I came home in April. The trees still lifeless, the dark frozen ground sparsely covered in snow, and the sky coated with one thick cloud that turned everything grey; a kind of cloud I forgot existed. The grey would break maybe once a week, maybe even for a few days, and open a blue that would instantly install life into the ground, plants and people.
My first day back I went up our local mountain Camel’s Hump. The last time I had been up the Hump was Christmas 2014, which was also the time I broke my foot on the hike. This time my jet lagged eyes opened with the fresh air, my skin hurt from a cold air it hadn’t felt in over a year, my asthmatic lungs wheezed in confusion as they inhaled brittle air instead of the warm moist air in the jungles of New Zealand. Everything eventually adjusted and at the summit, which we had to ourselves, I could see what looked like all of Vermont. Brown branches of trees blanketed the landscape with only a few houses and roads carving out boxes and lines. Lake Champlain in the distance was still frozen, a thick blue with dark whites covering the lake all the way to New York. On the very windy summit I saw that I was home; a realization that usually takes me a few weeks to understand whenever I come home, but right then I saw where I was.
Winter didn’t shake away for Spring for quite awhile. At first it got me down, I wanted to bike on the waterfront alongside the green trees, go to the farmer’s market and hike on warm nights. I couldn’t imagine six months of even colder Winter. I wondered how I ever got through those long winters. Then I remembered the things that make the cold fun like ice climbing.
On Easter, when we use to go to a family friends house in Burlington and climb on their inside climbing wall, hunt for eggs in their beautiful garden that would be blooming with Spring and in the evening sit outside after a dinner of lamb and mint sauce. This year’s Easter it was not the same, it was snowing, I went ice climbing, and I got frost nip on my cheek.
Dad took me up Mt. Willard and I remembered how to swing my tools, how to weight my crampons, and how to smile while suffering. On the approach to the climb I was post-holing up to my knees and Dad would keep walking as I would struggle and ungracefully fumble out of my post-hole while occasionally laughing when I saw him post-hole too. Once we started climbing it all came back.
The pain my my calves came back first. The first pitch was long gully of steep snow. My footing would switch from french stepping to toe pointing. No matter what style I used my calves hurt. It was pains that I missed having though. The kind of burn that only happens in the cold winter while climbing ice.
“Just let me know when you want a rope, no problem” Dad said as the gully got a little steeper.
The he walked behind me, and must have been smiling at how slowly I was going and laughing because he knew the first-climb-of-the-season-pains I was going through. We got to our first real ice pitch so that meant it was time for me to be on a rope. Dad climbed fast like he always does but that day he couldn’t climb fast enough. I stood belaying him at the bottom of this steep gully of ice and the wind roared down and went straight to my core. I shivered in my down jacket and felt my cheeks turn into a shell of ice. I began to climb soon enough with my big belay jacket still on.
Every year on my first ice climb of the season the same thing happens to me. I get the screaming-barfies in my hands. This time it happened to me when I was eye sight away from my dad so he could laugh at me while I cringed in pain, close to tears and vomiting. The screaming-barfies are the worst. But during them I couldn’t climb so I looked behind me and saw the mountains that made me love all this in the first place, the White Mountains. I saw the snow covered landscape and remembered how winters are filled with just as many beauties as summer.
On our way to the summit dad ran ahead as I post holed up to my hip each step. After too many times sinking and getting stuck in the cold snow I decided to drop my pride and crawl to distribute my weight and did it all the way to the summit but of course I started to stand when I saw my dad.
The summit of Willard is a bit like Camel’s Hump. They’re both small mountains, nothing to be put in record books and could easily be considered a big hill just as much as a small mountain. At the top of both of them they open up the landscapes that I grew up with and love. They show me where I am and how I should be nowhere else. Even if it is a cold a grey place.
On our way home I looked through our photos from the day and saw a white chunk of skin on my cheek in one of the photos. It was Easter and thankfully it was wintery enough that I had gotten frost nip.