Suffer For The Summit

Words and Photos by Amber McDaniel.

If years of hiking and climbing have taught me anything, it’s that the best adventures are misadventures, and no achievement on my climbing resume reinforced that notion like Holland Peak, the highest peak in the Swan Range of the Mission Mountains of northwest Montana.

Maybe I should have taken running out of gas on the way there (and the resulting late start) as a bad omen and tried another day, but I was optimistically determined to bag the peak that had long been on my tick-list.

 “It’s only eight miles round trip.  We have plenty of time,” I reassured my boyfriend, Chris, as we drove past the Cooney Fire Lookout toward the trailhead.  It was already 2 pm, but as long as everything went as planned, we would be down before dark.  But things rarely go as planned and as Laurence Gonzalez writes in Deep Survival, the second rule of survival is, “Everything takes eight times longer than it’s supposed to.”

Trail #192 began nearly flat for the better part of a mile, before splicing into two routes: #192, continuing straight toward Holland Falls, and our path, a game trail that didn’t appear on any map splintering off left and up.  And up.  And just for a change of pace, a little more up.  Straight up the mountain, in fact, foregoing any switchbacks entirely.  I knew this hike was supposed to be steep, but this was practically vertical.  Slap a few bolts in the loose powdery soil and call it Class V, I thought, doubled over and desperately trying to supply my burning muscles with oxygen.  My “quick” eight-mile hike became a slow slog and I was beginning to think that Holland Peak was less of an undiscovered gem and more an understandably avoided landmine. 

As we emerged from the forest into an open burn scar carpeted white with Beargrass blossoms, we met a trail runner, far too chipper for my liking, who declared he had just come from the summit, promised “just a bit more climbing” (a retrospective laughing point), and jogged on his merry way.

Shortly after, we crossed a tenuously balanced log over a stream and found ourselves at the shore of Lower Rumble Lake, a peaceful bowl of bright blue water that melted into an impressive wall of stratified cobalt blue and orange shale.  If you could handle the unrelenting, exhausting trail with additional camping gear, it would be a gorgeous backcountry campsite, and rumor had it, was plentifully stocked with fish. 

But our destination lay further on and the trail charged upward once again, funneling us onto a loose shale slide beside a cascade connecting Upper and Lower Rumble Lake.  The higher we got, the smaller the talus became until we were wading through scree that swallowed our feet with every step.  For every two feet gained, we slid back one.

Eventually, we reached Upper Rumble Lake, slightly larger than its lower kin and unsurprisingly deserted.  We stopped just long enough to refill our water bottles, our focus fixed instead on the ominous u-shaped cliff, 1,500 feet high and eight miles wide, rising from the far shore.  Though the left summit was the goal, we headed up the adjacent south summit to the right to tackle Holland via the ridgeline. 

Up another narrow dirt path, we pulled onto the ridge, now separated from the summit only by the exposed knife-ridged col between the peaks.  To the left, a sheer drop down to Upper Rumble and to the right, massive stone slabs that angled steeply enough that one slip would send us tumbling uncontrollably into the valley below.  And balancing on the ridge between, of course, was two exhausted hikers taking careful steps against a strong side wind.  

Finally, we stepped off the ridge and onto Holland itself for one final push.  But one more became two then three as we ran into false summit after false summit.  Just as I was about to collapse from frustration, Chris sat down ahead of me beckoning me onward.  “You be the first one to summit,” he said, pointing to the obvious final rise ahead.  “This is your mountain.”

I smiled and strode past him onto the geological survey marker reading 9,356 ft. In four miles (three, really, since the first was virtually flat) we had gained around 5,000 feet in elevation, and amidst all the pain and suffering, there was immense satisfaction.  I inhaled the thin air, relishing in the natural high that came from seeing the world open around me on all sides. 

Though we had conquered this monstrous mountain, we now had a new beast with which to contend: darkness.  By the time we made it back across the col, the sunset was in full bloom, painting the sky brilliant shades of orange and yellow and engulfing Holland Peak in a fiery alpenglow that could only be described as breathtaking. Maybe I was just winded from the hike.

My admiration was short-lived.  While I had already come to terms with the fact that we would be night hiking out, I wanted to reach Lower Rumble Lake before dark.  We almost succeeded.  After practically wearing holes in our pants from sliding on our butts down the slopes, we made it to the hillside just above Lower.  The thing about shale trails, however, is they’re hard enough to see in daylight.  In the gloaming twilight, it was all but impossible, and we lost the trail entirely.  Luckily, we knew where it would pick up on the opposite end of the lake, but we still needed to get there, stumbling blindly through rocky ankle traps and dense underbrush now slick with newly falling rain.

At that moment, I jarringly realized we were in over our heads.  I had underestimated this mountain, conversely overestimating my own abilities, and because of that, we were laughably unprepared.  Darkness enveloped us and we had no headlamp, one dead phone, and one on 50% battery.  Up the creek without a paddle?  More like up the mountain without a flashlight.  Worse, we hadn’t told anyone where we were.  Our only stroke of luck was stumbling into brief cell reception, allowing us to message our landlord explaining the situation, our location, and a request to send search and rescue if we weren’t back by morning.  Small comforts.

My mind, already clouded by anger and embarrassment at the disastrous situation I perceived to be entirely my fault, began swimming with worst-case scenarios and stories of mountain lions and mangled hikers. While I believe a certain degree of fear is healthy, keeping you aware of what’s at stake, too much is debilitating.  Biologically, stress erodes our ability to perceive our environment, and thus to react to it.  We see less, hear less, and misinterpret that which we do.  I was no exception and, immobilized by my far, merely clung to Chris as he guided us along the pathless slope.

By the time we picked up the trail at the stream crossing, I had regained some semblance of rationality.  After losing the trail a few more times in the high grass of the burn scar, we reached the well-trodden trail.  At the very least, pathfinding was no longer a concern.  For the next two miles, we focused on taking small, controlled steps on the now slick, muddy terrain, making sure neither of us fell and added injury to the list of things that had gone wrong… oh, and that we didn’t get eaten by any wild animals.  Every hundred yards we stopped moving to do a full light sweep around us, looking for any eyes reflecting back.  The smallest twig snap, imagined or not, has us brandishing a bowie knife and unlocked Bear Spray canister.

To make this whole embodiment of Murphy’s Law worse, lightning began flashing in the distance, and I obsessively counted the seconds between each flash and subsequent crack of thunder, doing the math to determine the storm’s distance.

Just keep walking, I thought over and over again, assigning myself a single, all-consuming purpose to maintain sanity in the face of suffering.  Ironically, the last flat mile became the hardest slog, as the adrenaline that had been keeping pain and hunger at bay subsided, allowing exhaustion to overtake us.  Every part of me hurt, and by the time we sank into the car seats, I told myself I would never hike again.  At the time, I almost believed it.  Our watch showed 12:32 am.  It had taken us five hours to hike up, five and a half down.

We still had a two-hour drive home, but that hardly mattered.  We were warm and dry and driven by the tub of ice cream waiting for us in the freezer at home.  More importantly, we were alive, and for the first time, I felt the gravity of that word.

I learned a lot about myself in those humbling twelve hours, about weaknesses I never knew I had because I’d never been under enough pressure to expose them.  Adventuring is like any skill; it takes years of practice to hone your abilities, and the occasional test to reveal the holes in your knowledge.  Sadly, we can never be perfect, but we can always be better. 

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