A few weeks ago I posted my thoughts on the importance of an author understanding where their muse lives. I recently returned from an expedition of sorts in search of my own. A search, it seems, that never ends.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, one soon becomes acutely aware of one particular feature of the landscape. Volcanoes. Of which there are many here. Some of the more famous calderas are Rainier, St. Helens (which last erupted in 1980), and Hood. But there are others. One which I bet you've never heard of nor seen in photograph is Glacier Peak.
For a mountaineer and backcountry skier such landscape features could not present a more perfect challenge for one's addiction. And so a group of friends and I have been slowly about the business of climbing each of these volcanoes and skiing down them. In my case, there is another reason besides adrenaline chasing to send myself into the unknown. For me, as an author, I have found the muse lives beyond the reach of civilization and all of its comforts in the backwoods and mountains of the great Pacific Northwest.
Having conquered all the other volcanoes we finally turned our attention toward Glacier Peak this past spring. Standing 10,541 feet, Glacier is certainly not the tallest of the volcanoes. Its peak is also not guarded by routes of technical challenges. But nonetheless Glacier presented us with an obstacle that makes it the most prized of all. Isolation. Glacier stands in a remote stretch of the Cascades which requires one to fully commit to suffer if they desire to reach its lofty shoulders.
A major landslide occurred in March of this year, nearly wiping out the small town of Oso. Along with the town and many of its residents, the nearest road to grant access to Glacier was also laid waste. That left only one other road to access the area. This forest service road winds through the backwoods for over an hour until it reaches a trailhead. That trail can then be taken for five miles along a raging creek, at which point the trail turns up and climbs for three thousand feet to a ridge topping out at over 7,000'. From this point one must then drop down into a neighboring valley and follow it into a series of bowls which sit at the foot of Glacier Peak. From there a circuitous route awaits, which eventually carries one onto a face that climbs up to a false summit at about 9,700'. The peak lies then just up a short ridge, guarded by a handful of couloirs.
Total distance from trailhead is about 15 miles. Total elevation gain is 8,000'. Which means one travels over thirty miles and 16,000' gross feet in elevation. Of course, if you are like us and go in early April before the road is fully melted out then you can add another ten miles.
That first trip failed, though. We only made it to 1,000' below the first ridge. After being rained on for over 24 hours and battling deep snow for 12 miles we knew the summit was unreachable. Thus we returned two weeks ago angry for a summit.
With the road and trail clear of snow for the first 7 miles, we made quick work of what previously had seemingly been a trail that never ended. Working within a two day window, though, we covered this first stretch during the night. We had left home at about midnight and driven to the trailhead, leaving it at about 3:45 AM. By sunrise we were well along the 3,000' climb up to the ridge which foiled us the time before. We reached the ridge after noon, skied down its back flank and climbed into a bowl to make camp by 5 PM.
One other couple shared the valley with us. They had just summitted earlier that day, though one of them had lost their ski near the summit and had to walk back down to camp. A fortuitous event for us it would prove by the next morning.
Our plan was to leave camp at 6 AM the next morning and head for the summit. At 5 AM is was pouring rain and whiteout conditions. Whiteout conditions mean that you are enclosed inside a cloud. That cloud and snow are of the same color and so you lose depth perception and visibility. When we looked out our tent we could maybe see twenty feet. That's not good when traveling though crevassed glacier terrain on a route you'd never taken before.
We waited inside our tent until 7 AM. The rain mercifully stopped. The question was then asked. "Go home or head for the summit?" We had suffered too much to get this far and didn't want to leave empty-handed only to have to attempt this climb a third time. We knew we had boot tracks to follow all the way to the summit from the climber who had lost her ski the day before. That would have to do. By 9 AM we were back on our skis heading for the summit.
Through a blinding white shroud we trudged up and over many a ridge line. Finally we found ourselves on the summit climb proper. And by 4 PM we broke through the clouds and touched the summit. Which meant we were now only half way home.
Over the next twelve hours we descended to camp, broke camp, and retraced our route back the car, arriving at 3:45 AM. The entire trip took every minute of 48 hours. We had now bagged every volcano in the Northwest.
For me, though, the journey had been about more than just the last volcano summit on a list. This trip, like all others before it, was an opportunity for me to tap into an almost other dimension where inspiration and motivation coalesce in my spirit to create story from seemingly nothing.
I am currently working on a series of stories, the first of which is titled Escape. As with any project I periodically hit road blocks in my thought. Some might call it writer's block. It's not really a block, but rather a sign that you've run out of things to say. And with Escape I had run out of things to say, which is a problem if the story is not yet complete. But during those many hours of solitude within my own head on the trail to and from the summit of Glacier Peak and in a pristine environment free of all human influence, my thoughts found opportunity to clear and I remembered what it was that I wanted to say.
In every story the hero has something they want and something they need. But they also possess a fear which keeps them from obtaining either. It is the role of the antagonist to force them to finally confront that fear, to reach out and take that which they need. When I climb, the mountain is often that antagonist for me, forcing me to obtain that which I need. And more often than not, what I need is a moment of stillness, quiet from the human world, to hear what my soul is saying. What I have to say will then float to the surface with such power that I am driven to my desk with a need to purge those words onto paper, freeing me from their burden.
On the angelic, white slopes of Glacier Peak I was not disappointed. The words came rushing out of the quiet. And now I sit at home, purging them as fast as I can before the world once again crowds out my thoughts and I forget what it is that I was going to say.
How you touch the muse will be different than me, but I encourage you to nevertheless seek. For we all have something of value to say to the human race. Without knowing where your muse lives, though, you may forget that you have anything to say at all.