Sometimes you don’t reach the summit. You might take a moment to rest above 12,000 feet to gaze out at the layers upon layers of peaks, and take stock of things. You find a nook of granite to perch yourself in. It’s warm from the sun. The wind whips up your ponytail. You try to stretch out your legs and sort of bend them into position around the angles and points of rock. You lean back a bit, feel the heat absorption through your T-shirt. Wildfire smoke hangs in the air like curtains, concealing and revealing distant mountain ranges in hazy layers of burnt orange and gray.
To your surprise, a ladybug crawls out from behind a stone. A spot of bright red joy. You marvel at the discovery of another living being here, sharing this rarefied air. You cast glances at some of your party already nearing the summit and assess how far you have left to climb (150 feet of elevation). You assess your fatigue (quads tired from pumping, traps weak from scrambling). You assess your vertigo (which you’ve kept at bay for the last hour, but only just). And you acknowledge for the thousandth time Krakauer’s wisdom that even when you reach the summit, you’re only halfway done.
Sometimes, you don’t bag the peak after all. Especially if it’s your second summit of the day…
I met Bill Manny on Instagram. A former journalist for the Idaho Statesman, Bill is now a producer for Outdoor Idaho, a program on Idaho Public Television. We liked the mountain pics in each other’s IG galleries, and soon I was soliciting climbing advice for a return trip to Mt. Borah—Idaho’s tallest peak at 12,662’. When Bill invited me to meet in person to discuss an outdoor program they would be filming in the Lost River Range, I jumped at the chance. Over our iced coffees on a sunny patio, Bill told me he was producing a show about hikers trying to summit all 9 of Idaho’s tallest mountains.
“So we are looking for some people to attempt two summits in one day—Mt. Donaldson and Mt. Church. What do you think?”
“Two mountains…in one day?”
“Yep. Our cameraman will be filming some footage during the climb, and we’ll conduct some interviews afterward. Is that something you’d be interested in?”
I had first attempted Borah with my step-dad at age twelve and turned back at the infamous Chicken-out Ridge. Then in 2009 and again in 2011, my husband and I reached the summit together and with friends. I’d been on Borah twice since then for a total of five climbs, although not always reaching top, so I was familiar with scrambling, loose shale, exposure, and as much altitude and prominence as Idaho could offer. But as for the other eight peaks in the class of nine 12ers,…well, I couldn’t even name them.
“So how does that work…climbing two peaks in a day?”
“Well, you summit Mt. Donaldson first, and then it’s a long ridgewalk to the top of Church,” he said. He made it sound simple. He made it sound doable.
So I said yes. Bill and others in our group had already climbed these peaks so they would be our guides. And I had been watching Outdoor Idaho since I was a kid. I could just imagine Bruce Reichert’s voiceover as our group reached the summit of those beautiful, craggy peaks.
The eve of our big climb arrived. My husband, sister, and I joined some of our party to camp near the Mackay Reservoir at the base of the Lost River Range. Just after sunset, in the blue hour of haze and shadow, the mountains became a two-dimensional paper cutout. All topographic contours dissolved, leaving only a single line where mountains met sky. With my index finger, I traced the blue traverse from Donaldson to Church, imagining what tomorrow would bring—and for just long enough to fall asleep, beauty overtook my fear.
The Donaldson and Church climb can be divided into four sections: 1) canyon; 2) talus slope; 3) headwall; 4) ridge. Our party of 13 set off at 5 a.m., headlights bobbing like fireflies. It’s an eerie feeling to hike in the dark. There’s only a white pool of light at your feet illuminating your boots on the trail. All else is black. There is no context or environment. It’s like floating on light. We persisted uphill, through the vegetative canyon. Shrubbery and branches snatched at our legs and I was grateful for my long pants.
At first there were threads of conversation among our group, still mostly strangers. “Which 12ers do you have left?” “Where do you teach, Erin?” “It’s so smoky this summer!” But as the steepness intensified, talking gave way to panting. We settled into the quiet business of stepping and breathing.
A sinewy peakbagger and backcountry skier named Dave set our pace, and in no time, my skin was damp with sweat. Dave may as well have been lifted from a Patagonia merchandise ad and I began to wonder if I had made a mistake agreeing to climb with other fitter, more capable mountaineers and a TV production crew. But I reminded myself that this was exactly the point of the show: regular people, not climbers, who love to climb mountains.
By the time we neared the end of the canyon, morning had dawned. Donaldson peak came into view up ahead with its funny, slanted summit that leaned over like a broken tent. We were above the tree line now, and had reached phase two: the talus slope. I watched the hikers in front of me lean into the mountain as they climbed, compensating for the incline. This was going to be a slog. Step, slide, step, slide. Loose shale scuffed and scraped against my boots, while smaller fragments broke free and skittered away. Although progress was slow, there was a growing, familiar sensation of “I’m doing this” as I put more and more of the mountain beneath me.
Eventually, I reached the bowl at the top of the talus field. We sat around the small green pond, which, by late August, was nothing more than a shallow tarn. Fluorescent algae blooms floated like sponges. Yet it was our only water source for the rest of the day so we pumped and purified it into our Camelbak bladders and sipped long, cool drinks.
Thirst slaked, it was then that I looked up. I could no longer see the summit of Donaldson because we were too close to it. Obstructing my view was phase three of the climb: the headwall. Oh, I can’t do this, I thought. I am just a hiker. Not a climber. Could I be? Did I have the strength? I voiced my anxiety to my husband, Sean, and sister, Anne.
“You guys…” still craning my neck upward, searching for a trail or passage that wouldn’t appear. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Yeah…this looks intense,” Anne agreed.
“We can do it,” Sean said. “We just have to follow Bill. And Terry. And Jay. These guys know what they’re doing.”
“Yeah, but look at that wall,” I insisted. “How do we go up THAT?”
“One step at a time,” he said. It’s a mountaineer’s cliché. A metaphor for life, and a euphemism for all manners of hard tasks down below, where my real life existed. But could I literally implement it here on this headwall? That’s why euphemisms are so sexy. They stand in for arduous reality.
We scarfed down parts of our peanut butter sandwiches and watched two young men, not part of our party, begin their route-finding. Skirt the pond, scale the loose scree field, follow a rocky chute up into the cliff face, disappear for a while, and reappear to scramble to another chute, working up, up, up. Three points of contact at all times: two hands and a foot, or two feet and one hand.
One step at a time.
“Shout ‘ROCK!’ if you kick something loose to warn people below you,” Bill said cheerfully. He tightened the chinstrap on his helmet.
We muttered some expletives with equal parts fear and grit. We had gotten ourselves here. We must keep going. There was an unspoken agreement in my little family unit to persist with the climb.
We donned our helmets, and began. Our group deliberately stayed together this time, lest rocks kicked free would gather too much momentum before we could warn each other of danger.
Little by little, loose footstep by loose footstep, we began to find a way. As in The Labyrinth, the wall wasn’t as impenetrable as it first seemed. Small passageways appeared where nothing had been apparent before. This wasn’t hiking anymore. This was definitely climbing with hands and feet propelling us upward. More than once I had to scoop gravel from around my ankles, and more than once we ducked when someone hollered “ROCK!” But by degrees, we eventually found ourselves in the open again, on top of a ridge that delivered our first view to the north.
“How far to the top?” I breathed.
“See that point right there?” Bill pointed. I looked up. “That’s it,” he said.
“Really?” I had beaten the headwall! I could see the summit! It looked close enough to touch, and once we crested the ridge, it was only 20 more minutes until our group finally reached the pinnacle of Mt. Donaldson at 12,023’.
There were hugs and high-fives. Collective gasps of achievement. Smiles, laughter, and sighs of relief. We snapped summit photos, arms raised in victory. My elation came out in childlike giggles—a euphoric sense of accomplishment that has driven me to other peaks since then. That feeling while hiking of “I’m doing this” had become “I did this!” And that feeling is downright addictive.
After some high calorie snacks, our jubilation on the summit began to ebb because we weren’t just climbing one peak that day, but two. From Donaldson peak at 12,023’, the col between the summits dips to 11,700’, meaning we would have to descend over 300 feet before regaining that elevation and then some to reach Church at 12,200’. We looked toward our next destination: a pyramidical, striated, beast of a mountain. My-oh-my, was it beautiful.
As we turned toward Church, we were accosted by high-altitude wind, ripping along at over 30 miles per hour. We screamed at each other to be heard, but even our voices were snatched away. Wind dried my snot and saliva. Clothes whipped against my body. My ponytail smacked my face. I began to fear the gales would rock my balance and hurl my fatigued body from the granite spine. How quickly recent endorphins were supplanted by familiar exhaustion.
At some point along the scramble when we had begun to ascend again, our party had naturally spread out and I found myself alone on the knife-edge ridge. All at once, my fatigue and fear outpaced the last of my ambition. I decided to take a seat and take a selfie. Later gps data gathered in the properties of my photo would tell me I had reached 12,056’. A mere 144’ from the summit. But I was done. I had reached MY top. Hindsight would romanticize the moment and try to convince me I should have finished the climb. After all, I was within earshot of the others who cheered me on from the top. “Come on Erin! You got this!” I could see their happy and waving silhouettes, and oh how I wanted to follow them! I was Pahom, being cheered on by the Bashkirs…but this teacher of literature wouldn’t be seduced. Hindsight glosses over reality. If I’m honest with myself, the moment in which I decided not to summit Church was absolutely the right moment for me to stop.
Since I am not a mountain climber–not really–but a regular person who happens to like climbing mountains, my metric for success must be much more than the summit itself. For me, it was about settling into a rhythm of breaths and steps. It was about feeling my heartbeat as my body accepted the climb. It was about all the tiny decisions I made throughout the day that demanded my focus: where do I place my next footstep? Am I drinking enough water? Should I stay straight here, or switchback to the left? I laughed an awful lot. I saw Mt. Donaldson silhouetted against a copper sunrise. I saw peaks of my childhood stacked against the peaks of my present. And at my terminus, I met a tiny red ladybug above 12,000 and had a chat with her about altitude.
“What altitude?” she queried.