If Mountains Could Speak: Lessons in the Shadow of Mount Hood
by Krista Bratvold
Beep, Beep. The familiar sound of my car locking filled the forest with an unnatural mechanical noise. The trail head was empty except for me, my car, and the backpack I was about to carry up a mountain. I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders and let the weight slide comfortably onto my hips. All my belongings for the next five days were contained in this pack, a brightly colored 1980’s backpack that my mother had used to trek across New Zealand. But now it rested on my shoulders, a 19-year-old from the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Except for a brief backpacking trip in middle school, this was my first time backpacking.
The air around me buzzed with unfamiliarity. Far from the Rockies where I was raised, I stood in the unfamiliar mountains of the Cascade Range in Oregon. The woods here stood taller, drenched with moisture far beyond that of the Ponderosas in Colorado. Layers of fog clung to the fir trees’ wispy arms. With an equal amount of excitement and hesitancy, I took my first step down the trail. Within a few steps, the forest had swallowed me in its immensity.
“Are you hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?” a hiker asked as we crossed paths. He motioned to my backpack, which towered a foot over my head. He was referring to the enormous pack I was hauling, having greatly overpacked for my first backpacking trip.
“Just out for a few days,” I said, mildly embarrassed how blatantly novice I was at this. I could hear his friendly chuckle as we parted ways. Channeling Cheryl Strayed with her monster backpack, I continued down the trail.
Not only was this the first backpacking trip as an adult, but it was also my first backpacking trip since my diagnosis. My diagnosis. Those words rang in my head as I marched down the trail with determination. The words still felt foreign and sour on my tongue, even two years later. At seventeen, I was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. Nicknamed the Suicide Disease, this disorder sees some of the highest rates of suicide due to the incurable pain it creates. In short, it causes havoc in your sympathetic nervous system, which controls blood flow, pain, and neurotransmitter release. My case wasn’t as severe as some, as I only had permanent nerve damage in my left leg. However, this limited my ability to walk. I could only walk roughly a mile every day until my leg was in too much pain to continue.
While this posed a problem for backpacking, I didn’t want to let it stop me. I couldn’t let it stop me. I needed to prove to myself that the backcountry skiing, 14er-summitting, badass outdoor gal hadn’t died with the diagnosis, that she was still in there somewhere. So, I planned to take five days for the trip. This allowed me to walk about a mile or two each day to reach my destination: McNeil Point (a high-altitude camp along the north face of Mount Hood).
As I continued down the trail, I caught my first glimpse of the sun as it broke through the fog. The light poured over the moss-draped pines, coating the forest in shades of honey. And as I rounded the next turn, I stopped in my tracks. The air left my lungs. Well, first I let out an astonished swear word, then the air left my lungs. The face of Mount Hood stood in front of me, the clouds parted around it, sunlight pouring over every glacier and crevice. It was my first time seeing Mount Hood, and I stood in awe. Growing up in the shadow of Longs Peak, I thought I’d seen my fair share of mountains. But this was something else, something vaster still. I listened as the wind swept down the mountain, through ancient forests and weathered stone, carrying the breath of Mount Hood down to me. Welcome, it whispered as it passed by.
I continued down the trail until I reached the area I planned to camp the first night- a developed campsite off a short spur in the trail. I paused. But then I kept going.
To my amazement and confusion, the chronic pain in my leg had diminished so much that I didn’t feel the need to stop. I continued on. And on, and on, and on. Mount Hood’s northern face shimmered as it faded in and out of the trees. Every step brought me closer to it. I felt this overwhelming need to get closer, to see its immensity, to touch the ancient glaciers with my own hands. My body hummed with excitement. I continued down the trail.
I originally planned a five-day trip, but I completed the entire trail in two days. I walked more than I had in two years, reaching McNeil Point and completing eight miles the last day. For reasons that still baffle me, my pain was mostly absent during those two days. It was the first time I realized I could overcome this disorder entirely. I was ecstatic.
In the years following this backpacking trip, I worked my way into full remission of my disorder and backpacked trails throughout North America. I backpacked over 12,000 ft. passes in the Maroon Bells, and through July snowstorms in the Canadian Rockies. I’d found my passion, and I’d received a second chance at health.
Then disaster struck again. After three years of health, my disorder came back aggressively. The permanent nerve damage and chronic pain spread beyond one leg, and a wheelchair and crutches were the only way I was able to move around. The treatments that had previously helped lost their effectiveness, and remission became a distant hope. I felt devastated. And the devastating part of chronic illness isn’t the illness itself, it’s the passions it takes from you. I couldn’t imagine my life without backpacking.
I was defeated. So, I did the only thing I could think of doing- I packed up and drove from Colorado to Oregon again. In a moment of broken courage, or maybe madness, I drove to the same trail head tucked deep within the emerald-colored hills of Mount Hood. Just like before, I was the only car at the trail head. In the quietness of the parking lot, I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders. This time it was half the size. Before this moment, I hadn’t left the house without crutches or a wheelchair. Now I stood here without either, ready to test my strength again. But with the extensive nerve damage in both of my legs, a few blocks were all I hoped to walk. I started down the trail. Within a few steps, the forest swallowed me in its immensity once again.
I fought and clawed my way through each step. I dragged myself up the trail. I just wanted to reach Mount Hood. In the distance, the mountain was roaring. It was calling me to its presence.
After several hours, I made it to the clearing in the trees. I had only walked half of a mile. I felt broken. I used every last bit of my strength, yet I only made it this far. Pain consumed my legs. But Mount Hood’s peak stood before me. I felt the air leave my lungs in awe once again. Seeing it a second time didn’t make it any less impressive. This time there was no gold sunlight filling the mountain. Instead, layers of silvered clouds clung to the peak, swirling around the scarred stone. A breeze cascaded down from the peak and echoed through the firs. Welcome back, it murmured.
I hesitated. The mountain quietly waited. “What is it about this place?” I asked. “It seems every time my life falls apart, I come to this mountain. I strap all my gear onto my back and walk as far as I can. I don’t know why I’m drawn to this place time and time again.”
The mountain laughed, gold light spilled over the clouds, flooding the glaciers with shimmering yellow light. You find your strength here, the mountain whirred softly. I remind you of it. I am only a means to see it.
“My life falls apart and comes together, falls apart and comes together, but you remain unchanged.” Grief spilled over into my words. “You stand strong and unyielding. Look how fragile I am in comparison. I envy you.”
The wind picked up, chiming together with the roar of the river far below. But that’s what makes you strong, the mountain hummed. Courage only occurs in the presence of fear. Just as strength only occurs in the presence of fragility. It is not difficult for a mountain to be impressive. It is much more remarkable to be so small, so finite, and still accomplish such great feats. This is what I admire about humanity.
“But I can’t even walk. I can’t backpack anymore. My life has been taken away,” I exclaimed.
There was a moment of puzzled silence. Yet here you are, the mountain whispered. Look at what you just accomplished. Your eyes reflect as much strength as those who touch my summit. This is your triumph. The breeze slowly died, the pines halting their quiet dance. Those words echoed in my head, over and over again. Yet here I am. Despite it all, here I am, standing with a backpack strapped to my shoulders in the midst of this ancient mountain.
That is the lesson this mountain taught me. Strength is not measured in miles, or in minutes, or in fame. Strength is measured in moments- moments like these. Only we can measure our achievements. Strength and courage take on many different faces, each of them equally important. Even though it was the shortest hike of my life, this half of a mile took more courage, strength, and endurance than anything I’ve ever done. This was my moment of triumph.
I smiled softly up at the peak. “Thank you for calling me here,” I said to the mountain, “but now I must go.”