Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Snowshoes and Going Sideways

I can remove summiting Everest from my bucket list now, like it was ever even there. Not because I accomplished the feat. Rather because any notion that I could make it to the top of that mountain, or many less-daunting peaks, perished on a rather tame wintry hike up a hill outside of Cazenovia, N.Y., this past weekend. If I ever tried a real mountain, it would certainly be the last thing I did.

So a dream I never had died. And that wasn’t the worst thing to happen that day.

A few years ago, I got this notion in my head that I wanted – no, needed – a pair of snowshoes. One Christmas morning soon thereafter, a pair arrived under the tree with my name on them. I felt whole again.

Since then, I’ve used the snowshoes a handful of times, usually just goofing around in the yard after a big snow, or occasionally in the really deep stuff up north in the Snow Belt where my parents live. Nothing too vigorous.

This weekend, experiencing the cabin fever that sets in after the coldest January in memory, trapped indoors with a house full of children, I decided to change that. I decided I was going to really go snowshoeing. Not lets-take-the-kids kind of snowshoeing. But real snowshoeing.

Why not, right? I had the shoes. I could use the exercise. I needed to get out of the house. And there was snow on the ground.

Luckily, my brother, who lives a short drive away, had a similar notion, as did a friend of his. So on a cold and windy, but partly-sunny Sunday, we met at his farm to set out across a field and into the adjoining woods to follow a looping trail through the foothills of Caz.

We crossed the field, traversing through snow not quite as deep as expected, or hoped. But there was enough. In places, ripples and drifts formed, swallowing all evidence of brush and weeds whole, and allowing us to levitate above it all. Other places, the wind left the earth bare, and the metal spikes on our shoes would hit the hard ground, as the ice and dirt crumbled underneath.

The first thing I noticed was how god-damned cold my fingers got as we trudged along that open field with a fierce winter wind blowing across our path. I wore a thin pair of high-tech gloves, which until that moment had performed admirably on the many cold days I’ve spent fishing for steelhead, building snow forts, or shoveling my driveway. They were no match for a cold breeze across a field on an 18 degree day, the wind stripping away the feeling in my fingers, as my hands were exposed, wrapped around ski pole handles. The gloves were losing the battle. And each of the fingers on my right hand knew it.

I didn’t say a word, though, not wanting to be the first to admit the elements were getting the better of me. It’s a guy thing. And I realized that once an extremity like a finger gets really cold, there is no way they’ll warm back up on their own. You have to do something to warm them up. I chose to pull my fingers out of my glove’s fingers, remaining in the glove itself, and wrap them in a fist within the palm of the glove. Not an easy task as I held onto a ski pole, squeezing the handle between my thumb and newly-made fist.

The next thing to get really stinking cold was my thumb.

But the cold turned out to be only the first challenge. Once we turned deeper into the woods, the wind relented and my fingers regained their feeling. Unfortunately, turning into the woods meant turning toward the hills.

The ascent had begun.

I say ascent like it was an actual ascent. Which it was, technically, but only in that we were going up a hill. By all measures it was a tame ascent.

Somehow, when I imagined snowshoeing, I thought it would be flat – like the pictures I’ve seen of the North Pole. Now I was following two others up a steady climb with expensive tennis rackets attached to my boots.

A few minutes in and my heart was pounding; I was losing my breath and falling behind. I just kept my head down, as the other two broke the trail, and I stepped where they stepped. The hill kept going, my heart kept pounding, and they didn’t slow.

I work out a bit. Not as much as I should, nor as much as I used to, but enough to know when I’m pushing my limits. And this tame ascent up a foothill was doing it. I placed each step in the foot print left by the guys before me, digging my spikes at times into packed snow and other times into a soft, deep impression of powder.

I thought about the people who do actually push their limits to the point where they summit real mountains. Days on end of this sort of thing, with less and less oxygen, and real “climbing” interspersed.  And that would just get you to base camp. I knew I could never be one of them. Not any time soon. Likely, not ever. And I’m okay with that. I’ve got four kids, after all. Why risk it?

Yet, was I risking it now?

With my heart pounding away, short on breath, miles from an actual road, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry what could happen to a guy my age under duress like this. And I knew that if I keeled over right there in the woods of Cazenovia, on a foothill, not even John Krakauer could turn my demise into a manly sounding adventure. Maybe a short story, but not terribly manly.

My thoughts kept returning to real mountain climbers. Why do they put their lives at stake to summit such formidable peaks? I know, I know. Because it’s there. But, really why? Don’t they have kids? Or families? Or friends they’d like to sit on a beach with? Or someone they want to grow old with?

I’ve climbed a few real mountains in my day. In the Adirondacks, and in the Rockies. I know the joy of summiting, and seeing the world around you. But there was little or no risk there. Just accomplishment. I’d never truly risk death for that thrill. Even if I had the stamina. Which I clearly don’t. I just wouldn’t do it. I’ve got other responsibilities. Does that make me less of a man? Or more of one?

Leave it to me to have all these dumb thoughts on a stupid little snowshoeing climb.

This was no mountain, after all. And yet it kept going up and we kept climbing, and stepping, and breathing for what felt like a long time. When the path would level off, I’d pick up my eyes only to see more hill in front of us. It was tough. At least, it was tougher than I’d expected when I set out that day for a mid-winter adventure.

Luckily, the ascent ended before I did.

I felt more relief than thrill.

The rest of the loop trail was flat, and even downhill at times. I can do downhill snowshoeing. It’s fun. Maybe I could still make it to the North Pole someday. Maybe.

As the hike ended, we check the GPS on my brother’s fancy watch to see how far we’d traveled. Just a few miles. I thought it would say farther. You just can’t trust GPS. And at most, I figured we climbed all of about 400 vertical feet. Still, it was a solid workout, dragging tennis rackets two miles across snowy hills. And I was glad we did it.

We parted ways, agreeing to do it again soon – maybe farther, but flatter next time. And maybe closer to a road, in case something went terribly wrong.

It was a good day and a good workout. It got me out of the house, and away from our hectic world for a bit. And just when I thought my sacrifice to the snow god was complete for the day, more was demanded of me.

Driving back from my snowshoeing adventure, my car’s tires simply grew tired of holding the road. Rounding one particular corner of packed powder on a rural route in the hills outside Cazenovia, my Subaru turned sideways.

I’ve fish tailed plenty before, and know how to correct it. This time it didn’t work. The car stayed sideways, and kept right on going at the speed I’d entered the curve.

There’s a moment when you’re sliding sideways in a car that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I didn’t. Had I time to think, I would have decided it cruel to let me survive the woods, only to finish me off like this. But I didn’t think that much. I just braced for impact. And it came.

Just so there’s no suspense, I am absolutely fine. Walked away. Could’ve snowshoed away, if I felt like it. The car didn’t do as well. A big tree off the road stopped our progress with conviction. I knew right then the Subaru would soon be headed for the car heap.

Apparently, anyone who willingly embarks on a snow-filled escapade on a freezing January day deserves a lesson in the true power and danger of snow and ice. Message received.

Or maybe there was another lesson there.

Maybe I won't ever make it anywhere near Everest. But I will find other adventures. It seems we have to.


Unknown said...

What an adventure you had.
\ Thankfully you are OK. I'm sure you were shaken, and so happy that it wasn't worse.

Unknown said...

What an adventure you had.
\ Thankfully you are OK. I'm sure you were shaken, and so happy that it wasn't worse.