One Stormy Night

They’re getting ready to keep going. It’s 3:30 a.m. They’ve been in sleeping bags for 30 minutes and probably didn’t sleep at all, though they tried, because after 22 hours of Colorado’s highest peaks, their bodies can’t relax. Rather than waste time lying with eyes wide open, they decide to keep going. They still have nine 14,000-foot peaks left to climb before the 60-hour time limit is up, and the balance between keeping going as long as possible and getting enough rest to allow continuous forward movement is delicate.

They are Missy Gosney and Anna Frost, and when they finish they’ll be the first women to complete the Nolan’s 14 route, which links up fourteen 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range in a single push. Like most mountain objectives, this has no productive value and is really quite arbitrary, but there’s something magical about choosing a difficult goal and sticking with it to the end. Just about everything people do is pretty random, if you really think about it, but people can create great value by constructing goals, investing them with values that mean something to them, and then devoting everything to their completion.

You can tell that Anna, at least, is investing every fiber of her willpower into completing Nolan’s when, after rising from her sleeping bag and preparing to resume her trek in the windy, starlit, mountain night, she finds that the dry socks she expected to wear have in fact been sitting in a puddle of rainwater that seeped in through the tent. In just the last 24 hours, Anna has climbed, with Missy at her side, five of the highest peaks in the highest state in the U.S., with much of the route off-trail, and all the while braving storms and lightning that battered them on exposed ridges and through vast tracts of alpine tundra. But this sock issue is the first real heartbreaker of the day, and anyone who has ever adventured in mountain terrain will understand: fresh socks are just about the most wonderful thing a cold, tired traveler can possess, short of good food. A dry pair of socks can revolutionize bad attitudes and reignite fading morale. A wet pair of socks can be grudgingly borne. But to find cold and soaked a pair of socks expected to be warm and dry is truly a slap in the face, and has ended greater undertakings than Nolan’s, probably. So it’s a real testament to Anna’s character that she puts them on.

Missy is at once all business and completely scatterbrained. She has an incredible ability to maintain focus on the task at hand, and is forever rehashing the route ahead even while trying to eat her first real food in eight hours, change out of wet clothes, and get a little rest while the opportunity exists. We, her crew, have been literally holding down the fort for almost an hour prior to their arrival, as intense bursts of thunderstorms blasted through our little meadow and threatened to blow away all the supplies we dearly hauled up to give the girls. At least we were in the tents while that took place, while they were out braving the elements. We ask the girls if they’re okay and if we can somehow soothe their frazzled nerves, but they seem wholly unaffected by the Homerically-epic torment they must surely have weathered in nothing more than tights and light jackets.

“Oh that storm?” says Missy, furrowing her brow scornfully. “It’s been, like, storming all day on us.”

“The real problem was that we couldn’t find the trail in the fog and kept wandering around,” says Anna.

At this point in the night, the storm has moved beyond our campsite and on to the south and east. We are far above treeline and can see the black sky like a glass ceiling all around us. The stars shine above us and extend to the cloudline, which can be denoted by a wall of darkness away yonder. These clouds impart a powerful sense of doom, and they taunt us with frequent flashes of distant, silent lightning, which throw into sharp relief not just the jagged geography of the mountain range cradling us, but also the fearsome topography of the thunderheads fostering the torment. Ten or more silent seconds after each lightning strike, the growl of thunder rolls over us, intimidating and malevolent.

The girls see none of this, however, since they’re inside the tent and entirely focused on the task at hand. Brett Gosney, Missy’s long-suffering husband and the official crew chief of the Missy-Anna-Nolan’s-Project (MANProj? Maybe not…), is in the tent with them, filling up their backpacks with fresh provisions and gear with a surgical efficiency. The light from the headlamps flashing around the tent is bright and harsh, localized by their beams to cast intense light in certain areas while rendering invisible those areas beyond the shadow line. The rest of the crew huddle around the tent, trying to help. Conversation is scattered and repetitive.

“Okay, dear,” Brett says, thumbing through Missy’s pack, “You have three bars, a few gels, a peanut-butter sandwich and these electrolyte tablets are going to be in the top pocket here. “

“What, honey? I didn’t catch that,” Missy responds, fumbling with her tights.

“Your food is in here. Do you want to take this puffy jacket?”

“Do you think I’ll need a puffy jacket?”

“It’s up to you, dear.”

“Well, what would you do?”

Brett sighs. “You’re the one who’ll be running. Remember, you won’t see a crew again until about 1:00 p.m.”

“Hey, has anyone seen my bottles?” Anna calls from the other side of the tent.

“They’re right here!” says fellow crew member Mauri Pagliacci, as he fills up Anna’s soft flasks. “I’ll bring them right over.”

“How about that lightning back there?” says Missy. “That kept hitting and I was like, ‘Whoa’.”

“Anna, do you want to take this jacket?” asks Hannah Green, who just finished pacing them. “Yours is all wet.”

“I couldn’t take that. You’ll need it.”

“I can take yours. We aren’t hiking out until the morning.”

“But what if you get cold?”

“Anna, what if YOU get cold, and there’s nobody–”

“HEY! Isn’t this fun!” Missy cuts everyone off. She’s putting on wet socks now, too. “Don’t you just love this?” Her tone has a lilting rise at the end, indicating that she could just as well be saying, “Isn’t this just a load of crap?”

A round of halfhearted cheers goes round anyway. We are seven people huddled in the mountains on a cold, windy night. Mauri takes Anna’s pack and puts the water bottles inside.

“Do I have enough food for the next section?” Anna asks.

“Yes,” Brett responds quickly, “You and Missy both have your food in the top–”

“Hey babe!” Missy interjects, “Did you put any food in my pack?”

Too many helpers; I keep getting in the way. I retreat 50 feet up the hill, to where I can only hear the murmur of voices and the cold breeze shushing down the mountain. The slope above me curves upward, ever steeper, until it vaults into nothingness at a sharp triangular peak high above. Beyond this shine the stars, brighter than imaginable, thrown into relief by the dark of the slackening storm behind, given perspective by the arc of the Milky Way. The night sky is a marvel and I am struck by a sense of pride to be able to participate in this chilly frenzy of activity, this simple excess. The world seems so unadorned and clear in this light, with these people, in this frame of mind. The stars are sharply radiant and they cast the hulking mountains into vague silhouettes. To the east the storm rages silently, and centered among all this, squatting firmly on the grass among the rocks, is the tent. Phosphorescent and glowing like a million-faceted geode, the tent is full of colors that shift and fade and change as it incubates the arbitrary dreams of two ambitious people.

There are 5 comments

  1. MountainRoche

    Awesome writing Dakota, really great to read.

    So true: "Just about everything people do is pretty random, if you really think about it, but people can create great value by constructing goals, investing them with values that mean something to them, and then devoting everything to their completion."

    So beautifully written: "…the tent is full of colors that shift and fade and change as it incubates the arbitrary dreams of two ambitious people."

Post Your Thoughts