The Heart of Endurance: The Ice Cliffs of Cliff Mountain

Every year, I receive a star word that helps me making meaning out of my year. [1]  This year, my star word was endurance.  On what turned out to be a terrible hike up Cliff Mountain, life-saving endurance came in the form of love.

On January 20, the night before Matthew and I hiked Cliff Mountain, Matthew and I had made a gear list and checked it trice. [2]

Preparing ourselves for emergency scenarios, we filled our bags with:

  • a Personal Locator Beacon
  • an inReach SE
  • an extra pair of dry socks in case we fell in a creek
  • an emergency tent
  • lighters
  • a micro spark fire wheel starter
  • a pocket saw
  • bivouacs
  • webbing (rope)
  • lithium batteries for our GPS (so they would function in the cold)

Mentally preparing, I memorized all the trail junctions that we would encounter and the mileage between them.  We rehearsed where we would take breaks, what we would eat to make sure we remained hydrated and energized, and where we would change our traction.  We notified our emergency contacts of our route and promised that our inReach SE would upload our tracks every 30 minutes.

We were ready for whatever would come.  Or so we thought.

At 3:30 a.m. on January 21, our alarm sounds.

Already awake, I groggily roll out of bed. Losing myself in the meditation of my pre-hiking ritual, I put on the layers from my carefully stacked clothing: a short sleeve shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a fleece, two pairs of pants, liner socks, and thick winter socks.  I force myself to eat a 410-calorie breakfast cookie; I drink a cup of tea.  As an experiment, I put my hair in pigtail braids to see if it would reduce the tangling.

Next, I pre-open four fruit jerkies and two vegan jerkies. This prevents me from wasting time later, when my frozen fingers fail at opening them. Like a chipmunk, I stuff them into the pockets of my fleece, along with three Dak bars.   Then come the final touches: I line the front pockets of my pack with Kind bars; I activate my inReach SE; I don gaiters, boots, a windbreaker, a hat, liner gloves, and waterproof gloves. 

At 4:50 a.m, Matt and I stream out the door.

Darkness cloaks the parking lot as we pull up to the empty toll booth. The cold air nips at my face as Matt opens his door to leave our fare; our car reads six degrees Fahrenheit.

With an entirely empty lot, Matthew backs into a spot near the trailhead.  Steeling myself, I perform the awkward dance of standing on one foot and leaning on the car as I try to slither into my microspikes.  They snap into place.  Hefting on my pack, I turn on my necklace-lamp and beeline over to the trail register.  Methodically, I unlatch the metal lock and fish out the register. The wooden covers falls open to reveal its pages of names and destinations. 

On the bottom of a page, I add my entry:

Joy Perkett, 2 people, 1 day, Cliff & Redfield.

At 5:45 a.m., I amble back to the car where Matthew has readied himself.  After triple checking we have our car key, we set off into the night of a still sleeping world.

We can barely see anything as our boots patter on the snow.

Because I am sick of heavy headlamps, I have purchased Matthew and myself one-ounce headlamps on a stretchy cord that last 50 hours if you keep them at 5 lumens.  In comparison, most headlamps are 200-300 lumens.

Thus, we hike in darkness and silence. 

The building furnace in my core is the only thing that penetrates my senses.  I unzip my jacket and fleece, trying to delay a break to de-layer.

Slowly, we begin to make out the outlines of trees against the sky.

“Is that astronomical twilight?” Matthew wonders.

Soon thereafter, we arrive at Marcy Dam and cross the bridge over the brook.  With a plan in place, we drink water and open our Dak bars, which we eat on the flat hike to the Lake Arnold and Avalanche Pass junction. 

With gray clouds above us, twilight besets us as our trail ahead remains shadowed by trees.  Only after the sun lazily rises do we extinguish our 5-lumen lamps as falling snow and gloomy hazy welcome us to daytime.

At the junction, I zip up my jacket as I snap off my microspikes, slide on my snowshoes, and extract my poles.  The coldness penetrates me as soon as I stop.

Bracing myself, I turn with Matthew to our next step: a very steep, one mile incline up to the junction with Indian falls.   Rhythmically, I hike up, bracing myself with my poles.  My inner furnace ignites as I unzip my layers and yet my hands turn cold.  Suddenly my body’s sensations take over and I feel like I am going to pass out. 

“I feel terrible,” I tell Matthew.

I stop to put my coat in my pack and extract my mountaineering mittens.

“We can turn back,” Matthew offers.  I decide to keep going to the Indian Falls junction before making a decision.

Slowly, my core temperature lowers and my hands warm up.  Underneath our feet, snow has accumulated since hikers broke out the trail this weekend.  Our snowshoes shuffle through 2-8 inches, depending on the drifts.  My layers are now appropriate for the conditions.  By the time that we reach the Indian Falls junction, I feel well enough to continue on. 

Like a gift of hope, I remember that Mount Colden junction is only .4 miles ahead and after that, the trail runs downhill for a long time.

I can do .4 miles of uphill, I tell myself. 

At the Mount Colden junction, I take a break but do not stop.  I eat a Dak bar while pacing back and forth to ensure that my inner heater remains steady.

Now, we find ourselves descending to the Feldspar junction, 1.7 miles away.

Despite the exhaustion of trail breaking, I marvel when we enter into the wintry sanctum of pines.  In silence, I halt at young pine trees bending low over our path, like guardians, weighed down by several feet of snow.  I try to free the trees by poking them with my poles.  Sometimes the snow flies off and they spring up like spry youth.  Other times, the snow remains wet and stuck and I have to maneuver under their bent form as I pray that they survive the weight.

“You have to be a hardy tree to live here,” Matthew observes.

Beside our trodden path, the snow rises two feet; above us, even the tall pines remain hidden, like a shy friend, under their sheets of white.

Slowly, we start to discover the boobytraps of the woods.

I turn around to see Matthew lying covered in snow in a ditch. 

“I’m okay,” he insists.

Sinking like a person in a sand bar, he at last gets the leverage to stand up and then retrieve his poles from the snow. 

“I didn’t realize where you had stepped was a small log bridge,” he explains, “I stepped just to the side of it and fell into a ditch of snow.”

Slowly, we start to discover the boobytraps of the woods.

Then, I arrive at seven-foot long, two-log wide bridge across a snowy creek bed.  I misstep, sinking into the three feet of snow covering the bed below.  I leverage myself back onto the log, pull myself up, and slowly side step my snowshoes across as I use my poles for balance.  I make it across, as does Matthew.

As we cross a snowy marsh, Grey Mountain looms beside us and we know we are closing in our peaks.  After a quick water and snack break at the Feldspar junction, we power through the .5 miles to the Cliff and Redfield junction, by the Uphill Lean-to.

At 10:14 a.m., I breezily tell Matthew, “If the snow on both trails is broken out, we could do both; otherwise let’s just do Cliff.”

In my mind, I tell myself, Cliff is just .8 miles out, how hard could it be?

We immediately see that, as opposed to the Redfield herd path, the Cliff herd path has not been broken out.  Although I see a faint outline of a path, I still need to break through a foot of snow as I press ahead.  My pace slows and I invite Matthew to take over trail breaking. 

Then the cliffs start.

The first one welcomes us gently. 

After pulling himself onto a small, snowy boulder, Matthew comes face-to face with a three-foot ice cliff.  About to leverage himself up, his snowshoe slips off.  Awkwardly, he puts it back on while maintaining a hold of a root to his left.  Then, he uses the root to pull himself up as the crampons on his snowshoes dig into the ice.  He hoists his legs up and over the ledge.  I follow.

We approach a twenty-feet rock face with a steep snowy hill that wraps around it. Matthew hesitates, unsure where to go.

Then the cliffs start.

Taking the lead, I approach the base of the hill, surveying the options.  The hill itself goes around the rockface to the left at what turns into an eighty-degree angle, too steep to climb.  Before the incline sharpens, a small ledge juts out to the left of the hill, with a boulder above it, which you can maneuver yourself over.  I plod up the hill through the thick snow and turn onto the ledge.  Secure on the ledge, I grabbed a tree and root above the icy rock and pull myself up by throwing my knee onto the rock.  Pushing with my knee, I leverage my full body above the rock.  Standing up, I start moving up the hill that wraps itself around the side of a cliff, which has now softened into a sixty-five degree angle.  I plunge my poles into thick snow and kick in my steps.  Almost all the way up, I hear Matthew shout below me, “I made it up but I lost my snowshoe.”

“I can’t go back,” I say, “I’ll have to wait for you at the top.” 

I maneuver myself up to a flatter spot where I wait for Matt. 

“Are you okay?”  I call out.  No answer.

“Matt?”

I crouch and wait.

Meanwhile, in front of me, I can see Redfield looming in the distance, full of majesty and mystery. 

Finally, Matthew appears.  “My snowshoe fell down both sets of ledges. I had to go all the way back down to get it.”

Snowshoes on feet, he and I continue our journey.

Meanwhile, snow continues to falls on us: our packs, its crevices, our hats, our fleeces, all of us is covered in wet, white snow, just like the pines.

Amidst this perpetual snowfall, we find ourselves face-to-face with a flat ice-snow cliff that stretches up eight feet. Zero handholds lay above, although a small tree remained about two feet from the top of the cliff. 

I know that it is ice cliffs like these that turn hikers around.

With the gift of thick snow, I find a foothold for my left foot and shift my right arm into the snow for leverage.  Matthew tries to give me a push up.  However, without a handle hold or a place to put my right foot, I soon come down. 

Matthew then tries to climb the cliff, to no avail.  I know that it is ice cliffs like these that turn hikers around. We have to find a way up or we too will have a failed summit.  Shrewdly, Matt punches a hole in the snow as a way to carve out a footstep near a grittier section of ice.

Now I try again: left foot steps up; right arm leans in; right foot steps up; I reach now with my left hand.  If I could just get the tree …. I rise to tiptoes on my footholds.  I grab a bottom, already-broken branch of the tree futilely.  It does nothing.  Desperately, I reach for a higher branch.  Got it.  Now I pull myself up, grab the trunk, and hoist my legs over the cliff.  Turning around, I extract the webbing from my bag, yank out the daisy chain, and throw the webbing around the small trunk so both sides cascade down.  Using the webbing as leverage, Matthew walks up the cliff.  Whew. 

Exhausting myself on steep uphills with thick snow, I come to an awkward snow cliff.  Not seeing a good route, I go around the right side via a small path at a seventy-degree incline with long trees and branches extending over it. I walk through the snow and near the top, I use the trees to pull myself up.  At the end, the incline sharpens to eighty degrees.  For this part, I throw myself to the left to grab a root on the ledge.  I miss it.  Before I slide down, I push off on my right toe one more time and manage to snag it.  I pull myself up to the top of the ledge and bushwhack back to the herd path.

“Not sure if that was the best route,” I call back to Matthew. 

I don’t stop on the herd path, because of its steep incline. Instead, I press up ahead to a large, snowy rock face, twenty feet up and twenty feet wide that sloped up, at first a gentle forty-degree angle before sharpening to a seventy-degree angle. No handholds.  If it is icy, it will give me a free ride back down to its base. Not sure how I would traverse this rockface, I wait here for Matthew.

“Matt,” I call out, “Are you okay?”

I hear nothing.  Reluctant to go back down the steep trail, I wait some more.

Concerned, I descend down.

“Matt?”

I can hear his voice.  Is he talking?

I walk back through the bushwhack to the top of the side path that I had ascended.  The snow has completely given way to a twelve-foot ice cliff.

“Just leave me,” Matthew says, “Go get the summit and I’ll wait here.”

I spot a thick downed tree atop the ledge.

“Want to try webbing again?” I ask.

“Sure,” he agrees.

I wrap the webbing around the trees core.  I turn back to get something out of pack and when I turn back around Matthew is already up.

“That was easy,” he says, “Webbing is great.”

Spent, we bushwhack back to the herd path.  Our hike up Cliff is taking hours.  I shovel down a fruit jerky and take a swig of water.  We press on.

Our hike up Cliff is taking hours.

I don’t quite know how to get up the twenty-foot rock slope.  I try going around the side and then following the top edge, fortified with trees and an icy bolder, but I can’t quite do it.

There’s a snowy slide in the middle of the slope.

“Try it,” I tell Matthew, “If its snow, we can do it.  If it’s ice, we’ll turn around.”

Matthew presses upwards: snowshoes clawing slope, poles digging in, and body leaning forward.  After he hefts himself up, I do the same, literally press my entire body into the slope using pole, hands, and knees to push and pull my way up. I make it. 

We snowshoe up one last incline to the summit ridge.

Upon making it, Matthew turns to me, “Only a .4 mile ridge walk to the summit now,” Matthew says. 

It had taken us around 2.25 hours to go .4 miles.

Now, only having to walk, we glide down a false summit and push up to Cliff.  After a final, punishing slope, we empty out to a small clearing and a sign:

SUMMIT

Resisting the urge to use harsh language to express our true thoughts about Cliff, we take smiling photos in front of the summit sign. 

At 1 p.m., we had summited.

On the way up, a quiet knowing had filled us that this would be our last winter 46er ever, or at least this season, or at least this week.  We had given everything we had to this winter mountain and we were done with the misery.

A side-by-side comparison of Joy’s Cliff summits:

Summer Cliff
Winter Cliff

Donning our jackets and shoveling in snacks and water, we prepare for our descent.

With a calm and upbeat spirit, Matthew accompanies me as we otter slide down the inclines, down the ice slopes, down the ledges.  Like a pillow, the snow brings us lower and always catches us as our bodies ski down the chutes.  Its thickness receives us with cloud-like softness.

Below the cliffs, we hike upright again, plowing through the snow that has fallen on the path.  Both ways, our tired muscles break the snow on the trail.

At the junction with the Uphill Lean-to, Matt and I dig into our peanut butter, honey and granola wraps.  I eat as much as I can stomach and then walk on ahead, trying to keep my heat up in my snow-drenched outfit.

At the junction with the Feldspar trail, I eat and drink again, but a chill sends me quickly onward.  By now, my adrenaline has depleted as well as my uphill muscles. I wonder if I can make it back.  Slowly, I plod my way up the last climb of the day: 1.7 miles to the Mount Colden junction. 

If I can make it up the last incline, I tell myself, I can make it out.

I forgot about the bridge traps.

As we skirt the snowy marsh, I misstep and fall into slushy water.  The wet slush now balls at the bottom of my snowshoe, weighing it down like a brick.  I try to pick it out with my pole and it almost works.

At the seven-foot bridge, Matthew deftly side steps across.  I step onto what I think is the bridge but is actually a snow bank covering the creek. I trip, face plant into the snow, and catch myself with knee and a glove in the shallow water at the bottom.

Now I have two pairs of wet pants and a wet inside of my mountaineer mitt.  I did not prepare for this.

I forgot about the bridge traps.

“Do you need my glove liners?” he asks.

“No,” I turn him down.

I stand up and hoist myself onto the bridge.  Crawling across, I beg Matthew to help get the snow out my snowshoe.  There is a wet mountain of snow hugging the front and the back.  We try to clean off the top and the bottom.  I start hiking.  Still, it’s like I am walking on cement bricks.

“I can’t do this,” I tell Matthew, “I have to change into microspikes”

Taking off my snowshoe, I can see the cantaloupe of snow on it.

“Try banging it on the dead tree,” Matthew suggests.

So I do. The cantaloupes fall off, and I put my snowshoes back on.

We inch up the hill. Matthew face plants into another bridge trap.  We resign ourselves to misery.

 After taking a short break before the crest, Matthew and I try our best to fly down the 1.6 mile decline that begins at the junction with Mount Colden.

As we descend, I think about how lucky I am to have Matthew as my trail partner and life partner.  I think about how he is willing to do terrible climbs like Cliff Mountain with me, how he endured when the cliffs stunk, how he was willing to change his plans when I wasn’t feeling well, how he did not lose his steady, loving presence as the summit of Cliff broke us, and how he stopped to offer me whatever he had when I experienced my literal low point.  That is Matthew.  Someone that I can always count on. 

As snow swirls around me, I remember how we have been doing terrible hikes for a long time – our first date was a failed trip up Mount Marcy that ended with us backpacking out of the dam on empty stomachs; our anniversary hike was a rugged backpack through rainy Iceland where we prayed that we would not to get hypothermia; our former pastime was bushwhacking up mountains at night in winter.  

When hiking trips turn to misery and survival seems at stake, Matthew is exactly the person that I want to hike beside because he loves me and I love him.  That matters if you are going to surrender full trust of your life to another as you undertake a rigorous endeavor.

Love powers me down the descent but it cannot keep me from exhaustion once I reach the split with Avalanche Pass.  I could tell that I was losing feeling in my fingers and that they were going numb.  I wasn’t sure why as the rest of my body felt warm.

As we hiked onto Marcy Dam, I began to play with how I carried my poles as I moved and stretched my hands.  I could tell that they had poor circulation from three layers of gloves and the awkward angle that I held my poles.

At Marcy Dam, I put my poles and mitts in the pack, hopeful that my two layers of liner gloves would keep me warm.  Night had descended again, so I turn on my necklace-lamp.

Only 2.3 miles out.

Although I had put on my snowshoes and drank most of my water, my pack still feels heavy.  Tired, I stopped adjusting it and now the chest strap pulls in a way that gives continual sharp pain to my neck and back. I try to tighten the hip belt instead, which slightly helps but really just ends up giving me hip pain as well.  Matthew also tells me that he has hip pain as well.

Hurting, we hike out with our 5-lumen light in silence again. 

We have not seen a single person on our hike.

My exhaustion then hits a level that reminds me of the end of my ultra-marathon when I thought that I could not go on but I discovered my body is capable of more than I think it is.  I can do this, I coach myself.

Around the junction that marked one mile left, I turn up my lamp to 100 lumens.  Might as well.  I eat a candy bar.  I hike on thinking about the guy who falls in a void (in the book The Void) and survives miraculously just by pressing himself forward, willing himself forward until he reaches his original camp.  If you want to live, you have to walk, you have to move, you have to endure even if you feel like you can’t, and so I walk.

Time becomes just an unending, unconscious stream of me willing my feet forward, adjusting my pack, and stretching my fingers.

Then suddenly, when I think we still have lightyears to go, Matthew turns to me and says, “Can you sign us out?  I am going to start the car.”

Just like that, we had emptied out onto life. 

At 6:30 p.m., I sign us out on the trail register:

CHECK OUT

Matthew drives us to pick up hot pizza and tea, and when I got back to the house, I quickly change out my clothing, every layer sopping wet.  My fingers tingle still.

A terrible hike.  Enough to turn us away from the mountains, at least for a short while.  Yet, I am thankful that for the whole hike long, love endured and because of that, so did I.


[1] The wise ones followed the star in the sky to the manger in Bethlehem. Stars are used to symbolize guiding the way. The tradition of star words is practiced in some churches at the beginning of the year. Each person receives a star with a word on it – a word that perhaps will help guide each person in a special way during the year.

[2] Check out our full winter gear list here.

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