It’s a dingy bar. Dark and musty. Where, I’m not exactly sure, but there is a feeling of sadness that radiates on every level. The light trickling through dusty, half-drawn shades is not telling of any particular time of day, perhaps evening. Weak rays of sunlight barely cut through the haze that lingers at the edge of my vision. In front of me: a cheap plastic tablecloth littered with bottle caps and empties. I grab the fifth of bourbon and pour another finger’s worth. A tragic country song emanates from the jukebox across the room, cutting through the silence of this poorly lit and empty place. Just one in a thousand seedy dive bars scattered across the landscape of this divided country. Sitting across from me is a friend I haven’t seen for many years. Cigarette butts spill from the ashtray, and smoke hangs in the corners of the room amongst the spider webs and unfulfilled promises of its inhabitants, past and present.
by Vic Zeilman, Senior Contributor to The Zine. Published in Volume 18, now available
“It’s good to see you,” I say, taking a sip. But he only responds with a nod and exhales a steady stream of smoke into the air. The silence returns.
“I’m sorry we lost touch over the years,” I offer. “Truth be told, I don’t know what happened. I think I was just putting some distance between me and some of the stuff in my past.” I light another smoke and watch the tip glow red as I reach across the table and pour more whiskey into his glass.
“I should have invited you to the wedding,” I say reluctantly. “I know you wanted to meet her.” I pause and take a sip from the dirty tumbler. The soulful wail from the jukebox once again fills the awkward silence, compelling me to continue: “I should have invited you though. I know that now.”
“Can I ask you something?” I inquire, pausing as our eyes meet. “Why did you kill yourself?”
At this, he gives a halfhearted grin and stubs out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. His eyes are ablaze, yet a thousand miles away. Just as I remember.
He speaks: “You recall that time we were camping at the beach on the Outer Banks? And the fog rolled in so thick that we were completely lost? We couldn’t pick out any landmarks, so we walked around in circles for hours just trying to find our way.”
“Of course, I remember,” I respond, taking another drag. “I still feel that way sometimes.”
“Well, you’ve got time to figure it out,” he responds, grinning in that enigmatic way. “You’re still here. Don’t forget that.”
And just like that, the conversation is over. I gasp for breath, and my dream state is shattered. I wake in a cold sweat, frantically groping at nothing in the tight confines of my ice-encased sleeping bag. The smoky country bar has vanished, and so has my friend. All I see are ice crystals plastered on the nylon surface of my existence. I struggle to make sense of it all, but nothing fits. It’s three a.m. Dusky twilight. It’s thirty below zero, and I’m at 17,000 feet on Denali in Alaska.
For hours, I shiver and roll aimlessly in my bag. At this hour, the Arctic sun, which never truly hides itself this time of year, brings with it no warmth. I am alone with my thoughts. Why am I even here? So far away from my family and loved ones, nearly three weeks into a trip in one of the most inhospitable places I’ve ever been, and for what? As climbers, we seek these experiences, I suppose. Solitude, landscape, and self-reflection meld together into a life-altering experience, whether you realize it at the time or not. At the end of the day, I chose to be here, even if at this particular moment I no longer wish to be.
This brief-but-startling conversation that just took place with my departed friend Mike is reeling in my mind. I can almost smell the faint odor of cigarettes and stale beer mixed with the ever-present stench of body odor. A dream so vivid, I wonder why he chose to visit now. Perhaps up here amongst the clouds and thin air, when the mind’s grip on reality transforms into a hypoxic dream, there are simply fewer barriers to the soul. Or maybe it’s just a physiological response to a place no human can ever truly inhabit.
In the early hours of the morning, I take a deep breath and slowly unzip my sleeping bag. Warm air is immediately sucked into the cold void of my tent, leaving me breathless like a plunge into icy water. I quickly slip into my heavy down jacket and awkwardly urinate into a frosty Nalgene bottle. Too stubborn to put gloves on, I grab my notebook and pencil and scribble the following:
High on the mountain, life is altered.
It is nothing more than a hypoxic wonderland.
Thoughts ignite, burn brilliant, then extinguish in an instant.
They are traces of ash swept away by Arctic winds.
You grasp at moments of clarity like trying to net butterflies on the breeze.
High on the mountain, the departed visit your dreams, but this too is an illusion.
Loneliness and cold, the only true reality.
There is no life amongst the cathedrals of ice and snow.
The frozen temples shimmer and shake, ever changing, yet…
In an instant, my hands are too numb to continue, and all at once, my thoughts are empty. I climb back into the confines of my bag and settle in for another few hours of restlessness before the sun crests the ridge and brings warmth to my frozen world.
The Alaska Range is a landscape of almost unimaginable scale. That is to say, big doesn’t even begin to describe it. These are monstrous peaks, glaciers, ice flows, faces, and ridgelines, several miles in length, immense and dangerous, and seemingly impossible to ascend in many cases. My flight into Denali base camp had me glued to the aircraft window, completely awestruck in a way I never imagined I could still feel about mountains. The regal centerpiece amongst these peaks is Denali itself, its summit reaching nearly four miles above sea level. Situated three hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, it is ravished by bitter cold and intense storms, with an elevation that feels a couple thousand feet higher than it actually is due to the atmospheric pressure this close to Earth’s northern pole.
Sixteen hours ago, my two companions and I took our last remaining steps onto the summit of this mountain via the West Buttress route—the simplest passage to the top of North America, attempted by hundreds of climbers each year. As light snow fell, we stood amongst the clouds as they spun and danced, obscuring our view of the glaciated world around us. With cold hands and ice clinging to my mustache and beard, I used a satellite phone to call my wife and son. Between labored breaths of exhaustion and exhilaration, we shared a brief connection that transcended the immense distance between us, and it grounded me in a way that had been missing these past few days. To hear their voices, to know they were okay, and also that they were happy for me brought a peace and calm to my being that was essential to my preservation. I remember Reinhold Messner talking about a state of bright, clear consciousness in his high-altitude endeavors. As he put it, “The summit—for the time being at least—is the simple intuitive answer for the enigma of life.” I agree. It’s high-altitude euphoria.
Ten a.m., the morning after: coffee, water, down booties, and sustenance. Dave, Shane, and I sit together in the tent discussing plans for the day as I diligently work at choking down two packets of instant oatmeal mixed with pieces of Snickers bar. Calories: the only thing that matters, despite the lack of appetite. In the dugout cooking area near the entrance to the tent, we take turns adding snow to the pot as the stove rumbles and spits and angrily throws fire. The sun’s rays illuminate the colorful nylon walls, and for the first time in a while, I feel warm.
I am lucky to be here. As a climbing ranger for the National Park Service, I am on exchange from my home park in Grand Teton, stationed on this whimsical mountain for nearly a month, ready to respond to an injured climber or rescue situation. Every other part of the experience is simply a perk. Upon reaching the summit and returning to 17-Camp, most parties would be packing up and heading down, making it to base camp as quickly as possible to catch the first available flight back to the welcomed comforts of Talkeetna. But we’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Our tour of duty will not be complete for several more days.
As we discuss plans for the afternoon, it is clear that our unprecedented window of exceptional weather is not one to be squandered. In moments like these, the best course of action is to simply walk uphill and enjoy the view. In a place where being tent bound for a week in abysmal weather is possible, if not expected, one does not question the powers that be when the skies are clear and the winds are calm. As midday approaches, we suit up, pull the rope out, clip into crampons, and “go for a walk,” as Dave likes to put it. There is an almost-superstitious feeling as we slip away from camp. The three of us don’t elaborate on any details of our intended walk, but we all know where we’re heading if the stars align: the North Peak, Denali’s striking subsummit. At 19,470 feet, it is a worthy objective in and of itself. Sitting 850 feet lower than the true summit, it is slightly more technical and arguably more dramatic than its higher neighbor. Compared to the thousands of climbers who have stood upon the pinnacle of the mountain, the mysterious and seldom-visited North Peak has seen but a tiny fraction of those ascents.
For over an hour, we carefully retrace our steps back up the steep snowfield marked with fixed snow pickets above 17-Camp, known as the Autobahn. Roped together like a weary chain gang, we move slowly, but in sync, one step after another. Bitter cold air ravages my lungs as Rage Against the Machine pulses through my ear buds and drives me farther up the hill. I place each cramponed footstep with great vigilance as to not trip and pull my companions off the slope. High clouds swirl and spin, whipped and shredded in the strong currents thousands of feet above us, as other cloud layers boil and billow and pour up from the lowlands below. At Denali Pass, the prominent saddle that drops into the Muldrow Glacier on Denali’s northeast aspect, we pause for an immeasurable amount of time, taking stock in the energy of the sky and the broken bands of black rock intermixed with ledges of snow that lie ahead. I am exhausted and light-headed, but I remind myself that I may never be here again in my life. The time is now.
Some believe that every peak has an energy source—a specific point from which the lifeblood of the mountain radiates, a specific region that can stir strong emotions for those who enter its sphere of influence. Whether this is true or not, I do not know, but I have definitely felt a powerful connection to features of iconic mountains where I have spent significant time over the years. In his thesis “‘Natural’ and ‘Symbolic’ Energy of Mountains,” Dino Gilbert Haak states, “Mountains are places of increased energy. They are more than lifeless landscape features…‘Natural Energy’ is physical (it can be heard, seen, and felt) as well as psychical (it can be perceived by the mind and intuition). It influences the area on and around a mountain physically…as well as psychically (reports of strange sensations, feelings, visions, divine beings). [This] influences the psyche of an individual…” For me, the lifeblood of Denali radiates from its northern peak, untrodden and mystical.
Now several hours into our journey, we have successfully navigated the maze of rock bands and snow ledges above Denali Pass, cresting the steep snow pitch that leads to the flat plain below the summit ridge of the North Peak. Exhausted and bedraggled, we trudge across this vast flatland. I am high. I am spent. I am in the midst of a hypoxic daydream best explained by lack of oxygen to my brain and being pushed to the limits of physical exertion. With each slow and rhythmic step, I take a breath of frozen air and exhale slightly warmer water vapor. Plumes of condensation float upward, then dissipate like pieces of thought, impossible to retrieve or examine on any deeper level. Music no longer blares from my headphones—only the sound of the wind cutting through eerie silence and the crunch of my boots along frozen, windswept snow. And in this moment, I am elsewhere.
It’s a dreary, unimpressive day: muggy and hot. I have spent the morning piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of a locomotive streaming through a mountain scene with snowcapped peaks and a river. But that is not where I am. I am in rural Ohio, in a hospice facility, sitting across the room from my grandmother who is sleeping peacefully. I place the final piece of the puzzle into its preordained place. There is nothing left to be done. It’s time for me to go home. In this surreal daydream, I go to my grandmother’s bedside, just as I did on that particular day all those years ago—that awkward day when I couldn’t figure out what to say to someone who was dying, someone I knew I would never see again once I walked out the door.
In my vision, I see my grandmother’s eyes open, and I see her smile. I bend down and speak quietly. I give her a hug and tell her the name my wife and I have chosen for our unborn son. A family name that she would have celebrated. A great-grandchild she will never have the opportunity to meet. There’s a pause, and I say, “I just wanted you to know that.” Then I stand up and walk toward the door for the last time. These were the words I wished I had spoken all those years ago, but I didn’t. Sometimes in life, we often think of the best things to say after the conversation has ended.
Tears stream down my face and freeze instantly. I attempt to wipe away the icy streaks on my cheeks as I continue to trudge uphill along a piece of earth few people have ever ventured across. It’s hard not to feel some connection to something greater here in this otherworldly place, so close to heaven, stripped of any semblance of normalcy or sanity and emotionally wrecked beyond all recognition. I put one foot in front of the other until there is nowhere higher to stand.
On the summit, our small group gathers in silence, scanning the horizon to the north and staring down Denali’s Wickersham Wall toward the Peters Glacier. We give tired fist bumps and embrace each other. After three weeks in close proximity, we know each other well. We are lifelong friends. Such is the bond of climbing and the trust that is developed therein. Judging from their faces and the overall mood, I can tell that my companions have spent the day processing their own mental baggage. There is a feeling of solace upon reaching our objective, as if the three of us were meant to be standing here together at this particular moment in time, sharing this experience. Preordained, like the placement of that final puzzle piece. Whatever this is—this sense of clarity, euphoria, purity—I know it will not last forever. It never does.
With my head in the clouds, I think about my friend Mike who visited me in my dreams, now several years gone from this Earth. It’s the small things that I remember most: How he used to wear plain white Hanes t-shirts in high school, and how I would sit behind him in English class, drawing unicorns and hamburgers and other random shit on a pristine canvas with Sharpie marker. I remember how he used to roll through the parking lot in the morning each day, sticking his head out the window of his massive baby blue Volvo station wagon, blaring the theme song to Star Wars. How he used to piss me off when we were roommates freshman year of college by leaving his dirty clothes, dirty dishes, dirty everything lying all over the place. I think about all the backpacking trips, the concerts, the substance-fueled adolescent adventures, the nonsensical conversations that took place at that age, when your ideas of the future and what it means to be an adult are so idealistic, and deeply flawed on so many levels.
Like so many people who leave this world too early, Mike lived a short-yet-vibrant life, and he didn’t give a fuck what other people thought about him. He was cool because he didn’t care about being cool. He was smart and straightforward and outspoken to the point of being abrasive sometimes. He felt things deeply, and he cared about the injustices in the world. He was a mediocre student but a ravenous reader and gifted writer. He was part punk rocker, part poet, and he probably would have been a rock star if he didn’t suck so badly at guitar. He loved the outdoors: backpacking, camping, and canoeing. I drug him up a few rock climbs over the years, but climbing was not where his talent or interest lay. I used to make fun of him, saying, “How could someone so tall and lanky be so terrible at rock climbing?”
The last time we talked was several years after I moved back out west and had gotten married. Our conversation that particular evening seemed forced and stagnant. There was a distance there that was greater than our geography and the general disconnect of any given phone call. I wish I had known what he was going through. I wish I had known that this would be the last time we ever spoke, my last opportunity to share a laugh with someone who had been such an important friend in my life. But things rarely work out that way. I didn’t have the same luxury of saying good-bye to Mike as I did with my grandmother, and that will always haunt me to a certain extent.
Standing on the summit of the North Peak, my heart aches, but my soul is at peace. The details of my friend’s death and the motivations therein are difficult to process. I have unanswered questions, of course, but I tell myself that the answers won’t change the outcome, so I file them away and move on. After years of doing this, perhaps my mind simply needed the appropriate combination of time and space for my subconscious to wrestle with all the emotions I didn’t even realize I was harboring. Or maybe my friend just figured it was time to meet up again, face-to-face, if only in a hypoxic dream. After all, we always talked about going to Alaska together. Whatever it may be, I somehow feel a sense of closure that I didn’t even realize had been lacking.
After the three of us returned to Talkeetna, I asked Shane if he felt a similar level of emotion that day as we summited the North Peak. I had known that Dave recently lost his brother, and although I never openly talked to him about it, I could sense that he had been wrestling with some strong emotions throughout our time on Denali. Knowing my own mental state, I was curious what Shane was feeling as we wandered together that day above 19,000 feet, sharing a rope, but each of us swallowed up by our own thoughts.
Shane explained that, as he was climbing, he was thinking about the five years he had known Dave and what that relationship meant to him, how Dave had lost a brother, but Shane felt as though he had gained one. He explained, “The things Dave taught me, his insights and their delivery, all contributed to saving my life. I was at a nearly unsurvivable all-time low, and Dave’s love held me from the depths so that I still had the strength to climb out…that day, the spectrum of loss and gain unfolded in a way, and at a time, I could see it all, and it overwhelmed me up there. I was just crying and walking.”
Days later, I am sitting in a busy airport terminal—Dallas, Chicago, Denver—I don’t remember where, and it doesn’t even matter. It’s all the same. After a month of quiet, solitude, and reflection, I have been cast into the midst of noisy chaos—the bustling, never-ending stimulus overload that is our present-day culture. It is a startling sense of confusion. Somewhere across the room, a baby is crying. An overweight man in a suit is talking loudly on his cell phone as he paces the aisle, sweat forming in droplets on his forehead. A couple is obviously drunk and laughing hysterically. The intercom squawks and crackles and shrieks incessantly. A twenty-four-hour news network is broadcast on every screen, but nobody is paying any attention. My sense of annoyance is boiling over, scalding my newly found sense of contentment.
Yet I close my eyes, and still these visions of the Alaska Range dance in my head: the midnight alpenglow with all its shades of pink, orange, and violet; billows of clouds engulfing massive wind-ravished peaks; icefalls crashing down frozen faces of rock, sweeping down couloirs, and pushing clouds of powdered snow onto glaciated flatlands below. These are memories of a landscape so vast and wild that I am left with a sense of fragility in my own existence. There is so much loss in this life, but also so much mystery, passion, and beauty.
I recall moments of clarity like fragments of dreams, hard to articulate, and impossible to share. A brush with the metaphysical, the magical, and the surreal. All of these sensations, so vivid that I long for a reality I know is not sustainable—a place in which, ultimately, I cannot reside. Perhaps this is the climber’s dilemma: the real world versus a world that feels simple and raw.
Unlike some who have romanticized mountains to the point of theology, I am pragmatic enough to doubt that there are any life-changing answers to be found on any particular summit. I accept the fact that life is an enigma. But I have also felt the power that resides in these peaks, ranges, and spires, and it keeps me coming back, time and time again, always searching for that unexplainable feeling of freedom and clarity. I long for that beautiful hardship in an awe-inspiring arena that buzzes with natural energy and emotion.
But the flip side is always the same: I miss my family, and I want to be with them. No mountain, no summit, no climb can ever fill that place in my life. In the end, mountains are mountains, but this unexplainable sense of wonder that is felt in their presence is forever engrained in my psyche. These hypoxic dreams—like a reflection of our true selves on some greater level as we struggle with life’s greatest questions.
Once again, the intercom booms and shakes, loud and obnoxious. I look at my ticket and slowly stand up. I unplug my cell phone charger from the outlet near my seat, throw my Subway sandwich wrapper and empty coffee cup in the nearby trashcan, and take my place in line with the rest of these weary travelers. In a few hours, I’ll be back in Wyoming. I wonder if my son learned to ride his bike while I was gone. I hope not.
Vic Zeilman is a Jenny Lake climbing ranger and Crested Butte ski patroller. He spends his summers in Grand Teton National Park with his wife, Heather, and son, Finn, and the rest of the year in Gunnison, Colorado, a town he is proud to call home. He is the author of The Black: A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.