I’m A Poor Boy

by Chris de Serres

Early Saturday morning a light rain came down as we ascended into Leroy Basin.   We had hiked 3000 ft of elevation into the basin.  The fall colors were quite dramatic this time of year, and when we got settled we just sat in the middle of the Basin’s expanse and stared at the larch trees, their bright yellow colors strewn throughout the green forest like ink blotches.

To the east was a mountain called Seven Finger Jack.  Its seven ‘fingers’ were seven tooth-shaped peaks lined up in a row, resembling the lower dental plate of some unearthly beast.   Near Seven Finger Jack was the primary reason we came here, Mt. Maude.  Where Jack was ragged and imposing, Maude was smooth and rounded off.  They were two polar opposite mountains sitting side-by-side in some arranged marriage of nature.   It was our intention on reaching the summit of Maude sometime in the early afternoon the next day.

We decided not to take a tent so we could save some weight.  Instead we both brought bivy sacks, which are large, waterproof bags.   We put our sleeping bags and our gear in them and zipped them up to keep the rain out.  The weather cleared up enough that, by some miracle, we were able to gather some dry wood and managed to build a fire.   The Sun was going down in the west.  Right before it’s final goodbye it casts rays over the top of a nearby mountain range, which just happened to be lined with larch trees.   The effect was mesmerizing.  The mountains were outlined with what looked like yellow Christmas lights.

We huddled down near the fire, not talking much.  The warmth of the fire and the flicker of its flame put us in an almost meditative state.  Neither one of us was prepared to break our trance.

I decided to call it a night, shuffling to my bivy.  Jeff couldn’t quite manage to pull himself away from the fire yet.   Later, I woke up at 2 am and found the campfire still blazing, feeding on one big log for hours after we’d abandoned it.  I awoke again to the gentle tapping of rain on my bivy sack.   The rhythmic falling of droplets sounded so soothing.  I stayed awake with my eyes closed for a little while, taking it all in.

My watch alarm went off at 7 am, but the rain hadn’t stopped.  We were supposed to be starting up the mountain by now, but the comfort of my warm sleeping bag held me down.   I just knew Jeff wouldn’t even attempt to get up unless I went over there and kicked his sack, so I decided to go back to sleep.

I woke up again.  Shit!  It was 8:30 am.  We had a full day of scrambling to do and we were not giving ourselves enough time to get up and out before nightfall.   I rustled out of my sack and Jeff eventually followed suit.

As we prepared our summit packs I took one last hard look at Maude.   From this distance I could see its peak and the boulder fields lining the foundation.   I mentally calculated the route up the ridge.   It was still drizzling, so I put on my waterproof jacket as we hiked a rough climbers path to the base of the mountain.

Then a voice drifted into my consciousness.  A song.  It was called Poor Boy.

“…Nobody knows
how cold it grows
and nobody sees
how shaky my knees…”

I hummed it, over and over, like a cadence for the journey.

Finally we reached the boulder field we needed to scramble up.  I could hear the intense winds swirling higher up the mountain.   It sounded like a low-flying jet.  Incredibly slow walls of sound that reverberated in the snowy ridge above us.  It wasn’t the most assuring omen of the day.   We got high up in the boulder field and the wind reached out and touched us.

There was some debate among us on whether we were taking the correct route up, which grew steadily more heated the farther we moved into Maude’s shoulder.

In boulder fields like this, climbers usually stack small piles of rocks, called cairns, to mark the correct path.   We scanned left to right to locate any man-made markers.  We couldn’t find any cairns as we ascended higher, but we continued anyway.

We scrambled another 2000 ft.  The terrain was very steep and soon it began to rain harder.   We were climbing over wet rocks and ran into the first patches of snow.   I stepped onto a boulder the size of a refrigerator and it shifted under my weight.  I carefully stepped off and to the side.   Being a little distracted with our predicament I found myself in the middle of a steep slope of unstable rocks.  The entire slope began to move.   I tripped and fell forward onto the rocks, which prompted a mini rock slide that moved 10 ft, taking me with it.   I was slightly rattled so I slowed my ascent into a much more deliberate pace.   I could see Jeff ascending above me, moving much more confidently.

He kicked down a few rocks and I had to duck to keep out of their way.  I realized I had made a mistake by insisting we leave our helmets back at camp.   Jeff was soon well ahead of me, and I didn’t actually mind because, if anything, it would give me a chance to get out of the way if he loosened anymore rocks.   He kicked another rock down.   I yelled out to him in frustration, reminding him to give me some verbal warning next time.   I was agitated.

By this time we were clearly not going up the route we had planned.   We had strayed into a section of rock and snow that was beginning to feel beyond our ability to pass through.

I thought of the many stories i’ve read of climbing tragedies.  They almost always began with the words, “we were off-route…”  Well, we WERE off-route at this moment.

We reached 8300 ft, so that meant we had to be somewhere close to the summit.   Just a few hundred feet below and we both had our minds on having a nice lunch on the top of this mountain.  However, the fog crept in and we couldn’t see a thing.

Above us it just got steeper and steeper.  I called out to Jeff, figuring we needed to stop and reassess the situation.   I had already made a few moves over some risky terrain and was dreading the idea of going back down the way we came up.   It was so steep we couldn’t even sit down anywhere; all the rocks were sloping downward.

The ridge provided a natural shelter from the full force of the winds, but we were near the top now and almost totally exposed to the flurries.   If I lost my balance I figured there was enough gust to sweep me off of the rocks.   I told Jeff that I think we needed to go further north.   He disagreed, stating that the ridge we need to be on was further south.  This was not the best place to hold a debate.

It was frustrating for both of us.  Neither one of us are pig-headed individuals, but our gloomy prospects brought out the worst in us.  Do we continue upward and hope we can find the summit, or head down now before anything serious occurs?

Three hours later, we were back at camp, packing our gear, and getting ready to hike back to the car waiting for us at the trailhead.   On the hike out I began to reflect on the events of the past few hours.  Then out of nowhere a familiar song wandered back into my weary mind.   So I picked up the verse where I left off:

“…Nobody knows
how cold it grows
and nobody sees
how shaky my knees
Nobody cares
how steep my stairs
and nobody smiles
if I cross their stiles…”

– Poor Boy by Nick Drake

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