Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Training Day

This morning when I step outside the cabin to get my daypack out of the trunk of my car, the wind hits me, cold, cold.  It’s still harsh and wintry out here, and for an instant I hesitate in my plans.  But I’ve decided to hike the butte today.  And this is exactly the kind of day I need for a “training hike.”
            Since recovering from the surgery, I’ve been accumulating new equipment.  Raingear, warmth layers, boots and much more.  I need to work with  them all, in all possible conditions, so that I’ll be comfortable and ready when I’m in the high country, alone.
            I’m excited to go today, happy at the prospect of climbing a hill with a pack on my back.  As I make tea for the thermos, and a sandwhich for the top pocket of the day pack, my mind spins backwards in time.  How long have I been doing this?
            I remember a weekend on a very snowy ridge on the southwest face of Mt. Hood, with a friend.  It was early season, June maybe, and the snow so deep, we only saw glimpses of the trail for two days.  We contoured as best we could, over raging streams of glacial melt water, and dodging rock fall that was positively deadly.  Finally, near dark, we camped in a meadow, on a tiny patch of bare ground.  The Sandy glacier boomed and cracked above us all night.
            What year was that?  I had borrowed my dad’s pickup truck and driven us up there, so I had to be sixteen, maybe seventeen at the most.  That would make the year 1973 or 1974.  ’84, ’94,’04.  Thirty years, and then seven more til 20ll.  Thirty-seven years.  And this windy, icy morning, as I pour tea into the thermos, as I put on double socks, and lace my boots in the same obsessive ritualistic way, as I check and re-check the contents of my day pack, the anticipation of the trail, of having my head in the wind, is exactly as fresh and exhilarating as it was thirty-seven years ago.
            At the trail head, I shoulder my pack and walk away from the car, and in less than fifty steps, I am on the trail, moving up, up under busy, gray skies.  Now the cold does not matter, is not noticed.  Now there is only a path snaking between tall trees.  Only.  The wind has shifted today.  Yesterday, cold arctic air was pouring in from Canada, the wind blowing out of the north.  Today, it’s still windy, still cold, but the wind comes from the south west, and it smells of rain.
            It’s not here yet, but it will be, probably today.  The trees are alive with it, singing and swaying high above me, throwing down clumps of thawing snow, and small branches torn lose from ‘way up on their crowns, a hundred feet above my head.
            There are not many people today, the cold has weeded them out.  The few that are up here tend to be much more friendly than the average fair-day hiker.  Or maybe it’s me. 
            The temperature drops and the snow deepens as I ascend, and at the thousand foot level, it is icy.  Now the trail is a class-four scramble.  As I emerge from the trees on the final, rocky approach to the summit, the hike becomes a study in rock, wind, ice and the constant threat of a nasty fall to my right if I should miss with a foot placement.  All the old habits kick in.  Test every step: is it solid?  Will it slip when I shift my weight up?  Where are the next three steps beyond that one?  Am I working my way into a corner?  Sequence is critical.  A good foothold is no help if it takes you into a blind corner.
            The wind intensifies as I near the summit.  Now it’s loud, booming across the rocks just above my head, and the short, sparse trees lean away from it.  It’s raining just a little, and the rain does not come down, it moves sideways, over my head, coming to ground I don’t know where, maybe in Douglas county somewhere.  This is a holy place, and time.
            As I crest the summit, the wind greets me with a hand on my chest, and stinging drops of cold hard rain in my face.  Far to the south, dark clouds reach down to touch the ground in long streamers.  Here, under my feet there is rock and ice, and they are equally hard.
            I find a notch in the Andesite just below the summit, in the lee of the raging south-wester.  The sandwich I made this morning is heaven, and the thermos of tea is an island of warmth in an ocean of cold.  Ridiculously, there is a patch of sunshine right over downtown Eugene.  Down there, maybe someone is walking past the McDonald Theatre, or the Paradise Café, looking up here and saying, “I’m sure glad I’m not up there today.”
            But I am gladder than I could say.
            On the way down, footing is tricky enough to be a little taxing psychologically.  I am reminded of a hundred descents from lofty heights, in iffy conditions, on shaky knees, testing every step, hoping it holds.  Today is not that bad, but the memories flood in.
            Now I’m past the worst of the ice, and the trail is just muddy.  And suddenly, the wind stops, the trees stand up straight, and it is silent.  Here it comes, I think, and I reach for my rain gear.  Wind comes from changing pressures, and when the pressures are equalized the wind stops.  The bitter Canadian air is washed away, the moist ocean air is here.
            And sure enough, a good old-fashioned Oregon Winter Rain starts pouring down.  I snuggle into my rain gear, my feet splashing along.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Incredible description of the conditions, the details took me right there with you. Keep it up, Bobby!