Ky’s (Somewhat Poignant) Guide to Staying the Course
(Also inconsistently referred to as Ky’s Guide to Starting Over 1.6 or Ky’s Guide to Racing Mountain Goats in future annotations and subsequent editions)
The majesty of the scenic vista before me was as captivating and breathtaking as the prominence that lay beyond was majestic and terrifying. The lower lands stretched out in all directions from the running slopes, the forested hills dotted by small cottages and the occasional riverside taffy mill. The towering shadow that laid in wait behind me, loomed with the patience only achieved by something that’s been making small talk with its neighbors since the Cretaceous period.
But how did I get here? And more importantly, why am I here, standing on a cold, windy outcropping of rock some 2000 meters above sea level? And even more importantly, what does riverside taffy taste like?
Well, to understand these questions and arrive at their respective answers, we’ll have to go back a short way.
A few weeks prior, I had just crossed an important threshold in my studies at Launch School, I had completed the first half of the courses. This meant that I was officially at the halfway marker for the program. Feeling inspired I decided to try out a new leisure activity; I wanted something that I could challenge myself with. My historical pastime jollies were typically found in the predictable comfort of a steady, paved bike trail with gradual ups and downs, or the simple pleasure of ordering takeaway to my neighbors flat and watching the results through narrowly parted blinds.
Instead I settled on something that intrigued me for a while, but I had not had the courage to pursue: mountaineering. After reassuring myself this decision wasn’t a huge mistake and that my cognitive faculties weren’t suffering from some form of proactive altitude sickness, I consulted a wealth of different guidebooks, climbing blogs, and podcasts about mountaineering. There were a lot of good arguments made for a whole lot of different mountains, but I settled on a mountain that appeared to be of suitable difficulty: Mt. Tollefuga. Over 4000 meters of vertical climb, and by all accounts, the most difficult, but accessible climb around. It would take some serious planning and dedication; this wasn’t going to be a two-day-there-and-back-in-time-to-feed-the-cats-before-they-revolt kind of climb. It was going to be a serious time commitment.
Merry Singing and Labored Breathing
After reaching out for advice to a few local climbers who had already made the climb and popping into my local outfitters shop to stock up on the essentials, I hitched a ride out to the trail-head and cracked on.
The going was smooth but challenging at first. The hills were gentle, and the trail wound on in a comfortable way; every curve seemed to reach out a hand beckon me on. This gradually changed, and the true nature of the climb ahead began to rear its head from the murky water. The terrain became less tree-covered, rolling hills, and more exposed rock with vertical scramble. It was hard work, but I hadn’t decided on this route because I wanted a quick Sunday morning stroll to the patisserie.
I was laboring up the rocky surface, feet sore and hands desperately digging for purchase in any crack big enough to hold them, when I noticed a few young mountain goats gleefully scampering up the rocks on either side of me, merrily singing a jaunty goat tune as they went.
The ease with which they found purchase and seemed to float up the side of sheer cliffs was a serious blow to my ego. I was determined not to be outdone by a few hotshot goats, so I picked up my pace. After all, I hadn’t bought all that mountaineering equipment for nothing. I strapped on some crampons, got out the ice picks, and started scraping my way hastily onward.
On the Wind
Days went by and I continued the climb up Tollefuga. The going was still tough, and the scenic vistas had been scant, but I had actually been learning some things about mountaineering in my travels. For a start, don’t ignore that small part of the boot that pinches early on in the day. It only gets worse; a fifty pence sized blister is best avoided, especially if the remedy is taking a few brief moments adjusting your socks and retying your boots. Another useful tip, if you have the choice between climbing a sheer rock face and taking a slightly longer route around that bypasses the cliff but “doesn’t look as cool”, go the safe way; a bruised posterior makes sleeping on the ground even less comfortable. Also for the same reasons as the former example, avoid Kit Mandu’s Discount Country Kitchen Freeze Dried Curry at all costs. A pound sterling for an evening’s meal seems like a great deal until you become intimately acquainted with the reasons for the discount.
Though I was learning lessons along the way, no matter what pace I was able to set in the day, I could still see those blasted mountain goats trotting up sheer rock faces, bleating happily 35 meters off the deck, while I had to take time set up elaborate self-belays or just find another route altogether. It wasn’t hard to notice, in between my attempts to flake a Gordian Knot of climbing line and manage my hiking pole positioning, that the goats were growing more and distant from me with each passing day.
After a while, the initial flock of mountain goats that I first saw when I had started my trip had passed beyond sight, and the only trace of their passing or presence was the occasional “bblllehehehehehehhhhh” that drifted down from the passes above on cold, pitiless winds.
The climb began to feel hopeless; the verdant patches of flowers and variegated layers of rock were fading to a black and white, becoming a smoke-filled French arthouse film about the joylessness of the human condition, right before my eyes. After all this time, I was still working, trudging, hammering, scraping, clinging, slipping, leaping, and at times, flat out belly-crawling up the slope, while those darned goats were speeding on ahead.
I began to wonder if I could even make it to the top of Tollefuga. Maybe I just wasn’t born to be a mountaineer, and no amount of practice or combing through helpful blog posts could ever make me into one. I began to think that maybe I should head back down to the predictable, even-keeled diversions of the bike path. Or, worst case scenario, I did have Rudy’s Pizza Palace on speed dial…
The next few days of climbing were dismal indeed and thoughts of turning back flourished alongside creative new combinations of pizza toppings no one on earth could enjoy. (Salted herring and goat cheese with a sprinkle of cinnamon, perhaps?) But curiously enough, just as things seemed to be at their darkest, most French-cinema, something indescribable caught my attention. Maybe it was something in the same dispassionate winds that had ceased carrying down the taunting bleats of my mountain goat rivals days ago. I couldn’t place it, but something tickled its way through my nose up into my brain and kicked things around a bit. I couldn’t see the peak of Tollefuga yet, but I decided that I could continue upward for another day; if I hadn’t made any significant progress in that time, I vouched to turn around, head back down, and donate my boots to the Stetfordshire University Laboratory for Ergonomic Advancement, Care Of: Pinched Piggies Project.
Over the course of the following day, something peculiar happened as I made my way up in much the same fashion as I had been. I could feel a light pinch on my left heel, but instead of trudging on repeatedly telling myself that “it’s nothing, boot just needs to settle is all”, I actually stopped and took the boot off, patched my foot with a spot of duct tape, and readjusted the boot before continuing. And wouldn’t you know it, the pinch was gone. I didn’t think too much about it at the time and moved on, happy-heeled. Soon after though, I came across a rocky gulch, which I had come to know as a regular occurrence on this mountain. Instead of my previous tactic of stepping down on a “path” of rocky gravel, which historically led me to slide outs and sore posteriors, I found the chunks of granite I had learned spotted these sections, and worked my way down, confident in my handhold’s stability. In so doing, I actually saved time climbing into and out of the gully and was able to keep a better pace overall.
Reflecting on the day as I was setting up camp that night, I pondered whether I should head back down the following morning or press onward. While polishing off an antacid infused campfire treat (to counterbalance the Kit Mandu’s, I had learned), I reflected back on the successes I had found over the course of the day. My foot was doing great thanks to a technique I learned (after hosting a few blisters that had grown so large I could have enrolled them in primary school). I had also read the terrain of the mountain such that I was able to use some more informed techniques to make more forward progress in a shorter amount of time. Heck, I had even concocted a recipe that combined the right timing and proportion of antacid to chocolate that would drain most of the fuel out of the gastrointestinal flamethrower that was freeze-dried curry.
Looking back, I had started off this trip blundering and stumbling my way up the trail, racing to keep up with others who could set a faster pace, but now, I felt that I had found a comfortable, challenging rhythm of my own. I had also learned not just about how to climb the mountain, but about the mountain itself. In some way, I had begun to learn a bit about myself as well.
The trail wasn’t paved with easy ascents and joyful bounds up rock walls, (though there was a delightful alpine meadow or two) but I was making my way up all the same. I just needed to find my own pace and accept that there would be others who could scale the same route more quickly. I was still learning and growing, but I was meeting my appropriate edge, just as the mountain goats were meeting their own.
I had made my decision. I nestled into my sleeping bag and laid back on my bedroll, which was starting to feel just as comfy as the stuffed futon back at home.
The next morning, I set out on the trail upwards and began the climb with renewed vigor. I was making great progress and feeling in sync with the mountain. But it wasn’t long before a lonesome wail caught my attention. A haunting sound was riding on the wind from below me and tickling the rocks underfoot.
I looked up to see a new flock of younger, even more fit mountain goats flitting from pencil-thin rock lip to finger-width ledge, gracefully flashing the route ahead. This time around though, I could see that feat without it being obscured by the dismal, sepia toned lens of frustration or jealousy. I could watch them arc nimbly from point to point and know that their journey was not a commentary or measure of my own process unless I made it out as such myself.
I waved to the passersby (which they may or may not have acknowledged, I can’t be sure how “bblleehehebllehehehehhh” formally translates into English, or if it even translates at all for that matter) and turned back to the rocky crag in front of me, continuing to work my way methodically upward.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t believe it, but it was actually there. I had made it to the top! I turned around as I approached the peak; I had finally made it beyond the line of scrubby bushes, windblown timbers, and rocky chutes enough that I could start to get a proper view of the land that lay all around me. But, as I worked up to the crown of the mountain, each step brought me deeper and deeper into an uncomfortable state of elated confusion.
Turning back, everything looked right, the scenic vistas, the rolling hills below, the rosy clouds of the evening sky whisking by below me. But, when I turned around, I could now see clouds parting around a monstrous behemoth of ancient stone and glacial ice. It seemed to reach out overhead, right up to the sky itself, and in the waning light I could just barely make out the vertex.
I fumbled through my pack and dug out my copy of The Light Speed Guide to Mt. Tollefuga that had been buried forgotten under a pile of unwashed socks until now. It didn’t take too much reading for the pieces to fall into place. I was not standing on the peak of Mt. Tollefuga, I had reached the peak of Tollefuga Brevis, the noted halfway point up to the actual peak of Mt. Tollefuga, which appeared to be sticking its head out of the troposphere, just to see what all the hubbub was about with the o-zone layer.
Standing in the lap of the massive pinnacle looming in the clouds, I thought about whether I felt I could make it to the top or not. It had already been a heck of a trip just to get here, but really, what was the difference between 2000 and 4000 meters? Sure, there’s the thinning oxygen levels, freezing temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and glacial crevasses that can swallow up the unwary climber whole, but aside from that, what else?
I had achieved a huge milestone already and learned a lot in my journey up to that point. A lot about myself, a lot about mountaineering, a lot about the mountain, and I would be remiss not to note, a lot about the dangers of freeze-dried curries. I had a growing mountaineering skill set and the mindset of confidence needed to take on any challenge that might lie ahead.
I determined to keep on until I made it all the way to the top. After all, the view could only get better from there, right?
To be continued or not… We’ll see.
Until next time or not… We’ll see.
If you made it this far, you might enjoy these other articles of varying technical complexity and suspect narrative quality:
Where the journey actually started!
About studying and being assessed
How does the internet work?
Thinking Objectively with OOP (and other funny acronyms)
A Guide to Relationships