Friday, 15 January 2016

Safety in Speed

It is almost 8am in late October and the sun is starting to hit the summits across Howe Sound. The forecast is calling for rain, starting late in the evening. On the mountains, where Katie and I are headed, this means snow. It’s our last weekend to get up to the top of something big.

I can text Katie on Monday with “Black Tusk?”, and Saturday morning finds us driving over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, stars still out, the very faintest ribbon of horizon brightening on a sky so clear and deep you want to swim in it. We have known each other for four years, and have the kind of friendship where we don’t talk every day, or even every week.  We don’t go out for drinks much, and the closest we got to shopping together was when she came over to my apartment an hour before her Christmas party, shotgunned a beer, and borrowed my one dress that makes runners look like they have cleavage.

The route we are doing is in Garibaldi Park, near Whistler, BC, a two hour drive from Vancouver along a highway that weaves on the edge of mountains, looking onto the clear grey waters of Howe Sound.   We are going up a mountain called the Black Tusk. Depending on which hiking book you read, it is 25km, or 29km, and about 1750m of elevation gain. The hiking books tell us to plan for being out for 12hours, to bring lots of food and jackets and headlamps.

We are both sick.  I was too weak to walk to the office three days before. When I fill up the car, I also grabbed lozenges  and enough gas station coffee to make my veins feel fizzy, while Katie downed a diet Gatorade in one go. Even so, the hike will take us under five hours, including breaks. For this, we each take an extra layer and drugstore sunglasses. Most of our time spent getting ready in the parking lot involves trying to stuff two bananas into Katie’s tiny backpack.

Time and distance feel different on the trails. Uphill is never truly easy – starting out means working against the weight of a backpack and stiff legs, to find that tiny bit of momentum. We got into our rhythm as the light creeps through the trees, the getting up high enough that the streams start to freeze at the edges. We run what we can, walk what we couldn’t, strip off layer after layer as we switchback through fir trees.

At a wooden bench, Katie lays down and stretches while I blow my nose and unwrap lozenges. We both have the same piriformis issue (when you run, there’s always something): a dull, deep pain in the hip and lower back, sharp bursts down the entire leg when the tight muscle grates on a nerve. It’s something you can run through, if you really want to run. 

We break out of the trees into dead meadows, the remaining grass brown and yellow. The sun is behind frosted glass: all light and no heat. Up ahead was the Tusk. This park, covered under snow most of the year, is an old volcano, and we are climbing up what remains of one of the edges. All the water we pass – streams and ponds - is now frozen. The trail, covered in thick, spiky frost, is a thin line between stunted fir trees, the rocks growing bigger and looser. If we turn around, Garibaldi Lake is unfolding from the mountains. 

It should be noted that we do talk, a bit, but we mostly not-talk. The landscape feels bigger than conversation – it is beautiful, we know it is beautiful, and sometimes the best way to feel this is through aching calves and hard, silent climbs. I push the pace, not because I am the fitter one, but because I am more impatient. We climb past the treeline, past the low bones of bushes, past the last of the moss. We slide backwards through shale, red volcanic dust underneath. Despite the steadily rising sun, we are wearing all the clothes we brought.

To get to the very top involves picking our way across a ridge of loose rock, and then climbing up a narrow chimney. The trick to doing this is to do it quickly, as quickly as possible. There is safety in speed. It is even colder, but we take our gloves off, bare hands on the black stone. All it takes is one look back, one look down – to see the huge spread of lake, the emerging glaciers, the blank meadows – but also the steep ledges, and how, hearing pebbles drop, there is nothing beneath you. In this chimney, even the current footholds may give way, may fall themselves, so it is best to limit pauses to a breath.

The last scramble to the top is one long relief. Under a milky sky, the slowly gathering cloud, we can finally look out over all the mountains, down to an incredible slab of lake. We are standing in the middle of a forest of grey rock and glaciers. The barest glint of the ocean all the way down past Squamish.

We run into two guys at the top with big backpacks and rock climbing helmets (actually, one is using a bike helmet). After talking for about five minutes, it’s clear we know many of the same people. I swap my jujubes for their barbecue peanuts, and we take a few pictures. The conversation starts with our trips up: how long it took, our gear, other trips we have taken, plans for trips we want to take, dwindles down to what jobs we do, how we spend our days inside.

The way back down the chimney, holding my breath the whole time. And then – as the wind picks up, and my sweat starts to dry cold and salty, looking out at the far-off tops of the Tantalus range – we drop down the mountain. Maybe the correct word is running: we are, after all, wearing running shoes, we are going at a fast pace, breathing hard, and there is forward motion.  To say that we ran down doesn’t describe how to negotiate shale: how the ground gives away, each long step sideways, the grit that covers the inside of your shoes. It doesn’t include how your legs skim over roots, launch off rocks, each landing a silent celebration of the strength in your bones. It doesn’t come close to describing the final five miles of switchbacks through the forest. This is where what little talking we did stops, and our pace picks up.

It is one hard kick, looking ahead for the best lines through rocks, how to weave a switchback. Katie starts to move ahead, and I can still hear her breathing, hear my own jagged lungs. On this run, we have no watches; we aren’t chasing times or other runners. Through this late fall forest, we are chasing ghosts.

We are chasing ourselves, three years ago, skinnier and faster and a bit sadder. We are trying to catch up to those girls who ran mornings, ran evenings, ran in their dreams and woke up the next day, craving the faint taste of iron in the back of your mouth once your pace turns the world to stars. We want to stop those girls, who are speeding into labrum tears and broken feet, into months spent in the pool, drowning in chlorine while dreaming of the clear clean scent of fir trees. And as we chase down on that final stretch of the trails, it suddenly feels like no time has passed. It’s just the two of us, one pushing the other, on shot-through legs in the slanting afternoon sun, our lungs scraped open, whooping around the last corners before we finish in a long tight hug.

Katie is the kind of friend who, like I said, I may not go for drinks with every week. But she is the friend who helped me pack up my apartment one rainy January day after my marriage ended, neither of us talking, just the faint crackle of dishes getting wrapped with newspaper. She understands that life, like in running, has some moments that are too big for words.

We spend our weeks inside offices without windows, each day like a set of Russian Dolls climbing into itself, waiting for those days together outside  –glaciers behind our eyes, wind tinged with snow, downhills where our feet itch for wings. We don’t need words, because, out there in the mountains, we know each others’ hearts.

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