What better time for philosophical musings than on an alpine climb?
|"Philosophical Musings" Contest Entry
Theme: Let's consider what makes you you. Questions you might consider: Do you think, therefore you are? Do you feel that there is more to it - to you - than that? Is reality objective or subjective?
I strapped my crampons to the top of my pack for easy access, put on my stocking cap, zipped my shell, and, now ready, turned to my dad. He was reading the route report, something that the rangers always left posted in the climber’s hut at the Wy’East day lodge.
Turning and seeing I was ready, he gave a nod and walked over to his pack, daisy-chaining the webbing attached to the picket along its side. He snapped the biner at its end to a loop on his pack to keep it out of the way, then looked up at me with a brief smile.
I looked at the time on my phone.
“It’s midnight,” I said. “Time to start, right?”
“So did the route say it was certain death to go up today?” I asked.
“‘Course,” he said, grinning. “I always say, if you’ve gotta go…”
“...then there’s no place better than the mountains,” I finished for him.
He slapped me on the arm and gave me proud eyes.
As our boots crunched into the icy snow in the snowcat tracks to the east of the ski area, we turned on our headlamps. We were heading up a good grade at 6,000 feet. Even at the start, the thinner air was noticeable. He turned to me, heavy breath crystallizing into mist.
“So how are you feeling about your first time on Mt. Hood.”
“Good, I guess.”
“Really?” He seemed surprised.
“I said not really.”
“Yeah, I know. I mean: why don’t you think you’re ready?”
“Do you think I’m ready?”
“You were born ready.” His voice was firm, confident.
“How can someone be born ready?”
It was his turn to shrug.
We hiked a good way further. I tried to take a sip of water from my Camelbak tube. Nothing came out. I tapped it with my finger to discover it was frozen. Dad smiled as he saw my dilemma, handing me his Nalgene. I gulped down a couple of swallows.
“Told you you shouldn’t use that Camelbak thing when it’s this cold... But you never listen.”
“Yeah. Listening’s not really my strong suit.”
He chuckled. “Tell me about it.”
We began to ascend again.
“So if I don’t listen, why do you think I’m ready?” I asked.
“You’re not experienced, but you’re ready. You charge into things at a full sprint. Always have.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
He puffed several breaths before answering.
“It’s a good thing most of the time. It could be a bad thing for self-preservation.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are who you are. And I wouldn’t change it for anything. But when you decide to cross the street without looking, you’re a lot more likely to be run over by a car.”
“Good thing there aren’t any cars here.”
“There are cars everywhere. Here, they’re just called avalanches.”
We hiked on for a good hour in silence before either of us spoke again.
“I take after you, don’t I?” I asked him.
“Why do ask?”
“Because look where I am…” I gestured at the expanse of the mountain rising before us in blackness.
His eyes crinkled in a smile that didn’t make it to his lips.
“You do in some ways. I’ve probably influenced you a bit. Sorry about that.”
“Sorry? You gave me the good parts… Mom always overthinks everything and does nothing!”
“Don’t speak that way about your mother.”
We took a drink, ate some energy bars, then continued, breathing becoming ever more difficult.
“What else do you think influenced me? I’m not really like Mom at all.”
“You’re more alike than you think… but there are certainly some differences.”
“Like your recklessness. You don’t get that from either of us.”
“Where do I get it?”
“I wish I knew.”
I thought about it.
“I don’t think I get that from anyone else. It’s just part of you I am!”
He chuckled again.
“There are some things about each of us that are more than the sum of our parts.”
“Then aren’t we just missing one of the parts? I mean, that’s what parts are, aren’t they? Pieces of the whole.”
“Okay… then some of the parts are difficult to explain. They don’t come from your parents. They just come from you.”
“From my environment?”
“Maybe. Or maybe from your soul. From what God gave you…”
I thought about that more as we ascended past the top of the ski area on Palmer Glacier. The mountain became steeper, more difficult now. We had reached 8,500 feet. Using crampons for the traction, we needed two breaths for every step now.
“How do I know what God gave me?”
“Do you still believe in God?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about a soul? Do you believe in that?”
“Not sure about that either. I guess so, though. My soul would be me, right? Whether there’s a God or not.”
“I like to think of it as the more-than-the-sum-of-your-parts part.”
“See? It’s a part then! I told you that if you really have all the parts, then you’re the exact sum of them.”
“Oh. Is that what you meant?”
“Of course! As long as you think it sounds like a respectably smart thing to say…”
We both laughed this time.
It was 5:00 AM now, and we arrived at the Hogsback, right next to Crater Rock. 10,000 feet. I collapsed my trekking poles and put them in my pack, trading it for my ice tools. Dad uncoiled the rope, and we tied in. He coiled the excess and slipped it over his shoulder.
“You look like a badass mountaineer with the rope like that, Dad.”
He struck a pose with a bent leg forward, back leg straight.
“Okay, now you look like the Captain Morgan guy.”
He began to recite 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall as we ascended. We were using two ice tools now, facing the fifty-plus-degree slope, so I couldn’t glare at him… but I wanted to.
By the time he got to 50 bottles, I’d had enough.
“You know that thing I said about inheriting the good parts from you?”
“That song? Not one of the good parts.”
He went silent for a moment—other than the breathing, which was impossible to stop as we approached 11,000 feet—then he began to guffaw loudly.
“Yeah?” he responded, still gasping for air from his unrestrained laughter.
“Also not one of the good parts.”
He broke into a fresh round of laughter, and I joined in.
Finally, we arrived at the summit ridge, eyes blurry from a night spent climbing rather than sleeping, seeing the morning sun for the first time in the frigid wind. We hiked along the foot-wide ridge, steep drops on either side until we arrived at the actual summit. We both plopped down on the snow, backs to the wind, and put on our warmest clothes.
As we snacked and enjoyed the view, Dad spoke.
“See that one?”
That’s Mt. St. Helens.”
“So that’s Mt. Rainier?”
“No. Mt. Adams. That’s Mt. Rainier.”
“Gotcha. It’s so beautiful up here.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you think it’s real?” I asked. I wasn’t sure why.
“Of course it’s real.”
“I mean, like, it’s not just something that I’m imagining?”
“Do you really think you could imagine something so breathtaking?”
I looked out over the landscape, clouds filling the valleys far below.
“So I’m not imagining you either?” I asked.
“Would you want me to be a figment of your imagination?”
I considered his question.
“Not if you keep singing that 99 Bottles song!”
His eyes crinkled, and this time his lips curled upward as well. He put his arm around me and squeezed.
We both looked out at the world.
He was right.
It was far too beautiful to be a human creation.
We put on our packs and began the long journey back down.
Whatever I was at the start of this climb, I knew one thing for certain.
I was more now.