The Bird

Photo: Ashley Ellis

Written by: Laraine Martin

Nearly a decade ago, I trudged up the saddle of Mt. Massive on an early August morning. I ascended alongside the rest of my trail crew, climbing toward our daily work of rearranging rocks into steps and cairns, confining hiker passage to this well-defined corridor and reducing degradation to the fragile alpine tundra. We began our commute well before sunrise, leaving base camp below the trees with our headlamps glowing and oatmeal churning in our bellies. When the sun finally crested the horizon, it stopped our boots in their tracks. A pink cloud layer sat below us. We were airborne. Free. I was at a place in my life where I hadn’t felt much pain, not in any deep sense. I had recently broken up with a boyfriend and felt a very superficial kind of discomfort – more an annoyance than anything. I was drifting, ambivalent. The wilderness was a place where my emptiness was filled by dirt and rain and stars.

Photo: David Martin

Photo: David Martin

Mt. Massive is a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, and during the summer months in which we performed our upkeep of the trails, workers and hikers alike must often stage a hasty retreat to avoid the lightning of fierce and frequent afternoon rainstorms. Many of these afternoons saw us hastily securing dirty tools as the first big drops of water began to fall, reaching us easily in the dry exposure of the alpine. While the wind blew more steadily at our backs and faces, we’d descend rapidly, quietly, listening to approaching rumbles and smelling ozone. Hairs pricked up from exposed skin. Most times this would result from the sudden chill, but imagination could just as easily attribute it to the looming electrical violence.

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I know primal fear when I feel it. A fear that stems from eons of evolution induces cold sweat, dilates my pupils, injects adrenaline. The type of fear we feel deep in the wilderness, lost or pursued by a wild animal. Cold, edgy fear with sharp corners and shallow breath. I have rarely felt it, but can mark the moment when it arrives. Visceral fear in the mountains has a certain clarity to it. It slumbers in the vast tracts of unpopulated, rolling land and is tied to the trails we’ve tread upon, the stories we have collected, the perceived limits of our physical strength. Here in Colorado, and in the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains, I have confronted fears dark and light, shallow and bottomless.

Photo: Peter Jensen

Photo: Peter Jensen

Up near the summit of Mt. Massive, our August day had crawled by with calm skies before chaos tore our relative peace apart. I heard the thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopter blades buzzing overhead long before the crash. The aircraft circled at great length, and dipped, and disappeared over the ridge line. Everyone on board was tossed against the huge talus field below. I remember the scene in smoke and smells, tart and pungent aromas of fuel and fire. Shouts that were muffled to the point of extinction as I stumbled over rocks and my own feet in a fervor. There was a man, a soldier, whose final breaths were exhaled while holding my hand. He had seen active war zones overseas and was back home on a routine training mission here in the airspace above us, and he died that day, along with all his compatriots in flight. When the Search and Rescue helicopter had departed, 6 hours later, there was blood dried on the talus field and in the lap of my work overalls. Night fell on the crew as we trudged off the mountain, numb, as the area was evacuated for cleanup.

Photo: Peter Jensen

Photo: Peter Jensen

For the next handful of years, this experience sat in a lidded jar. I didn’t share it with many, and told only the most curt and objective version to those who asked. Eventually, it felt textbook, like it was a story I’d read and could dutifully recite if needed, but was best committed to a distant recess of my mind. Every now and then, out in a thickly treed forest somewhere in Colorado, I would hear a passing helicopter thwap-thwap-thwap in the sky above, and my pulse would quicken. Sometimes I would watch to make sure it cleared the horizon before returning to whatever task was at hand. I remember hearing someone refer to a helicopter as “the bird” once, and I shook my head at the disturbing image of a bird pulverized on talus. I decided I’d never set foot in one, fragile and unpredictable as they were.

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I took a NOLS wilderness medical certification course recently, and part of the week-long course involved participating in scenarios that seemed real – stabilizing broken limbs, stopping a bleed, giving CPR. I took notes, raised my hand, and got great quiz scores. I drove home one night to a borrowed home in Gunnison, offered up by a sweet friend of a friend who was out of town. I filled her bathtub with scalding hot water, stepped in gingerly, and sat down to wrap my arms around my knees. I cried for so long, and so hard, that my face felt swollen and I was completely exhausted. I had the soldier’s hand in my mind, the one that held mine as he slipped out of consciousness. Into the great deep black scary endless void. I let the memory of it fill me. I let myself turn and look back through a crack in the door that I’d always wanted to kick shut. An experience that makes us sad and afraid can be so layered that it tumbles apart when something happens to lift it high up in the open. Fears and guilt and regret and that ultimate glimpse of the finality of death, all falling in piles around us.

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But there’s another kind of fear that haunts me, a more diffuse fear that stems not from threat to life but from threat to limitations. We all build up a chain-link fence around ourselves based on concepts of what we can and can’t handle. The thought of incarceration in such a place terrifies me much more than each of the fear-built bricks laid in its construction. I find myself constantly seeking experiences to move that perimeter of my comfort zone so mortar can’t dry within its fear-laden walls.

Photo: Claire Smallwood

Photo: Claire Smallwood

This year I found myself on a helipad in British Columbia, in the lush green of a Canadian forest in spring. I had signed up to take a backcountry skiing course near Revelstoke with SheJumps, a non-profit dedicated to increasing female presence and participation in the world of outdoor adventures. A helicopter would take us to the backcountry lodge where we’d spike out on trips to practice rope work and rescue techniques. As we received the helicopter safety briefing, my mouth went dry and my heart pounded in my chest. I closed my eyes, seat belt buckled. We lifted off the pad and dust swirled around us, and then my heart did not just pound, it made leaps and bounds. We were absolutely and positively flying. And not in the way of an airplane. We were flying as a bird does, nimble, athletic, and playful. We made that noise thwap-thwap-thwap up the dense forested canyon, and then across an expanse of beautiful snowy white so vast it makes your eyes water if you look long enough. I’m deep inside my mind in this helicopter but now it’s not scary, it’s bringing me towards great wide adventures in these mountains. I feel vibrant and alive.

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I stood on a ridgeline atop the Sawatch Range this fourth of July, looking across a royal blue sky at Mt. Massive opposite me. There have been many other fears to confront since that day. The helicopter crash and its aftermath was one chapter of a life that I am destined to live, one that takes place in the deep woods, far from the comforts of modern society. Mountain wilderness areas, in their thin air and diffuse beauty, are the ground on which our caged fears are ultimately set free. We confront them at great proximity and lose them in feats of strength and endurance. The resilience of the human spirit is brought into relief, mirroring the horizon we pursue. I had always thought I may have left a piece of my soul on Mt. Massive, but now I know better. Nothing was left behind, it is all right here with me.

Featured Photo: Ashley Ellis