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Ammi Midstokke: When hard mountains make soft spirits

Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

There is nothing quite as soul purifying as the uninterrupted vastness of nature, or the simple sounds of birds and bees toiling about their morning. Even the occasional flapping of my tent in the breeze could not disturb the sun-soaked alpine views.

But the low hum of something did. I was a little edgy. I had been climbing around the trees the night before, trying to find a branch that could withstand the sheer poundage of our food bag. When two nutritionists go backcountry adventuring, they bring everything but the Vitamix. The local bears were no doubt meandering about the hillside just waiting for the bag to come crashing down, exploding like a piñata full of beef sticks and dried bananas.

“Is that an electric toothbrush?” I turn to see Kelly basking in good dental hygiene, wide-eyed, mouth frothing like a rabid hiker. “Yeff,” she said as she handed it to me to show me how small and light it was. This was basically a repeat of the conversations we’d been having for days.

“You don’t need two down vests.”

“But they are so small and light.”

“The heated one with batteries is not.”

“But a battery is so small and light.”

Backcountry packing is a question of math and comfort. If you want comfort, you probably shouldn’t do the math. Kelly hadn’t been backcountry yet and we were planning a girls’ adventure down the Selkirk Crest. Of course, first one has to get to the crest – a 10-mile climb out of the valley and onto the ridge. Not surprisingly, my favorite backcountry expert sentence is “…then we’ll gain the ridge,” as if doing so conquers nature and all things after that are easy. It sounds very Lewis and Clark.

I had a plan, as usual. We’d pack as light as possible, fuel ourselves on powdered coffee, and hike a nearly impossible amount of ridge, animal track, and scree field every day until we made it to Fault Lake to rendezvous with our respective men-folk for a conjugal visit. Because women who have been sweating in dust and rock for days and are covered in various wounds from blisters to bleeding scratches are the epitome of mountain sex symbols. And our soggy wool T-shirts and ripe socks only make it better.

I had recommended Kelly get her bag weight to about 35 pounds or less, but Kelly was on the comfort side of the fence. “How much does your bag weigh?” I asked a few miles in. “44.” About four of the pounds were probably apples. Thank goodness, because I forgot one of my food bags in the fridge and was going to have to ration my macadamia nuts. Most wilderness debacles begin with what appear to be minor hiccups that then avalanche into a series of bad decisions and eventually a survival story in Reader’s Digest. I am convinced that macadamia nuts could solve about half of those problems.

At night, Kelly unpacked her organic, wild-caught salmon dinner meals, blew up her deluxe camp pillow (which looks better than the ones I have in my bedroom), and warmly snoozed with her clean teeth and heated vest. In my head, I calculated how many miles we needed to cover by which time of day to get to various checkpoints by various deadlines.

It was the second day when Kelly gently observed the relentless march might have other options. We were on a trail, heading for a granite scramble, preparing to gain that glorious ridge, when she said, “What if we don’t pull 16-hour days of treachery and blisters and drag ourselves before dusk into our final camp, dehydrated and bleeding from our knees, exhausted, hungry, and resentful of trees and rocks?”

Obviously, that’s ridiculous. There is no other way to backcountry adventure. If it doesn’t have a certain element of suck and misery, is it even an adventure? In any case, that’s what I heard, but what she really said was more like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to stop at a closer lake and enjoy a slow morning with our people?”

The cognitive dissonance in my head was strong, just like my attachment to the final goal. But Kelly is wise and persuasive and her suggestion that we actually have fun was surprisingly reasonable. I became acutely aware of how little fun I have on these trips. In fact, in the silent moments that followed, I became even more aware of how bizarre my drive for suffering is, how my ego motivates many of my outings, and how often I entirely miss the message of mother nature.

When we gained the ridge and slowed down, I could hear the message better. In a single collaborative decision, we had eliminated all pressure for our journey. We could literally wander along the crest at a leisurely pace with all the comforts we wanted, take time to take pictures and smell flowers, and have a wholesome, fulfilling adventure. Without the misery. We could breathe in the sky and be humbled by the beauty that surrounded us. We could maybe even get out of our own noisy heads.

I don’t know what is is like when people find God, but I imagine a similar sense of enlightenment. And if that makes me soft, so be it. I could use a little softening anyway. I just didn’t realize I could find that in the mountains too.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at ammimarie@gmail.com

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