Notes from a Flatlander: Ascent to Camp 17

By: Erik

My native Estonia boasts the highest peak in all of the Baltic States: towering above the landscape on her lonely quest to bring down the moon and the stars, she alone makes a dash for the heavens and stops just short of a thousand feet above sea level. There are no mountains in Estonia.

A wanderer from such a flat country thinks in two dimensions: he can head north or south, drift east or west. Of course he moves around in the world and sees other places, and in the back of his mind he will come to know another way: up, up and away.

It is not the old way, though. Over time, he will get used to the z-direction as one might get used to a helicopter taking into the air: it becomes a fact of life, but also remains a miracle. The way up still holds on to its mysteries almost as well as the way down, to the dark chasms of the deep.

Thus it is strange to start in the rainforest and end on top of a glacier barely ten hours later, passing through every biome in between – such is the hike to Camp 17. At least I have the tendency to think of a rainforest as equatorial, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, which further deepens the impression of ecological breadth that the hike makes. According to my two-dimensional northern hemisphere intuition, such breadth can only be achieved by thousands of miles of horizontal movement: all the way from the equator to the pole. We completed that traverse, one fourth of the Earth’s circumference, in less than half a day – forget around the world in 80 days, I bet we could do it in two!

Though one vertical mile is thus worth thousands of horizontal ones, a vertical mile does not always come cheaply – famously so. Seldom is this more obviously evident than on the last stretch of the hike to Camp 17, a steep dash up the snow-covered slope of the Ptarmigan Glacier. At the end of a long hike, a featureless and seemingly vertical white wall yields only to a stubborn and methodical clockwork of steps, one foot in front of another.

It can be a source of frustration, no doubt. But in this clockwork, there are also things other than fatigue and frustration to look out for – nuances that only resolve themselves against a perfectly white background in the vast tranquility of the glacier, small things to divert a hiker’s attention from tiredness. In the step-by-step trance of the last ascent, a sharp-eyed hiker will catch the small deviations in the step of the partner trudging alongside him; he will notice the minute corrections she makes to deal with the small yet sensible changes in the consistency of snow into which she plants her foot.

Once I reached that stage of mindfulness, I don’t think any fatigue could have become an issue in many hours of hiking to come, should they have been coming. A self who could get tired was no more: he had been lost in the collection of observations unreachable in other circumstances. The moment when that happened was the beginning of this post.