the Importance of Defining "a Li'l Sketch"

Rad! My first fresh post on the new blog. No time like the present to brush off a fairly recent tale and share it with you all.

Before I dive in, let’s backtrack a little and rewind until we get to late summer 2015. After training like a madwoman for my ultra for over six months, I was tired of not having a social life. I lived alone in a studio apartment at the time, which was pretty awesome overall (no pants party every day/night! Drink out of the carton!) but for somebody who is prone to hermit-like behaviour, living alone isn’t the best prescription for the spirit. In the throes of training, when I needed social engagement and encouragement from friends the most, I pulled away. During the week, I focused solely on work and training and on the weekends, I put in long hours on the trail and went straight home. No bars, no girls’ nights, no fun. This process repeated itself week in and week out. I was running but I wasn’t balanced and when I wasn’t on the trail, I wasn’t happy.

After declining so many offers to get outdoors with friends (“Sorry, I can’t. I have to run.”), one August morning, I woke up and decided to start saying, “YES” to adventure. And so began the best chapter of my life.

Flash forward, past many cool adventures I promise to share later, to early December when I received a message from my friend Eli inviting me (and whoever I thought would be interested) to go mountaineering on Mount Timpanogos. Now, Mount Timpanogos is a beast of a local mountain but also happens to be my favourite. I agreed in a heartbeat and invited my then friend (now roomie-friend), Akina.

Now, when somebody says an adventure is going to be “a little sketch”, don’t be like me. Ask questions. Specific questions. Namely, “Sketch? How sketch? Define ‘a little sketch.’ What's the likelihood of me dying, percentage-wise?” But as they say, hindsight is 20/20 and on a cold Saturday morning, our merry band of five travelers started off on an adventure we wouldn’t soon forget.

The trip started off enjoyably enough, the sun was shining and we were joking around and marching up the trail at a decent clip. Five hours and a few miles into it, we were half-frozen, exhausted, and emotionally drained. The sun was setting on a completely different crew. We had already muscled up a couple thousand feet of unforgiving icy snow and had long abandoned hope of reaching the summit before sunset.

In the shadow of the mountain, our battle continued. Jamming frozen toes and crampons into the shifting hillside, we inched our way up toward shelter. Ice axes bit into styrofoam blocks of snow only to punch through to the softer layer beneath, offering little in the way of aid. Each step more exhausted than the last. The mountain was testing us.

I thought I knew cold, I thought I was tough. I was wrong. I'd had it with this fucking trek. I'd lost feeling in my toes hours ago and was slowly losing my will to push onward. Darkened settled, our group had spread out, and I was alone. I trudged on, my broken spirit dragging in my wake. I was trembling uncontrollably by now, in a futile effort to get warm.

The snow was treacherous. The next step might be solid underfoot, stoking the tiny ember of hope or it could be a trap door, a false firmness giving way immediately to the 3 feet of frigid powder below. Even worse, sections of traverse were rail thin and threatened to crumble underfoot, sending its victim sliding down the deadly slope. I was too cold to be scared, too tired to worry about which step might be the Judas step and betray my efforts.

Multiple times, my leg punched through the crust and I was suddenly in waist deep snow and each time, I thought about not getting up. Would it really be so terrible to stay there? I was so tired. I read somewhere that victims of hypothermia often feel an overwhelming rush of heat just before the end. The siren call of that heat and the eternal rest that was sure to follow were both eerily tempting. But I somehow hauled myself out of the depths of the snow and pressed on.

By the time I saw the hut dimly outlined by my headlamp against the mostly moonless sky, I was too exhausted to run or whoop. I coughed painfully and shuffled up the last hill. My throat cried out for water and, since my hydration pack had long since frozen solid, I settled for slipping a few chunks of snow in my mouth. Trembling harder, I counted my steps. At 20, I would stop and catch my breath, lungs burning and chest tight. But 20 became 40 and 40 became a quarter mile. And before I realized it was there, I collapsed inside the hut. I made it.

I was shaking uncontrollably at this point, shivering violently to keep warm as I painfully began removing my boots to check my toes. The weird sensation of pulling off socks that were frozen to my numb feet was one I won't be forgetting. I dove into my sleeping bag while Eli began to start a fire. One by one, everyone else tumbled on the stone floor, happy to have reached our destination. After a few minutes of intense shivering by the small fire while we prepared food and thawed out, the tension eased from our faces. We finally began to slowly smile at the situation we put ourselves in.

It’s funny to me that while I’ve never been more miserable than I had been trekking up that mountain, and the cold sleepless hours that followed, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. That concept is so fascinating to me, that humans will actively seek out an intentionally draining experience, be pushed to their absolute breaking point, and yet find enjoyment in the moment even while they’re completely miserable. There’s this sick joy that comes from being in a situation that demands more from you than you ever thought was possible and while you’re in the middle of a mental and physical breakdown, you can’t help but smile at the fact that you’re still alive and actually doing the thing.

I wish I could say the journey down the mountain was less painful, but it was actually worse. Three of us ended up with frostbitten toes, myself included, and we were all completely sleep-deprived. During the night, the wind only increased, howling past our drafty hut at a deafening 40mph. The 6x4ft sheet of iron that served as the door blew over several times with a boom loud enough to the rival thunderstorms I’ve seen on that very mountain. Twice it crashed down on top of us. Once crushing my already sore legs beneath it and the other time slamming into Akina’s leg as she slept.

We were not in high spirits as we began to stir the next morning until we caught sight of the sunrise. The fiery oranges and pinks streaked across the waking sky, putting on such a display of vibrant colour, we were completely speechless for a few minutes as we stared, completely awestruck.

Soon enough, it was time to head down. The winds were even stronger than the previous night, sending heaps of snow shooting up into snownadoes. Ice crystals blasted our weary faces while the swirling snow in the air dropped visibility to almost nothing. Some gusts were ferocious enough to knock us over and pummel us down into the snow. It promised to be slow going yet every minute we wasted at the top of the mountain increased the chances we would run into avalanches further down the slopes. Nobody wanted to think of the endless miles of steep traverses, treacherous avalanche chutes, and rocky cliff faces between us and the whiskey waiting for us in the car. We pressed on.

Despite the length of time it took us to reach the most dangerous of the avalanche paths, we made it across each unscathed. There is a weird facet of fear reserved for moments like the ones I faced while crossing a highly volatile avalanche path. It feels surreal. It’s not the heart-pounding adrenaline rush you get when you accidentally miss a step on the stairs or drop on a roller coaster. It’s deeper and it’s quieter. It’s more of an overwhelming sense of doom that hangs above you like a cloud.

This was the state of mind I was in while I began to traverse a particularly tricky section of the chute. A hundred feet below me, at the bottom of the avalanche path was a rocky cliff. Even a small slide triggered at this height would send the unlucky victim hurtling off the cliff face, leaving them to freefall a couple dozen feet before meeting their fate on the ice rocks below. Will had traversed the chute before me and hear a loud and telling CRACK from somewhere above him. Since Eli and Jonnie were scouting ahead, they surveyed the snowpack to see where the crack occured and to assess our next move. They didn’t see it and waved for me to continue but, as they eloquently put it, “you better hurry the fuck up.” There were a set of footprints already pressed into the deep snow on the thin ridge, made by the three boys ahead of me. However, as I stepped down into them, the snow broke away beneath my feet, burying my right leg thigh-deep into the snow or simply breaking off that section completely. I don’t think I have ever been more terrified nor focused in my entire life.

Thankfully, we made across each section without further incident. Once we reached the lower elevations, we took off our crampons and hustled our asses back to the car as fast as we could. We were so eager to be off the mountain and safe in the car.

Looking back on it, our level was risk was infinitely higher than I ever would have accepted had I known. Was it dangerous? Incredibly. Was it stupid? Absolutely. But as I lie safe in my bed that night, exhausted, sore, covered in bruises, and nursing frostbitten toes, I can’t say with complete honesty that I wouldn’t do something like that again. There’s something about suffering alongside friends that really brings out the humanity within each of us. I can't imagine a place more welcoming than that frigid, drafty hut or with better company than the half frozen optimists sharing it with me. There may be quiet beauty in solitude but there is unparalleled warmth in the shared moments.