It is nearly impossible to avoid the news about the coronavirus or COVID-19 nowadays. A couple of days ago a red and yellow photo depicting the virus caught my eye. Dramatic indeed. There is a reason why street signs are in yellow or red, to catch your eyes and alert you to something you should pay attention to. The photo did the same.
This mosquito would not give up. When mosquitoes were invented they were given one quality: relentlessness. It’s worked for them since. But it’s 3am and if I don’t make it go away I will be spending the rest of the night swatting at an insect that’s minuscule in size and gargantuan in its capacity to affect the quality of my life. Go figure. A good time to think until the next raid.
There were clouds of mosquitoes on Black Tusk. That’s a mountain that could be defined as a magnificent pile of rocks, as accurately summed up by a friend. Edgy, if you will. You’d be right. Every rock on it is like that. After the 9km hike to Garibaldi Lake, you cross the alpine meadows and sincerely wonder why no one thinks of conditional hard-to-get passes for stepping foot through such pristinely perfect spaces. You keep walking, jumping over streams, stop for a sip of water and a cloud of mosquitoes surrounds your head like an ungodly scarf that makes you wonder if this is after all the price you need to pay for such beauty. Be as it may, it’s well worth it.
Stop by the crystalline stream, it’s so loud you can barely hear your thoughts but you only have one, you’re grateful beyond words for seeing all of this, for touching the water, for knowing that you can forgo the purifying drops because it’s so clean and for the simple fact that all your senses are perked up and hungry and they’ll be round-bellied by the time you reach the top of Black Tusk. The sign that says no trail beyond this point due to falling and unsteady rocky terrain, climb at your own risk does not deter you at all. The carpet of snow is steep and white and surreal. Two people climb ahead and they appear as tiny as mosquitoes. You know it’ll be good. The 30 pound pack makes you slightly unsteady but that’s part of the fun. You’ll do it, you’ll do it. You know you can and you know you won’t give up until you’re up when up is no more. Save for the blue sky but legs alone can’t get you there anyway. For now.
Snow jumping, sliding, crawling, trekking. Sun and snow play tug-of-war with your body, and you love being the center of that kind of attention. Higher up there’s the rock pile. You learn the meaning of immense and you go oh, now I get it. About time, right? Take two steps up and slide down one and a half. Ha, like the mosquitoes tethered you so they can have you for dinner, how else can you explain the sliding down part? Oh, the silliness of such thoughts. But that’s one of the spoiled benefits of mountaineering: You get to be silly in your head, you can be silly outside of it too and your body says yeah, yeah, do it, because you’ve quite earned the right.
You keep going up, no breaks until you get there because you want to get there, you do and you do. Time is of a different texture, the air is too, you are getting so close to yourself it almost makes you feel crowded. It’s good.
The last part is called the chimney. It’s a half-funnel made of crumbly rocks. The kicker is that some are set in place and some are not. You find the non-budging ones and climb. Avoid the falling ones or you’ll fall with them. No ropes. But you’re good at this, you’ve climbed enough times to say it with confidence. So you climb. Halfway up at an overhang you stop and look for the best way up. The thought slides down the awareness path before you can say stop, no, you have no right to be there. You hate climbing down. Fragmented memories of your childhood attempts of climbing down steep unsafe ladders, doing it because you did not want anyone to make fun of you, to call you scaredy cat or think that you’re not tough enough. Fragments of nightmares of you climbing a ladder, so high up that the sky is a spit away, and the ladder falling backwards. The innards are sucked in a tunnel of fear in both memories and dreams and right now you’re stuck to a crumbling mountain that laughs at you through all its straight and obtuse angles but you can’t move up. Or down. Innards are missing. You’re the shell of yourself and you hate your fear. It can’t be. You’re not a scaredy cat, you’re tough, you are. If you’d have a free hand you’d pat yourself softly and encouragingly on the shoulder. But you don’t. Sigh. Breathe, make acquaintance with the only fear that could paralyze you like that, a demon in its insidious ways of showing up when you’re having an up day. Getting so close to yourself makes you feel crowded but also lighter. You get off the rock wall, you breathe, cry because you feel defeated but smile ever so lightly because now you know you’ve faced your fear. You’ve never been tougher, you are told, you’ve never been braver than today when you listened to your body saying no, not yet. A mountain so majestic you can yield to if you’re not ready and that’s ok. The downpour of paralyzing fearful thoughts that trapped you on the crumbly wall becomes your liberation from your fear. You know where to start.
You find shelter at the bottom of the tusk, camping on the snowy ridge, the sun licks the peaks around all orange and pink and the moon zips you up in silver untroubled silence. Until 6am or so when the sun pulls at your hair, you silly sleepy head come out and see how good I made the world look today. You’re a speck, the luckiest speck of all nestled at the foot at the tusk that both humbled you and taught you the way.
On your way down you read about the tusk and how it used to be a mountain once. You turn and stare at it, you say thank you and hug the big pile of rocks with your eyes. The sky is so blue it makes your heart flutter. You walk through the snow to the alpine meadows with its armies of mosquitoes, drink cowboy coffee by the stream because you wanted one last hug from this place and then keep descending towards Garibaldi Lake. You’ve been very good about not leaving a trace, you packed all the garbage but you know that part of you will stay there. The fear, that integral part of you that stopped you from reaching the highest part of the tusk, you left it there, a tribute to the mountain. You’ll be back, you know that, and you’ll go all the way. By then, your fear will be all but crumbled down with the thousand rocks that do so every day and night. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Your fear stands no chance.
As you dry up after a dip in the turquoise waters of Garibaldi Lake, you look up towards the tusk. You can swear you see it wink. But that’s crazy, how can that be? Oh, it’d be, because that’s one of the spoiled benefits of mountaineering: You get to be silly in your head, you can be silly outside of it too and your body says yeah, yeah, do it, because you’ve quite earned the right.
If you’d say that fear tastes crunchy, I’d say yeah, it does. Edgy, too. A friend asked “But why did you go there if it’s like that?” and I could only be a humble reciter of the quote that means so much and I barely got to understand an inch of it: “Because it’s there.” But George Mallory was meters taller than I’ll ever be. Gracefully humbled. But you see, there was more there than the mountain I could see. The abyss I could not see or did not know how to see. I had to see it. Because it was there.