Joel Wilner

Higher Ground

On the final summit push, my mother lags behind me, sweating in the sun. I’m crushed in this incredible heat too, but we’re determined to reach the top at all costs. We must – this is the final peak of the current expedition, the crowning achievement, the determinant of our success. We’re one of the first mother-son pairs to ever attempt this brutal series of summits. I stumble over my feet and spit out some dust. The saliva fizzles on the ground.

Up ahead, the summit gleams. It must be only a hundred yards away now. My mother smiles, tired behind dark sunglasses. We’ve made it, she says. But not yet, I warn. No matter how skilled or experienced a mountaineer is, vigilance is crucial at all times. One misstep could leave you falling off a cliff, plunging into a crevasse, or struck by a passing Toyota.

We move to the sidewalk to avoid the Toyota.

I scan over the Delaware entry in my highpointing guidebook. “Okay, the highpoint should be somewhere in the middle of this road!” My topographic map shows the highest contour encircling Sulky Road; Ebright Azimuth – at 450 feet above sea level, the highest point in Delaware – is located in a mobile home neighborhood. Here in suburban Wilmington, toddlers shriek, running around in sprinklers. An old man paints his motorcycle. This is a different kind of wilderness, the kind with manicured lawns and feral garden gnomes. A savage place, and not for the faint of heart.

My mother and I are on the last leg of our Mid-Atlantic highpointing trip, having just climbed to the highest natural points in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and, for good measure, the District of Columbia. This is our first true, multi-state highpointing road trip, the first of hopefully many together – we aim for all fifty states.

There seems to be a slight, nearly imperceptible rise in Sulky Road. Could this be it – the glorious roof of Delaware? The topographic map certainly thinks so. My mother and I embrace, champions of the Mid-Atlantic. I run out to the exact spot in the road and my mother takes a ritual picture of me, arms extended in triumph like Rocky. The old man with the motorcycle sees us and rolls his eyes. What a shame, I wonder. He must not appreciate living on a great American mountain.



To the Indian tribes of the Cascades and the Puget Sound, Tacoma – what we call Mount Rainier – was God. The mountain shook with a seismic divinity, spouting fire from his head, drowning the landscape in silvery luster. He was a harbinger of disaster, a recipient of great fear and great respect by all who lived underneath his gaze. But Tacoma was merciful, too: he provided ample game in his meadows, clear water, fertile soils, and earthly delights for the eye. Simply, Tacoma was God: generous, terrible, splendid, wretched.

My mother does not want me to climb Rainier. Over 400 have died on its slopes. At 14,410 feet tall, it is not only the tallest peak in Washington and the Cascade Mountains; it is also the most heavily glaciated peak in the continental United States. I have no experience climbing on glaciers. But, as a state highpoint, I’m going to have to climb Rainier eventually. Why not now, when I’m young?

It is August. In June, six climbers died on Rainier, making national headlines. Two were guides, four were clients; all were vastly experienced. A torrent of rock and ice swept them off of Liberty Ridge. They fell over half a vertical mile.

Casual hikers often trek through the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir – the first leg of my route – as a day hike. Although the section isn’t technical, it’s deceptively dangerous. Sometimes, these day hikers underestimate the lower slopes and their own abilities; overzealous, they get caught up in rapidly changing weather, lose the trail, freeze to death. The bodies of the dead can be seen in the Snowfield every now and then, poking through the snow when it melts enough. They lie there, rotting cold.

At Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I eat piroshkies with my mother and father down by the waterfront at dusk. I’m climbing Rainier in a few days with Whittaker Mountaineering, a guide service. My mother won’t be joining me this time. We’ve determined that we have to give up the dream of becoming the second mother-son duo to climb the fifty state highpoints; some of them are just too intense for her. But she’ll do as many as she can.

“You’ll be safe,” my mother says, mid-chew. “You’ll be with guides.” She doesn’t quite believe herself, but these little Russian snacks are damn good. The gobs of potato and pastry puff and cheese probably have some sort of meditative effect. Perhaps not strong enough, though.

“Mom,” I say, quietly. “You don’t have to worry about anything.”

She grabs my hand.

In the distance, Rainier stands guard over Seattle. A potentially active volcano, it’s not erupting, not yet – that’s just the sunset, glinting little spheres of saltwater rainbows in my mother’s eyes.

I eat the last piroshky.


Two miles high on the mountain.

As personable as Elías is, there’s something innately dictatorial about him. Breaks are efficient and precise: exactly ten minutes, sit directly on top of your backpack, water now, food next, rest later, get up when I say, an hour until the next break, this is non-negotiable! Not that I would dare argue with him. Elías is a champion mountaineer, a premier guide; Rainier, the tallest mountain in Washington, is a child’s game, a distraction from his real playgrounds, the Shishapangmas and Denalis and Dhaulagiris of the world. He has lost count of his Rainier ascents; he estimates at least seventy.

This will be my thirteenth state highpoint, and my first technical climb.

I am doing fine, but some others in the group are not. Mike is over sixty years old. He is not in terribly good shape, and is beginning to spar with Elías and his unrelenting pace. Today’s practice jaunt up to the Ingraham Flats from Camp Muir may well have proven too much for Mike; it was a mere fraction of tomorrow’s summit challenge. Matthew, on his third attempt of Rainier, has contracted a stomach illness. He doubts his chances.

The sun slithers behind Rainier’s pale crest, and Mount Adams and St. Helens are doused in a tenuous fire. In the darkness: a rockfall, the sound of smoke.

We wake at midnight.

It is not until the top of the Disappointment Cleaver that I notice the team has shrunk. Taylor, it appears, returned to camp at some point in the Cleaver. He joins Wendy, Mike, and Matt. Their wait, I imagine, will be agonizing.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. So they say.

Ladder, switchback, a cold sweat. The Cleaver is the crux for most novice climbers; it is hours of dulled crampon scraping rock, of chalky dust sucked into already-compromised lungs. We are glad to be done with it – even Elías, it seems, but undoubtedly for our sake and not his.

I think of my mother.

We reach High Break. At 13,500 feet, we stand near the top of the vast Emmons Glacier – the largest glacier in the continental United States, and one hell of a bowling alley: rhyolite boulders and lava bombs from untold millennia of volcanism pile up two miles below at its foot. I do not wish to follow suit, and despite the precaution of team self-arrest, one stumble is sufficient. Rainier rarely bowls a spare.

Boom! Tha-thump! Clink!

My heart should definitely not be beating this fast for this long a time, I tell myself. I’m walking slowly, am I not? At this altitude and level of exertion, lungs struggle to partition the air for increasingly sparse oxygen atoms while blood begs for nourishment. The brain becomes funny, cast into something of a morbid drunkenness; each monotonous detail sharpened but reality blurred, mind held by an instinctive dread. The sun rising: clouds, a prayer. In this holy vastness, I can hear only incantations of boot-slam-ground, heartbeat-on-fire, axe-chip-ice.

Boom! Tha-thump! Clink! Boom! Tha-thump! Clink!

Crater rim, scarlet sky.

Boom! Tha-thump! Clink! Boom! Tha-thump! Clink!

A tapestry of butter and blue.

There are tears now. I fall to my stomach, embrace summit. Almighty Tacoma holds me, too, in his grasp.



The peaks are not the sole objective. All state highpointers will agree that perhaps the best parts of any highpointing trip are the nooks along the way – the buried corners of America that you’d never think of visiting otherwise – and the people you go with, the people you meet along the way.

After flying into Little Rock we begin the drive to Mount Magazine, 2,753 feet above sea level, the highest point in Arkansas. Magazine will be my fourteenth state highpoint, my mother’s thirteenth and my father’s sixth. At a rusty gas station, we pick up Subway sandwiches for lunch later, a ritual that has become routine for us (it is surprising what a weeklong highpointing jaunt can teach you about the utter joy of a toasted turkey sandwich). Between Lays chips and Kit Kat value packs on the shelves: a Confederate flag, an air rifle.

Magazine rises, a long spine. Prehistorically submerged, hard sandstones protrude from the sides of Magazine: erosion, that terrible taskmaster, has stripped away bands of the mountain’s skin.

“What trail are we going to be taking, exactly?” my father asks, tapping the rental car’s wheel. I have offered to drive; hungering for control, he refuses. It is nearly noon. We must be on the road by sunset – Magazine is a four-hour round trip hike.

I smile, though I know I shouldn’t. “Well, it’s actually part of a longer trail. I think we have to take a dirt road first, there should be a trail that crosses it, I hope.”

He glares and grits his teeth, a-tap-a-tap-a-tapping wheel. “Isn’t there a road up the mountain? Why can’t we drive to the top?”

I only barely hold in the contents of my stomach. “Because,” I say, “that’s cheating.”

Highpointers each have their own standards of ethos and rules, guarded fiercely. There are the purists, like me. We believe that a highpoint shall not be tainted by auto-roads; an honorable summit is one achieved under one’s own power. But questions arise: how far up the mountain should one start to constitute a “true” hike? There are those of the radical sect, the ultra-purists, who believe that respectable highpoint treks only begin at sea level and are conducted under one’s own power; this sect has very few adherents. Then there are the casual highpointers, who claim a summit by whatever means available, usually by auto-road if there is one. Unspoken but fierce divisions abound between these groups; if a fifty-state completer conquered Denali – the deadly roof of America and a true mountaineering challenge – but drove the auto-road up Mount Washington (or – gasp­ – rode the tourist cog railway to the summit!) instead of hiking, the purist may consider the fifty-state completion null and void. The Highpointers Club of America has established no rules governing what dictates a “true” highpoint; in fact, the club requires no proof of a climb whatsoever. Club founder Jakk Longacre felt that those who embrace the outdoors are, by their very nature, honest people, bound by some sort of spiritual union with the truth.

To say the least, highpointers are an interesting folk.

By some miracle, the trail actually exists. We begin, and I record. 11:48 AM start time, 1,394 feet start elevation. We highpointers are exquisite in our bookkeeping; through our statistics, we document our absurdities, our obsessions. It is a shameless indulgence.

Through a hazy southern backwoods, we trudge towards the roof of Arkansas. To ward off hunters, we wear bright yellow jackets and sing “99 Bottles of Beer” as loudly as possible; a spectacle to behold, especially my mother. Though it is a mild fifty degrees, my mother, a small woman of kind eyes and a bright air, wears heavy mittens and four layers. She doesn’t carry a backpack; in its place is a pink drawstring bag. Today is her fifty-second birthday. I feel awful that we planned this trip over her birthday; she tells me this time together is the greatest gift possible.

All of a sudden, we stand alone as the highest people in the state of Arkansas. We go through the regular summit rituals – a point-of-view photo of my feet directly on the exact highpoint, a photo of me with my arms raised, a family portrait, and, of course, a summit pebble.

1:35 PM summit time, 2,753 feet summit elevation.

Whenever I tell people that I am trying to climb to the highest point in every state, there are usually two standard responses. They go along the lines of: “Huh, that’s interesting!” or the slightly amended version, if I am talking to an avid hiker or outdoorsman: “Huh, that’s interesting… but isn’t it a little strange to treat nature like a list to check off?” Either way, most of those who are unfamiliar with the sport view highpointing as a novelty.

On Magazine’s crown, beneath white oaks, I wonder:

I am a trivial, inconsequential, oddly-shaped scrap of hydrogen.

I live in buildings scarcely older than myself, in cities that will be lost to history in the span of milliseconds on the celestial clock. My country and all its glory, its horror, its brilliance – like all the others, it will inevitably dissolve into time; that viscous soup, filmy membrane. I walk in caverns that predate multicellular life.

I am an irrelevant, invisible blip of carbon and oxygen.

But I climb this country, its states arbitrary lines in dirt, manmade paths of dust. I seek these summits, these artificialities, breathing in the elements cast out through space from supernovas. They have settled here, in this moment, in this time, to become what we have made them to be.

We are the stuff of stars!



Matthew Gilbertson sits on a concrete stairway next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Student Center. I see him from a distance. He is wearing only a Berea, Kentucky mountaineering t-shirt and shorts, even on this brisk, windy early spring day in Cambridge.

Should I turn around? What if I embarrass myself? This is the Matthew Gilbertson, after all. Fifty state highpoint completer. MIT mechanical engineering PhD recipient. Published author. Patented inventor of three handheld force-controlled ultrasound probe designs. Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. He and his twin brother and fellow MIT PhD student Eric have summitted 77 country highpoints. Biked from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Montana once. Married to a beautiful Johns Hopkins-educated anesthesiologist. Twenty-nine years old.

I am the only person around carrying his own weight in camera equipment, so Matthew sees me too. He gets up and comes over to greet me. Oh no, he’s really tall.

“Hey, I’m Matthew,” he says, voice robotic, rumbling deep like the earth. His hair explodes into fiery curls.

I manage a too-wide smile and a shaky “Hey, what’s up, man, I’m Joel!” Dammit.

We head inside the MIT Student Center to grab some lunch before the interview. Matthew asks me how the traffic into Cambridge was. “Uh, good,” I say. “I mean, a little bad. Well, you know, it was, uh, fine, really.” Shit.

We sit down at a food court Subway and Matthew offers me a free copy of one of his and Eric’s books, Mountain Adventures, autographed by both of them. They have similar signatures: sloppy cursive, like fourth-graders.

During the interview Matthew tells me about his very first and favorite country highpoint (country highpointing is essentially state highpointing injected with an excessive dose of human growth hormone and insanity). After an engineering conference in India, he scheduled an eleven-hour layover in Bahrain so he could climb the tiny Middle Eastern island nation’s highpoint. Bahrain, a sandy kingdom known mainly for oil refineries and not for topographic variation, rises 440 feet to its apex at Jabal ad Dukhan. Matthew arrived at 11 PM.

Between wealthy businessmen and oil sheiks, Matthew flagged down a taxi and asked to go to the empty center of Bahrain, where Jabal ad Dukhan is. The confused taxi driver, probably not accustomed to driving young foreigners to the middle of nowhere at midnight, reluctantly agreed.

Soon, they reached the foot of Jabal ad Dukhan, a short but steep rise in the dust. Lights from Bahraini military facilities pierced the darkness. “Stay here,” Matthew told the taxi driver, knowing that the driver wouldn’t go anywhere since he didn’t pay him yet. “I’ll be right back.”

Matthew jogged off onto the trail, equipped with a headlamp. After a quick hike, he reached the roof of Bahrain, snapped a few summit photos and took some summit rocks. But on the way down, he noticed something strange. A Jeep was driving towards the parked taxi. Three people got out of it. Probably Bahraini military, Matthew figured. Not too happy he’s sneaking around government land in the middle of the night.

For a moment, Matthew worried what would happen to him once he got back to the taxi. But then the concern shifted, as it would for any good highpointer, to a more pressing matter: the summit photos. Would they make him delete them from his camera? Then, he wouldn’t have any proof that he climbed the highest point in the country. Thinking quickly, Matthew took out the camera’s memory card and stuffed it into his pocket.

When Matthew got back to the taxi one of the military personnel approached him. “Passport,” the man demanded. Matthew gave it to him. The man glanced at the passport, then back at Matthew. “Follow me.”

The three men took Matthew and the taxi driver into a small military building. “Show us your belongings,” they ordered. Matthew dumped out his backpack onto the floor. “What you doing here?” they said. “Why you come to hill in middle of desert in Bahrain at night? What are you, huh? Spy?”

So Matthew told them, as puppy-dog, ignorant-American as possible. That he just wanted to climb the highest point in Bahrain – that’s all. That he’s no spy. He showed them one of the summit rocks. “I take a rock from the top of every mountain I climb. A souvenir, a memento.” he said. He held up the rock to them. “Would you like the rock?”

No we would not like the rock!

One of the military personnel noticed Matthew’s camera. “You have pictures on there?”

“No, I thought I would get in trouble, so I deleted them.”

The military personnel exchanged long, silent glances. One of them tried to hold back a smile. This was probably the most fun they’ve had out here in a long time. “Okay, you may go.”

And so the highpointer, smirking and victorious, was free, summit attained – as it should be.



We touch down in El Paso on a cool March night. My father has joined me and my mother on this highpointing trip too. The metropolis of Juarez, Mexico twins with this Texas border town over the Rio Grande. From up above, the city lights all look the same. There are no boundaries in the darkness.

We wake early. We are heading to Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8,750 feet, is the tallest peak in Texas. This will be the highest peak my parents have ever climbed. My sights are set on the next mountain, though: Wheeler Peak, the tallest in New Mexico. No one climbs Wheeler in winter.

Guadalupe Peak, part of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, is an uplifted reef, hundreds of millions of years old. As the ancient supercontinents Gondwana and Laurasia collided, massive mud deposits of dead calcareous sponges rose from the prehistoric ocean. The dramatic cliffs and canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains are but skeletons in the desert, a shootout in the Wild West. As we hike, the tombstones bake in the sun.

We follow switchbacks up a dusty mountain face. All of Texas unveils itself at our feet. Shriveled tree; snakeskin.

The Texas air is bone-dry. Only the elephant in the room permeates it.

I have to climb Wheeler. “We’re driving through Taos anyway,” I tell my mother. A lizard scampers ahead of us on the trail, gone in an instant. “Wheeler Peak is right next to Taos. I’ll regret it forever if I don’t climb it.”

I know what’s coming. “Joel, I would feel much more comfortable if you were hiking with someone else,” my mother says. Neither of my parents would be able to climb Wheeler with me. They have no experience hiking in snow. My father is deathly afraid of heights. My mother’s fingers go numb in supermarkets.

“I climbed Mount Rainier,” I remind them. “That’s one of the hardest peaks in the continental United States.”

My father chimes in. “But that was in a guided group with knowledgable guides. If you get hurt, you won’t know what to do.”

I’ve learned to hate guiding services. Why pay a guide when you can experience the thrill of the expedition on your own, for free, making all of your own decisions along the way? I kick a rock off the trail. I know I’m being a self-righteous, stubborn teenager right now, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made in battle.

A descending hiker approaches us from up ahead on the trail. He gestures at me and my Whittaker Mountaineering t-shirt. I don’t know why I’m wearing a guiding service’s t-shirt. “Whittaker, huh?” he calls out.

The hiker, an old guy with a serious sunhat and a deafening Texas accent, had climbed Mount Rainier with Whittaker too. “Who was yer guide?” he asks. I tell him it was Elías. “No kidding! Elías was my guide too! Great guy.”

The hiker hands me a business card. “Robert Junell, federal judge,” he proclaims. “What are y’all doing in the Guadalupes?”

“We’re doing some highpointing, climbing the highest peaks in a few states in the Southwest.”

“Ah, highpointers. Where y’all heading next?”

Before I can say anything, my father says, “Joel wanted to climb Wheeler Peak in New Mexico next, but we’ve heard it’s a dangerous peak.”

Junell laughs. “Wheeler? Forget about it. Too much snow. Avalanche risk is too high. Come back in the summer, I’ll do it with you.”

My father feasts on the affirmation. Fresh power. “Right,” he says. “That’s what we’ve heard. And Joel wanted to do it alone!”

Junell bellows and places a hand on my shoulder, beaming. “No.”

“But I’d be taking the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail,” I interrupt, trying to stay as civil as possible. “It’s gradual. There’s no avalanche risk on that trail. And I’ll have snowshoes.”

Junell’s grin fades and he looks me in the eyes. “Ed Viesturs – you know Ed Veisturs? Famous mountaineer, climbed Everest without oxygen – once said… you know what he said? He said ‘getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.’” My father drinks it all up, like oil from a rig.

I open my mouth in a rebuttal but Junell cuts me off. “Son, I am a federal judge.” I force a smile and we bid each other farewell.

My father chuckles. “Well, I guess that settles that.”

In a cloud of dust, I speed off on the trail.



We arrive at Taos. My father and I ski at the Taos Ski Valley resort our first day there. Conveniently, Wheeler is in full view from the ski mountain – a fact that I intend to take full advantage of.

On the chairlift, my father looks down at the ground, fifty feet below. He grinds his jacket collar between his teeth and grabs onto the chair and whimpers. “Why does this chairlift not have any friggin’ safety bar?”

“Well, Dad,” I say, “to get your mind off of this chairlift, check out Wheeler Peak over there.” I motion to the east. “Looking mighty fine today. And easy.”

“No, Joel,” he shouts. “I’ll be the one to decide this, and that’s final.” The chairlift jerks to the side: “Oh, fuck!

The snow is wet and granular beneath our skis. At noon, Wheeler’s still there – taunting. Over 13,100 feet tall, it forms a long, triangular ridge. Most hikers take the Williams Lake trail up – it’s much shorter in length, only about six miles round-trip, but also much steeper, making it a magnet for avalanches. The trail I want to take, the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail, is over fourteen miles long round-trip but much shallower in slope, and follows the ridge, making navigation easier.

Something’s interesting on Wheeler’s west face. I point it out to my father. “See that?” He squints. There’s two ‘S’-curves carved into the snow, intertwining all the way from the ridgeline to the valley. “People have been skiing there today.”

My father shrugs and says nothing.

“Which means that people have hiked up to get there.”

A text from my mother. She’s been talking to people in town about climbing Wheeler. The owner of a local ski rental shop said it’s not recommended. That I’d be crazy, that there’s still avalanches on the Bull-of-the-Woods this time of year. Another ski shop owner said it could be done, maybe, perhaps, but only if I went with somebody else. Our hotel owner said he’s done it in winter before. That it’s no problem. That he’d let his own kids do it.

Later that day, we all talk to the hotel owner together. This could be my golden ticket. I tell him that I’ve climbed Mount Rainier. He says Rainier is exponentially harder, guide or no guide. No, there’s definitely not going to be any avalanches on Wheeler with the current weather conditions. He tells my mother to stop worrying. I’ll be fine.

I rent snowshoes and buy food for the climb. We have an early dinner in the hotel room. Over pasta and apple juice, few words are exchanged.

Then my mother breaks down.

These aren’t the same tears as before Rainier. These aren’t just the tears of a concerned parent.

These are the tears of a mother whose child has left her, whose child is free to the world. Whose child is grown.

Whose child is gone.



My father drops me off at the trailhead. He nods. I hug him.

My headlamp is on in the morning dark. There are no sounds. The trail turns from dirt and dead leaves to snow ten yards in. Microspikes on. It’s peaceful here in the woods.

Dawn creeps in. I can see all of Taos through the trees now. There are plenty of hiker tracks and cross-country ski tracks here. The snow is deeper, so I put my snowshoes on.

At an hour and a half I reach Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, a strange field between the trees. There are cows here in the summer. A yurt sits at the far end of the pasture.

I walk across the field. Posthole. Crunch. Posthole. There’s no trail on the other side. Wait. If you reach the yurt, you’ve gone too far, I suddenly remember reading. I backtrack. Half an hour lost. Damn.

More forest. I trudge for an hour. I rest. A finch flies over. It tiptoes up to me on the snow and inspects my backpack, wondering what the hell I’m doing here. I try to answer, tell it about the finer aspects of highpointing, but it races away.

I’m near Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, the first peak in the ridge. I try to call my parents to give an update. There’s no signal. I’ll try again later.

I reach ridgeline. The wind is punishing, but the view of the ridge is worse: I have at least five more miles to go. I climb, up and up, then down. I wish I brought skis.

Between Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain and Frazer Mountain, I posthole to my waist and scream. No one hears me. The wind is picking up too – 45, 50 miles per hour – blowing shards of ice into my face.

I think of my mother.

The summit of Frazer. La Cal Basin, a vast white expanse before the rise of Wheeler, rests before me. I watch something huge gallop across the basin and into the forest below. Sasquatch? No. A bighorn sheep, maybe. I wonder what it’s running from. I eat lunch – ham and a block of cheese – in La Cal Basin. Can’t get the stupid plastic wrap off of the cheese. Just ham then, no cheese.

I look behind myself – three bighorn sheep graze on a rocky ridge, several hundred feet away. The biggest one sees me too and stares. Will it charge? This thing could easily kill me. We watch each other for five minutes.

The bighorn sheep goes back to munching; I continue on. And I don’t know where the trail is. The hiker tracks that I had been relying on are gone. Whoever this was must have turned back here. I’m hopelessly alone now, in an ocean of white. The mountain still rises in front of me.

I have no idea where I’m supposed to go, so I head for the nearest ridge. Maybe I can follow it to Mount Walter, the subpeak of Wheeler. I cut through a patch of woods and find into a tree-less gulley, most definitely cleared by avalanche. It’s a hundred yards across. I start into the gulley.

Shit shit shit.

Any step could trigger the whole thing. That guy said there are no avalanches now, but I’m not sure I believe him anymore. I reach the bottom of the gulley; I’m still alive. Need to book it. On the uphill I sprint, get out of there, collapse in the safety of the trees. Sit there for twenty minutes. I see the trail reemerge in the distance, cut into windswept ridge rocks.

I slog to the ridge. It’s maybe fifty feet away, steep. I get there in half an hour. On the other side, nothing – a sheer drop to the valley and Horseshoe Lake. Bad news. Stay to the right. Don’t let the wind take you. Dad would fucking love this.

I wonder what my mother is doing right now. If this is worth it. Why would I do this to her. How selfish I am. How stupid, how terrible.

On Mount Walter the wind knocks me over. I take shelter behind a cairn, which offers little refuge.

And then –

I look up and Wheeler’s summit pyramid is right in front of me. This highpoint, this higher ground – what will happen to me when I get there?




I think of my mother.