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Wake Up and Smell the Summit

Deep thoughts

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It was early July, late at night, and I was in the eye of a gear hurricane: My tiny, cramped motel room looked like a ransacked backcountry store. I restuffed my pack for the third time and again went through the list of essentials for the next morning’s alpine start and 7,000-vertical-foot climb andski of 14,162-foot Mount Shasta.

Finally satisfied, I blocked the door with skis, boots, poles, and pack—you never know what you might forget—and climbed into bed. Five minutes later, I was out of bed verifying I’d packed sunscreen. A minute later, I was back in bed. My mind raced with thoughts about the climb, the ski, the steeps, crevasses, unknowns—and adrenaline surged through my body. It was 11 p.m. My ride was coming at 2 a.m. Sleep? Ha.

Alpine starts take their name from alpinists, who often launch their summit bids just after midnight so they can climb while the mountain is frozen and still. As the day breaks and warms, peaks loosen their grip on rocks, ice, and snow, and travel can be an especially dangerous game of dodgeball. Ski mountaineers generally don’t have to worry about such things; instead, a skier’s alpine start is all about getting to the top of the hill before the sun has turned the snow to junk. Start times are particularly important during the spring corn cycle, when getting on it too early means skiing on bone-rattling coral and too late means struggling through bottomless mush. Done right, a spring alpine start can have you lounging on the top of your objective and taking in the view while waiting for the day to massage the snow into perfectly creamed giblets.

There is, however, the issue of actually starting the start, and every time I wake up at 2 a.m., I think, ‘Whose bad idea was this, anyway?’ Oh yeah, mine. This isn’t just waking up early—it’s waking up stupid. After a mere two or three hours of sleep, I always abandon the womblike warmth of my bed (or sleeping bag), drive to the trailhead in a fog, grunt into the stiffest boots known to man, shoulder 350 pounds of backpack, and start slogging against gravity with the leg muscles of a 90-year-old man. Where’s the fun again?

But then—without fail—some crazy things happen. My muscles loosen and stretch. The boots warm and soften. The pack settles nicely onto my shoulders and reveals itself to be carrying just water, food, and avy gear, not the tribe of pygmies I’d suspected was hiding there. My hiking or skinning takes on a metronomic rhythm instead of the spasms of Saint Vitus’ dance. I notice the luminescence of the stars, the crisp purity of the air, the smell of pine needles.

Thoughts flood the brainpan. This is sweet. This is beautiful. Damn, I’m core. All those weenie slackers in their beds. No, don’t think about beds. Keep moving. One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop until that rock. Better not stop at all. One, two, three, four, five. My-my-my-my-my, hey, m-m-my Sharona. God, why did I leave the iPod at home? Whoa: Look at that glow in the sky! Here comes the sun.

The thing about alpine starts is that as soon as we say yes to one—as soon as we even mention the idea of one—we’re committed to the good, the rad, and the gnarly. There’s no backing out, no staying in bed, unless we want to be heckled for all our remaining days. So I keep planning trips, keep moving, pushing through the weakness, going beyond the tiredness, sucking it up and living without coffee for a few hours. And eventually I find myself at the high point of a ridge, the lip of a couloir, or, best of all, the very apex of a mountain. And that’s when I leave the suffering and discomfort behind like a bad dream—without even trying—and instead look toward the future.

That July morning, it took my crew about seven and a half hours to make the summit of Shasta, and as we sat on top, signing the register and taking in a view that stretched from the Pacific coast to Mount Lassen and halfway to Washington State, the time seemed compressed into one relatively sshort leap, as if we’d fast-forwarded a DVD. Bed wasn’t even a thought. Instead, my mind turned to the 7,000 feet of downhill, and then my body did, too, and I started carving my fatties into the summer snow. The first couple hundred feet were windblown and grabby, but then the snow softened and then it creamed and then we had nearly 5,000 feet of incredible, blissful corn before it slushed out. Even then, it didn’t matter—and I was grinning all the way to the snow line. I popped out of my bindings, stepped onto the rich, gooey dirt, and thought, “Whose idea was this, again? Oh, yeah. Mine.