Ruminating on injuries, health, and the mountains that connect them

You pick your way off the summit, moving cautiously yet quickly among the jumbled boulders. The line down this ridgeline looked logical enough from two thousand feet below, but things are never as clear when you actually get in the thick of it. The rocks are bigger than you, and covered with lichen; as old and stable as you’ll find on any ridgeline that’s not bedrock. But it only takes one to shift and ruin your day, so you stay fully focused on the task at hand.

You find the ridge that you’d spotted from below. It’s steep and narrow, but not technical. You come to a narrow section with a prominent rectangular rock, sticking out like a leaning refrigerator from the jumble. Only two ways down, one on either side of it. A few feet farther out from either option, cliffs drop away to distant snowfields. You’re not a big fan of cairns, by and large, thinking they usually just needlessly restate the obvious, but you build one on top of the prominent rock for insurance. The next time you’ll be here it will be dark, and you will be very tired. It’s a good place to get a small reminder that you’re on the right track. Besides, it’s extremely unlikely anyone else will be on this particular ridgeline in the next month, and a gentle push the next time will erase all trace of it.

There’s a length of old webbing wrapped around the base of the refrigerator rock, woven underneath where the boulder intersects with its neighbors. It’s tattered and has been there for several years. Probably used by climbers on the cliffs to either side of the ridge. It’s not necessary for the ridge itself, a long reach from a stemming move puts you past the difficult spot. Several hundred feet lower the angle and aspect of the ridge changes, and the rocks give way to an immense snowfield. It curves below you for a thousand feet, steep at first, then lessening into a gentler grade. The day is warm, but not hot. Shorts and a t-shirt suffice. There are no signs of pinballing or wet slides, but still it’s natural to worry. The terrain and conditions aren’t especially dangerous, but it’s a numbers game after a while — spend enough time out in the hills and rare things will happen. Some, hopefully, good. But some will be bad. It’s just a matter of probability and time.

But the snow makes for perfect glissading, firm underneath the initial soft layer. You sprint down the snow, the speed pushing your balance to its limit, then over. Your feet fly out and you go with the fall, landing on your back and continuing the slide on your butt. Your heels dig long, streaking divots, arcing snow in a rooster tail above your head. You gain your feet, fall, gain, and fall some more. It’s easier to ride out the fall on your butt, but a stubborn sense of principle keeps you trying to run it out. The snow melts seemingly instantly on your face and arms, even though it is only late morning, yet lingers with an icy ache in your shoes. You savor the contrast in sensations.

A thousand feet below your start, the slope eases and you continue on, jogging across the gently downhill sloping snowfield. Alpine lakes poke out from the snow ahead. Though it is already July the high country has just begun coming out of winter’s grip. Glacier lilies and other plants have sprung up seemingly overnight to capture the spaces the snow has surrendered. There are more lakes, even lower, where the snow gives way entirely to grass and rock. Beyond that, your side canyon drops into a narrow, deep valley, with peaks and plateaus rising up to the horizon behind it.

You feel an urge to scream. This manic energy rising up from somewhere inside. Like a competitor screaming out to the world after hitting the game-winning shot, head thrown back, eyes closed, muscles clenched. It’s defiance, euphoria, relief, stress, and a vibrating energy, all wrapped up into one.

There’s no one around for miles — as far as you know — but it still feels silly. Just as contrived as it felt absolutely necessary the moment before. The primal urgency of the moment washes away, happiness and contentment replace it. You jog on through it all.

A week before, you couldn’t walk normally. Just getting out of bed was painful. A back injury thought to be under control had relapsed, encasing your hips and lower back in a vise. Everyday activities became difficult, and training was out of the question. Two years of preparation and effort and the chance at a meaningful accomplishment felt like they were slipping away. A week of rest and physical therapy helped remove most of the vise, and now you could at least run again.

The injury lingers on the edge of your consciousness, though, like a growling dog following through the shadows of a dark alley.

So you yell, and clench your fists, and the snow and rocks and wildflowers don’t care, and you feel silly. But not too badly, and it feels cathartic in the right way. And you keep jogging on. There’s a valley to drop into, and several peaks to climb before the day is up. And it truly is a beautiful bluebird day to be out in the mountains.

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