On Static Peak

Rick Kempa

We drop down off Buck Mountain Divide on the backside of the Tetons into the Death Canyon drainage, and there on the north face of the mountain is a white gash straddling the slope at a steep angle, sprawling eighty, maybe a hundred feet above and below the trail—hard to tell, because there are no trees to lend perspective. It’s a dry year, and this is the first snow we’ve encountered on our high-country hike that is more than a photo-op or a field of play. So little did I expect it that, this morning, I stashed my strap-on treads of criss-crossed wire coils deep in my big backpack. Bad idea! I am loath to dig them out; you hate to stop before you’ve barely started.

There’s a trace of a path across the snow to where the trail reappears about sixty feet beyond. In the high sun of late afternoon one could, with care, navigate the soft surface. But not now. It’s just past 7 AM, and night stills hugs the slope. “It’s going to be slippery as shit,” I say, stepping anyway onto the icy fringe, and immediately I am upended, backpack and all, hitting the ground with my left palm and the flank of my right leg—a graceless touchdown that sends arrows of pain up my arm.

“Aw, man, you OK?” Aaron says, but I don’t answer. In the knee jerk fashion of all who have fallen, I struggle at once to my feet and look around fiercely. “I’m going to climb up and over this bastard,” I say, and without pausing to inspect the route—or to inspect the damage to myself, for that matter—I drive my right boot into the damp earth beside the snow chute and heave my weight past the pivot point of my knee and drive my left boot in, and upslope I go, breathing heavily, working off the chagrin of falling in the only way I know how. The soil is still soaked from its winter-long submersion, and my boots backslide as I thrust forward. With each plunging step, I dislodge a spray of pebbles and they rain down behind me. A fist-sized rock—the biggest thing on this scoured slope—breaks free. “Watch out, Aaron!” I holler, and look over my shoulder.

He sidesteps it and squints up at me. He has shed his backpack and is digging into a side-pocket for his own set of treads, heavy-duty ones with sharp teeth to cut through the surface ice. I watch while he straps them on, dons his pack, and steps carefully onto the ice. The teeth bite, and he takes another firm step. “Hey, this isn’t bad!” he exclaims.

I resume my grunting ascent. I get to the upper edge of the chute and begin cutting above it. The slope here is verging on 60 degrees, and the earth, newly released from the grip of the ice, is a stew of sand and water particles in tenuous repose. There are no handholds. Messages from my muscles, from the quivering point of balance in my belly, from that quiet voice within me charged with my well-being, are bombarding the nerve-center, and they all say the same thing: Stop.

I am about thirty feet into the traverse. Just beneath my boots the ice begins its long sweep, widening then tapering like a giant teardrop. It is smooth except for a small ledge about two-thirds down where the trail cuts across. Suddenly, it is easy to imagine myself hydroplaning, bouncing terribly on the ledge, and cartwheeling down. And suddenly, looking first ahead of me then back from where I came, I see that there is no safe, sane way for a man with a heavy load on his back to take a single step. “I think I might be in trouble,” I call down to Aaron, and after a while, “Yep, I’m in trouble.” He is standing on the trail on the far side of the snow. He doesn’t say anything.

The mud beneath my right boot suddenly shifts and the knee wobbles. Whoah! Steady! I will it to be still. Slowly, I pivot around the fulcrum of my left leg until I am facing outward. I bite into the soil with my heels, squat, then lean back so that my pack, braced against the slope, forms the third leg of a tripod. This at least secures my center of balance. I take deep breaths to still the hammering of my heart. I am not going to fall, I think. That’s a ridiculous thought.

Without the pack, retreat would be easier; I would simply crabwalk back above the chute and scamper down. But with the added weight translated to my mud-slick boots, the enterprise seems tenuous at best. I could slip out from under my pack and bump it along beside me while I inch my way back. But this would wreak havoc on my center of gravity, which at the moment is situated quite nicely in my belly. And then there’s the matter of this damaged wrist. Already the skin is stretched taut over its puffiness.

“I think I’m going to drop my pack onto the snow,” I say.

“You can’t do that,” Aaron exclaims. “You’ll lose it.” He’s right; beneath the chute, there is nothing that would arrest the pack’s progress towards a cliff.

“I hear you,” I say, “but the real issue is how to avoid losing myself.” Again he is quiet.

And so I sit, breathing, exhaling.

I think about the ice axe in the mountaineering store in Jackson that I was too cheap to rent and of the crampons snuggled in my pack beneath my tent. Nice moves, man! That’s you all over, the King of Foresight!

Foresight hell! I could have used a little dose of plain old sight a couple of minutes ago when I leapt up like a mad bull, my brain gorged with blood, and attacked the side of the mountain. Of course I can see plenty clearly now, after the act.

Here’s a good one: I’ve been hoofing around this backcountry for forty years; if there is anything that should be a no-brainer, it’s to act deliberately—a phrase I like to repeat to myself on the trail. Or to put it more plainly, to not be a dumb-ass. And yet here I am again clinging to a cliff—the one difference being this time there’s a witness to my foolishness, my nephew standing there across the way, half my age, twice the sense.

I am not feeling these thoughts; rather, they are strung out in front of me on parade and I am just looking at them, one by one. And breathing. And, weirdly, grinning.

I’ve got time on my hands, so I keep thinking. Strange, how the electric impulses my damaged wrist is sending to my brain do not register as pain, but rather as beeps on a radar, just another field report from the outliers. What does that say about the things I call painful? I make a note to think about this more, later. Into my brain flashes the sad memory of the poker game last week, when I lost forty bucks before I knew what was happening; somehow that’s related to this. And once I had a dog who, crazed by thunder, somehow got up on top of a corner fence post and perched there all afternoon, all four legs tucked under him on a four-by-four inch square. Now, clinging to my own soggy patch of real estate, I am sorry for how we laughed at him when we found him. And oh I understand, I empathize with how that kind of thing can happen, if not to the smartest dogs, than to any old regular dog.

In time I get to thinking how good it is to sit still in the face of danger. Nothing bad is happening to me here and now. As a matter of fact, in this precise spot, this exact moment, I am not in danger, I am in balance. I can even relax my muscles, feel my heels and haunches and the bottom of the backpack rooted in the damp earth. There is no need to take any action other than to breathe in, breathe out; I can simply wait until right action takes hold of me. I become very happy.

My attention shifts outwards. Across the canyon is the big dome of Buck Mountain, glowing an eerie forest-fire orange, skirted on its flanks by the black fir forest and pleated by the white threads of ravines. From here, from there, the ground drops away into Death Canyon, the creek bottom deep in shadow more than a mile below. All around, near and far, other peaks and high ridges describe themselves against the soft summer blue. A marmot’s shrill whistle thrills the air, answered by another, near at hand. Behind their flirtation, utter stillness. My breathing now is deep and steady. “How beautiful it is!” I exclaim, and Aaron, also looking out, says, “Yes. Yes it is.”

On the far side of the snow-chute, our trail zigzags up the backbone of Static Peak before diving out of view against the skyline—a sight that would not be so startling had we studied the map with proper care in last night’s camp. Aaron’s carrying it this morning, and I call down, “Hey buddy. Let me have a look at that map, would you?”

He snorts. “You bet. Come and get it.”

Finally, without thinking—because this is something my body can do perfectly well without my big brain butting in—I lean forward, loosen the right shoulder strap of my pack and wriggle free of it, then do the same for the other strap. I grope around with my left hand until I find the sturdy loop sewn into the top of the pack, thread my fingers through it and close my fist. Digging my heels in even deeper, I lift the pack overhead, suspend it there for a long second while I reaffirm my balance, then heave it onto the slope beside me.

I shift my right boot a foot or so and replant it and, pushing off with my left boot, slide sideways, dragging the pack along beside me. Dig in with the left boot, move the right boot, push off, slide and drag, dig in… It’s funny how any sequence can so quickly become a pattern, something one need only follow. Soon I am past the edge of the snow chute and I can let gravity pitch in. I rise into a crouch, sling the pack over one shoulder, and half-step, half-slide down the shifting slope until I execute a last little leap and arrive like a gymnast nailing a dismount on the packed dirt of the trail.

“Nice,” Aaron says. He waits for me to catch my breath, then, with a deft underhand motion, as if he were pitching shoes, lobs his crampons one at a time across the ice-floe, where they land with a ka-chink at my feet. I strap the babies on, don my pack, and crunch across. Piece of cake. I slide them off and tie them to his pack. We check the map and cinch our straps and strike off up and over the crest of Static Peak, none the wiser, no doubt, but with another fool’s tale to report.

Author Portrait

Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches writing and philosophy at Western Wyoming College. He is editor of the anthology ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, published in 2014 by Vishnu Temple Press in Flagstaff, and co-editor, with Peter Anderson, of Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon, forthcoming in 2015 from Lithic Press in Fruita, Colorado. His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices (Oakland: Littoral Press, 2014).

View the website of Rick Kempa