Yesterday afternoon I stood on the north face of Buckhorn Mountain in the Olympic Range. Ross and I had just attained Buckhorn’s highest summit by way of a straightforward boot path that climbs up from Marmot Pass, and now we wished to descend its north face by a few hundred feet. Then we would cross a saddle and scramble up a series of gullies to Buckhorn’s second, slightly lower, but somewhat more interesting-looking peak. The two high points were so close to each other that a raven could have passed back and forth between them within a minute, and though the slope I was attempting to descend was quite steep, it was not much more so than many I had been on in the past. Islands of vegetation grew on it where firs and forbs had set the ground in place. But after picking my way down perhaps twenty feet of bare, loose dirt and scree, all the while feebly imploring Ross to stay close while I hesitated over each step, I was at a standstill. I could not bring myself to put either foot one inch lower on the slope.
When I stop what I am doing in the mountains, I like to think it is because of judiciousness, not fear. But we’d researched this traverse and were reasonably sure the risk and technical skill involved lay within the bounds of our experience. Ross is often more cautious than I am, and he wasn’t afraid. I was. I wished I could grip my heart in both my hands and squeeze it into steel, the damned traitor.
We turned around. In a moment we were back up at the first summit, fooling around on beautiful sharp rock and sitting like kings in high places. I gazed down on long drops with a steady pulse. Looking back on my strange paralysis on the north face, I wondered if it was because I’d twice this past season gone out in sneakers instead of boots, mostly out of sheer summer-addled foolishness. Both times we ended up hiking on similar surfaces—steep, loose dirt and scree—and both times I fell multiple times on the descent. And I thought of a short but seemingly inexorable slide I took on Clark Mountain early in June that I eventually arrested with my ice axe, also after having slipped on dirt. I wondered if I’d managed to condition myself into a low-level fear of this particular terrain, and if my mistrust had spiked because the exposure here was high.
The nice thing about summits is that (barring major post-volcanic restructuring) you can always come back to them and try to climb them again when you’re stronger, smarter, braver, and more skilled. The rest of life isn’t always like that; or it doesn’t always feel that way, anyway. Sometimes fear can keep you too far away from the mountains for too long.
This might be a good time to mention that I have finally started grad school. Friends: I’m a PhD student! Fear has become the air I breathe. It’s amazing, actually, how many anxiety-provoking moments have been compressed into the last three weeks. I’ve pitched research ideas and discovered they were impractical, confused, or full of scientific holes, and I’ve met with people who were kind enough to want to help me and had my thoughts be so scattered and at sea I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I’ve struggled to find a way to introduce myself to biologists—to whom I am now, suddenly and astonishingly, a (very junior) colleague—without sounding like I’m apologizing for my past lives. I’ve been convinced that I was going to be the only one in my cohort not to make friends. And, like absolutely everybody, I think, I’ve wondered if I’m supposed to be standing here, on this insane precipice, imagining what would happen if I fell. If I failed.
Still, I’ve been trying to trust my feet and keep moving. This is going to be a long trip, and the last thing I want is to find myself flashing back to small slips and slides when the exposure gets really high. The last thing I want is to condition myself into being afraid of this particular terrain. So I’m happy to report that this last week has been good. I’m still not sure I know what my dissertation research is going to involve, but I’ve come a long way since I had my first amorphous set of bad ideas and am now working on putting the corners on some decidedly-less-bad ideas. Actually, I will go so far as to say that I think they’re pretty cool, if somewhat ambitious. I’ve gotten to know my incoming class much better, and they’re a wonderful group of people. I try not to let their youth and brilliance intimidate me.
(I still find it hard to introduce myself. But I suppose there are some things even the mountains can’t teach you.)