Thursday, May 21, 2009

Out of the Ravine

It is no exaggeration that people are regularly killed at Tuckerman’s Ravine on the east side of Mount Washington. A friend of mine once witnessed someone plummet inescapably downward. Two, in fact, died this year in the very gully we eventually skied today, yet thousands come and go each spring without harm.

So it was no surprise that in preparation this week to take my son for his first experience, the vision came to me several times, replete with a mountain of guilt and horror, of watching his frantic body tumble and slide to smash on the rocks below, never to slap me a high-five again. A friend told me this image so clear would ensure it not coming to pass, but I certainly had my doubts about exposing him to such risks. Still, we were groggy near dawn, but on the road to this adventure that is a ritual of spring for many devoted skiers in the East.

My father was with me, long ago, for my first trek up the mountain and heart-shuddering turns. I remember the terror of standing on a tiny ledge, the slope so steep my shoulders brushed snow, and wondering what act of will power would actually move me forward, or could I just stay preserved in that moment forever, suspended and motionless, inert and fearful. Finally down I came, one frightening turn after another, death defying, each one a little easier, each one a life-lesson of proof that we can overcome our fears.

There is no benefit of a lift at Mount Washington to whisk you up to the Ravine. Each one of the very few turns made in the day requires countless hard steps, beginning with the long trek up to the Ravine with skis and boots awkward and heavy on your back, and then kick-stepping one at a time into the snow upwards as high as you dare to go.

Heading up the access trail together, our banter soon dwindled with the hard effort of finding the meditation or music to quell the increasing pain. The lifestyle of our past did not get us often into woods or up mountain trails. I advised him to seek the path water might take if it could flow upwards, exerting as little effort as possible. He wanted to argue good-naturedly the obvious fact that water cannot and never will run up uphill.

I had come with my bank account once again empty and a mind full of distracting worries about how I can focus to solve this constant irritant in my life once and for all. My heart was distracted with the yearnings for someone visible and elusive, a dream come true, but not conforming to reality just the way I might like. Head full of words to write and soul full of music to sing, I exercised ideas of how I can pursue my creativity without resorting to the hammer and nails that seem only to have built confusion in my life, destructed as much as constructed.

Two hours of stepping one boot before the other, placing each with intention and flowing to the next best step when I stumbled, soon re-enforced the powerful lesson of being in the moment. We all know the angst we feel over things out of our control does us no good, yet the insatiable urge to process continues to distract. Focusing my breath to match my steps, I could ease my mind in each moment of these worries, moving forward, rising upward.

The trail reaches Hojo’s, the base for the Ravine proper, and provides a place for rest and regrouping. Wishing for shorts earlier, now we bundled against a cold and windy lunchtime. Tired and aching, we talked little, gazing over the gullies and outcrops that still held snow, refreshing ourselves with squished sandwiches and warm vitamin waters. We rallied to the whoops of excitement from some of the few other skiers on this quiet weekday, making their one run down.

In ski boots, a half hour later, kicking our way slowly upwards, I understood how, no matter the efforts of the team that gets you to your particular Mount Everest, it is ultimately the climber alone who takes each step. Reaching the top, of course, is the goal and the measuring stick, but the quality of each step along the way provides the deeper accounting to the individual. Together at the start, my son and I, like my father and I forty years ago, were on our own journeys, sharing and celebrating our accomplishments, but taking each step alone.

Tired and cold, my son got as high as he needed, as far this first time as he felt comfortable, made his few turns and was content to wait for me. On my own journey, I climbed, kick-stepping higher and higher, facing into the snow right before me, moving slowly, cautiously, stopping often to rest.

My heart beat hard, my breath pulsed with screams. Each foot of altitude was an effort, skis on my shoulders, poles for balance. Calf muscles cramped and my ears roared with the immense silence of being so alone in that small wilderness. At each place I rested, sticking skis into the snow, I turned and gazed outward, stunned by the sweep of the valley below me, washed in patches of cloud and sunshine, the world at my feet.

My journey to this mountainside has been full of more struggle and heart-ache than delight and wonder, though I am blessed with children and memories beyond my most passionate dreams. Self-doubt inserts itself insidiously into every idea, souring the musical notes and blotting this very page.

Yet, in the wind-blown silence that surrounded me on that snowy ledge, there was a cacophony of reassurance. Should I tumble, death might meet me where my son waited, watching me from the rocks below, but a determination within my tired soul settled as profoundly as that beautiful silence whispering all around me that I should come safely home to write about our day and how these few steps, together and alone, forever shape our lives.
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Laurie said...

"I understood how, no matter the efforts of the team that gets you to your particular Mount Everest, it is ultimately the climber alone who takes each step."

Is that not profound and true? Well said Kip. Even though it is the climber who takes the steps, it is a comfort to know we don't travel alone.

Beautiful post. I believe men need some sort of a right of passage. This is the passage in your family. Boys turning into men need to take risks and realize they have what it takes. Great of you Kip for providing the opportunity for that tall kid of yours!

Zannah said...

That sounded like a totally great day!!! How much fun! I am so happy you guys can finally do awesome things like this. :) Love you tons!