It was four in the morning, it was sideways-sleeting, and the tent-pole-cup was broken. I stood huddled in my rain gear, aiming my headlamp down at my tentmate and my instructor who were laying sideways on the icy snow, trying to speedy-stitch the stirrup back to the tent body before they lost all dexterity in their hands. It was four in the morning and I was supposed to be snuggled up in my sleeping bag inside the tent, but instead I was outside getting pelted with rain on the side of a snowy mountain, the blackness around me increasing the sense of being in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was at this particular moment that I began to question what the hell it was I was doing there, why someone would intentionally volunteer to put themselves into this kind of situation, and when the hell we were going to be able to crawl back into the warm(ish) dry(ish) tent. The answers to the first two questions seemed uncertain, and the answer to the third was not until we had fixed the tent.
It was October 16th. We had been out in the backcountry of New Zealand for over a month and yet this was the first moment I’d experienced that had been such a forcible reminder of who the boss was out here. If slanting, freezing rain and gigantic wind gusts hit your tent all night, no one was going to call it off. No one was going to spare you. No one was going to fix it for you while you rolled over and went back to sleep. You had to wake up, put on your rain pants and rain jacket and fix the tent yourself—lest you all be blown off the mountain when the tent poles snapped.
We had spent the hours leading up to the fateful tent-pole-cup disaster in a state of bleary-eyed flux between trying to fall back to sleep and snapping upright to brace the tent poles when a gust shot over the mountains and ripped its way through the valley we were camped in. The intensity of the volume of the wind shaking the tent and the pressure of the walls pushing down onto your shoulders and neck seemed almost too great to be believed. The patheticness of the tent in the face of the power of the wind was so absurd it would eventually become funny, but for now, we just braced, laid back down, braced, laid back down, and braced, in bewildered, exhausted silence.
We had been lulled into a false sense of security on our first month of sea kayaking, treated to brilliant, spotless skies and glassy waters, spending sunny afternoons lounging and cooking on beaches and sleeping soundly through quiet, windless nights. The switch to the snowy mountains of the Arrowsmith range had heralded an entirely new ballgame with an entirely new set of rules. I woke up the morning of October 17th to discover that storing things in the vestibule of the tent was not an option on mountaineering like it had been on sea kayaking—my bowl and spoon, left there the night before, had been claimed by the wind.
I was angry. I scribbled in my journal the next day, “The weather shat itself around 9:30/10 last night and since we are camped in a frigging wind tunnel we got our shit completely rocked. Woke up at 12:30am to insane wind shaking the tent…I’m sure there is some kind of lesson or growth to be gleaned from this that will perhaps occur to me later, but at the time it was just miserable, a seemingly interminable moment that made me long for an actual building and a warm dry bed.”
During the night it kept repeatedly and pointlessly coming to me that there had to be some way out of this. That this couldn’t actually be happening. But there wasn’t. It was. It was four in the morning and the weather was shitting itself and if we didn’t brace the poles, if we didn’t repair the tent, we were going to lose the only home we had out here. It was a situation in which the only option before us was to just suck it up and do what needed to be done.
Much of the first few days of the festival of challenging outdoor situations mountaineering brought us was spent in a sort of pouty protest, a sort of indignant disbelief and vague sense of injustice. But the earth owed us nothing. In fact, if I were Mama Nature and had been treated the way she has been, I would have been whipping a lot more than 80km/hr winds at tents parked in her backyard. The longer I walked around with the there’s-no-way-this-can-actually-be-real entitlement, the longer I was going to be miserable.
The next few nights were more of the same. We had been forced to hunker down due to the weather, and had spent a few days huddled in tents whose size seemed to decrease with each passing moment. We spent most of the day catching up on sleep we’d lost the night before, finishing the only books we’d brought with us, and getting so sick of cards that we ended up just lying in our sleeping bags staring at the yellow tent ceiling.
The night of October 17th was marked by fierce winds but no rain. We were better prepared this time, ready for what we were about to endure, and had decided to split the night into shifts of tent-bracing, so that the others could at least get a little bit of sleep. At 11pm I was tapped awake and sat up in my spot in the center of the three-person tent, ready to do my duty. I had reason to believe that half of why the previous night had been so god-awful was because I had been operating under the foolish delusion that I could somehow fall back to sleep in between giant gusts of wind. This time I decided to stay sitting up through my shift, waiting in the dark for the next gale to arrive. With my two tentmates sleeping beside me, I sat up straight, keeping my eyes closed, listening to the air whoosh around the valley outside, ready to raise both my arms up to steady the poles when it was necessary.
After passing some time like this, I began to experience a strange sort of calm. My heartbeat began to pleasantly decelerate, my muscles became relaxed, and my mind began to wander. I thought of everyone in the world that I knew, most of them separated from me by nearly a day and a half, and thought of what they were doing at that precise moment. I thought of my mom and little brother getting ready for school, I thought of my friends going to work, and I thought of my two expedition mates sleeping beside me, able to rest because I was sitting up, awake, meeting the wind. Suddenly I was no longer furious or affronted at nature for sticking us with this inclement weather. I no longer believed I was owed kindness by the environment, I no longer expected there to be some kind of escape route I could take.
The weather was the same as the night before, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t miserable. I wasn’t absorbed in my own head, in my own discomfort. I wasn’t wondering what the hell I was doing here. I was sitting on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, feeling purposeful and peaceful, holding our house up against the wind.