The Daily Bread: If at first you don't succeed

In nearly a quarter century of climbing on Mount Hood, I have been witness to many spectacular visions. There has been the soul piercing light of sunrise, the ethereal blue light under a full moon, and a milky way so thick that it surely must have been made that night with real cream.

These annual pilgrimages have provided timely life lessons over the years, many from the moments of deciding to turn back so close to the summit. The verse from the proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again,” has been the central tenet of my passion for climbing and approach to life in general.

I have made four attempts to summit in the last four weeks. Each effort was uniquely challenging, with incredible highs and devastating lows supplying a lifetime of teachable moments about resiliency and determination that I constantly find in this high holy place outside of time.

May 19-20 – camped on south side around 9,400 feet. No tent, just a bivy sack (a glorified nylon garbage bag with a zipper). A gentle wind grows into a roaring gale force express that pins me down all night. The glacial ice beneath me permeates through the sack and my sleeping pad deep into my bones causing uncontrollable shivering. I have no choice but to wait it out until dawn and abandon the climb.

May 29-30 – Forecast called for 20 percent chance of thunderstorms. I liked those odds so back I went up to high camp. Just before sunset I glance at the southern horizon and see biblical black clouds brewing and moving quickly towards the mountain. This time I brought my tent so I crawled into the shell of safety. Suddenly I hear a buzzing sound and sit up and realize my aluminum tent poles are humming with electricity.

The first clap of thunder arrives and I do the 1-one thousand, 2-one thousand count and figure it’s 10 miles away. Next one I count no more than one full second and it explodes seemingly right on top of me. The whole sky lights up with lightning. Breathing deep, I quietly ask the universe that if it’s my time, please make it a direct hit and may it be painless. But it passes, and then comes the rain, gently at first, then grows into a pummeling squall of rain and hail. Half an hour later it is over and a muggy calm settles in.

I summit and descend towards camp. On arrival, the winds have picked up and my tent is hanging on with just two of seven stakes left keeping it from being blown away. I fling myself on to the tent and laugh at how ridiculous this would look if anyone saw me. I struggle to break camp in the howling winds but get it done and descend.


Peter Marbach hurries to save his tent from the wind

Peter Marbach comes to the rescue of his wind blown tent.

Peter Marbach comes to the rescue of his wind blown tent.

Next day I am in Portland for a brief 15-minute meeting. I return to my truck and am stunned to see windows smashed. My worst fear is realized when I discover that all my camera gear was stolen. The immediate sensation coursing through me felt strangely similar to receiving word of the death of a family member, or the abrupt ending of a special friendship. Shock, disbelief, anger – a loss with lasting consequence. A camera can be replaced, truck repaired, but the enduring pain is the loss of hundreds of professional images stored inside the camera. All the effort, the planning, the stories behind the images, and the loss of potential income – just gone forever.

June 6 – Decide to try again for a sunrise on the summit, partly to create fresh images from the summit that were stolen, but more to not let the thief of my hard-earned memories crush my spirit. This time I choose to do the long slog from Timberline Lodge. Four hours later I am on the Hogsback, a spine of snow that is the staging area for the final push for the summit. A glorious triumphant sunrise is just 800 vertical feet away. But the biting wind and wet snow have drained all feeling from my toes. It is a painful but easy decision to turn around. The pre-dawn sky has turned gun metal grey so I take comfort knowing there is no magic light today. I have long followed the mantra of summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory.

June 22-23 – A most auspicious date – my 16-year anniversary of my open-heart surgery. I depart from high camp early. I am excited to be the first one heading up. All is going well until my headlamp dies. It’s 3:45 a.m. and I have reached the base of the steep Mazama Headwall route. With no moon to guide the rest of the way, my mind is racing for a solution. I must find a way.

In that moment, I remind myself of another wise saying. “There are bold climbers and old climbers but no old bold climbers.” I’m not old but this is no place to be stupid. Some divine entity takes pity and sends me the brilliant idea of putting my cell phone flashlight on and securing it to the front of my climbing helmet. “Yes – wahoo!”, I yell out. The route is glazed over with ice but I am dialed in, focused, kicking in steps, pushing, pushing – and then I am there. Alone on the summit ridge, I drop to my knees, exhausted but overjoyed to be able to emotionally bookmark this moment. It is surreal to be looking down at a fire red sun as it crests the horizon, its rays melting the scar tissue around my soul.

A few minutes later, a young climber named Nicole from Mt. Shasta greets me. I ask if she wouldn’t mind taking my photo. I share a bit about my anniversary. She smiles a mile wide and blurts out, ”Dude, you totally crushed it today!” I relish her youthful parlance and descend a happy warrior.

The origins of the proverb of trying again and again can be traced back to a mid-19th century educator named Thomas Palmer. It was used to motivate school children to do their homework and get it right. How fitting that the path to all that I have learned and witnessed on the mountain goes right through the heart of Palmer Snowfield.

The essence of the ongoing master class on the mountain is not to give too much weight to the success or failure of summiting. It is in the trying where you discover your inner strength, and the resilience of the human spirit to never give up.

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