In cycling it’s called the “pain cave.”
It’s that moment you push yourself as hard as you can go, when all you can hear is your own breathing and all you see is a tunnel right before you and all you feel is… well, pain. It’s a sensation I’m familiar with, and right now, at 10:00 a.m. on the side of a mountain, with snow and ice blasting my face as we push up towards the summit of a Colorado 14er, I’m snug and tight in my -10 degree pain cave. Clearly this isn’t limited to cycling.
Usually at about this time on a climb, I’m happy to be where I am. My bed is exceptionally comfortable at 3:30 in the morning, and the idea of climbing in the car and driving several hours to inflict pain on myself really sounds like a poor call. But after putting the first few miles on the mountain behind me, things tend to brighten up: the sun has warmed my body, the wildlife is active, and the alpine beauty cries out, “Aren’t you glad you came?!”
Usually I say “Yes!” and even if I don’t thank my wife for making the plan happen, at least I’m thinking it. Except today is the first time we are climbing in the winter, fighting the three feet of powder freshly dropped on the slope of Mount Quandary.
We’ve never even climbed this mountain in the summer, which I think would have instilled us with more confidence in our ability to find the trail. Last night we almost decided to pull the plug; there were just too many excuses for why we shouldn’t go. This isn’t surprising. On the eve of nearly every new adventure, the familiar begins to feel tempting, and the battle with that “resistance” has higher stakes than we might realize in the moment.
I’ve written before of how my wife needs adventure, of how it’s something we love sharing together, and of how often it is her zeal that propels us to the top. Today’s climb is no exception.
After pulling in to the quiet parking lot before the sun has crested the peaks on the opposite side of the valley, we sit in the car finishing up bagels and hot tea while pulling on our layers of gear. I’m trying to look nonchalant as I look around the lot, internally hoping someone else will start off ahead of us and give us a trail to follow. At first there are only two other cars, but within minutes a stream of vehicles begins to pull in. Normally, this would irritate me; I’ve come to the wild to get away from people, not follow a conga line up a mountain.
But this morning I couldn’t be happier to see the alpinists pulling packs on and looking knowingly up the mountain. We later find out that we happened to pick the mountain that the local 14er group planned on climbing together that day. So instead of wandering off into the formless landscape of the snow-covered peak, we will have 9 unofficial guides to break trail. My confidence soars.
The beauty of a mountain is like learning about the life of a person. The complexity of terrain, the variety of life and decay scattered across the landscape, the intimidation as you look up trying to find the crown… Silent wood paths give way to the rolling alpine tundra, and the sun finally warms our backs. False summits are notorious, and after cresting two we are finally in the thick of the climb.
As the wind kicks up, the footprints ahead of us wash away in a matter of seconds, and the lone alpinist ahead fades into shadow. Soon his footsteps are all but gone by the time we reach them. The feeling is eerie—we walk on the spine of the mountain, a drop-off to the valley below on our left, white void of a slope to our right, and in front the ever-rising face of all that is yet to be done.
Breathing becomes a challenge, both because of the altitude and because with every gust of wind (which seems incessant) your mouth battles the snow and cold to get a full breath. It’s here that the pain cave begins. For the first time on a mountain, I am unsure if we will make the summit. This isn’t to sound prideful, but in the summer with sufficient time you can pretty much trudge your way up anything.
After what feels like a lifetime, and several more false summits, we reach the summit. Our view is only swirling snow, but it doesn’t matter; the experience of reaching the top is always the same: utter joy.
Our journey down is a completely different experience than the long push up. We run downhill, the deep snow slowing us, catching us if we fall. The wind no longer bothers us. Everything is beautiful and worth it.
Then come the sacraments. We have a tradition after a successful summit of heading to the closest spot selling pizza and beer and relishing the joy. Hey, you don’t get this figure without some work.