A weekend of ski-touring adventures on the Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
How insignificant I am standing here in front of a monstrous wall of ice. Yet out of the two of us, it is the hundreds of year old glacier that is now more mortal, more vulnerable than I. It is disappearing. The generations coming after me will never stand where I stand right now. They’ll never see what I see in front of me. They will never feel this sense of awe that ripples through my body as I stare.
They’ll never haul themselves up the side of a crevasse. They’ll never ski new lines of untouched powder, cruise down 20km of uninterrupted perfection. They’ll never wander amongst frozen tunnels, jagged pristine seracs and sparkling shards of ice.
Here, away from civilization, perched on a glacier, we are happy, we are free. Here, we play with ropes, skins and ice-axes. Here, we drink whiskey from hip flasks and crack smiles that make our skin crinkle. Here, we don’t scrub or criticize our bodies and our flaws. Here, we eat what we can carry and earn every step.
Here, blisters, bruises and cuts wrap themselves around our bodies. Here, our muscles thrum with pleasurable aches. We curl up in sleeping bags and see our breath turn to steam. Here, there is nothing more gratifying than holding a steaming mug of coffee between your frozen hands. Here our phones have no signal so we talk to each other, we discuss real things and look directly into each other eyes.
You hear the mountains moan and grumble and watch in incredulity as small avalanches release around you like thunder. You put your trust, your life in fact, in other people’s hands. People who you believe (and hope) know much more than you.
Here, you push yourself to do better, to be better. Here, you feel fear and weakness. You feel the tears and panic brimming up inside body but you force them back down. Here, reality is a distant memory, your to-do list at work no longer seems so urgent, the hard time you gave yourself for your bout of overindulgence seems ridiculous. All that stress and worry you carry around with you every day suddenly seems so trivial. When here, out in the elements, you hold your life in your hands. Here, in the backcountry is where freedom and happiness lies.
But this haven, this refuge for us vagabonds and dirtbags is disappearing. Soon the world of ice will be gone and with it, so will we.
The bruises on my knees are yellow, a sure sign of the last stage of the heal. The skin on my bum has started to reform, the little bit of weight I lost, piled back on… I am back sprawled on the couch at home, a cup of tea in hand allowing nostalgia to seep in. That most complicated of emotion that has its wicked way with you, sucks you in every time, props a rose-tinted lens over your memory and keeps you coming back for more.
For twelve days, Dad and I took to the bikes to make the journey from Boston to Toronto. The two prominent cities were chosen merely because we had relations in both that we could crash with while we prepped and subsequently recovered. A relatively easy trip for us both, we had taken on much more badass adventures together and separate in the past. This was a holiday. Not even 1000km in total, roughly 80km a day, easy as. Ignore the fact that I hadn’t so much as seen a bike in the past six months owing to the fact that I was busy living life amongst the snow in the high Alps of France for the ski season. It proved to be a rookie mistake.
I should have known. It’s always the trips that you underestimate and belittle that fight back and prove to be the biggest test. Alas, that is the terrible beauty of adventure. So off we went, leaving my waving mother behind in the pissing of rain in a Boston suburb, blissfully oblivious to what lay ahead.
An hour in, I hit a pothole disguised as a puddle and burst my knees open on the tarmac. And that was it, a baptism of fire and our introduction to cycling in America. From then on our days were filled with linking Greenways and bike tracks, scary highways, nods of hello, intermittent rain, blazing sun and the constant hunt for food that contained a bit of sustenance. A Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s on every corner, of course, but trying to find quaint coffee shops and grocery stores filled with fruit and veg proved futile.
The American hospitality prevailed everywhere we turned. Everyone wanted to talk; everyone wanted to help. We ran out of water along a highway so we pulled into a power electro store and I ran in to ask for help. I emerged twenty minutes later with ice-cold water, a print off of Google map directions and beaming from ear to ear. There were so many little meetings that played out like this… the lovely volunteers at the canal museum doling out pistachio cake and coffee; the casual banter of people walking past us every time we stopped for a second to consult the map or take a bite of a cereal bar. And that’s the beauty of these little trips scattered throughout the year, that despite all the issues you see on the road; the lack of recycling, their consumer society, the prejudices… it restores some hope in humanity within my bones that people are essentially good creatures.
On day three, things started to unravel for me. I bonked so hard that I wanted to quit. I hit a wall; shed some tears. It was a constant slog, hills after hills, climb after climb, all in the pissing rain. Eventually, we pulled over into a little creamery at the side of the road to collapse momentarily. And it was my kind of place, fresh fruit and veg, organic produce and vegetarian options (hallelujah!). We went in for a coffee and stayed for a quiche while the rain poured down outside. That hour or so out of the saddle rejuvenated me, providing a new lease of life for the second half of the day. Yet, I had never been so happy to see the end of the day. Tomorrow will be better, I told myself constantly.
It was not. It was a disaster in fact. A severe weather warning was issued. Thunder, rain and hurricanes were coming for us. I woke up floored, feeling like a fever was ready to engulf me, plus perfect timing, as usual, my periods came to further torture me. I was stuck in my own personal hell. The tears came and my old friend, self-loathing, kicked in.
But I was not yet ready to call it quits on this trip, not after all I’d given up to be here. So on the fifth day, we packed the panniers and started pedalling. Moving from Massachusetts into New York State, quickly noting the startling difference; moving from money to poverty, riches to rags, Obama to Trump. While I continued to simmer in my own personal pity party, smothered in a cold while on the hunt to find food in these one-horse towns.
The misery continued like so, interspersed with moments of beauty and joy. Day six and I felt every bit of the 82km. The pain, the fever, the hurt rolled over me like a wave. I passed out the moment we reached the shitty motel. My head so congested that I was barely able to unload my bike. I showered and collapsed into bed to sweat the fever out. Meanwhile, Dad hovered in the background taking care of me. I questioned constantly if I could do this. My body yearned to stop but my brain kept resisting, repeating the mantra; ‘I’m not a quitter,’ over and over again. In every adventure I’ve ever done, the question always looms, especially when misery strikes…why? Why do we do this to ourselves? My reasoning is that hardship makes real life more tolerable; makes it seem easier. It teaches us how to endure and persevere when all we want to do is quit. Because the rewards at the end are just too huge to ignore.
I feel so weak and pathetic. My body is failing me. I am mired with disappointment. I am battling my demons and constantly feeling like I am losing. I know I should quit and call it a day but I really don’t want to. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’d never rid myself of the failure. It has become a case of mental endurance and stubbornness to get me to the end. I’ll crawl across that finish line if I have to. But the fear of pneumonia presses in. And the question is knowing when to call it quits; when to opt for your health over your stubbornness? We conclude that if I wake up the following day and it’s any worse, then it’s time to call it a day and get a bus to the border; the ultimate march of shame.
The alarm sounds. I wake warily, checking my body for any sign of recovery, any victory that I can cling to and use as a talisman to get me through another day. I didn’t feel better but I didn’t feel worse and that is all I needed. The relief of not having to throw in the towel is enough to lift my mood. I had the first good day on the bike that day and it was a great one; Constanta to Weedsport. Just when I thought I was a goner, I come back and the feeling of relief and joy is unparalleled. My body is coming back to me finally.
We celebrate the day against a backdrop of rolling hills, red barns, grain stores, long green grass and blue skies. We were in Amish country, witnessing first hand a bygone era, a community in frocks, trotting by in their horse-drawn carts. A young couple rode up to us to greet us, they were on their way to the lake for a picnic.
Deep down I knew that the momentum couldn’t last but all it had to do was get me through one more day… we had agreed to cut the journey short by one day and instead of Toronto been the final destination the border into Canada aka Niagara Falls would be our new finish line. A decision that I was happy not to rally against. The end is nigh, the finish line is looming.
Day 12 and with one last heroic effort, I pedal across the border into Canada. By god, we did it. Sweat, blood and tears, an iPod in my ears blasting Bon Iver for the latter half of the day in a dismal attempt to take me out of my own head, tears streaming down my face, chest infection strangling me and wet to the core from the lashings of rain. It was hard, so fucking hard. But crossing that border after 90km, handing over that $2 entrance fee and hearing the sound of that stamp hitting the passport page felt like we had reached nirvana. By god, we fucking did it.
This trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially so because I naively thought it would be one of the easiest. But two things, just two, made it so worth doing.
The fact that I endured when I know so many would have stopped. For someone that constantly questions their self-worth, their abilities, this was huge for me. The fact that I didn’t quit when the odds seemed stacked against me. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself. It was not the trip I imagined but it tested me, it pushed me to my limits and I came out the other side, albeit sick, bruised, sunburnt and worn but still, out the other side at least.
Number two, Dad and I. I know a lot of shit Dad’s and mine, I am happy to report, is not one of them. I struck gold with mine. I don’t know many people who have that relationship with their fathers. We are just easy in one another’s company, sometimes we small talk, sometimes we discuss the bigger things in life, and sometimes we lapse into a comfortable silence for hours on end. When I came off the bike, his sheer panic and concern made me calm, made me stand up and walk it off. When I wanted to call it a day halfway through, he knew exactly how to make me stay. He said if I go then he goes too. And that, frustratingly as I longed to quit, I could not agree to ruin his trip as well as my own. So together, we knuckled down and pedalled on.
Day to day life can be great, idyllic at times but it can also be really fucking difficult and monotonous. Trips like this scattered throughout the year lift me out of that routine, shake my soul and break the stupor. It’s like coming up for air after holding your breath underwater for too long. And that right there is the appeal. Something about been out of doors all day long in rain, hail or shine, the aches and pains of pushing your body past what you normally ask it to do. It’s addictive. And why I know, despite the suffering, that this is far from the last adventure I will ever do.
I told you I’d catch up. I told you I’d get there in the end. My parents always said that their three daughters were just taking the ‘scenic route’, ‘the long way around in life’.
But then I did it. I finally got what I’d been craving, what I’d been working towards and dreaming about for years. I got the dream job. And with the career, came security and a few quid in my back pocket. A normal life. Finally. Home at the weekend to see the folks and meet up with the home crowd to hash it out, vent about work, boys, life, etc. over drinks. Then back up to the big smoke on Sunday night for another week in the office.
I finally did it. Accomplished what I thought I wanted. I was officially settled. And I was comfortable…
For about ten minutes. That’s all it lasted. And then my mind began to whizz again.
The question kept cropping up in my mind’s eye. Again and again it would float to the surface, that most deflating and demoralizing question… is this it? Is this it for the rest of my life?
I wasn’t unhappy. Aspects of this life, I loved.
But for the first time in my life I did not have an end point to aim for, to keep me motivated, to make me enjoy the inevitable lows and the hard times. This could technically continue indefinitely. This could be it. For the rest of my life.
And I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready. Even though everyone around me seemed ready. I, to my utter dismay, was not.
So I did something reckless once again. I decided to hand in my notice and do a ski season. The thing that most people commit to in their early twenties, on their gap year after university or just after, in that brief lapse of time before entering adulthood. At 27, had my moment passed?
But I have learned in recent times that if you care a little less about what people think of you then you are free to make up your own rules. So for the umpteenth time in my life, I threw caution to the wind and took a gamble. I applied to work as a chalet host in the French Alps. I informed work that I was running away and I packed my life into a 20kg duffel bag to join the hoards of youthful, party-mad seasonnaires boarding a plane to the mountains.
What ensued was weeks of highs and lows, day time siestas, way too many fresh baguettes and pastries devoured, a few extra layers of fat to line my stomach and thighs, drama, a lot of drama, sleeping on couches, chef’s with broken arms, passive-aggressive comments, belly-aching laughs, a new best friend, miles and miles of piste, howling at the moon, dancing under the stars, legs dangling off of chair lifts, pushing through fear, climbing mountains, countless perfect sunrises and sunsets, embracing the thrill of speed and the biggest surprise of them all; meeting a beard toting, van owning, free-thinking, adventure-loving vagabond to share my world with.
The season now draws to a close. The prospect of returning to reality looms once more. Yet the ride continues. A new adventure presents itself daily. The highs are high and the lows are low. Every week a new challenge to bask in; the first black slope, the first visit to the ski park, the first off-piste run, the first time using ice axes, ski touring sessions, sunrise hikes to the summit…
All welcoming the return of fear back into my world. A feeling that at times I despise. It makes me feel weak and inferior. But a tiny part of my brain revels in, craves it and seeks it out. Fear is all consuming. You tune out everything around you. You become hyper-aware of your own body, your own mortality, your chest rising and falling as your lungs fills with oxygen. Your palms slightly sweaty, the feeling of your teeth as they brush against your lips. One more deep breath, one swallow, one last thought before you close your eyes for a beat, everything slows down and then over the edge you drop….
Into blissful oblivion.
Every week I up the stakes a little more. I push myself to find that thrill, that feeling once more.
At 27, you would think you would know yourself pretty well. Yet, I am still learning, still discovering who I am. I now know, categorically, that my happiness lies outside the confines of office walls. I have discovered the lure of the mountains and I may never return. It has taken me a long time to learn, that for me, lifestyle trumps job.
What is next… who knows! The only thing that I am certain of is that I’m not yet ready to return to so-called ‘real life’. It’s not the life for me. I am content, at peace, at long last. The feeling is no doubt finite, it is inevitable that it will come and go in waves throughout my life. But at this moment in time, I am right where I’m supposed to be.
I am happy.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I feel the most awful pain in the pit of my stomach. It builds up my throat and thrums in my ears. My head fills with fog, my brow furrows and I find it hard to breathe.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the anxiety in my body builds up to such a point that the centre no longer holds. It feels like I’m a vessel filled with liquid that has reached its capacity. And when I try to move, the liquid sloshes over the side. The tap won’t turn off and it flows and flows over the brim.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the tears tip over the ledges of my eyes and leak down my face. Sometimes it’s so unexpected I cannot even trace where it came from. I cannot fathom its cause.
We criticize, we criticize, we criticize. We look in the mirror and we tear ourselves apart. We look at others and we tear them apart. We should be marvelling at ourselves and each other, celebrating. Yet, too often I look down at my body and pinpoint all of its flaws, one by one. My scars, the size of my thighs, my nose, my height … how often have I looked at myself and thought, ‘wow, I am incredible?’
The answer is never. Not once.
But look at what my body can do. It has taken me around the world, up mountains, into lakes. It never fails me. Every blemish is a battle wound that tells the story of who I am.
Yet sometimes, I forget it…
Sometimes, not often but sometimes worry drowns me. Fear consumes me. That I’ll make the wrong decision. That people won’t like me. That I won’t be good enough. That I’m too weak, too stupid, too ugly. That I won’t get another chance, another job, another love.
I fret the small stuff and I fret the big stuff; climate change, poverty, human rights, the direction this world is heading in… that I’m not doing enough to help. I’m never doing enough to help.
And sometimes, not often, but sometimes all of that accumulates and my mood spirals downwards.
To cope, I run, or I bike, or I hike, or I throw myself off a cliff (recreationally!) into open water… so that for a few blissful moments, time stops and I can breathe again.
For a few blissful moments my head is not clouded with worry or anxiety.
I am free from the soul-destroying grip of my phone.
I am at peace.
Perhaps it’s the beauty of the sunset, the colours in the sky, a knowing smile from a fellow runner as I pass them by, the realisation of pure isolation, the laboured panting of my breath, the sweat dripping down my forehead or the frigid wild Atlantic swell hitting my skin… it’s always a moment like that, that makes it all go away.
That perfect feeling when you close your eyes briefly and you are totally free.
It only lasts a second.
But that is all it takes.
To be reminded.
That this world really is a beautiful place.
And I’m lucky to be in it.
And perhaps that I should stay a little longer.
And just do my best.
Try my hardest.
And see what this world has in store for me.
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Trek to Lake Seebensee
Stage 16 of the Eagle Walk, the 413km long-distance mountaineering trail
The Zugspitze glacier
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Becky’s Hen | Glengarriff, Co Cork | May 2018