I moved to the mountains to connect with the experience of hiking, of discovering a path that is clear and marked and certain when my world begins to feel nebulous, and following it to the top. I didn’t realize my little home would also come with a gatekeeper. The sometimes snowy, sometimes sunny peaks mark my comings and goings like an immortal doorman. I feel their heavy eyes upon me as I speed out of the notch, usually late, on my way from the land of the familiar out into the great unknown. And when I return, whether I am invigorated by fresh energy or beat down and looking for a place to rest my head, I sense their welcome, the earth lifting up around me, swaddling me home.
The mountains. They witness my rising and my falling. This past weekend, Jim and I celebrated his birthday with an overnight ski trip to a little cabin perched on a familiar peak. With packs strapped to our backs and skis underfoot, we made our way out of the truck and onto the trail. We were carrying more weight than normal, and Jim- in an effort to fend off the cold- was especially gravitated by a bundle of seasoned firewood. The sun was shining, and welcome beads of perspiration formed against my skin in what felt like the first time since summer whispered her warm goodbyes eons ago.
Reaching the door of the cabin with hours of daylight to spare, Jim set to work building a fire in the small wood stove. Sun trickled in through the frosted windows. I channelled my reptilian self, stretching out on a wooden bench near the fire, willing my body to soak in the warmth in preparation for a winter night in the mountains. At sunset, the temperature in the cabin read 30 degrees fahrenheit. We melted snow, boiled water, and enjoyed warm meals. Eventually, we settled into our sleeping bags. Mine is rated for 20 degrees, Jim’s for 35. Knowing that our summer bags were the weak points on this trip (I’m more of a warm-weather backpacker), we smothered ourselves in wool base layers and down jackets. As I settled into my cocoon for the night (at the late hour of 8pm), I was aware of the chill in the air, but also the relative comfort of my body from within my insulated shell.
At 10pm I awoke in a full-body shiver, as if my chattering teeth were rippling their vibrations through each bone of my skeleton. For half an hour I willed the movements to warm me. And then reason convulsed its way through (in the form of Jim announcing that the temperature in the cabin had dropped to 20 degrees even with the wood stove running, and we would not have enough firewood to keep it burning all night). Our grand idea of wintering in the mountains for the night crumbled. And so, with our tails between our legs and our headlamps stretched around our hats, we gathered our belongings back into our packs, and surrendered ourselves into the night.
Our shame was temporarily mitigated by the thrill of a spontaneous full moon ski tour down an icy yet overall skiable trail. What portions of my consciousness were not dedicated to the ski became wholly occupied by the fear of encountering a mountain lion in my path (Jim recently joked that they are known to attack small women, such as myself, and my amygdala tells me they would be much more likely to do so when startled by a rogue backcountry skier in the night).
Despite my concern, we made it out alive. Tossing our belongings and ourselves into the pickup, we crept out of the parking lot and down the road in silence, not wanting to call the night’s attention to our failure. I was tired and, despite the hot air blasting from the truck’s heater through my layers of down and wool, I was cold.
As we wound our way toward home, my eyelids drooping with exhaustion and disappointment, the mountains swooped in around us. I realized then that I’d half expected them to turn us away. We had failed, hadn’t we?
Looking up from the foot of the notch toward their great cliffs illuminated in moonlight, it occurred to me that my job in the mountains is not to accomplish, not to summit, not to be great. It is to be small. To listen to, rather than compete with, these forces that are exponentially larger than I. At the end of my day it is humility, not achievement, that returns me to my little cabin in the woods. I am still learning to listen. And as I am released and received, nothing more than a whisper of breath against the cheek of a great rock face, I am coming to know surrender not as a marking of failure, but as a guide helping me to find my place; it is the voice of the mountain, the gatekeeper, calling me home.