Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Nur Mut, Johann, someone had painted on the rock wall. "Only courage, Johann."

Gimpelwestgrat.  Writing on the wall is about 3/4 of the way up the middle route, at a slight jog.


The writing on the wall was slightly above me to my left, at the point the route required letting go of handholds to leap up over a small crack to a good ledge some inches above to the right. It was not far, not long, not even difficult, but letting go to jump upward scared the hell out of me.

Obviously, Johann felt the same way. But some kind friend of his had gone ahead to encourage him. To let him know the doing of this thing only required courage. That Johann had the skill to make the jump goes without question, or he wouldn’t have gotten this high on the wall. That was true of me as well.

Providing we’ve done the work to acquire the skill, the move from a place we are stuck, to the place that allows access to the summit – whatever "summit" means – only requires courage. Perhaps courage is actually focus, because fear does focus the mind. In the moment of fear, what is happening is the only thing there is.

For me, each experience of fear is brand new. It is as if it had never happened before. No matter that I’m aware, in the moment, how familiar the feeling is; aware I’ve been dealing with it all my life. Feeling fear, starting through it because I’ll be dammed if I’m going to be defeated by it, I come out the other side.

Last August, David and I spent some days camped deep inside Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness, arriving at the meadow below Sundance Pass to set up our tent just before a serious thunder storm. As we lay in the dark, wondering if the tent was in a lightning path, we decided to make the next day an easy walk from camp. David wanted to explore the basin below Castle Mountain, one peak in a curving wall of 12,000 ft. plus, glaciered peaks he’d seen on the map. We’d seen them rising beguilingly to the southwest as we crossed the bridge over the west fork of Rock Creek into the meadow. .

Morning was clear, cool, inviting. It had been a long time since I had camped in the Beartooth, a place I love, but essentially abandoned when I began working in Yellowstone. I was happy waking here. We had coffee on some flat rocks a suitable distance from the tent, gathered our gear together, and headed toward the basin David wanted.

Beyond the bridge we had crossed to get from Quinnebaugh Meadows to our meadow, there was (on our side of the bridge) a slight, use-made trail hugging the side of a grassy, treed slope. A steep talus slope covered by a snowfield at its bottom lay between us and our goal. From the grassy slope we both noticed a trail crossing a further, shallower talus slope beyond the snowfield, contouring around a small lake. It looked as if we just had to cross the snow to be on our way to the basin. Stepping onto it, David decided the snow was too slick this early in the day, reversed direction and headed up the talus instead. He imagined we could climb up, then cross the talus to enter the cirque below the high mountains.

The talus, a jumbled, tumbled, ragged, monster slide of huge boulders plummeting down though geologic history from the top of the high ridge above us, was steep. Occasionally unstable. But, because climbing up something is easier than descending, or traversing, I simply followed him. I didn’t think about it much as we walked up. Or rather, thinking about how I hate giant talus and that I wasn’t having a good time, becoming anxious about crossing, as well as descending this slope on our return, I hardly noticed the climb. When we started our traverse, the mounding boulders themselves hid anything beyond them. (At least climbing up, it was possible to see the ridge, the sky.) We could, though, see grass around boulders far to the right above us. David started across.

I have crossed many talus slopes. I know perfectly well I can do it. I’ve never injured an ankle or broken my neck. But knowing this does not translate into reassurance when I’m faced with a similar scenario again. Rather, knowing I know how to do a thing, and realizing I am frightened anyway, increases the fear, somehow justifying it, as if the fear itself was signal to turn back.

After a few feet I asked David to stop. "I’m not happy doing this," I said. "I think we should go back."

"I’m going on," he said.

So, now I was faced with an annoyed husband, a dismal self-concept as a wimp, and the necessity to continue because I wasn’t about to let him go alone and break an ankle somewhere out of sight, then have to cross the whole thing anyway when he hadn’t returned by evening in order to find him, then have to recross the talus in order to hike nine miles down to the truck so I could drive somewhere where the phone worked to get help. It was much less complicated just to cross the slope.

After spending the first quarter of the slope being pissed, something changed. I became aware of paying attention. Necessity, of course, but it took over from the anger and the fear. There was something to be done, and I was simply doing it. If the way was blocked by boulders too large or too awkward to negotiate, a single step at some other angle revealed one that worked. Like a puzzle. How do I get over this one, around that one? When, about a hundred yards from the start, we reached the grass slope, it was almost anticlimactic. Climbing a little higher up the grass, we found a lovely rock to lean against for lunch.

Was I happy? Of course not. Now that I was no longer focused on crossing the talus, I went back to worrying about returning over it. Though I’d managed well, and felt the triumph of it, the satisfaction of understanding focus, I did not want to recross the slope. Apparently, neither did David. Looking up at the ridge, several hundred feet upslope, he thought we could just hike up the grass, then walk along the ridgetop connecting to the basin holding our camp. The fact that the talus field was at least as wide across the top as at our crossing seemed to elude him. "The same rocks are up there," I said. He just looked upslope. We ate lunch.

Afterward, checking out what lay beyond a small gully the opposite direction from the talus, David returned to announce, "There’s grass almost to the bottom." We crossed the gully and headed down. Steeply sloping, it was a lovely walk, through boulder-strewn grass and wildflowers. Below us, the lake danced in shards of light. Relatively near the bottom (far below where we had crossed to begin with), a broad band of talus edged the lake. There was space in it. The walking was easier. Maybe because we were on our way back to camp. Maybe it was knowing I’d done well on that first traverse. Maybe it was because, so much lower and less steep, I let go the idea of thousands of years of rock falling from the top of the ridge at the moment we passed by.

But this, the slope where we’d seen a trail when we started out, had no such thing. How had we each seen the same thing that wasn’t there? If two people want the same thing, does that make it exist?

At the now sun-softened snow slope, I took the lead. Soft enough for good footholds, it was fun to descend. The bottom poured onto a few small boulders, then across to the slight trail on the slope of our start.

The light beckoned David to photograph . I sat near the edge of the lake considering the day. In the world of miraculous beauty where I sat, I felt triumph. I was lucky to be in this place I love, lucky to be able to move and to see, lucky in the fear that offers me determination as its solace, lucky in the cowardice that insists I not give in.

So, this article is a New Year’s greeting. For me, it is a way to begin the year in an image of triumph. With so much that is hard in all our lives, perhaps most of all, in the life of the earth, starting a new year knowing beauty and triumph are possible is powerful. It is what I wish whoever reads this.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner