The mountain was called Flattop and it was the easiest climb in the range; the tourist mountain to those from Anchorage. It was a mile of gently sloping trails interspersed by a few sharp inclines. A place to party on the Summer Solstice. Just a few weeks before that party my friends and I climbed Flattop, huffing, and puffing our way to the top.
I had not realized how out of shape I was until trail sloped upward. Before long I trailed behind my friends. Andrew, whose hobbies included mountain climbing, almost paced between just out sight and just ahead of Amber and Abby. Up and down the trail he went as I struggled uphill. Despite the snow around the trail, the cool air, and my thin shirt I am on the verge of overheating.
After fifteen minutes, we reached a natural veranda of hardpacked earth and a view for miles. The trail had curved away from Anchorage so there was nothing manmade in view. Just patches of brown and white for as far as the eye could see.
In the final leg of the hike up I stood looking at the steep path. Through my shoes I feel the stone beneath my feet. The summit looks high from where I'm standing. My legs are shaking from fatigue and more than a trace of fear. I do not like heights. For a moment I consider waiting here, at the edge of the finish line while the others complete the journey. But I have already gone this far and I think to myself that I might as well go the distance.
What would be the harm?
We finally stood on the summit; a wide plateau that gave the mountain its name. We peered out across the view. It was gorgeous in all 360 degrees from mountains that looked so close to the city in the valley below. It was evening but this close to the solstice the sun shone like early afternoon. Land of the midnight sun indeed.
In the fifteen minutes, we stood chatting the clouds rolled in and became a dense fog. At first the mist felt good against the flushed skin of my face. It did not take long for the air to become cold rather than cool as the wet air seeped through my jeans and thin t-shirt. It was then that I pulled out a sweatshirt from the backpack I had carried up the trail.
Despite being early June, the summit was ringed with ice and a snow slope. Others, who did not fear heights, were glissading down the snow slope that lay adjacent to the path. The path was steep, carved from hard packed snow. On the way up I had deeply regretted my lack of thick gloves as buried my hands in snow for handholds.
We made a choice, my friends and I. The thick clouds made the path treacherous and steep; so much so that it was the slope that seemed safer. Slowly our descent began. At first it went well. I had so move over, it's true. Being directly above my friend on such a slope would have been a bad choice. A few more crab-walked steps down then disaster struck.
The packed snow shifted beneath my boots and I slid down an inch. The fear that gripped me forced my mind blank and I am sure that a thin sound of terror escaped.
My friends, they did try to calm me down. Frozen on the slope. Their words held little meaning as I began to slip further. Distantly I heard the words 'dig in your heels.' My mind latched onto the phrase and that was what I tried to do.
My fear frozen mind crossed the wires though. A jolt and I could feel my legs flex, but in the wrong direction. My toes caught as they planted firmly into the snow. Even as the balls of my feet pushed in, I knew this was the wrong thing to do.
The moment stretches and time slows as my legs bow outward. I could feel my body slide down the slick, crusty snow toward my trapped feet. Time rushed back as physics abruptly took hold. I was ejected forward from laying back to standing in an instant than I was tipping forward wildly.
It is strange what the mind remembers or not. That moment where my legs fold outward is as clear as bell, no matter the time that has passed. The moment after that has less clarity but I can still remember the feeling of falling; of tumbling head over heels to end up with my face pressed into the cold snow. But after that? The moments after that are a blur of the smell of melting water and panicked fueled scrabbling.
When the movement finally stopped it took several long minutes to breathe again. My weight was braced upon my hands. I lay on my stomach, pointed downhill. My sweatshirt and shirt have ridden up and my backpack is miraculously on, though tangled in my arms and covering my head. The greatest terror in my world right then was sliding, even an inch further would have been too much.
There was no pain, or cold, just that unrelenting terror of moving.
From above me I hear the worried calls from my friends. I also hear the increased worry as I do not answer right away. Finally, I find the voice to croak loud enough to be heard so far above me.
Sometimes I will tell myself that I didn't move because of the angle I was braced at. Because of my backpack or my clothes pinning me down, keeping me still. It may even have been true; but it was that fear that kept me from even trying.
A friend came down to find me. He climbed mountains for a hobby, so was much better equipped at moving quickly than the rest of us. He was the one to get me upright. The moment I was standing I realized my glasses were gone, ripped from my face in the slide. I fixated on that, 'My glasses' I kept repeating, 'I need my glasses.' He agreed to look on his way up to help the others. Away he went and I sat down; had to sit down. I was still gripped with that fear of moving, I may have rationalized it with being unable to see but that fear was at the core of it.
I sobbed without tears for several long moments. They were aborted sounds even as I shook. The memories fuzz a bit. I know there were others. People who chose the slide and warned me of the dangers of where I was sitting. I answered back but didn't move. My words and theirs are foggy in my mind.
I did not know how far I had slid; to this day I do not know how far. I never want to. It could have been hours or minutes that I sat shivering in the snow. There would have been no difference to me.
When my friend returned, he came with news of the others. Spurned by my rapid descent they had decided that the path, so dangerous before, was the better choice. He was concerned though. I hadn't moved and he thought it was because I was injured.
It was only then that I took stock. My legs shook as I stood but I was miraculously uninjured. We went to move toward the path, not up but across.
At first I froze, still afraid. Andrew, thinking that I was still unbalanced, took my backpack to lighten the load. We made our way with Andrew a blue and black blur ahead of me and my careful steps in his footprints.
We met up with the others and continued our descent, still about a mile from where the car waited. If only it had ended there; with a few bruises, my missing glasses, and a chill.
The mountain was a popular tourist spot. It was the easiest climb around. As such several of the paths had stairs carved into them for convenience. Twenty more steps, for those twenty steps I was mostly uninjured. I never saw what I lost my footing on. My world abruptly shifted again; my whole weight came down on my right ankle. The crack that I heard could have been real or could have been a memory.
Again the pain was not present immediately; anger slipped through though. 'Son of a fuck' the explicative bounded from my mouth with all the force I could muster. It was only after the sharp sound echoed and receded that the telling ache from my ankle blossomed.
Sprained at best. And that crack; that half heard, half felt pop. If it existed as anything other than a horrible memory than it only meant one thing. Broken bones.
I may have directed the first aid effort, or I may have babbled useless or known information at people far more competent that I. My friends have been kind enough to never tell me which. Sticks were produced for a splint and placed carefully, if slightly ineffectually. It took three tries to lever me to my feet. And so we set off again, me leaning heavily on whatever or whoever I could.
At first we traveled on a lesser known path, slightly easier than the one we could not reach. As the trail narrowed, hugging the earthen wall I grew thankful for lack my sight. To see now would freeze me yet again. Each step came with a sharp pain and I leaned heavily on the wall. My friends could clearly see I was struggling. Amber and Abby kept a steady stream of chatter to distract me while Andrew scouted the path ahead.
There was a break in the path, a jutting rock that caused a gap. It was a small thing, barely worth a mention save for one thing. Because of the awkwardness of the trail we would all have to go one at a time, step around the rock and shift carefully from one foot to the other. All our weight would have to rest fully on either foot. Andrew could get above the gap. He first assisted the others and I approached the edge with trepidation, my ankle throbbing with each step.
I know that I did not fall only because we continued the hike. I know there was pain and I know I was terrified. That describes most of the hike back though.
We finally made it to a familiar place. A natural veranda of hard packed earth and a panoramic view. The sun was finally dipping below the horizon. Amber and Abby took a moment to a picture or two.
While they appreciated the view I voiced a deep fear, carefully coated in words of denial, to Andrew. I spoke, babbled, of broken bones and inoperable damage. Still no tears fell.
Now we were nearing our journey's end. Despite the best efforts of my friends I was flagging. The dimness was beginning to become apparent and the others saw clearly what I, in my haze, did not. We had to be off the path before the darkness finally fell. We had to be back to the trail head lest we get lost and freeze to death. What I would later see as their worry, their own fear in those moments I could only feel their impatience.
100 yards to go of pack snow and ice on a gentle downward slope that I didn't appreciate any more on the way up. I could feel the others' frustration over my timid steps. My pride could not let me slide as Amber suggested though I did try for a few feet. Finally, the parking lot and the car came into view. The adventure was done. It had taken about an hour to hike up the trail to the summit; the way down had taken more than four.
In truth I was lucky in so many ways it is difficult to articulate. I rolled head over heels at least once and slid face first down a mountain. The worst injury I received was cuts and two black eyes from where my glasses were ripped from my face. Another fall and all it resulted in was a sprain mild enough that I could still hike on it.
Even then, through though the pain filled steps and the cold fingers of shock I knew how lucky I was. The injuries healed in time. The glasses, left on the mountain in payment for my survival, were replaced. The only permanent sign of my time on Flattop was my fear of heights increased tenfold and oddly enough, anxiety attacks when I drive.
I would call that a good trade.