Somebody Save Us

September 6, 2010

The year is 1991. Weighing in at five years and three-and-a-half feet, you can find me bundled to the chin in a turquoise snowsuit on the side of Mt. Hood. Eyes closed with delight, I can feel the snow beginning to fall heavy at the end of a full day on the mountain. Within a snap of the sky’s freezing fingers, my eyes are open, and I can see nothing but a wall of white. As a pale kid by nature, it doesn’t take long for my face to reflect the endless crest of flying snow crashing against my icy nose and cheeks. Thanks to the strong counterbalance of my mom’s gloved hand, I manage to face my panic in a locked and upright position. Her words barrel through the snowstorm and arrive at my ears, delivering the preposterous news that the lift has closed, and we have no other choice but to climb back up the hill. To a small bodied and highly anxious child, this message bore down like a death sentence. We could not climb that hill. It was a physical impossibility. Any hope of life past the first grade was extinguished, and we were not going to make it out alive. At that moment, the unpolished survival skills of my six-year-old self burst from within: “HELP! HEEEELP! SOMEBODY SAAAVE US!” It took only seconds of sheer panic to obliterate a half decade of feminist values. The shin-kicking, fiery redhead Rapunzeled herself to the utter dismay of her mother.

Fast forward nineteen years, and the year is 2010. Weighing in at twenty-three years and just over five feet, you can find me strapped to a large backpack on a drastically steep trail in the Swiss Alps. Eyes wide in amazement, I can feel the sweat beginning to drip down the ridges of my shins. After several hundred meters of uphill trekking, my eyes are closed to momentarily escape the view of endlessly steep inclines and sharp peaks. As a sweaty kid by nature, it doesn’t take long before my shirt holds more water than any glacier stream in sight. Thanks to the strong counterbalance of Whitney’s insistence that “the top is just over this next peak,” I manage to resist the growing urge to somersault my way back down the mountain.

Three peaks later, we are resting against a rock when I realize that I am pressing my ear to my shoulder in a last-ditch attempt to normalize the impossibly tilted view of the world that has been my reality for three unrelenting hours.Tilting her head at an angle that matches my own, Whitney calmly informs me that, according to the map, there are approximately one thousand vertical feet between us and the summit. To a chicken-legged and highly anxious young adult, this news instigated a mental landslide. There is no summit. I am never going to make it back to the United States. We are not going to survive this. With time-worn screams for rescue forming at my lips, I am catapulted back into the thick memory of that whiteout on Mt. Hood, and a smile comes to my face as I remember the words that followed my uncontrollable bellowing: “Shaylynn, nobody is going to save us but ourselves. Now, lets move.”*

And move, I did. Step by step, and entirely by accident, Whitney and I ascended 3,840 feet over the course of four grueling hours. Like a stairway to heaven, the last stretch consisted of a four-hundred-step staircase that humbled us into resting poses reminiscent of downward facing dog (for yoga virgins: we were forced to catch our breath on all fours). The view from the top of that mountain stole every ounce of pain from my body. Burning muscles, stinging blisters, and aching feet quickly paled in comparison to what I would have paid for the price of admission.

Whitney and I were too busy rubbing our eyes to notice that we had company on the top of the peak. Three hikers broke the seal of our silence by greeting us with heavy German accents: “Oh, but you aren’t stopping here, are you? The best view is up there, you know.” The bearded man motioned towards a snow-capped peak with his trekking poles, adding, “My boyfriend didn’t want to continue so we have an extra spot in the hut up top. Are you experienced?” Experienced at what? Risking our lives again? Holy shit, is oxygen even available up there? While my mind was rapidly processing these questions, Whitney’s mouth was busy expressing confidence in our ability to join him and his inhuman trekking team. Fortunately, it was my own inadequacy that came to my rescue. The burly homosexual took one look at my year-old tennis shoes, and immediately issued a recall on his invitation: “Oh, no. No, I will not allow you to join me. I will not take you up there. Not in those. You should not even be up here.” In a matter of seconds, I managed to not only lose credibility but also elicit fear from our mountain-top friend.

Against the backdrop of laughter, the Germans recommended that we descend carefully and slowly which would not be a problem given the added weight of our humiliation. To add a sprinkle of political correctness to the already uncomfortable situation, the man called after us requesting that we say hello to his boyfriend: “He is staying in the hut, but don’t rape him. He is mine.” Scraping at the bottom of our camaraderie barrel, Whitney assuaged his fears by clarifying the nature of our relationship. The three hikers were out of sight by the time the man replied, “I knew that.” The combination of German English mixed with smug satisfaction was enough for both of us to nearly lose our footing with laughter as we worked our way down the mountain.

After ninety minutes of downhill travel, our final destination was in sight. Despite the reprieve of a long descent, our muscles were beginning to tremble from both exhaustion and utter confusion. The very same legs that had been massaged with homemade essential oils only days before were now battered and bruised from the traumatic transition to a temporary world of pain. Whitney lost no time in stating that we were now entering “the witching hour” where potential injury lurks under even the surest foot. In line with the logic that “most accidents happen within a mile from home,” Whitney began issuing such impossible demands as “stay on the trail” and “try not to hop around so much.” My thighs may have been throbbing with discomfort, but the reserves of my ego were propelling me forward with every hop, skip, and celebratory jump towards camp.

Moments later, as if Whitney’s words carried enough weight to physically prove her theory, I lost footing on an otherwise flat stretch of trail and tumbled pack over head until I was pathetically horizontal. As seasoned backpackers know, the worst part of a clumsy fall lies in its aftermath. Due to a an odd angle, tired muscles, and a heavy pack, I literally could not get up without assistance. Like a turtle stranded shell to the ground and belly to the wind, I was left defenseless with only the taste of false confidence in my mouth.

After far too many minutes had passed, Whitney suspended her laughter long enough to help me to my feet, and we continued forward towards our final destination. In Switzerland, the vast majority of trekkers take refuge in mountain huts at the end of a long day. These trekkers, as it turns out, also make reservations. Before we were able to drag our dirty tennis shoes inside, the owner of the lodge greeted us on the porch to state that even the floor space was spoken for that evening. However, for a mere twenty Francs, we could pitch our tent near the fence at the edge of his property. After placing a few sweaty bills in the owner’s palm, he grabbed a shovel and informed us that our site would be ready shortly. At the expense of a few dozen displaced cigarettes and piles of manure, Whitney and I set up camp two meters downwind from the neighbor’s cattle barn. The lingering stench of our makeshift home seemed to highlight the stark contrast between us and the smell of hot dinner wafting from the lodge.

On my way to the bathroom that night, I paused for a moment to peer through one of the hut’s frosted windows. Standing on my tip toes, mouth-watering at the sight of frothy pitchers, I fogged up the glass with the hot breath of a second class citizen. With the pride of survival on my sleeve, and the hard work of an uphill climb in my back pocket, I felt like the little girl who had learned to save herself. With a satisfied sigh, I followed my nose back to camp, and found Whitney on a picnic bench watching the sun burn red streaks into three of the most breathtaking mountains in the Swiss Alps. After an unforgettable sunset, Whitney and I zipped up our tent and fell into our sleeping bags. Like a coin machine next to a cheap hotel bed, we were rocked to sleep by the gentle vibration of six dozen mooing cows.

*It is at this point in the story that I like to imagine my five-year-old self hoisting my mom over my shoulders and carrying her to safety.  Upon further investigation, it appears as though I clung to her ski poles for dear life as she pulled me up the mountainside.

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