. You will look out the mesh entrance, and they will have covered it and filled the tent foyer, waiting until you need to come out to pee. In Wind River, you will have the unanticipated opportunity to kill a mosquito with a snowball.

I hadn’t realized it from my reading or from studying the map, but there are two roaring rivers pouring into Island Lake, both of which you will have to ford. You cannot believe the quantity of water released by the melting snow up high. You see entire mountainsides covered in snow, and waterfalls at their bases pouring out millions of gallons of melt-water, without a hint of diminishing snow cover. As I came up to the first ford, there was a guy standing there, eyeing me suspiciously, which is a strange sensation when you feel so entirely immersed in original innocence and wonder. I greeted him, noticed that he was wearing a holstered Glock handgun, with the safety snap undone. I wanted to know why anyone would feel the need to carry a weapon in this place, but kept my mouth shut. I marveled at the irony.

You can make out the two rivers flowing into the tarn above Island Lake. Without a reference, it is hard to picture how big they are, but they are big–especially when you have to ford them.

We talked about where we were standing, about the mountains, and he was amazed that I was solo. “Aren’t you afraid?” I just said “no,” but didn’t ask of what. As I started to leave, he said “wait a minute, I want to show you something,” and pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of his trip last year to Yosemite as we stood there, surrounded by mountains. Ironic.

To make it out and back home, I needed to leave my hidden campsite above Island Lake on Saturday, which would get me within a day’s hike of the trailhead that evening, my car, and the two hour drive to the airport at Jackson and my plane home. I woke up at sunrise, thought “there’s no rush today, I’ll sleep another hour,” but when I woke again I could hear light rain falling. It is not easy crawling out of a cozy tent into rain, so I lay there another 15 minutes. Unfortunately enough time for a wall of cold air to pass through my plateau and bring on a hard rain. Now I was suddenly in trouble.

Luckily I’d slept with my pack inside my tent (I was not worried about bears; this would never have worked in Glacier National Park), and was able to pack all my gear while covered. But once I started taking down the tent, my shelter itself would get soaked, and I didn’t want to try and sleep inside a wet tent that night. And so I waited, angry at myself for sleeping in, watching the time, setting a limit of 11 a.m. if I was going to get far enough to make it out the next day.

I think about a lot of things as I walk, but mostly I think “don’t mess up.” You feel so small and insignificant surrounded by mountains indifferent to your existence. You feel humbled by water that shapes rocks over spans of time incomprehensible to you. Backpacking solo is a very selfish enterprise, and it is a gift to be able to receive that kind of understanding. But during the time alone you understand how many people you carry along with you, and how some depend on you coming safely back. And so at 11 a.m. sharp, rain still pouring down, I angrily got out of my tent, broke it down–rain-soaked and heavy–and headed down the drainage, back onto the map, and down the trail out. Five minutes later, the rain stopped.

Part II: Trailhead


I’m standing near the deep end of Titcomb Basin, a tiny, tiny speck surrounded by these enormous mountains, feeling like the Ice Age never ended, and a twenty-year old girl saw instantly who I was: “Did you have an ice axe?”

After turning around at the foot of Knapsack Col, I’d hiked back down toward Peak Lake, past Stroud Glacier and its thundering waterfall. I’d heard that there was a great campsite up there, but who’d want to sleep with that constant roar? Fifteen miles later, I came into Titcomb through the front door, like a normal person. And here I was, once again, well past the end of the actual trail, seeing what that “hard” side of Knapsack was going to look like when I ran into some of those rare, incredible people you meet far from the trailhead.

I hadn’t seen anyone except a Forest Service trail maintenance crew since passing Island Lake, so I was surprised to see these two coming out of the dead-end of Titcomb, each carrying full-size climber’s packs, at least a 70-lb load. “Did you guys just come over Knapsack?” I asked, because I thought that was the only way into that deep end of Titcomb. I suddenly felt guilty about aborting my own attempt. He was tiny and dry and wiry and smiling and very alive, and standing there like he was walking the dog with that pack on his back. “No, we just did Gannett,” which did not compute at the moment, because Gannett Peak is the highest point in Wyoming at 13,810 feet, and would have required going straight up from there to the Continental Divide through all that snow that had stopped me lower down, navigating between Mammoth, Dinwoody, and Mirror Glaciers and over Glacier Pass, and then summiting Gannett. With those packs. Did I mention that he was at least 70 years old?

That’s when I explained my attempt on the other side, and the girl–who I’m going to assume was his granddaughter–looked straight into my eyes and asked the question which I had learned by this point was obvious: no, I did not have Charles’s ice ax. I am thinking hard, but I can’t recall ever meeting women like this anywhere other than far past a trailhead. For some reason, she made me think of Sandra Day O’Connor, a woman who knew precisely who she was. Grandfather cut the tension when I explained that it had been two days earlier, when the storm passed. “Oh, yes, that was a heck of storm to be up high. We were up on Dinwoody and had to come all the way out. Let me tell you, we drank some brews that night!” That’s the second time an old-timer has mentioned the joy of beer after a long spell up high ( https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/georgeschools.wordpress.com/2336 ), making me feel much better about my own love of beer. If I can just end up like these guys, I’ll be alright. He had that pure, unpretentious love for being alive, being outdoors, for the gift of beer. Or, as Barry Lopez wrote of the Eskimos, “that quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive.” The girl just stared at me silently, a look of contempt tinged with pity, and I loved her for that.

Past the end of the trail

I am always amazed at the trails in our National Parks and Forests. I look at them and think “how did they ever do this?” So I was happy to run into the trail crew earlier on my way in. I stopped and talked to the guy who appeared to be in charge–he seemed slightly older and had the fullest, bushiest beard. There were two pack horse trains there in the process of resupplying them, and I watched these 20-somethings digging and lifting and working together, smiling in the rain and mud. He asked where I was going, said they’d be there three days and then move to another section, we talked about the trail, and I thanked him for what they were doing, which seemed to surprise him. “Hey, do you have any recommendations for a good place to camp down there?” I asked as I was leaving. You’d be surprised, but you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere. You need some flat ground, access to water, but you have to obey the rules and stay at least 200 feet away from a trail or a lake. “Well, right there at the eastern tip of the lake, there’s a little trail veering off from the main trail that’s not on the map. Follow it up, and a mile or two in you’ll find a really cool spot.” Excited, I thanked him and the crew again, started to take off, and then he paused, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and asked “do you have a good map?” I knew what was coming. I was so happy. I felt like I had just been accepted into the cool kids group.

He told me to keep going when that trail ran out. Just keep going, higher and farther, following the drainage, which actually turned out to be more like hiking up a waterfall. He said “you’ll eventually camp overlooking Wall Lake, there definitely won’t be anyone else, and it will be amazing.” Trail people are amazing.

My campsite. You can see my tent, pretty much at the center of all that.

Part I: I Will See How It Looks When I Get There

“The route over Knapsack Col, really is just picking your own way. It is a bit southeast facing, but I think it is going to hold snow. You might be able to come to the head of Knapsack from Peak Lake, but not sure you are going to want to descend down. You’ll have to see how it looks when you get there.” –Meredith M., National Forest Service, Pinedale Ranger District

Looking back, from the base of Knapsack Col

The route over Knapsack Col into Titcomb Basin is not on the map, because it is an aspiration, not a route. To get here, I had already hiked over Lester Pass and Shannon Pass, which weren’t particularly difficult but now gave me pause to reflect on the difference between a “pass” and a “col.” Both indicate low points between peaks, but standing in the clouds as a rain began to whip around me, looking at the snow-white sheet of mountainside in front of me, I understood that you can pass over one, but probably not the other.

Most people get into Titcomb Basin by a direct route out of the Elkhart Park trailhead near Pinedale, WY, a two-day, fifteen-mile hike, but I’d taken the long way around: down Pole Creek to the Cook Lakes, up the Highline Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and off the top of my map to Peak Lake at the urging of Charles Kemp, an amazing human being (http://ckjournal.com). Charles had taken this route almost a decade ago, had inspired me to start backpacking when my time was finally right, has inspired me to many, many things. Everyone should have a Charles Kemp in their lives.

Shannon Pass

I researched Knapsack, and worried about the lingering snow, and worried about the steep eastern side, with or without snow. “I’ll give you my ice ax” Charles had cryptically written. I realize now–as in many things in my life–that what seemed cryptic to me was clear to everyone else.

I had crossed a couple from Kalispel on the trail, among the surprisingly few people I saw in eight days. They said they had just come from attempting to go over Knapsack, had made it to the top, but had turned around due to extensive snow on the other side. “It’s a 1,700 foot drop, and a 70 degree slope, and there’s an enormous cornice of snow running the width of the other side. But you look sporty; if you’re comfortable down-climbing and have an ice ax, you can probably make it.” That “probably”: you either do or you do not make it. I thought about that for a long time. And about Charles’s ice axe, which I did not have.

And now, facing the way up that Meredith from the Forest Service had expressed doubts about, well past the end of any trail, I realized that even if I did make it up this “easy” side of Knapsack, I would never make it down the “hard” other side. It was like standing before what I’d always imagined the Greenland ice pack must look like. Before turning around and heading back down to Peak Lake, I noted that there were unquestionably no tracks whatsoever left by anyone else who may have gone up Knapsack, including the couple from Kalispel. I really stood there a long time, scanning the snow, looking for proof that what I hesitated to do was possible, looking for someone else’s confirmation that I should continue on. But lacking that, I took a moment to take it in–the black rock faces, the unmarked snow field and mountainsides, the clouds and rain I was standing within, the glacier and waterfall to the south, close enough to touch. For a moment, I had everything I needed. Except an ice ax.

Peak Lake campsite. You can see my tent on the rise, just below the little copse of stunted trees, a bit right of center.

A Single Flower

IH35, 7:30 A.M.

“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.” Buddha

Early Saturday afternoon, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Mopac–It’s Saturday folks, for Chrissakes! What are you all doing out here?–and I suddenly understand what Jesus meant by loving one another.

I had just picked up my race packet for tomorrow’s Cap2K Open Water Race, and decided I wanted to get a haircut. I don’t really care about my hair, but when it starts looking a little shaggy I’ll decide I need to cut it in case I run into an ex-girlfriend. I don’t know why it matters to me that I’ll look kept-up in case we meet; it has been a long time, and we’re never going to run into each other. But I’ll see pictures of her occasionally with her current boyfriend, and I guess he decides that he gets to relax on weekends, so he looks a little rough and isn’t always shaved in their pictures together. So I’m always shaved, and try and keep my hair trimmed. Is that weird?

Anyway, of course people are trying to enter this wall of automobiles from the on-ramps. It is intimidating, trying to merge in and join the flow, and if you live here long enough you can easily begin believing that you have to be hard and cold just to get through each day.

Sitting in my car, I was still absorbing what had happened during my packet pick-up. Let me preface by saying that I am not anything special as a swimmer. There is no reason for anyone to remember who I am. But Sandy Neilson, the woman who organizes the Cap2K every year with her husband Keith, had recognized me last year at the check in, visibly happy to see me back. She remembered my face, attached it to a name. I had come up to her at the end of the prior year’s race while she was still in full organizational mode during the awards ceremony, dealing with all the people and issues and handing out awards. “Sandy, thank you so much. You have made something special for me. This is amazing, so much work. Thank you.” She looked at me, stunned, and asked what my name was. You could feel something shift in the air, and I knew I had understood something I had never thought about before. I just didn’t know what.

Sandy on the chair, pre-race briefing

If you’ve ever loved a child, loved a parent, been in love, you understand already that there are different kinds of love, different degrees perhaps. I started loving fairly easily a few years ago–something just freed itself up inside me–but have learned that you can’t throw that stuff around willy-nilly. Love can get out of hand; and I knew I could not love everyone. I harbored very high standards for love.

This year, I told Sandy she looked good, but she told me she had been in a bad car accident since the last time I saw her, and hadn’t been the same since. “It’s the names mostly” she said, pointing to her head. “I can’t remember names.” We lose people, we are lost to people. But somehow, something remains.

“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” Buddha

So I’m sitting in this traffic, which is actually ok with me because I’m almost never in a hurry to get anywhere and my car is the only place I get to really listen to music. And I’m thinking about Sandy, wondering why we can’t help people. I’m in the right lane, where people are trying to enter the flow. You can feel the stress–“Look at the traffic! No one is going to let me in.” And so I paused, and let a car in, and understood instantly that I had fallen upon the easiest way to by kind, to help people–to love one another. It felt wonderful, an accomplishment ex nihilo.

That ex-girlfriend’s mom died recently, shortly after my own mother passed. I loved my mother the way a son does, but my mom was ready to go. It was the girlfriend’s mother’s time, too, but I still felt bad for her. I’m 60 now, she is too, and we each start to know a lot of people who deal with sadness, and loved ones dying, and the slow tapering off of life’s fullness.

I am about as Buddhist as I am Christian; let’s call me a student. Buddhism encourages non attachment, not so much to physical things, but in a spiritual sense. You have to let go of the idea of a perfect person, holding others to some impossible standard. You have to accept people for who they are unconditionally. Each and every individual person.

And so standing before Sandy today, and sitting in that traffic surrounded by total strangers, thinking about my mother, and getting my hair cut for a girl I will never see, I understood what Jesus meant about love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The Current Carries Us All, Together

Before this morning’s race, I compared last year’s roster to this year’s, trying to see who I’d have to beat so that I could finally at least place in this year’s Cap2K. It is totally stupid that it matters to me: the entire swim is just a mass of anonymous swim caps and flailing arms, so you have no idea who is in front of you in the water or behind you. You just swim as hard as you can. But his name was Marty Richardson, and he’d beaten me by 5 seconds last year, and I was going to beat him this year.

It’s important to note that I’m talking about age-group competition: I am measuring myself against other swimmers my general age and gender. The actual winners of the race–generally 19-20 year olds–are out of the water, dry, and texting by the time I get out a quarter hour after them. This year I bumped up to the 60-64 men’s group. Yea!? My thinking is that you just have to be persistent. Eventually, no one is left to beat.

It’s a five minute walk down Redbud Isle after the briefing before you either jump in and swim the 350 yards out to the starting line, or get on a shuttle barge to take you out. I’m a confirmed shuttle barge man–I decided years ago, at the race’s finish, that I couldn’t have swum another yard, and was entirely grateful for not having added on another 350 at the beginning.

The water was “noticeably” colder this year. That means I noticed when I jumped off the barge that I could not inhale to breathe. Fortunately, I was in the water at precisely the five-minute warning horn, and had time to swim a few strokes and get my breathing under control. Also different this year, there was a strong current. But the current was pushing the mass of swimmers past the starting line, everyone out there just treading water, trying to breathe. I saw what was happening, and backstroked hard to stay behind the line, but found myself alone with only one other grumpy old lady who was yelling “stay behind the line, folks!” No one seemed to care, but they had at least 50 yards on us at the start. I am sure that Marty Richardson was in there, taking a 50 yard head start on me.

The swim itself was not hard. The Cap2K is perhaps the hardest thing I do physically each year, but not bad this time, thanks to that current carrying us all along, together. It takes a while to get your breathing and stroke under control, but from then on you just keep going until it’s over. This year was unusual because I’d occasionally have swimmers randomly crossing in front of me at acute angles to everyone else. I couldn’t figure out why, but it did break up the terror, sort of like climbing El Capitan and watching someone else falling past you from above to their death. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.”

When I got home, my wife told me all about her garage sale. She told me about the tree limbs she’d cut back–that needed to be done, and she’s a trooper. When she paused to inhale, I said “the swim was cool. I finally placed!” That is sort of hard for me to say, because “I placed” means “I did not win,” but the Cap2K is in it’s own category for me. I will never do better than simply completing this thing that I am not particularly good at. I just need to do it.

“How did that happen?” This took me a second to process, because as much as I like praise, I do not like to brag. “Normally, there are all these really old people finishing way before you–like forever before you ever show up. Was there some mistake?” She spent the rest of the day occasionally popping in, just to tell me how proud of me she was, but I would just smile and say “too late! You can’t un-say those words. You’re the star of my story about the swim, now!,” which she already knew and dreaded when she heard me typing away.

And at the awards ceremony, when they called my name, right after they called Marty Richardson, I knew I’d be back next year. The current had carried both Marty and I along together, still separated by those same 5 seconds, pulling us all along in the right direction.

UPDATE: The results are in, folks, and there’s good news and there’s bad news! First, I beat that bastard Marty Richardson by almost 2 minutes! And I swam the course, thanks to that current, at my fastest time ever, 7 minutes faster than last year. The bad news is that the guy who finished first absolutely creamed me, finishing 6 minutes in front of me and 14th overall, which is amazing.

  • Men 60-64
  • 1 Randy Rogers M 60 0:24:27.38
  • 2 George Schools M 60 0:30:34.24
  • 3 Marty Richardson M 62 0:32:20.10
  • Dwight Munk M 61 0:32:53.41
  • Paul Scripko M 62 0:41:38.71 0:42:11.69 Stephen Julian M 63 0:42:11.69 M

Prostate Cancer, Exercise, Cold Water, and Just Plain Old

Too much exercise may cause erectile dysfunction. Depends on the shorts.

As I was leaving to train at Barton Springs on my day off my wife said “Hey cowboy, don’t do too much, and remember that water is very cold.” My wife normally doesn’t give a shit what I do, so I asked for clarification. “Ahem. Um. Don’t take it personally, but you know when you workout too much, it sort of maybe causes circulation problems in other parts. Like, the parts you need to use when you get home today.” I didn’t think she was talking about mowing the grass.

As you know, I am getting ready to swim the Cap2K Open Water Race again (http://www.cap2k.com), in support of UsToo Intl (www.ustoo.org), a prostate cancer awareness and support organization. I had my prostate cancer scare several years ago–scary, because I was uninformed and suddenly faced with things spinning rapidly out of my control. Worse than worrying about death once the word “cancer” is introduced, you worry about never, ever again having an erection. A boner, hard-on, stiffy, tent pole, wood–none of that, ever again.

My wife was referring to my “circulation,” but privately I heard “my prostate.” Here, I would like to recommend to anyone wondering about a prostate cancer diagnosis to read “I Want My Prostate Back”
https://www.menshealth.com/health/a19540939/coping-with-prostate-cancer/ . This is an award-winning article that deals honestly with the aftermath of prostate cancer treatment, chiefly erectile dysfunction.

My wife told me once that if there was ever a question of breast cancer for her, she’d lop ’em off illico presto, no regrets. “I don’t need them for anything, and they’re not worth dying for.” Personally, I like women’s breasts a great deal, but I get her point. I would miss them, but I’d rather have her if it came down to a choice. But perhaps because a man’s self-identity depends on an erect penis, the situation is not the same once prostate cancer becomes a possibility. I think.

I wouldn’t find my wife any less of a woman without her breasts, or her uterus for that matter. It could be that–beyond simply feeling sorry for myself–I would feel guilty of cheating her out of something because of my own personal problem. Sex is giving. And if giving is good, isn’t giving the full variety of gifts even better? But then I realized that there are plenty of satisfied lesbian couples out there. Or am I missing something?

It is particularly irritating that so many possible causes of erectile dysfunction present themselves as a man ages. Ten years ago, if I came home from work and said “man, I am exhausted,” my wife would say “you do too much! Don’t work so hard.” Last night I got home and her response was “well, you’re not so young any more.” I am learning to never complain to her, but you can’t hide a missing erection. It is most definitely not the boner of a 24 year-old, but I like to think I am quite healthy and virile in a sort of studied, dignified way. That just means I’ve kept the weight down, exercise a lot, and still get excited by intelligent, strong, witty women who know what they’re about. Here, if you’re a normal woman who doesn’t really understand an ageing man, I suggest reading John Updike’s classic “The Disposable Rocket” https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/477/the-disposable-rocket.

The doctor didn’t even check for prostate cancer my last physical. Everything seems to work correctly. And when I left to swim today, I didn’t change my plans one bit because of what the future might hold (and when I think about what I’d do as a younger man just for the mere possibility of sex . . . .) But at my age, finally, I’ve learned to never depend on someone else for my happiness, and so I swam. And then, because the day, and place, and world were all beautiful, I went for a run. What happens when I get home afterward is like trying to see beyond the horizon. But I am happy that the issue is up in the air still, not settled forever.


“You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went, you can curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” But not quite yet.