Maybe it was the intense, mind-expanding experience fresh in my mind contrasted to the present bar talk that blurred things … the vodka cran in front of me was too full to be the culprit.
Trying to dust off the difficulty to focus and absorb, I took in the hodgepodge of wing night around me. My brother looked happy watching football with his friends. It felt good to be in his now rare company, as our lives had geographically diverged and I no longer asked him to drag me along wherever he went. But I couldn’t shake a numbness.
“This isn’t depression. I know my depression,” I thought.
The extraordinary presence I had felt for the last five days was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was still in the hills, wondering where the soul that it knew intimately had went.
Why am I feeling like this? It couldn’t be me. I wasn’t alienating myself. I just wasn’t where I belonged.
I had just come down, both literally and figuratively from my first experience with a big Canadian Rockies rig. Two super stokers, Jacky Soong and Kyle Martino, and I asked the Northeast Buttress of Howse Peak to dance. She obliged.
We kept up with the steps! Our hips were moving despite the dance floor crumbling beneath our feet! Our belief and strong desire to live out our dreams propelled us where skill alone wouldn’t cut it … Runouts. Flying microwaves of limestone. Janky anchors.
We were quite committed and had settled into a communal understanding of what was expected of each of us. The leads were shared with excitement. There was only positivity and action when the rope was passed, and the winds helped to whisk along the smell of fear. My mind thanked my friends Louis and Chris (if you’re reading this, you guys rock!) for pushing me in the Squamish Co-op when my body tension paid off and I was able to hold an awkward position after a hold exploded in my hand. High stakes Jenga at its finest!
The force of the try-hards was high pointed at the tail end of an exciting traverse off of the comfort of the buttress and into the jaws of the peak’s North Face. Kyle brought me over to the wild no man’s land that was the North Face.
The night before, sounds of rockfall lulled us to sleep below the glacier. Now, there was no filter. Not the words of another accounting the crumbling power of the notorious range, not the glacier. When it wasn’t booming, it was looming.
On the surface, she shouted about killing us, and how foolish we were for asking her to dance. Listening with my ego, I kept hearing these taunts. After much deliberation of the next move and quality of the belay, action was needed.
I don’t want to be overdramatic. If the belay was good enough to hold both our body weights I’m sure it would’ve held a fall. I’ll admit shamelessly I was quite scared to move off of it.
Though it really should, and in time it will—being one thousand feet up a crudely stacked mosaic of small limestone blocks just doesn’t offer the same objective perspective as a comfortable couch.
I tiptoed my orange boots on a series of large blocks and peered around the corner to an onslaught of water gushing down a wide crack system. I returned from my reconnaissance and told Kyle that I thought we should turn around, that it wasn’t our time to climb this route. Kyle agreed though neither of us wanted to officially pull the plug.
He got the double belay as he went over to deliberate with Jacky. Verbalization of our consensus was soon shouted to me from the buttress. We committed to descending. After another thoroughly quivering traverse, I saw my smiling friends again. We spoke of how there was nothing more we could do; we truly, truly gave it our all and it wasn’t our time. Our time will come–of that, I have no doubt.
With no entitlement to the summit, it would’ve been foolish to intertwine our desire of standing on it with our definition of success.
In these moments I understood a quote regarding one of Voytek Kurtyka’s philosophies of climbing: “He likened the collecting of summits to a kind of profane materialism, where the climber needs to possess the mountains, rather than accept—and be accepted by—their mysteries.”
She howled as we slowly left the dance floor, and in this long process, I realized her shouts were far from malicious. They were still scary, the way that raw and powerful beauty is, but no longer did I find myself afraid because the mountain was out of my control.
Besides, how does one attempt to control a massive piece of rock, and why would one want too?
After all, it is the untamable aspect of the mountains that inspire me to find, and harness that same quality within myself. The eastern part of the peak roared with falling rock and snow. Safe, we greeted our insignificance with Borat quotes and raised thumbs.
We took turns throwing ropes into the darkness, hoping for a ledge or a tree. The east face glacier we avoided—both out of thoughts of speed and overhead hazard concern, was a bright, silent, white above us.
We squeezed moss water into our mouths. Kyle caboosed a rappel off a single piton. Jacky’s pack stumbled off a ledge and into the night. “Off rappel!” became our alarm clocks for anchor naps. Laughter penetrated a once thought impenetrable darkness when Kyle shouted with glee that he found one of Jacky’s crampons in a tree, and then his whole pack on a ledge—or the valley floor, we couldn’t tell.
The Rockies held their cloak tightly, and we only knew we were off the mountain when our boots almost stepped into the alpine lake estuary of the glacier’s creek. It was 3 am, 23 hours after we had motored toward the glacier with Kyle’s phone blasting Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. A celebratory tea brew was quickly followed by sleep, and then unspoken suffering between Kyle and I as both our bivi bags failed to keep us dry when a Rockies storm rolled in. I couldn’t help but smile as I shivered through the rest of the aging night.
I felt alive. Maybe it’s masochism. Maybe it’s Maybelline.
My still soaked bivi bag hangs off my brother’s porch, and I dryly wrestle sleep inside on a couch. The lone vodka cran finds comfort in my dehydrated mind and body.
“This isn’t depression. You know your depression. You’ve just had the adventure of your life. Your brother just did your laundry! How can you be depressed? You just aren’t where you’re supposed to be.”
Something under those lines went through my head again and again. My sleep was fitful. Once I woke in anticipation for an alpine start alarm. Another time I woke and was confused not to see a painting from my partner that hangs on the roof of my minivan.
I felt guilty and lost. Guilty because I felt like this in the hospitality of my brother. Guilty because I didn’t feel like I was honoring my time spent in the mountains. Mostly though I felt lost. Lost in this quite straightforward position.
Fifteen hours earlier, Jacky and I were alone on the Fay Glacier. Moraine Lake and its $105.00/hour canoe rentals were no more than a kilometer or two away. The Neil Colgan Hut was no more than four hundred meters the opposite way. Our last interaction with another living thing was when a kind guide staying at the hut sent us off into the storm with an encouraging tap of his ice axe and a “you boys got this.”
Yeah! We do!
I was spitting at the ground ahead of me in order to get a sense of the definition of the terrain. I asked Jacky to make sure I was walking in a relatively straight line as I lead us into the unknown. It was a wild exercise of hope. We reveled in our fears being faced, and the absolute physical representation of adventure that was each step forward.
“It’s just you and me out here buddy!” Jacky exclaimed. I couldn’t see it very well, but I could feel his stoke through the rope, and I know he could feel mine. It was the only electricity in this snowstorm.
Once, we both partially broke through into the quiet and ancient world below us, its remoteness was magnified by the glacial blue of its gates serving as the only contrast to the rest of our immediate whiteout environment. Hope made the snow bridges stronger, and eventually, the clouds broke to reveal their work.
The storm left the Valley of the Ten Peaks dusted with snow, more concentrated at the peaks and drifting off into lower elevations. It was a single stroke of a paintbrush, where the brush lost its fuel but not its might as it graced the canvas. We stood in silence, and then whooped to the world. It was beautiful.
In that basement and the ten-hour drive to Squamish that followed, I remained lost. I wasn’t able to figure out the ingredient that made one lost and potentially dire situation incredibly full of joy, and how in the absence of said ingredient, a similar situation left me mentally stagnant with my tail between my legs.
All I could compute was that I was unable to feel present and therefore wasn’t in the right situation. As repeated, both in my mind and in this piece:
You just aren’t where you’re supposed to be.
Of course, this theory crashed and burned exactly where I “should’ve” been. I had just been a part of something beautiful. My friend Mike blended finesse and effort into a magnificent onsight(!) of the beautiful My Little Pony—a beautiful roof crack split like a structural weakness in a castle atop the Cheakamus Valley. Badass people do badass things.
It was my go, and I felt a high from the energy Mike emitted. I tried to use it to shake the fog that was seeming to settle in for the long run as I started up, and sort of did for a few moves. But the culmination of my aimlessness was upon me. It jumped on my back, too heavy to bear. I completely froze on the route. No part of me wanted to be where I was. It was if a force was trying to suffocate any feeling I’d ever had.
Climbing was no longer a refuge from this occasional feeling. I didn’t want to climb … a scary thought for someone who has devoted their life to climbing rocks. I didn’t want to do anything; a scary thought for a human being.
This lack of presence led to a gnarly fall adjusting a cam, which miraculously held. In those moments hanging on the rope, feeling heavier than I’d ever felt, looking down at my friend who so genuinely wanted me to succeed, I began to put the pieces together. I began to listen to what the world was trying to teach me.
I’ve been schooled many times by the mountains. This time, it was their absence that lectured and made me more untamed from myself. With my hypothesis on location being the problem now thwarted, there one place my ego had purposefully asked me to ignore: within.
I couldn’t blame my lack of presence on the external present. No amount of joy can be absorbed by a closed mind and a choked soul. It begins with something that no outside force can control: ‘effort’ when ‘effort’ is not easy. Effort when your mind tries to shout over your soul that you cannot, and should not.
I tried to harness this, and understood the mandatory urgency to do so. If I did not then, then when? I pulled back on and tried to pry off the squeezing hands my mind had wrapped around my soul. I screamed and screamed, and wanted to hold on. Synthesized effort soon evolved into organic effort. I eventually could no longer hold the pull up and fell to a lifting fog and a happy friend.
I asked Mike to lower me, hugged him, congratulated him, and thanked him again and again for pushing me in the right direction when I couldn’t see it myself. Mike took my thanks humbly, simply shrugging, “I knew if you didn’t go for it you’d kick yourself.”
Depression is a passing cloud. A passing cloud. We must find it within ourselves to believe in the wind that will push the cloud, and understand that no external force can produce it. No place. No people. It can be cultivated without, but must originate within. When it can only be synthesized, then synthesize it.
It is the wind. It is the key ingredient. It is the best of things. It is hope. The grass is as green as you want it to be.
From Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom Climbers
 Depression is different for everyone. Everyone I have spoken with about the subject has felt it in their own way. Personally, it has nothing to do with sadness, and more with an episodic inability to feel. The feeling—or lack thereof, is out of my control, but the response to the feeling isn’t. For me, depression is not a choice. Happiness is.
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