I climbed a mountain this summer

Hold your admiration: it wasn’t Everest or the Matterhorn. There were no Sherpas involved, no high-altitude oxygen tanks or ice picks and carabiners. Still, for a slightly out-of-shape, 50-something desk jockey, it was an achievement worth noting – if only because it was less about the exhilaration of summiting than about the humility of struggling to get there.

Algonquin Peak, at 5,115 feet (1,559 metres), is the second-highest within the 46 Adirondacks High Peaks region in Upper New York State. From the summit, you can look down on and across more than a dozen other peaks. Far down, near the base of a nearby slope, the ski jumps that remain from the Lake Placid Winter Olympics are little more than dots. It is not an insignificant hill.

There are two ways to ascend Algonquin: one trail leads to the summit through a steep and rocky passage; the other, less travelled route, is even steeper, with rock faces like giants’ tables tipped on their sides. We chose the latter.

We were a good-looking bunch when we left base camp two days earlier. Six of us with hiking shoes, backpacks, tents and enough food and enthusiasm to carry us through our four-day adventure. Two football players in their 20s, two ultimate-frisbee athletes in their 30s, my husband (a climbing veteran) and me.

If this were a travelogue, I would write of the stunning rockfalls created by enormous landslides. I would tell of the spectacular 90-metre Hanging Spear waterfall that tumbled over a cliff, and the rainbow varieties of fungi that dotted the trail. I’d tell of the bear that snatched neighbouring hikers’ provisions as they watched, and leaving behind a trail of food wrappers in its scat.

Dependent and reliant
But this is not a travelogue. From the start, I was the laggard. My right ankle, which I’d sprained playing slo-pitch two months earlier, was nagging at me. My new backpack was ill-adjusted. By the time we took our first rest stop, two hours in, I was wondering whether I’d make it.

Our football-playing friend taped my ankle, we successfully adjusted straps on all our packs and forged on. The trudgery and drudgery converted into joy and wonder at our surroundings. We lobbed whole Monty Python movie scenes at each other and giggled like teenagers.

Then came day two. The tread of my left shoe came loose from its sole. Our ultimate-frisbee friend secured it with a half-roll of hockey tape. Then the other sole failed. More hockey tape. Ibuprofen became the balm my ankle needed.

Now, I am used to being the strong one in a group. Capable. Confident. And here, I wasn’t any of that. I was dependent and reliant – and painfully aware of it.

Yet here was the marvellous thing: I was never last. Even where they clambered up rocks like mountain goats and I clung with tentative toeholds to those same boulders, there was always at least one person who watched my back.

When we reached the toughest rockface – an expanse of sheer slide as long as a football field, and so steep we couldn’t see more than a few metres beyond us – I nearly cracked. But the three ahead of me had conquered it, and the two behind me guided my tenuous tiptoeing, and so we made it up that wretched stretch together.

Never alone
“You can do this,” became the whispered mantra.

And so we did, together singing. Beyond the evergreens, past the fragile shrubs found only in the tundra and at high altitudes, beyond the treeline where lichen was the only vegetation that could survive, and to the windswept top.

My climbing friends had carried me.

The view was spectacular. How Great Thou Art, indeed. We danced, we sang. We rested. We ate calabrese and captured the moment in photos.

The more weeks that pass between then and now, the more I appreciate it. We’re even planning a return trip.

And Matt Redman’s song, Never Once, resonates in my mind now as it did on Algonquin Peak: “Standing on this mountaintop looking just how far we’ve come, knowing that for every step, You were with us.”

Even so, it’s been a tough couple of months back here in a more civilized environment. Work pressures, friends’ sorrows and world events sometimes seem like cliff walls, impossible to scale. But I’m learning to lean more, to depend more. There’s the chorus of Redman’s song – “Never once did we ever walk alone, never once did You leave us on our own. You are faithful, God, You are faithful” – and it resonates through this season like exultation from the highest peak.

  • Deb Flaherty is a reporter for The London Free Press. She and husband Dan live in London, Ont.

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