Descent From the Wild Thing

Josh Wharton
Mountain 2013

My boots fill with slushy ice water ... again. From a distance, we thought the lake would be smooth sailing – firm spring ice that would grant fast passage. Unfortunately, it’s a vat of knee-deep, flavorless slushy, and we have no choice but to choke it down.

With each frigid step, it becomes clear that we will not reach the van anytime soon. Chris Alstrin and I just completed the first one-day free ascent of Mount Chephren’s legendary Wild Thing. Although the route is known for epics and whippers, the descent is supposed to be an easy, casual four- to six-hour walk.

When you’re exhausted, and approaching 24 hours of uninterrupted movement, nothing feels casual. Each step is miserable. When we finally reach the far side of the lake, we plunge into wet, thigh-deep snow. I try to remain calm and resist the urge to thrash and fight. Nearby are deep elk tracks. Something else has suffered here, too.

Chris and I crawl into a tree well just off the lake and pour water from our boots. We build a fire with wet mossy wood. It crackles, pops and breathes life into our tired bodies. Thick smoke stings our noses and eyes, and embers burn holes in our jackets and pants, but we don’t care; we happily wiggle our toes in the warm air.

After two hours of drying and recharging, the wood supply runs thin, and we decide to try again. I lead us off the lakeshore and into the woods, hoping for better snow and a shorter path to the van. In the coldest hours of the night, the snow turns inconsistent. At times, we float on top for a few glorious steps, but more often, the small trees and logs under the surface create hidden traps, and our legs drop in above the knee. We are forced into tiny, terrified steps, fearing the next inevitable plunge.

An hour of labored postholing later, we emerge into a clearing. Perhaps our progress is better than I thought? Chris points out tracks to our left. In my exhaustion, I led us in a circle right back to the lake. Too tired for much emotion, Chris is kind enough to simply laugh.

Fatigue has transformed me into something wild. I no longer curse the agonizing steps to come, the pangs of hunger and the deep thirst. The world is merely there before me, neither good nor bad. Instinctively, I know it’s time to give up: The night is too long, the snow is too deep. We hunt for a spot to rest and find a patch of bare ground on a hill with enough room to lie down.

At dawn, we soldier on, mindlessly pushing back against whatever resistance the woods and snow offer. Sixteen hours after finishing the climb, we drag our bodies up one last hill and reach the van. I look back towards Chephren and realize that the descent, not the climb, has been the real test.

The van holds all manner of comforts: Chris devours a bag of chips, and I chug down chocolate milk and a giant muffin. We exchange our wet boots and clothes for flip-flops and comfortable jeans. I turn the key and the van roars to life. Suddenly the radio screams, whisking us back to civilization. Slowly but surely, I feel the wild in me slip away. I look over at Chris and wonder if he feels it too.

About the Author

Patagonia ambassador Josh Wharton lives in Estes Park, Colorado, with his wife Erinn and their killer cat, Sky.