Cayambe

I like to write. Writing helps me express myself, and when I refer back to pieces I wrote long ago, it helps me remember the experiences I wrote about more vividly. Today while cleaning out some old files on my computer, I stumbled across this piece, written shortly after my trip to Ecuador in three years ago.

CAYAMBE

I tossed and turned. I rolled onto my stomach then back onto my side, and finally lay with my back against the thin mattress, head pointed to the sky, hands resting on my chest like a corpse. In this position I found I could not breathe. At 15,000 feet above sea level the air was too thin, and for some reason when lying on my back my chest felt weighted, as if a large dog had fancied itself a lap dog and placed itself there. So I turned back onto my side and looked at the watch on my wrist. I had by lying in bed for hours but had yet to gain one wink of sleep.

Every sound was amplified. Will, to my left, was restless too, and his every movement further condemned me to sleeplessness. I lay awake, eyes closed, trying to trick myself into falling asleep. The time crawled slowly, and by 10:50, I could take it no more and started to dress. Static sparks from my polyester long johns danced like miniature green fireworks as I pulled them over my legs. Soon, everyone else had joined in, dressing the the dark, pulling on warm layers of clothes.

We tiptoed downstairs to empty our bladders, top off our water bottles, and nibble on breakfast. Little conversation was had. We were too distracted by the unknown journey ahead and too tired to focus on much else.

At midnight, we left the hut and started our death march up the mountain. It was slow at first. The fifteen of us walked like ants, single file, following close behind one another over a trail of volcanic rock and loose gravel. Up and down we walked, although mostly up, until the sand beneath our feet grew hard and failed to give way as we stepped. Patches of black ice, decorated with trapped bubbles, occasionally appeared underfoot and soon we reached the frozen edge of the glacier. Here, we put on harnesses and crampons, added layers, and armed ourselves with ice axes for the climb. Rope teams formed, and each team of three or four tied into a long and sturdy rope, led by an experienced guide.

For hours, we climbed the glacier. We stopped infrequently to rest and when we did, it was only briefly. Our tired bodies grew increasingly fatigued, our bellies more hungry and nauseous, and our throats burned from want of water, aggravated by exertion and the cold, dry mountain air.

At one point the clouds gave way to stars. Looking up, one could see a thousand tiny diamonds glistening in the night sky. Behind us, the lights of the city glowed amber in the valley below. As the hours passed, gray-purple clouds moved in, flowing over the mountains, merging earth and sky, first framing, then consuming Quito’s urban landscape. It was beautiful.

We were tired beyond tired. As we climbed, the weather worsened. Soon, the wind took the stars and visibility was reduced to the glowing orb of our headlamps.

We marched onward and upward into the black night. Our progress was slow. The air was thin. We were tired beyond tired. Our feet dragged. We stumbled, our bodies swayed, and occasionally, some of us pitched and fell. When this happened, the guides would catch us, halting our failing bodies by tugging tight the rope that connected them to us. They half walked us, half dragged us by our leashes ever higher onto the mountain.

My mind was fuzzy. I felt drunk. My throat burned and the bits of cracker stuck in my teeth from the few I had nibbled on earlier tasted rotten and sour. Standing was hard, walking was harder. I was sure I had never felt closer to dying in my life, save for the one time at Christmas when I had a fever so high I could not stand at all and had to drag myself across the floor to the bathroom just so I could pass out on the cold tile floor. I thought of Cotopaxi, the even taller mountain we would attempt to climb in just a few days, and was not sure I would convince myself to endure this again. I wanted to lie down, to collapse onto my knees and then tip sideways into the snow, giving in to the exhaustion that I felt. But even my broken mind was too stubborn to let me, so I continued to plod forward, like a diseased and injured animal, possessed by the need for something. Each step seemed to require an extreme amount of effort, but I kept forcing myself to take them.

Dawn rose slowly. The black night softened as the hours passed, but the sun never came. Our world was blue and empty. Gray clouds and fog and windswept snow consumed us in every direction. The wind howled at us. Forward and backward looked exactly the same, yet we continued forward, following our leaders blindly.

At a point just shy of the summit, we stopped to rest, for maybe only the third time since midnight. The rope teams convened and the guides told us to drop our packs. “We are very close,” they said, “but the next part is very steep.” I stuffed my down jacket and sunglasses into the front of my rain jacket, and reluctantly left my camera and water behind. They told us the summit was just one hour away.

We plodded onward and were met with a vertical wall of blue ice. The structure must have stretched fifteen to twenty feet high, and had the texture of unfurling coiled rope, thin strands of ice interlaced and woven into a delicate pattern. The ice was aquamarine, like the color of the sea in the clearest most tropical oceans of the world, only bluer, softer, and more translucent. It had no snow on it to spoil its beauty. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and had I had any more clarity of mind, I might have stopped and pondered it more deeply. As we walked past it, the strong smell of sulfur permeated my nostrils, rising from the geothermic vents of the volcano upon which we stepped. I knew we had to be close.

The only way around the great wall involved a steep climb up an adjacent snow covered slope. Nico, our guide, punched holes into the ice with his feet, providing us with small steps to climb, and I smashed my way up the steep slope, thrusting the pick of my ice axe deep into the snow for purchase. Beneath the snow, the ice glowed blue. The new motions and effort required provided me with a brief moment of clarity, and despite being exhausted from the effort of punching and clawing my way towards the top, I urged myself forward.

Beyond this, there were more gradual and steep ascents, winding in and out of icy obstacles in our way. I don’t remember much of it very well, as I am sure I would have found it disorienting even had I been in a clearer state of mind. I trudged along the flatter parts in a straight line as best I could and scrambled up the steep pitches in a maddening fashion, like a person possessed. My mind had locked onto its goal, and despite the pain and lunacy of continuing forward in such a shattered state, I continued to follow Nico, slowly advancing towards the summit.

At some point I fell. My legs gave way, and my body tumbled, pulled by gravity down the slope. Nico and my rope team members, Josh and Kelli, caught me, stretching the rope tight to stop my downward fall. My mind was so unraveled that I lay tangled and suspended in the rope for almost a minute before I found my footing and a good placement for my ice axe and managed to right myself.

The summit itself was rather anticlimactic. It was a small rise following a steep pitch, and had Nico not told us we had arrived we never would have known. There, Nico placed his ice axe into the ground, point end first so it stood tall, like a flag. The spot was unremarkable, and the clouds around us were so dense that we could not tell how much more there was to climb or in what direction in might possibly be in. But he placed his axe with such certainty that when he said “Congratulations!” and told us we had reached the summit, I doubted him for only a second. I was too exhausted to want to go any further, so even if I had been less convinced, I am not sure I would have objected to stopping there.

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cry, because the journey had been so trying, and we had reached the summit, but I couldn’t. I wanted to jump up and down or shout out with joy, but I didn’t have the energy. I was glad and relieved to have reached the summit, but the emotions weren’t as fast, as sudden, or as strong as I wanted them to be. I mostly just stood there, dazed. It was as if the reality of reaching the summit couldn’t find its way through the muddled mess of my brain.

Nico came over to me and gave me a long hug. His embrace was one of those that seems to fill you with life, as if the person hugging you is actually transferring energy from their body to yours. His hug was so comforting that I didn’t want him to let go, but when he did, I felt instantly better than I had before. Only then, could I start to comprehend what I had accomplished.

For Love or Money

When I used to shoot professionally, amateur photographers would often come up to me and ask how they too could make a living off of photography. Traveling all over the world to visit and photograph exotic places and beautiful things sounds like a dream job and for some it is, but it wasn’t for me.

I love to explore. I love to travel, to see and experience new things. Working as a professional photographer allowed me to do that, but I was often alone, and my travel experiences were often limited to creating beautiful images. I didn’t go to fancy restaurants for dinner, because dinner was too close to sunset and good light. I never experienced the night life of cities I went to, because I always had plans to wake up early, before sunrise, to photograph each morning. The beautiful settings I visited and things I saw were shared with strangers or no one at all. My destinations revolved around photographic opportunities instead of cultural or spiritual ones, and I’d skip out on a visit to a monument or other attraction if photographs were better elsewhere. The whole point of photography is being able to “see” the world around you, and sometimes I found that being a professional photographer so focused on creating sellable images was like traveling with blinders on. I saw only what I could photograph well, and missed out because of it.

Last week, I went on vacation to Arizona, a place I have never before visited and one that is filled with natural beauty and wonder. I went with a person I care deeply for, and we went to have fun, to get away from New England’s stick season, work, and everyday normal things. I brought my DSLR, but ended up taking photos exclusively with my iPhone, many taken in bad light or from the window of a moving car. I demanded selfies. On the days I was awake for it, I watched the sun rise from bed wrapped in the comfort of warm sheets and loving arms.

Not taking photos allowed me to see and experience more than I would have if everything I did revolved around creating a new image for my gallery collection. We went on hikes, saw shooting stars, admired art, and ate delicious food. I ran a mile or more each day, usually with company, keeping my streak alive (I’ve been running at least a mile a day for the past 379 days and I have no intention of stopping anytime soon). We slept in and relaxed. I took photographs, but for the sake of capturing memories and moments, not creating art. It was a real vacation, and probably the first one I have taken in a long long time.

Photography is a wonderful thing, and I love that now photography has become so accessible to so many people. Most people have a smartphone with a built-in camera on them almost all the time providing unlimited chances to take photographs of spontaneous moments and everyday things. I’m very glad I had my iPhone with me to capture memories from my vacation, but there is a big difference between having the photographs you take dictated by your activities and having your activities dictated by the photos you want to take. I’m not anti-photo, not at all, but getting wrapped up in taking pictures or becoming obsessed with sharing them on social media is an easy way to miss out on actually living and experiencing life.

My favorite photographs from Arizona are the ones where I’m next to this wonderful person and we are both smiling. We’re on vacation and happy and it shows. Maybe you can see the landscape behind us. Maybe not so much. But those are the ones most likely to end up printed, framed, and displayed somewhere where I can see them regularly, not so much the snapshots I took of red rock landscapes and desert flora.

I’m happier now that I don’t pay my bills with money I make from photography. If I sell a print I have some extra spending money, which I can put towards a fun trip or exciting adventure. I still enjoy teaching workshops and sharing photography techniques with others – teaching photography is one of photo gigs I get the most joy from – and when I get to do that it’s fun and rewarding. I admit it is hard not to feel pressure to go out and shoot on days with beautiful weather or ideal conditions, and I still feel guilty from time to time for not capturing peak seasons or making more of an effort to update my blog, website, and Facebook pages with recent work. But I know that my ideal career is not one of a professional photographer, and the only way for me to be passionate about photography is to let it happen at its own pace. So I’m trying to be patient with myself, and I hope you can be too.

I used to think that life got in the way of me taking pictures, but now I think it’s the other way around. So I’m out there, living and doing the things I love. Sometimes photography is a part of that, sometimes it’s not, and that’s okay with me.

Thankful

Tis the season.

Holiday time tends to inspire strong feelings from people. They either love or hate the indulgent parties, extravagant spending, abundance of rich foods and strong drinks, festive decorations and overall cheer of the last months of the year. I’ve personally always enjoyed more the more intimate and understated aspects of the holidays. As a child, my favorite traditions involved a ratty old stuffed animal named Santa Paws, driving around with my parents to look at Christmas lights, the animated Christmas displays at the now extinct Fountains of Wayne, and tubing down the hill behind the old Grand Union. Of these, only Santa Paws remains, and the Christmas tunes he plays when you squeeze his paw have slowed and saddened. His Santa hat clings on to his weathered head by mere threads, but his floppy ears and light up nose are still charming. Now, sometimes, when I press his paw, I cry.

Christmas has changed. I no longer sneak out of my room at 3am to find presents under the tree, then wake my parents in a flurry of excitement. The days when my father convinced me that Santa was tired of milk and cookies and that we ought to leave him pizza and beer instead are long gone. I’m an adult now, I live in New Hampshire now, and I live alone now.

Old traditions have been replaced with new ones, like a caroling pub crawl with the local rugby team or holiday parties with my eclectic assortment of New Hampshire friends. This is my first Christmas completely solo, and tonight I set up a tree, my very first very own tree. It’s a fake one because I knew I wouldn’t bother with a real one even though that’s all I’ve ever had my whole life. This tree is pre-lit with plain white lights and doesn’t make a mess or require me to water it. It also doesn’t smell like wonderful Christmas, but it’s easy and that’s all I have the time or energy for because I’m on my own. I own exactly two Christmas ornaments here in New Hampshire, so I decorated my tree with those and a set of Black Diamond nuts used for rock climbing.

Christmas alone is an interesting concept. On the one hand, it seems kind of lonely. I didn’t think I’d enjoy decorating alone, because as a kid, my dad and I did the lights together and my mom and I did the ornaments. In other living situations, my housemates and I cut and set up our tree and decorated together. There were presents, ribbons, bows, lights, wreaths, candles, garland, ornaments, music, cookies, and eggnog. Two years ago, there was even this very odd antique wind-up monkey that brought entirely too much pleasure to my housemate and I. We made these really awful videos about it.

Now it’s just me in a sparsely furnished house with mostly bare walls and a plastic tree.

Sometimes being alone feels lonely, but then I realize how freaking awesome, brilliantly beautiful, and rich my life is. I am not alone. My life is full of many amazing people. I have close friends who I see maybe a few times a year if that, but are there for me if ever I need them. I can share my naked soul with them without fear of judgement. At my ugliest, they love me. I have people in my life that are an everyday unwavering beautiful presence. My coworkers and friends here are absolutely incredible. We share stories and laugher, and although they may not know my deepest darkest secrets, they bring light to my life every day, just by being in it. Most of the people I surround myself with on a daily basis ooze goodness out of their bones. Yes, there are grumpy people who come to my work, but they are few and far in between when you look at the big picture. Besides, I think that a little suffering each day is good for you. Adversity builds character. I am strong because I have lived through days and events that have quite frankly sucked, but even when I faced those challenges alone, I was never isolated from the beauty of the people around me, who have loved me and supported me through good times and bad.

I like to think that I am a pretty grateful person. I’m not one who limits showing my appreciation for all of the wonderful people in my life, giving thanks for my many blessings, or expressing gratitude for everyday touches of beauty to just the holiday season. I say I love you, openly, honestly, and often. I smile and say thank you frequently, daily throughout the year. Sharing such sentimental feelings of joy for all I have seems a little cliche this time of year, but today, I just can’t help myself. I am thankful.

My life is beautiful. And so is my Christmas tree.

My very first very own Christmas tree.

Life is for Living

Lately, I haven’t written very much and the reason for that is actually rather simple – I’m happy. I always find that I tend to write more when I’m struggling; I write when there is conflict, or when I feel anxious, challenged, or discontent. Writing helps me express negative feelings in a positive way, and helps me share big events and experiences after I have had some time to reflect on them. When I’m happy and things are going well I tend not to write as much. Instead I tend to busy myself with enjoying the beauty of each day. I spend more time present and less time reflecting and processing. Writing seems too limiting for expressing happiness; the words I know just aren’t good enough. They fall short and fail. It seems silly for me to write about happiness because happiness just IS and my words don’t describe it well. Somehow I can find language adequate for frustration, disenchantment, and conflict, but when it comes to joy, to love, to elation, I just don’t know how to express those feelings through a blog post in a way that does them justice. How do you compress such amaze-wonder-fantastic-gorgeous-beautiful-ness into letters organized on a page?

I love my life. Every day I smile and laugh. My friends and coworkers inspire me and motivate me constantly. My job is amazing, and the work I do leaves me feeling fulfilled and happy. I feel more in control of my life than I have in a long time. Regularly I find myself making progress towards reaching my goals. I am healthier and happier than I have been in years, and because of all these things I like myself more. I am proud of myself, of who I am right now at this very minute and of who I have the potential to be. I am constantly striving to be the best me I can be, the best version of my unique self that is possible. My life is not perfect, but it is beautiful and wonderful and full of magic and love.

So, I apologize for being distant, but know it is for the best reasons. I write less when I live more, and right now I am pursuing different passions, learning, exploring, expanding my interests, nurturing relationships, and building a sense of community in the environments where I work and play. I am busy living and loving the experience and whenever I am fortunate enough to stumble upon the appropriate words to share it with you I will.

Prose from the Mountain

It was dark,
and the darkness was long and cold.
Stars peppered the night sky with distant points of light,
their warm life far too far away to ease our suffering.
Wind,
steady and strong,
poured over the frozen earth,
enveloping us in the cold and empty night,
pulling from us the last warmth of our wilting bodies.
We were alone,
save for ourselves,
tied to one another as fish hooked on a long line,
dying at sea…