If there is one certainty about life working on a Colorado Fourteener, it is that suffering is guaranteed. The hike to the worksite, the weight of the tools and gear, the vital light of the sun that both illuminates and burns, the moisture that can penetrate even the most hardy of boots; these things are certainties in the Alpine. Even those of us who have worked before on various Fourteeners return to the mountains in the sure and certain knowledge of a modicum of suffering, our bodies falling into the familiar rhythms of mountain work and life with all the aches and pains that flesh is heir to. For those who find themselves working in the mountains for the first time, the fact of their suffering can be a revelatory experience. Feet that have more blisters than undamaged flesh, hands curled into claws that one cannot help but think are permanently frozen, dreams of rocks and soil, unset and unstable that haunt the unquiet darkness.
Another fact that we can be sure of is that suffering builds character. A lesson imparted by fathers for generations. Usually given to children along with a shovel and a vista of snow that seems to extend to the horizon and instructions to clear it all. After shoveling what seems like a cubic ton of frozen snow, arms aching, anyone who has suffered, knows that they have character bursting out of their ears, dribbling down like cerebrospinal fluid after a traumatic head injury.
Working on Columbia for the first hitch, we suffered greatly in the classic way, shoveling what seemed to be a mountains worth of snow, our feet soaked for days, frostbite a constant danger, only held at bay by continuous movement. This year on Columbia is the first using a hoist system which will make the construction of rock structures far more efficient. The components of this system are extremely heavy and include six legs for two tripods, each approximately sixteen feet long and weighing at least forty pounds each. Hiking these legs and the elephant sized steel shackles and blocks to our basecamp was another exquisite episode of suffering, carrying these loads up and down snowbanks and over fallen trees only to return for another load and then another. Feet blistered, hands and shoulders sore, strange popping noises emerging from our bones whenever we stretch beneath the trees.
Over the course of the first eleven days, this suffering helped to take us from the blank slates that we were when we arrived and changed us into giants of character, insight and skill. The blisters have healed, calluses emerging from the fractured flesh of our hands, our dreams are generally untroubled, exhaustion and the satisfaction of a job done well being the best precursor to sleep. The next hitch promises to write another symphony of character on the pages of our souls, an exhibition that we look forward to with unbridled excitement.
This is life on the flanks of Columbia. A good life filled with laughter, excellent meals, the companionship of friends and work that binds us to the land and satisfies both mind and body.