One way to measure the changing seasons is by the clothing you can remove. Yesterday I ran a loop around Discovery Park on Seattle’s western edge and then sat on the grass overlooking the Sound. The waters were streaked gray and cold. Black mountains rose in the background, their tops and sides softened by white, the last snows and remnants of glaciers hanging on despite our best efforts to shoo them away.
I was hot from running and the sun was warm. For the first time all year I took off my shirt outside, and as I did I thought, Spring’s here, and summer’s right behind. The sun was warm enough and my skin so starved of its attention that after thirty minutes my back and neck had grown red. Not burned, but reddened, enough that I can still feel them crinkling under my shirt as I write today.
Directly across from my view were a set of mountains called The Brothers. They’re a faintly M-shaped peak that sit on the far eastern end of the Olympic National Park, almost a straight westerly shot from Seattle. The Sound between is several hundred feet deep, and only a few miles inland The Brothers rise sharply to a summit of nearly 7,000 feet.
One spring day about ten years ago I climbed them. Well, nearly climbed them.
I had driven out early south around the Sound, then hiked roughly six miles to their base. About halfway up my ascent I came upon two other hikers ahead of me. They were maybe a hundred feet higher than me and were yelling back, trying to signal me. They were pointing at a mountain goat, which was descending nimbly toward us.
The goat was an ugly hoary white, his molting coat spotted and patchy. He was big, easily 200-pounds. And he was dextrous, navigating the slippery scree of the avalanche chute with ease. His black horns shined like mica in the sun.
The other climbers shimmied up the side of the chute and let him pass. I did the same, only he no longer seemed interested in passing. He turned and faced me. He moved closer. I’m never certain about reading human emotions onto animals, but I am confident that this goat was not happy.
Climbing scree is a lot like ascending a sand dune: there’s no way to do it quickly or gracefully. It was obvious that this goat could move faster and more easily than me across this ground. He was built for this, and I would outrun or outmaneuver him. He moved closer.
Careful! the climbers above me called out. Low on options, I unslung the ice axe from my backpack and gripped it in my hands like a baseball bat. I tried to determine the best way to swing it: sideways like a bat or directly over my head? I figured if he did charge it would happen quickly. The stuff that would matter would happen once and once only. The rocks beneath my feet clunked and slid as I tried to establish solid footing.
The goat stepped closer.
Fifteen feet away from me the goat stopped. We looked at one another, his black eyes flat and bored. I was sweating hard, which probably wasn’t helping: goats are drawn to the minerals in our sweat and urine. Potentially that was the association he’d formed from other hikers. Or maybe he just didn’t want any of us in his space.
I’m just trying to go up there, I said to him, hoping that perhaps my reasoning would persuade him. He chewed his lips and continued to stare. I gripped the axe nervously and could feel my heart pounding in my ears. Neither of us moved.
After a long minute of this he looked at my flatly and then turned and walked away. I scrambled up to the climbers above me and drank some water. I was shaking.
A bit later I continued my ascent. The day was beautiful, wide open blue skies, little puffs of clouds puttering past. Up I went. The summit came into view and the ground turned hard. There was a small trail marked with cairns, rocks earlier hikers had stacked to mark the way. I followed them up and could hear the other hikers calling to one another ahead of me. The summit was obvious now, only fifty vertical feet above where I was, though I still had a good quarter mile to cover until I got there.
Then the clouds came. They poured in quickly, wispy thin, wet and quick as a shower of dew. In less than a minute visibility turned from clear blue to foggy to virtually none. I lost the trail. I groped my way around a huge boulder and the ground below me poured open, a thousand vertical feet of nothing.
One important fact I forgot to mention: I’m terrified of heights. I don’t mean that they make me nervous or that given the option I don’t prefer them; I mean that they scare the living shit out of me.
One strange but common behavior of people with extreme acrophobia is this very curious reaction: we stand at the edge of exposed heights and imagine jumping. And it feels so welcoming. When presented with an open and exposed view I will not only imagine jumping, I will imagine where I’ll land once I do, and something in my stomach warms up and says, Do it.
You maybe be wondering what the hell I was doing on the top of a 7,000-foot mountain. At that moment I was thinking the same thing.
I stepped back and the clouds rushed in heavier and thicker. The sky had turned into a thick gray soup. The winds picked up and the temperature dropped fifteen degrees. I hunkered behind a rock wall and waited.
I knew I was close to the summit. I’d seen in only minutes before. But now I couldn’t see anything, a fact which, while it was preventing my summiting, was also freeing my eyes from seeing how high up I was.
I ate a snack and figured that the clouds would soon blow out. But the clouds did not blow out. They just kept piling up, thicker and thicker until the sky was a wall of mottled grey. I waited twenty minutes, a half hour. I was growing cold. I waited longer but the clouds only grew darker and thicker.
Eventually, I found the cairns that had led me this far, and I followed them back, away from the summit. As I went down the clouds lessened and the sky opened, but the summit stayed shrouded in gray. I thought about trying for the summit again but it was late. I hadn’t brought gear or food for a nighttime adventure, and still had eight miles to get back to the car.
The descent was a mess; I misread the cairns and lost the trail and went down the wrong chute. I ended up having a nice long contemplative moment with myself on the side of this mountain while holding onto the roots of a very small bush. You learn a lot about yourself in those moments.
Eventually, I got down enough and crossed the trail. I hoofed it back to the car, angered and elated. I stopped somewhere and got fast food and ate it as I drove back toward the city. The sun set behind me and cast soft shadows down from the tops of the mountains.
I’ve never been back to The Brothers since. In fact, I rarely climb anymore. Life changes. But every time I look west across the Sound and see that peak, I remember that day. I’m not haunted by failure: sometimes—oftentimes—you put in a great effort and still don’t win. But I do think about that goat.