Being Lost

North Face of Athabasca

“Damn it!”, she said, and threw down her ski poles.

   We had not been married very long and I’d not seen her like this before. Everything had gone well on our vacation, I thought. We had a nice visit with her parents at their New Hampshire home. We saw an enormous moose on the Kancamangus Highway, an especially auspicious event since we came nowhere near hitting the monster. The bed and breakfast was comfortable and had its own network of ski trails right out the back door. We were skiing, something she enjoyed and did quite well. She seemed to like taking the lead on our tour. Perhaps she was frustrated with the ungroomed track onto which we had strayed. I could not tell.

   I was so uncertain, I intentionally asked a dangerous question, “What’s wrong?”

  ” Oh, it’s getting dark and we’re lost.”

  ‘Lost’ she said… 

   I stood in the canoe and looked toward a drop. I could hear fast water, but I could see no features of the rapid. The current sucked the boat onward and there was no leaving the channel. It was a blind guess which way to go and it was exciting. Later, dark caught me and I couldn’t find the landing. I paddled the bank for several hours, making repeated, panicked forays into the mass of shrub and brambles on shore, until I hit a faint path up to the railroad tracks, which finally brought me back to the main road.

South of Kargil

There was no one path in Kashmir, rather thousands. All I could do was follow the compass and count the valleys as I crossed them. If I worried, I just thought of the Polynesians and the lost feeling went away. But at the end of the fifth day, I saw the first people I’d seen in two days. Beat and out of daylight I asked if I could camp on the other side of the meadow. They chuckled and answered me in Urdu. They answered without pause and with no question in their voices. What’s more, they had sheep, so they traded with people who spoke Dari and Hindi in this former British holding. Now I was lost, not like on the river, but real, backwoods Alabama- rearview- cruiser lights lost. I had wandered out of my depth. As I slunk toward the far corner of the meadow, a teenager approached me. No one could hear the English he spoke to me, but they did not need to hear. He had tied himself to me and I knew about that. I was found. I took my second wind and followed him up the hill.

Ignorance, though me and Charles had plenty of it between us, had nothing to do with the situation on Shuksan. We had pieced our way through deep crevasses and steep ice walls all day and were now on the flat summit plateau. As we walked, someone slowly turned the focus ring on the world. Soon we were in a white out, surrounded by fog exactly the color of the snow underfoot and the sunlight spread through it as though part of the mist. We stumbled as the pitch of the slope dissolved with everything else into the dim white. We had to stop and wait for wind or a new day to find us.

The other 'O.S' route, North Ridge of the Grand Teton

The weather was beautiful on the North Ridge of the Grand Teton. Bad weather had trapped me in a nylon sack for two days prior, listening to snow patter on the fabric and thunder echo off the stone, wondering how the flash from lightning could penetrate the watertight bag. I left my perch on the ledge determined to do something new and big. Determination carried me through one pitch and into the middle of a second. I woke from the motivational fugue to find myself 30 feet out from a piton the size of a butter knife, forearms burning, and no clear way forward. I did not feel afraid, it was too  late for that. I had just one wave of the lost, regretful sickness that comes with a climb or die scenario.

…I began to laugh.

“We’re not lost,” I said, “we just don’t know exactly where we are. Look, there’s a light over there in the distance and I heard a car pass by off in that direction just a moment ago. We’re on a trail, even if it is out of use. We’ll be late getting back, but we’ll get there; we’re not lost.”

If she had been a little less anxious, things could have gone badly. As it was, she took a breath,  picked up her poles and skied. We missed the evening meal, but nothing more, and for eighteen months we knew right where we were.

“I can’t do it,” she said, “I need to go down.”

 And there it was, right back to that sick feeling again. Although I knew what her tone of voice portended, I set an anchor and descended to help her get up the pitch. After all, it was just thirty feet; thirty feet between us and an easy stroll down the glacier. I’d told her to clip in to the gear as back up before I tied off her end of the rope. Any residual hope drained to vapors when I got to her and saw the situation.

She had attached herself to every tattered remnant left by previous travelers over the cliff band. She looked like a fly caught in a web of rotting nylon and rusted steel. The ascender, which I had asked her to try before giving up, was clipped to her harness just where I’d left it that morning. In front of her, a cam gleamed in the late afternoon sun, its sling swaying carefree in the breeze, no longer clipped to the rope or anything else. I looked at the one thousand five hundred foot, 50 degree ice slope below us and the sun’s position in the sky and suggested she give the ascender one more try. She simply repeated her original demand more emphatically.

I lowered her the two hundred foot length of the rope, she placed two screws in the ice to anchor herself, and I down-climbed to her. We repeated the process twelve times, the last in the dark as the wind picked up in front of a snowstorm which covered our tracks. We wandered the glacier like souls in the Greek underworld, without hope of finding our way yet compelled to try. My stomach hurt and my throat was  tight. Things were out of control. We were lost.

But the more we walked, threading our way through  the network of fractured ice to dead-end after dead-end, the calmer she became. She suggested we stop and take a nap on a table of flat ice until morning. I gave her a terse critique of that idea and inquired about her understanding of our situation. She shrugged. We finally found the moraine and sat down for a rest. I told her I was sorry for dragging her into that epic day; she just squeezed my hand and told me not to worry about it.

Exhausted from 30 hours on the move, we pulled in to the first hostel down the road from the Columbia Icefield. The attendant noted our gear and asked where we had been. I was too tired to lie, but I did my best to minimize. The story was not unique, though, and the woman behind the desk could fill in the details easily enough. She became quite agitated and began talking about ignorance and responsibility. I looked down with a chastened expression, waiting for the end of the lecture. I glanced at my wife and blinked in surprise; she was tapping her finger on the desk while she gazed around the room with obvious disinterest.

As we walked to the dormitory, she turned to me, expressionless, and said, “What the hell is her problem? It’s not like we were lost.”

Looking back on the runout.

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