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A long way from somewhere steep

July 16, 2011

I wake up feeling like I have sand in my eyes.  Lack of sleep has left me confused and disoriented.  My first thought is a bit of snow blindness from the bright sun on the glacier, I really should have been more attentive to wearing my sunglasses.

A few more moments pass and a bit more clarity ensues – that can’t be it, it was only a dream.  I’ve not been anywhere near a glacier, or anything climbable, in quite some time.  Far too long in fact.  Confusion sets in again as I try to suss out my surroundings and recall where I am this week.  The sort of confusion that arises from not having slept in my own bed for more than a few nights since early May.  My eyes hurt because they’re full of dust and smoke from the arid clearcut I was working in yesterday.  Another moment passes and I realize where I am and how I got there.  A second or two later I’m nearly launched into orbit when my all-too-crass travel alarm startles me at the advent of another work day.

A hasty breakfast and morning routine, followed by a seemingly endless drive along a bumpy bushroad (who knew these things had kilometre markers in excess of 180?) lands my partner and I at another site we are to assess in the name of forest research.  This work has by now become tiresome and repetitive, like any good forest survey, and I’m crashing through the young jack pine stand on autopilot.  A loud bellow of obscenities ensues as a pin cherry branch whips my face in protest of my careless passage.

While measuring another plot, my mind wanders to places where, and people with whom, I’d rather be – anywhere but here, again.  Looking down at the lichens I notice my tattered nylon pants, grabbed by a thousand pieces of slash, prickly roses and jack pine branches,  I think of how many summers I’ve done similar damage to similar pants.  You know, the same kind of pants preferred by climbers the world over.  Quick drying, stretchy, synthetics – great for bush work as well.  Except those summers were the kind I live for – endless roadtrips, one lasting three months in the Rockies where I wore out three pairs of pants learning to read topos and thrutch up cold, scalloped limestone chimneys.

Somehow I manage to measure several more plots, another hour ticks by and I don’t even remember recording the data.  A look at the field computer confirms it’s there though.  Instead, my mind was on the climbs I’ve  done and the people I’ve done them with.  I chew on the last of my too-small lunch, and it’s only 10 am.  Figures.  I commence my next plot thinking of my wife and how little I’ve seen her this summer.  Indeed, I’ve yet to sleep more than four nights in my own bed this summer.  Thinking of her brings a smile to my face and the next few plots go better.

The sound of a water bomber overhead actioning a nearby fire transports me to another daydream, this one to Alaska and the sound of the aircraft landing on the snow at Kahiltna International Airport.  I still feel cheated by an unexpected illness on that trip, cheated out of an opportunity to try a big route with some great and patient friends, as well as to test myself on one of the most awe-inspiring peaks I’ve ever seen.    I resolve to get back there come hell or high water, and soon, to try again and this resolve carries me through my next hour of work with fervour.

Finishing up the survey late in the day, it’s time for the endless march back.  This particular road has been actively reclaimed by the forestry company, and traveling down it is difficult.  Thirty minutes later I’m walking on autopilot, switching between the road and the adjacent forest, trying to decide which is easier.  My mind again wanders to climbing, and my latest long-term dream climb.  I’ve had a lot of those lately and they’ve changed as often as the places I’ve slept this summer, I haven’t found one yet that grabs me the way they once did though and I worry about losing my commitment to climbing.  Perhaps that’s not it.  It’s more likely that I miss the commitment that hard climbing demands of me.  Being away from climbing for so long leaves me wanting.

On the drive home, my enthusiastic partner convinces me to stop and try a few casts in a promising river and we manage a couple of plump walleye to bring home.  Standing on the rocks below the fragrant branches of an overhanging cedar, I see my reflection in the calm surface of the eddy.  Wow, I look tired.  Landing another fish I think about what’s next – I need something to get me through this season.  A glance at my watch and I realize the date – in another week’s time I’ll be heading to the Rockies and leaving this work behind for another season.  I’ll spend a week being challenged by leading others and sharing in their joy of discovering the many secrets of my favorite mountain range.  Immediately after that, I’ll be able to introduce my wife to one of my all time favorite parts of the range, and spend time in the mountains with my favorite climbing partner.

There’s still another thirty or so plots between me and that light at the end of the tunnel though.  Not surprisingly, I don’t remember doing those either.

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