“This is it,” I told myself, traversing a granite ledge, scrambling up a grassy corner and onto the next ledge, nearing the top of the pass. “We’ll pop out at the top of a beautiful alpine lake, pitch the tent, and be done for the day.” I couldn’t remember feeling this way before, the hollow, almost fluttery feeling across my chest as I pushed the pace through the day’s 11th hour. Sure, I’d brought myself to what I thought was the limit before, running the 800-meter in high school, 5Ks in college, half marathons in my 20s. But this was completely different, and I didn’t know how much farther I could go.
Brendan waited at the top, beckoning from where he sat, sheltered from the wind behind a boulder. I relied heavily on my trekking poles to pick up slack under the weight of my 40-pound pack, stepping quickly across the top of the talus field. His facial expression was my first warning. Instead of the relieved, end-of-day victory smile, his eyes were cautiously encouraging, quickly scanning my expression, reading for my response. There was no lake. Not here, or anywhere else, as far as I could see. Just talus. More talus spreading downward and downward.
We had seven days’ worth of food and were behind schedule about halfway through a high-altitude traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. After a casual couple of days, we realized we’d need to pick up our pace if we wanted to finish before our food ran out. The off-trail scrambling and bushwhacking was kicking our asses. Up and over boulders, millions of them it seemed. Through willow thicket after willow thicket, around this lake and that lake, over unending mountain passes.
Brendan set the pace and I power-walked in his footsteps, trying to keep from losing him over a ridge or among a field of boulders. Today had been huge. We’d been moving hard since the August sun had peeked over the horizon, up and over mountains and through terrain that required my full body to get over or around. I’d felt my limbs tremble with adrenaline as a boulder slid out from under me on one descent. I barely caught myself before taking a flying spill down a talus field, carried forward by the momentum of my pack. Already, I had dug deeply several times to find the courage and motivation to keep moving. As the sun started sagging low, my mantra had been “just to the top of this pass.” But, no.
I collapsed, very nearly in tears, behind a boulder near Brendan. “It’s just at the bottom of this,” he said softly. “We’ve just got to keep moving.” Somehow I’d managed to ignore those topo lines when I’d looked over the map earlier, perhaps out of denial. He watched my face as I gasped huge breaths, deeply grateful that he had the emotional intelligence to give me a minute. It’s a moment preserved in my brain, a faded, overexposed snapshot. His questioning expression, checking to see how I felt, was hardened by the knowledge that we couldn’t stay there. We had to keep moving. I was scraping the very bottom of my heart to come up with the energy to move forward, knowing full well that it was only Brendan’s gentle quiet that stood between collecting myself and bursting into tears of exhaustion.
I’m sure these kinds of moments happen to non-outdoorsy couples, too, maybe in dealing with unruly children, frustrating finances or stressful career choices. But if you spend enough time adventuring in the outdoors with your significant other, it’s sure to happen out there on the side of a mountain, in the middle of a rushing rapid, or halfway down a trail. Nature has a way of stripping away our excuses, the airs we put on. There really is no way to fake it out there. The nice and the nasty both come brutally into focus under the mountain sun. Every ounce of ego is amplified, and without humility and patience, good luck to you and your loved one.
I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the one leaning over my bike at the bottom of a series of switchbacks, cocking my head to peer around the corner for Brendan, hoping he hadn’t eaten shit and didn’t hate me with the fury of the significant other thrown helpless into the deep end. And I’ve cursed loudly on toprope halfway up a desert mountain, grunting my way up my first off-width to find Brendan’s shocked face at the top, afraid I’d immediately state, “I’m never climbing again.” And I’m sure — actually, I hope — that those moments aren’t over.
I’m sure the Wind River trip won’t be the most demanding trial Brendan and I will face together. Life is long and sometimes tragic. But I’d like to think that those moments in the mountains, learning to be patient, gently pushing each other to be our best selves, might somehow echo back when the real darkness of life threatens, reminding us we’re made of grittier stuff than we thought.