With just 400 feet from the summit of Rainbow Peak, I told Cole I could not hike any further. I kept looking at the buff colored summit, knowing that we’d already climbed close to 5,400 vertical feet, but it was 3:30pm and if we were to summit, we had to be on top of one Glacier’s finest peaks by 3pm. My legs, after hours and hours of an uphill heave, wouldn’t function.
I told Cole to go ahead and that I would wait for him. For a man who’s driven to climb, he refused. We were so close, so close, but we had to turn around.
I was utterly exhausted and knew from the moment we landed the canoe — after an hour and half of paddling across Bowman Lake — that I wouldn’t have the energy or the deep desire to make it all the way to the top.
Cole sat with me on rocky step. I was almost in tears. I knew he was disappointed but he didn’t show it. He’s climbed 61 different peaks in Glacier alone and knows all too well that there are days when you just can’t make it to the top. Weather is a big factor. But so is the human element. I had resigned hours ago after struggling up, up, and up through a 2,000 foot endless stream bed before we arrived to the alpine climb.
I’m learning how to climb mountains — how to read routes and make sensible and not hurried decisions. I’m also learning the depths of my desire and will to continue to pant, step, and continue on while I’m out of breath and my thighs quiver.
For years, it was the currents of the river that attract me most. In my early Montana life, I hardly hiked. My body was trapped in a hard plastic shell and I moved with the waves of rivers. After a few years of committing myself to whitewater I realized that I mainly floated just one section of the river, the whitewater stretch of the Middle Fork of the Flathead. It was Class III and there were rapids that made my stomach knot and while I had a decent roll, I’d flee the safety of my boat when I couldn’t reach the surface in just seconds after being flipped by the water. I knew I didn’t really want to attempt a more challenging river. I was happy to bob and weave through rapids while staring up at the Belton Hills and scout for black bears. Water was all I knew after a life spent on the Great Lakes. The change and flux, the constant shift never bothered me. My body always responded to those powerful changes and my ample hips helped to steady me in my little red kayak.
But there was an entirely other world that surrounded me — the mountains and their secrets. I grew tired of cramming my body into my boat, legs falling asleep just before I entered the first mighty rapids, Tunnel. I liked moving my entire body, not just my arms. I heard stories of climbing mountains and I too wanted to see what the fuss was about.
So, my kayak stayed at home and I put more miles on my hiking boots. I covered the trails in Glacier. I learned to climb mountains.
Yet that August day on Rainbow, I longed for my boat. My favorite aspect of the entire 12 hour day was the canoe trip to begin and end the climb. I just didn’t have it in me to push to the summit. I was feeling lazy and had a headache when I awoke at 5:30am. I should have said something before we left Whitefish and traveled to the North Fork.
Cole gave me ample warning. It was an 10 mile trek with 5,800 feet of elevation. None of it involved a “trail”. And the journey included a 5 mile paddle across the lake. Then, once we reached the stream between Rainbow and Square Peaks, it would be an uphill grind.
Like all of my adventures in the mountains, the views were unfathomable. However, much of that day I cursed everything, including the tenacity and strength of my boyfriend. I wanted to quit after an hour and half into the climb. I should have vocalized my doubts much earlier than 3:30pm.
Before I announced my defeat, I felt as if my brain and my body were detached. It took all the effort I could muster to connect hand with rock. The route was not complicated yet I couldn’t focused on where to place my hands and feet. I didn’t think I was dehydrated as I consumed a lot of water. We had many snack breaks and took a long break for lunch and allowed time for me to redress my blisters.
Yet, when we decided to turn around, my body abandoned me. I fell over a dozen times, sliding over loose rock and smashing into cliffs. My left leg was cut deeply. Cole was worried. Even with the aid of trekking poles, I could not connect with the mountain. My vision was off. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I knew that both my physical and mental body had connected in the realm of defeat and despair. I wanted to be off the mountain and on solid ground. Cole reminded me that I needed to focus on each and every step. And any time I allowed my mind to drift, I’d lose my balance and tumble. Not a good place for any climber to be.
I’d poisoned myself early in our ascent and if I were smart and rational instead of stubborn, I would have admitted it earlier. Instead I put both Cole and myself in danger. I could easily get seriously injured on any of my falls. We were in the remote North Fork region of the park. Help would not come quick.
We did reach the lake and by the time we descended through the forest, my spirits were higher. I no other choice than to quit my whining. Who is that girl? The whiner? Ugh, I really want her to leave. It’s about time. I’m almost 30.
Guided by the rising full moon, we paddled across Bowman Lake. At that point in the day, we transcended into silliness. I sang songs, including our National Anthem to pass the time. We envisioned Cole’s parents calling Search and Rescue. We hope that the Polebridge Mercantile would still be open after 10pm and serve us food. By the time we landed the big, fat canoe at the Bowman Lake trailhead, it was dark. There were a few couples lingering on the shoreline, startled by our arrival. We quickly loaded the canoe, gulped the rest of our remaining water and drove to Polebridge to use the payphone to let Cole’s parents know we were OK. The Merc was already closed. We were starving and desperately thirsty.
It was in those moments of defeat where I knew, no matter Cole’s encouragement or the enticement of making a “badass” peak that I didn’t have the heart or the strength to do so. I had completely given up on myself many hours before the mere 400 feet from the summit.