Warmth

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The hardest part was always getting out of the sleeping bag. Every morning in New Zealand I’d wake up, cocooned in my own little heat burrito, and want to snuggle as far into the puffy synthetic lining as I could. The last thing I wanted to do was emerge out into the cold, take off my layers, put on my frozen-solid boots and socks and start to hike uphill. It seemed infinitely the better choice to roll back over and drift into that delicious kind of second-sleep you get when you ignore your alarm. It was comfortable in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want to leave.

We delayed it as long as we could. We cooked breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, unzipping the inner door and sitting with our puffy coats on and our sleeping bags around our waists, trying to glean a little heat from the stove, or put ourselves in the path of the steam coming off the boiling water. I stayed in my sleeping bag to change out of my sleep clothes and into my hiking clothes, to deflate and roll up my sleeping pad, to pack my equipment into my backpack.  We delayed, we hung there, clinging to the comfort until we could finally avoid it no longer—we had to leave the warmth and venture out into the morning and what awaited us.

Being comfortable is stealthily dangerous, a silent killer. Being comfortable is nice, it’s easy.  Staying in your sleeping bag in the morning is nice, but it’s never going to be more than that. It’s never going to be dizzying or staggering or make your chest burn. It tops out at this perfectly lovely level of fine that gets stale after a little while. In many ways, it is worse for things to be nice and easy than to be bad. When things are bad, there is motivation for change. There is an impetus for movement. You are likely to strive for something better, for something different.  The unpleasantness of your circumstances makes this the obvious and only thing to do. But when things are nice and easy, that momentum is absent. There is nothing that is propelling forward motion. It is easy to be lulled into nice and easy, into comfortable, and to stay there well past the moment we needed to leave. When things are bad, when we have to fight through to make things better, we at least gain the experience of struggle, we are at least strengthened by the process. We get nothing from being comfortable.

On the morning of October 26, 2012, we woke up at 3:30am on a glacier.  The past 48 hours had been a grueling series of mental and physical trials that had left me drained and discouraged. Two nights before, we had stayed up through the night to brace our tent against 120 kilometer an hour winds that barreled down off the mountains and into the tunnel we were camped in. Every hour one of us would venture out into the frigid, unforgiving night and try to use one of the knots we’d learned to tie the snapped guy lines back together while we could still feel our fingers. The next day we’d had to hike several kilometers uphill onto the glacier, postholing through hip-deep slushy snow the entire way. When we finally arrived at the spot we’d planned to camp at, we had to spend the next four hours probing out a perimeter, building tent platforms and snow walls to protect our tents. Glacier camping required a far more elaborate camp-making process than just tenting on snow. By the time we ate dinner, it was 8pm and dark, and we crawled into our sleeping bags immediately afterwards, wasted of energy, huddling together to try to stay warm. It was at 3:30 after that night that we woke up, put on our crampons, headlamps, harnesses and avalanche transceivers, roped ourselves together in groups of four, and began to ascend Ashburton Glacier.

Others talked about it afterwards as one of their favorite memories of our time in the Arrowsmiths, the stars glinting above our heads, the silence of the sprawling wilderness pounding in our ears, the crunch of the ice beneath our feet, the glow of the headlamps up ahead, our rope teams like tiny constellations in the snow.

It was one of my worst mornings out in the field. I was weak and lethargic and miserable. It didn’t matter that we were on our way to summitting our first peak, that we were climbing on a glacier, that the peachy pink alpine glow was starting to hit the crests of the mountains above us as the sun prepared to emerge. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, my legs felt like crepe paper beneath me, and all I could think of was the warmth of my sleeping bag that I’d left behind.  With each taxing, carefully placed footstep, I was longing for nice and easy.

Too often we allow ourselves to settle for nice and easy, to settle for comfortable because we are trying to avoid the struggle. We are trying to avoid the difficulty. We are trying to avoid moving uphill in the dark and cold. We think that by not struggling, by not making ourselves get out of the warm sleeping bag, that we are doing ourselves a favor. That we are avoiding suffering. That we are happy. We think that nice and easy is something to aim for, something to aspire to. We allow ourselves to think that being comfortable and avoiding unpleasantness is as good as it gets.

It is an indulgence, an allowance, and the longer we let it go on, the more difficult it is to free ourselves from its grasp. The longer you remain in the cocoon of warmth, the less appealing leaving it becomes. We can convince ourselves that there’s no reason to move, no reason to change, no reason to bother ourselves, to upset the loveliness. The more complacent we become in the arms of nice and easy, the more sleepy and bewitched the simplicity makes us, the more we are selling ourselves short. The more we are settling. Nice and easy feels good but it doesn’t make us better.

Just before 7:30 am, we angled to the right to attempt the final pitch of our climb, our bid for the summit. Light had drenched our surroundings, the sun punching through a high-hanging layer of fleecy clouds in orange and gold. My rope team had been the first to leave camp hours before and we were the first to climb, one by one, onto the snowy knife-edge that jutted 2,236 meters into the sky.  We carefully removed our packs, planted our trekking poles in the snow and kicked out seats for ourselves, watching the others gain the final few meters of elevation to meet us. And though for the entire morning I hadn’t felt capable or energetic or enthusiastic, as I sat perched on the uppermost ridge of the glacier, I was filled with an elation, a sense of accomplishment and pride that seemed to overwrite all the struggling I’d done to arrive here. I wouldn’t have crawled back into that sleeping bag for anything. From our camp below we could see the mountains directly next to us, projecting directly up like saw-toothed walls. From the tip of 2236 I looked out at mountains as far as I could see in every direction, ranges beyond ranges stacking themselves in never ending snow-capped tiers.

I often have to remind myself in memory that the morning wasn’t just this unbelievable victory, but actually a fairly dismal endeavor up until the final moments. But sometimes you forget that when you look back. It was a struggle, and that was an important aspect of it, but you don’t get the sunrise over the mountains, you don’t get the soaring ecstasy if you stay comfortable in your sleeping bag with your eyes closed. You have to get out in the cold, you have to climb uphill, you have to work through your exhaustion and your bad attitude. You have to push yourself. You can’t stay still, and it’s not fine or easy. Not at the beginning or the middle or the end. You get the full range of the spectrum, from freezing and miserable to towering and triumphant. None of it’s easy and none of it’s fine. It’s worse than fine and it’s also better than fine. Stunningly, unimaginably, overwhelmingly better.

It would be simpler to settle for nice and easy, to stay in the sleeping bag. There is immediate gratification, there is warmth. There is no struggling, there is no discomfort, there is no discouragement. But there is also no triumph. There is no awe, no unbridled joy or boundless beauty. It doesn’t push you, it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t propel your life forward in a way you never imagined.

And even if life can’t be that sprawling and blinding and ignited all the time, even if you have to spend an overwhelming amount of time in the trudging-uphill-in-the-cold-and-dark part, once you know that kind of life exists, you will never be able to stop chasing it. A life that challenges you and astounds you and demands of you everything you’ve got and then a little bit more. A life that’s sprawling and expansive and extraordinary.

Because there is a different kind of warmth, a kind that doesn’t come from wrapping yourself in down or synthetic fill, a kind of warmth that you create, that emanates from the deepest part of you, that stings and tingles and makes it a little hard to breathe.  It’s the radiance of the newly-risen sun on your face, the burn of exertion in your muscles, the glow of the bright white light in the hollows of your chest. It’s real and it’s attainable. But you have to get out of the sleeping bag.

Time to Grin and Brace It

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.