by Drew Botcherby
Sometimes I feel my brain recording. In an important moment I feel the back part of it fill with blood and the edges of my world lose reality. The moment is permanent. No other moments are so real. Other moments I can feel pass me. They pass so stealthily that I can look back and see them in the valley below, but when I look forward I’ve already forgotten them.
A skin. White and clumpy and defeated on the mountain. At first I don’t recognize it, it seems like a movie prop, an alien species dumped in my path. As I get closer I start to make out hooves and horns protruding from the clodded fur. A goat.
A full fog has moved in, it’s actually a cloud considering I’m about 10,000 feet high on the world. A wetness covers everything. I am hiking in a tiny world inside of the humidifier that my mom used to put in my room when I was sick. I used to place my open mouth near where the new mist came out and feel a dew coat my insides. Back on the mountain the air doesn’t blow or make noise, it rolls past on it’s way east. The cloud moved quickly but I felt no wind, heard no wind. I only heard the skin in front of me, and the peak beyond it, to my right I hoped. I imagined that beyond my line of vision is a wolf or some undiscovered predator watching me watch the animal it just killed.
Their mossy faces have seen the fate of this animal and thousands before. They will watch me walk up and run away.
I had never seen a mountain goat up close, and considered it a lucky sight, and a good omen. I love wild animals. A dead goat. I smiled and turned right.
In my room was a backpack with all the supplies I thought necessary to hop a freight train. The morning I planned to leave my mother greeted me with a smile and kind words that have long been lost. It would kill her not knowing where I was, when I’d be back, if I was warm. She already couldn’t sleep at night when worried about how I was doing at college, or where I was every night after coming back home. I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to hurt her and my father, I couldn’t that day. I got a new backpack, a smaller one, and filled it with hiking supplies, just enough for a day.
I entered American Fork canyon in my gold Toyota and slowed down at the guard station, when I got close enough I saw that there was no one there. The road was empty as well. The cliffs served as reminders of how tiny I was in my car, nothing compared to the solid rock watching from both sides. As I circled the back side of the mountain, climbing and curving, and looked out upon the wet orange and gold aspens and dark pines I wondered when the suburbs would sneak through the narrow passage or climb over Mt. Timpanogos and settle on the other side. I hope I’m dead first.
The parking lot had only a couple other cars.
It was early October. I looked left over a valley and smiled. Rain. The trees were shining, I took one picture of the glistening forest 40 minutes up the trail and my camera’s battery died. A forked trail. A waterfall. Deer. I got lost for about an hour before finding the trail and a people again.
“It’s hailing at the top.”
They passed me and stared at my bare legs, clad only in running shorts, and my t-shirt. I was doing it. I didn’t need anyone or anything. I was in control.
Another poncho wearing couple came up suddenly. I heard them before I looked up.
“It’s really cold up there.”
I’ll be fine.
4 or 5 hours later, past the switchbacks, past the goat, I reached the bend, the saddle. Where one crosses over from the back side of the mountain to the front. To the sky.
Summit fever is typically defined as the dangerous state of mind in which a person fails to notice dangerous weather, route conditions, physical exertion or refuses to take them into consideration in a desperation to reach the top.
I almost brought a Watermelon Prime-time.
“When you get to the top of a mountain, on the peak, and just look out over everything and light up one of these babies. If you smoke one time in your life that would be the time.” Chad eyed me and rolled one in his fingers. I wouldn’t be leaving my home, my job, and my studies to go to Brazil in a month. A single puff would stop it. Oops.
40 minutes later I might as well been on top of Everest, I could see nothing. Only the rocks closest to me and the tin hut at the peak. Inside was a small bench and a single black permanent marker. The walls are a collage of dates, hearts, names, and phrases. Hidden among them is a marriage proposal of a couple I know, though I didn’t look for it.
“I’m grateful that I could do this before my mission. Drew Botcherby.”
I laid the marker back in it’s place on the bench in the middle of the shack. My pre-mission life was closed in that signature. Accomplished. I’d proved to my parents and everyone else what I could do alone. It was over, the climb, the resistance, and the anxiety that led me to pack a hitchhiking survival kit and made me want to smoke. A reconciled past and an independent future. As the mountain crunched under my boot and felt strong. I took 5 steps out of the shack and everything was light.
Lightning. Thunder. Angels.
It hit everything around me.
In high school I ran track. Feet crammed into size 7 shoes with screwed in spikes. Silk shorts that made our legs glow and our testicles sweat. Running on those tracks is youth. Feet are weightless, legs are free. We knew we could cut anyone with our screwed in shoe-spikes. That our elbows could be the difference between a win and a loss. Every time I ran in my life it was with my eyes forward, elbows locked, I was running towards something. I didn’t know what it was like to run away.
The crack of the lightning was a starting gun. No one else was lined up; there was no lane to follow. I was gone, but with none of the skill and form I had mastered, no competition in my eyes. A mad scramble from something I couldn’t race or fight.
The storm had been waiting behind the fog, I felt it at the dead goat and now I knew what it was.
Hail hit me sideways, from below, and occasionally from above. My left side was a swarm of needles. Time did not exist. It’s ok to die. A painless lightning strike and a tumble. Unprepared. Unworthy. I didn’t care. God or something would decide if I died and it would be out of my hands. No more mission, lies, faking. College, wife, family. Decisions. Over. I breathed deep. Just keep running.
Every time I expected to see the curve, the loop to the other side, the safe, green side behind the mountain’s shield, I saw fog and the trail. Until it was gone. The sky was an upside-down northeastern ocean. The lightning was in front, behind, above, and under. Spires. Purple and white. Falling.
The trail wasn’t the way I remembered it on the ascent. I was climbing, descending, scrambling on the mountain face. No time to think. Just run. Get down. I finally realized that I wasn’t where I should have been when I hit a dead end. I was suddenly on a table of stacked rocks, surrounded by man-sized spires, a 30 foot drop. A look back, the first since I left the shack, and there was no way out. A crumbling precipice from one edge to the other.
An altar. Blood on my left side, face, arm, and leg.
“God, please, God, God, God God…”
A dying prayer. Two words repeated. The rocks cut my knees. Circles, paces, sobs. It didn’t seem so easy to die anymore. Not stuck like an animal on a rock.
I got down from the precipice, I don’t remember how, but I was still on the front side and the clouds grinded on my skin. I needed to cross over. The slope was now covered in 3 inches of hail. The trail was a white 2-foot wide strip. I could make it out because of the rock points peppering the slope above and below. Soon the difference became less obvious. Eventually I wasn’t on the trail. Desperation. Exaustion.
I slipped. It felt like a death sentence. I could have stopped myself. Down the ice. Down and down.
Pine saplings. The only living things on this side of the peak. 3 or 4 clustered together. I slide to them and lied down. Shelter from the hail but not the cold or the pain.
The 911 operator called me honey. I told her I was going to die. My dad stayed with me until the phone battery became too low for non-emergencies. What he told me has long disappeared from my memory, if it was ever recorded. A team was coming, then a helicopter, then the weather was too bad it couldn’t find me. I’m near some trees, the only ones. Trees. My feet rested on their wrist-thick trunks, keeping me from sliding farther. There were no more trees below.
“Stay where you are.” I thought I heard it slicing the air far away, but it could have been the sky. By a couple trees, in the middle of rocks. When the low battery sign blinked and the calls stop I was alone with my thoughts. Death came back. My phone died. I later took a look from the valley and could see no trees in the area where I was, they must have been looking lower.
Naked on rocks. A wet t-shirt frozen to skin. Pressed against the earth by sky that I could no longer see. Shakes. First small, then incredible, forceful spasms. There is no elegant way to describe a seizure. In the moment I could feel everything. My body, mind, and spirit being grated against a pile of rocks by the heavy sky. I watched the muscles in my thighs bulge and misfire. Like bubbles popping. Red. Then white. I felt my energy retract into my torso, my limbs were beyond my feeling and beyond my control. The helicopter would never come. The hikers would never find me here. The snow piled up on my body and clothes. Dippin-dots. 2 hours or more passed.
“I’m going to die.” Again. This time the operator wasn’t there to hear me. My legs were warm now. I turned onto my stomach and strained to look up at the mountain above. There were at least 50 meters until the top, I thought, though I couldn’t see it. I debated whether it would be safer to climb back up, or to continue down the west face, where there were no trails. I have to move. Though I had long stopped thinking straight I chose to climb. Remembering my track and field days I climbed. Losing some ground as the rocks slid under my feet, clawing at the gravel so steep that standing without my hands was impossible. I don’t remember the climb, it was erased and left behind by the sight that met me at the top. Below, on the other side. White speckled with sharp grey knives. Below, far below. I clung to the cliff and lowered myself as far as I could. I dropped. 15 feet later legs buckled on impact and my butt hit the rocks. I screamed. Crouched and slid. I dragged myself forward by catching the rocks ahead of me with the heels of my shoes and bending my legs.
At least an hour later, I hit flat ground running. My legs were far beyond feeling. I fixed my eyes forward this time. Towards, not away. Under the top of mountain peaks there always seems to be a plateau. Where hikers are given their last flat land to stroll around and get lost and look at the peak. Always a mountain upon a mountain. When I came up it was green and promising, Scotland in the mist, now it was white and dead. There was no trail, I ran right and down.
Where I found the goat was the start of this plateau, after the endless switchbacks the goat rested at the entrance, offering a rest. The hiker was given time to think about the climb, look back at what he has done and look forward at what he will do. It is a dividing point. The lip of a groomed ski run that drops into the slope.
Dropping into the switchbacks was leaving the danger behind. The goat, the peak, the voices, God couldn’t follow me as I began to hear my feet again and ignored every technique for running that I had ever learned, my numb legs pounded against the dirt and slid and tumbled like a boulder crashing down the mountain without thoughts or emotion just gravity. Unconscious flight.
A Baptist man couldn’t sleep and decided to hike the mountain in the middle of a storm at night, the night before he was going to move to Kansas. He didn’t know why and knew he wouldn’t make it to the top. He felt that he should bring an extra pair of clothing and extra food. The clothing was his son’s. I stumbled into him, unable to speak, and he escorted me an hour down the mountain until we ran into the rescue team. I don’t know his name.
“You Mormon’s believe your works will save you.”
A mess of beards under orange ponchos. Faces obscured by sharp headlamps. Radios. A man called of the other team that was climbing the peak from behind. I ate a snicker’s, my favorite candy bar, coughed up water. They tried to get me to smile and laugh along, but I couldn’t speak.
My foot shook on the brake pedal. My voice shook without even opening my mouth. The headlights made me feel like I had tunnel-vision I’m not sure I didn’t. One of the volunteers on the Search and Rescue team, a young man in the passenger seat in a baseball cap with a toothy smile, tried to keep me awake, or entertained, or reactive. His friend in the back did not. I imagine he looked out the dark windshield in front of us, thinking about his wife and shower at home. Asking himself why kids did this. Why they made him climb mountains in the rain.
“They told you to stay where you were? You can’t do that, you have to keep moving. They told you to stay? You could have died. That wouldn’t have been smart.” These old men don’t know what they’re doing. They told you to stay. I didn’t bother telling him that it was the 911 operator. I was just glad he was mad at someone that wasn’t me.
A man who said he was the Sheriff was waiting with my family in a trailer down the canyon. They never asked me to talk about it.
Marbled purple with dead lumps of white and living red stretched from the backs of my knees upwards and got worse at my buttocks. After a couple days Chad, my friend who had offered me a Watermelon Prime-time, saw my leg. He laughed, said I was stupid for going up alone, and changed the subject. Hot blood blurred the vision at the edges of my eyes. I turned my head, looking back into the valley of my memory for almost the last time, and when I looked forward it was gone.