My dad and I stood atop Mt Helena, watching a pair of buzzards circle overhead and trying desperately to snap some pictures of them with our cellphones. We weren’t expecting to make it all the way up the mountain. We had only made it about a third of the way on our last excursion before turning around, legs and lungs burning. Well, my legs and lungs at least. I’ve never had much in the way of stamina, and the extra hundred pounds and decade of smoking haven’t helped that any, but perseverance is the key to success, right?
We set out Saturday morning with a goal of making it farther than we had the week before. When we got to the big rock that marked the top of our trek before, we were both huffing and puffing. We’d pushed hard to make that ascent as quickly as we could. We’ve been walking a track at night, a flat, smooth trail that runs around a school near our house. We set out up the 1906 Trail at Mt Helena at the same speed we’d been cruising around that track, and it was cutting us down for it. Still, when we got to the rock, we decided to go farther, just so we would always be growing. We climbed on up to the next bend, and then the next.
Pretty soon, we were marking it off. “100 more steps… 50 more steps… 25 more steps.” Before we knew it, we had come high enough to be back out of the woods again.
We could look down on the Ridgeline Trail below us, the high point of the hill it walks along is about even with the Big Rock. My dad pointed out that it was the highest I had ever been on foot. It felt pretty awesome to be up that high, and worn out and sore already, we kept going on up.
When we rounded the side of the mountain looking over the town, we met a man on his way down. I was so out of breath that I couldn’t really carry on a conversation with him, but he talked to us for a while and gave me the chance I needed to regain my breath and with it, a second wind. He told us we weren’t far from the cave called “The Devil’s Kitchen,” which is where most people turn back around. The path from there forward gets pretty… well… moutainy, and we’d decided that it was our goal to get that far.
As we said goodbye to the man that had given me encouragement, I popped off the top of my head, “That man was exactly what I needed this morning. He gave me just enough time to refresh.”
“You’ll find a lot of people that show up exactly when you need them out here,” my dad offered. It was a warm sentiment. I’ve been out here in Montana for about two months now, and it has generally proven to be true. As the year winds into autumn, I’m hoping that the trend continues. I’m probably going to need a lot of help to get through my first winter out here.
When we got to the Devil’s Kitchen, we thought about turning back. Something about the how close we were to the summit made it seem meaningless to turn back already, though. My feet blistered and my muscles aching, I started up the hill again, my dad sticking with me and encouraging me the entire time.
The Devil’s Kitchen is about 3/4 of the way up the trail, but the absolute hardest part of the climb comes after it. The path gets pretty steep while at the same time narrowing. There are several places where rocks have washed over the path, reminding you that one slip would send you rolling down a deep incline into trees and jagged stones. There are places where you have to scramble over rocks to get up the three or four feet to the next level of the path. There is almost no shade, and as you climb the eastern side of the mountain in the morning, it gets hot and sticky.
It was a miserable, painful trek.
When you finally get to the split in the path that separates the two summits, you can look up and see this pole sticking up from the mountain marking the summit. The rock that makes up the cliff face is smooth, and the climb is steep, but by then, you don’t care. It’s another forty or so feet up, but it’s the top.
I stood at the top of that mountain and felt like screaming, “FUCK YOU, MT HELENA, YOU’RE MY BITCH NOW!” I didn’t. There was a pack of other walkers nearby and I didn’t want them to think they were stranded at the top of a mountain with a madman. It didn’t help that my throat was hoarse from the climb and my breath was long gone again. Instead, I just let it slip out of me, back down into the valley.
The, I took a picture of the vultures swirling overhead.
We didn’t stay atop Mt Helena for long, and I’m afraid I have to admit it was only the little summit. There is still a second peak to the mountain I mean to climb next week. But, I stood there. I stood on top of a mountain I had climbed with only my feet. I took pictures of vultures that were probably thinking, “This fatass will make a delicious meal.” I stared out at the mountains across the valley and I felt glorious.
It took me three tries to get up the mountain.
My knees, hips and feet are aching more than I can remember them aching since I tore the ligament in my left knee ten years ago.
I have callouses and blisters.
I am sunburned.
But I climbed a damn mountain.
The fat, lazy, pizza roll eating kid from the flatlands.
There is something to be said about what it means to have climbed a mountain.
It’s adversity. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s unnecessary. It’s dangerous. It’s stupid.
…and it is freaking brilliant.