Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Long Game

A few weeks ago, I was doing a relaxed hike with my best friend. She had had a tough start to the year - really tough, family illness tough, possibly being evicted by nuns tough. She reflected: "If I had the opportunity to know how hard this was going to be, I wouldn't have wanted to know." It was her first hike back after a month. The next week, we did the same hike a bit faster. The week after, she was back running.

Her question stayed with me - sometimes, life gets tough. Is it better to know what's coming - does it make a difference in how you can deal with it?

So, because in the end, I write about running, about not running, about wanting to run again - after over four months of grinds (the Grouse kind, not the really fun kind), of rowing and ellipticals and stationary bikes and hot yoga and varying degrees of death hikes, of stretches and foam rollers and oh god way too many needles - I finally did my first walk/run. 

And I can talk about being an injured runner - the new snugness of my jeans, occasionally waking up at 2am wondering if I would ever be able to tap into the effortless speed again, the empty Sunday mornings. But, really, being injured is as much as part of being a runner as the running itself. There are many other, much faster runners who have suffered much more serious injuries, and written about these in a much more eloquent way.

Instead, I'll write about hiking Mt. McFarlane.

The weather out here was surreal: bare trees, muddy patches with smushed grass, blue skies and a snowline that thinks it's already June. I'd hiked Sea to Summit three weekends in a row, already hiked every damn trail around Grouse. So I told my hiking partner (former, and hopefully soon-to-be-again my long run partner) that I wanted to do something long, hard, and reckless.

That's how 8am found us over on the edge of Chilliwack, in a parking lot that was half puddle, with one other car parked. I had woken up in a deep mist, put on my headlights, then highbeams on the drive out, and finally broke into the Fraser Valley as the sun hit the tops of the mountains. We zipped through the low-rise sprawl before taking a final route on the side of a river ("What do people do for work out here, anyways?" "Meth.") I used the one bar of reception on my phone to send out the safety notification to my girlfriends, then set off down the trail to the clink of my loaned ice axe against the buckle on my pack.

I like going to beautiful places, empty places, places where I feel small and a bit scared and outside of myself. It's easy to see gorgeous views from cars, from quick walks across a parking lot, from behind a fence. And it's all outside, and all gorgeous. But for me, I want to wait until I'm a couple hours deep into a hike; that shot-through feeling in my legs, the catch of breath, the clear exhale.

 I can describe the hike, and it will sound every other hike out here. We have trails cluttered up along the North Shore, stretching out past Squamish, past Whistler, getting higher and colder and wilder. All the dirt road approaches, the creek crossings on slippery logs with falling off pieces of metal, the faded pink and orange marker tape. In every hike, there is the dark, low forest, the glint of sunlight through trees, breaking out onto a rocky view, and every direction, if you do it right, mountains forever, covered in snow.

And I'm not even great at writing details - distance and turns and landmarks go blurry. I remember the roots I stumbled over, the trees I grabbed, how the air hummed and got colder as we approached a stream. I remember how steep the trail was, the ice on the rocks when we cut across small boulder fields. We didn't talk, really, the first two hours.

Here are some details, though, that may help. The hike to the top of the mountain is 21km and 1,500m elevation gain round-trip. Every single report describes the hike as "really steep". These reports, actually, are not being melodramatic. Before the summit, there are two lakes. The first lake is 16km and 1,350m round trip. The second one is up over a ridge, close to the summit. I can give details on the first, as we made it there, but not about the second lake or the summit, as we didn't make it.

the first lake

the second lake is over here

I can give details on snow. As in, it was icy and pot-holed on a steeply sloped trail and we hit it just after the first lake. I can give more details on the ridge, above which the second lake was hiding; it was purple-grey in the morning light, streaked by snow. I can give details on the summit, poking out on the side, that we glimpsed from our way up: so much snow, the impossible glint against the blue sky, and how scary and beautiful it looked.

Before the climb up the ridge to the second lake, the trees disappear and the trail flattens out. The sun had just started to come over the side of the mountain. Stopping on the snow to layer up, after the climb, I couldn't put on layers and eat something fast enough. I slipped over snow as we crossed and re-crossed the creek, looking up towards the ridge. The route to the top was straight ahead, climbing over what looked like the remnants of an avalanche. (It was the remnants of an avalanche.)

Our lack of winter meant that, yes, we were going up an avalanche chute - but there was no more snow overhead to come down. So I put a very cold ice axe in my very cold hands (yes, I had gloves, but my body sometimes forgets how to warm itself) and started going. Step, step, jab the axe into snow - repeat as we crossed the snow, into the forest smelling of pine needles, back onto the hard snow. 

The ridge was close ahead - but not that close. We had moved back into the shade, and I couldn't go fast enough uphill to get warm. I'm not very rugged to begin with, and my axe wasn't going very deep into the snow. My hands kept getting colder. Up ahead, the snow got steeper.

Maybe it was me being four months out of injury, the last of a tough week, or because the other side of the freedom that I love sometimes a loneliness that gets closer when it's nothing between me and sky - no apartment, neigbours, books, tree-lined streets. Or maybe it was being up somewhere high and strange and a bit dangerous. Maybe because what I needed was a couple hours of hard hiking to shake things loose. What happened was that I started to cry and couldn't stop.

I told my hiking partner that this was an excellent point for me to turn around, and he should keep going (As a side note, for guys, you can not legitimately say you have a female running partner until she has lost her shit out on a trail with you at least once.). 

So he went further up, and I went further down. I picked my way: step, step, jab. Weaved across snow, found the trail markers in the trees, and stopped, sat down, and cried as hard as I could. When I stopped, I looked up for my partner - nowhere in sight.

I've always been an anxious hiker, a cautious hiker. I don't like to go off by myself, get separated from other people. But the sun had made its way back from behind the ridge. And after all the crying I felt so much lighter. I realized - if I had to - I could make my way back down the snow, back down the trail, back to the lonely parking lot and back to Vancouver. And it was the same with every mountain, every trip - there is a loneliness, but there is also a big, unsettling freedom on the other side, So I got up, got my axe, and kept picking my way down.

So that's where my partner found me - close to the bottom of the frozen avalanche, suddenly talkative, and very ready for lunch. We found a dry enough spot and watched the gleam of sun on snow as we ate sandwiches and had a shot of whiskey.

The hike back down was slow, as we chatted and took off layers in the steady sunlight.

I want to go back, when the snow is gone. I want to see the lake that's on the other side of the ridge, to emerge, sweaty and dusty with burning legs, on the other side. I want to have the final push to the top, scrambling over rocks, measuring my breath.

I'm not really a patient person, despite many opportunities to learn about patience, And patience is a muscle, and it;s easier to exercise knowing when you can stop. Being injured without an expiration date was hard. But, at the start, I think knowing I was going to be off running for over four months would have been harder. There is a peace in not knowing, in putting off the hope and the striving and the big goals far ahead in the early light, to instead sit, and look at the view, and know that one day you will get where you want to be. I think there is something about the struggle, about setbacks, about mustering whatever kind of grace and sense of humour you have. I also don't think it all has ti be about suffering. There is always another lake, a farther ridge, a new adventure. But in the meantime - there's food, and sunshine, and good company, and it's all still so very beautiful.