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  • did i tell you about the time that I had my first longest day?

    I was a young apprentice mountain guide. with enough knowledge, skill, and moxy to sign up for the job yet short of the true experience to know what i could and couldn’t do and truthfully full of doubt. arriving in the Cirque of the Towers, in the heart of the craggy Wind River mountains, i was both thrilled and terrified. the guides had arrived a few days ahead of the clients to get the lay of the land. Doug, my mentor, a gray bearded pioneer of american climbing, partnered me with another young guide (whose name is beyond recall — lets call him Asok). this fellow was full of confidence and bravado. Doug sent us to climb Wolf’s Head Arete, a classic line with a rich history…and a route that traversed along a jagged summit ridge for 25 rope lengths. Easy climbing but tip-toeing over 500-1000” drops to the valley below. i had never done anything like it.

    Asok was confident. he would climb the route in hiking boots instead of the sticky climbing shoes that make the climbing easier (if less comfortable). he spoke of “simul-climbing” – a technique that increased speed but also risk. i kept my mouth shut as i was full of doubt and fear and packed my climbing shoes.

    we arose around 3a to get breakfast and hike to the base of our route before the first rays of sun warmed the rock face. once upon the route my partner’s decision to wear the boots proved a poor one. his climbing prowess did not match his swagger. before long i was left to “lead” every pitch while we abandoned “simul-climbing” for slower, safer “belayed” pitches. as the day progressed my confidence grew – yet never fully replaced my fear at the dizzying exposure – and Asok became even more timid. we completed the route late in the afternoon, a long full hard day, both physically and mentally. hiking back to camp, as the sun dipped beneath the peaks, i was exhausted but exuberant at completing the route.

    arriving in camp Doug congratulated us and then informed us: “one of you needs to hike the 6 miles out to the trailhead tonight to welcome one of the clients.” one look at Asok told me he couldn’t possibly do it. i ate a bowl of ramen noodles, loaded my backpack, and hit the trail. as the last light faded i hiked into the darkness on legs already drained from the longest, hardest climb of my life. eventually the moon rose and i turned off my headlamp…navigating the trail by the slivers of moonlight coming through the trees and using my feet to feel the trail like the blind use braille to read. as i continued down the trail i felt as if i was floating on the moonlight, feeling my exhaustion yet discovering i could walk forever.

    arriving at the trailhead around 2a i crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted into sleep with a dopey grin on my face. i was learning what i could and couldn’t do…and what i now knew i could do had grown exponentially…
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